Just add water

A family of four finds their aquatic bliss
Ken McAlpine

Tour Mission Bay

When our family looks to vacation, we look to the water. And San Diego's Mission Bay has plenty of it. It's the West Coast's largest aquatic park―4,600 acres within sight of the downtown skyline.

My wife, my two young boys, and I have three days in the watery wonderland in this, our final summer hurrah. First on tap, we rent beach cruisers and explore the raucous oceanfront strand along Mission Beach―tattooed hipsters, preening hard bodies, and $3 T-shirts washed with tinny reggae and briny breeze―before wheeling to the quieter pathways edging the bay.

Renting bikes is a good move, since we've learned that parking's pretty much impossible. But there's always plenty of room in the water. The boys and I bodysurf and rent surfboards, plunging into happy white breakers. We paddle kayaks from Quivira Basin around to SeaWorld, the bay glittering in the late afternoon light.

And we adventure on dry land too. At Belmont Park in Mission Beach, we ride the Giant Dipper―the venerable 1925 wooden roller coaster. We even surf on dry land, challenging the tensile grip of our bathing suits on the FlowRider, an artificial wave created by 20,000 gallons of water rushing 25 miles an hour along a sloping vinyl surface. Skittering across the foam face on the rushing skein of water is like being transported atop a wet and rollicking magic carpet.

On our last day, the four of us test SeaWorld's latest paean to fall-away thrills, Journey to Atlantis. And if our sons' happy shrieks are any indicator, the ride lives up to its billing as "the most exciting attraction in SeaWorld's 40-year history."

Once again, water doesn't fail us.

Going at the last minute

Mission Bay has more than 2,000 hotel rooms. August is peak season, but you can find last-minute deals.

Stay close to the bay or the ocean for easy beachgoing.

Though nobody's going to call it uncrowded, you can walk just about anywhere.