Paragliding in La Jolla
San Diego beckons with endless outdoor activities
San Diego’s great outdoors attract sports enthusiasts year-round. The scope of activities is as varied as the surroundings, from swimming in a secluded cove to paragliding above the Pacific. But Greater San Diego’s most appealing attributes are its 70 miles of coastline and more than 30 beaches, which beckon water warriors looking for a day of surfing, sailing or sunning.
San Diego also is one of the nation’s top meeting destinations, and it’s easy to see why: Its laid-back vibe, sunny skies and huge variety of activities appeal to even the most finicky travelers. A record 35 million people visited San Diego in 2016.
“With beautiful weather all year long, a convention center steps from fine hotels and vibrant leisure activities, San Diego is the perfect place for meetings,” says Steve Levin, a San Diego meeting planner and president of Sterling Rose Consulting, which provides services to incoming conventions and conferences. “We have The Midway Museum, Balboa Park, the San Diego Zoo, beaches, Old Town, Sea World and more.”
Add to that world-class golf courses, bay cruises and waterfront pathways, and it’s the perfect destination, where visitors spend as much time outdoors as they do inside.
Smart Meetings fam at Omni La Costa Resort and Spa
In March, planners who participated in the Smart Meetings fam trip to Carlsbad discovered that the oceanside resort community, known as the Village by the Sea, offers an ideal jumping-off point. There, you’ll find pristine beaches and diverse shopping, dining and recreational activities, making Carlsbad an all-time favorite for the young and young at heart. One of the most popular destinations is Carlsbad State Beach, a swimming and surfing spot for surfers of beginner to intermediate skill levels.
Walk the Carlsbad Seawall north to Frazee Beach Park and you’ll end up at So Cal Surf, offering private surfing lessons, surfing camps and body-board rentals.
If you’d rather be over the sea than in it, hitch a ride in a 1929 open cockpit biplane managed by A1 Biplane, Air Combat and Warbird Adventures. Two passengers don helmets and goggles for a thrilling trip over the scenic Pacific coastline as the pilot flies from the back cockpit and provides commentary.
For the closet cowboy, there’s Leo Carrillo Ranch & Historic Park, once part of a 2,500-acre working ranch and now an educational resource about life in the wild. The ranch was founded by actor Leo Carrillo, who appeared in some 100 films between 1927 and 1950 and co-starred in the TV series The Cisco Kid.
Pool at Omni La Costa Resort and Spa, Carlsbad
Carlsbad is also home to the Omni La Costa Resort and Spa, one of the largest golf and meeting resorts in Southern California. With 604 guest rooms and 110,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, it caters to groups of diverse sizes and needs. Golfers can tee up on one of the resort’s two 18-hole championship courses, Legends and Champions, at the legendary La Costa Golf Course. The Champions course has been restored with new bent-grass greens and Bermuda fairways that snake past lurking bunkers.
Few places have as much universal appeal as the Mediterranean-style village of La Jolla. In addition to spectacular ocean views, it has luxurious resorts and an abundance of outdoor recreation, including snorkeling, kayaking, golfing and paragliding.
Divers should take the plunge at La Jolla Shores, a renowned dive and snorkel site, and La Jolla Submarine Canyon, one of the deepest underwater chasms in the world, located just offshore. There, the ocean bottom is a kaleidoscope of rays, skates and squids, with octopuses and lobsters lurking on ocean ledges.
Thrill-seekers will like Torrey Pines Gliderport, one of the most popular paragliding schools in the country. Tandem hang gliding with a certified instructor will take you over the coastal cliffs of Torrey Pines and Black’s Beach.
La Jolla has long been known for its surfing culture, dating back to the 1940s. Savvy surfers seek out Windansea Beach, made famous by writer Tom Wolfe’s The Pump House Gang. To the north is Black’s Beach, also for the advanced surfer, and La Jolla Shores to the south, for beginners.
The 2,000-acre Torrey Pines State Reserve is another outdoor gem. Flowers, dramatic cliffs and spectacular sunsets provide ideal hiking on 8 miles of trails. Come winter, California gray whales can be seen migrating south. One of California’s most iconic golfing destinations is Torrey Pines Golf Course, with two 18-hole courses perched on cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Adjoining the course is Lodge at Torrey Pines, where you can relax in Craftsman-style elegance. The resort has 175 guest rooms and more than 13,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
La Jolla Shores Hotel, another landmark resort, includes 128 guest rooms, 12 beachfront tennis courts, a par-3 golf course and a 10,000-square-foot stretch of beachfront.
Continue south to Mission Bay, part of the 4,235-acre Mission Bay Park in San Diego, and the largest man-made aquatic park in the nation. The surrounding beaches include Pacific Beach to the north, Mission Beach to the west and Ocean Beach to the south, each with its own distinct flavor. Choose from a variety of water sports, such as sailing, jet skiing and wake boarding. Or just kick back on a moonlit cruise aboard Bahia Belle, a sternwheeler fashioned after a Mississippi riverboat.
Divers can take the short boat ride from Mission Beach to Wreck Alley, named for the ships intentionally sunk to serve as artificial reefs in the waters below. You’ll see remains of ships such as HMCS Yukon, a 366-foot Canadian destroyer wrecked 2 miles offshore. Covering 600 acres, this world-class dive site also includes a U.S. Coast Guard cutter, a WWII P-38 bomber and two submarines.
If you would rather be on a seaworthy boat, rent a sailboat at Mission Bay Sportcenter, where the fleet consists of catamarans, sailboats and sailboards. Lessons are available.
Mission Bay is also home to SeaWorld San Diego, where a new, multimillion-dollar attraction highlighting scientific exploration will launch this summer. Ocean Explorer will feature a series of undersea research bases housing aquariums. Guests won’t want to miss the wave swing ride that sends chairs suspended from the tentacles of a giant sea jellyfish flying through thousands of bubbles.
Hyatt Regency Mission Bay Hotel, Spa and Marina, San Diego
Not far from SeaWorld is the 429-guest room Hyatt Regency Mission Bay Hotel, Spa and Marina, providing ocean views, waterfront dining, three pools, a full-service marina and more than 30,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
For a Polynesian theme, there’s the 310-room Catamaran Resort Hotel and Spa, with 20,000 sq. ft. of event space. Team-building activities range from kayak and paddleboard races to beach tug-of-war and bocce ball. Two 19th-century Victorian-style sternwheelers are available for cruises.
Old Town Trolley Tours in San Diego
The place to step back in time is Old Town, created in 1769 as California’s first European settlement. Providing a respite from vigorous beach activities, this is a perfect setting to wander past historic buildings and through lush gardens from another era. Old Town San Diego State Historic Park is the center of Old Town and the most popular tourist attraction in San Diego. It includes a blacksmith shop, stables and the city’s oldest schoolhouse.
A good way to see Old Town is with Old Town Trolley Tours, which has recently added a “San Diego City Lights” evening tour.
Downtown San Diego is home to San Diego Harbor, a vibrant waterway plied by sailboats, ferryboats, battleships and aircraft carriers. For more than 100 years, San Diego was a tiny U.S. Navy post known as Navy Town USA. Today it is the Navy’s largest home port, harboring ships such as USS Midway Museum, a decommissioned aircraft carrier featuring aircraft exhibits.
“Imagine as the sun sets on the beautiful San Diego Bay, USS Midway Museum giving 4,000 attendees a unique experience aboard a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier during their evening event,” says Pat Pfohl, director of event sales for the museum, which hosts 700 private events a year.
Sailing on San Diego Bay is another favorite pastime. Harbor Sailboats runs chartered tours aboard yachts ranging in size from 27 to 47 feet. Sunset excursions are available.
Offerings from Hornblower Cruises & Events include wildlife viewing excursions and sightseeing cruises to world-renowned landmarks such as Star of India and Cabrillo National Monument. Corporate charters serve up to 1,000 guests for team-building excursions.
If you prefer biking to boating, the 25-mile Bayshore Bikeway starts at the Embarcadero and heads south through National City and Chula Vista. The path loops around San Diego Bay into Imperial Beach, and then catches the Silver Strand into Coronado. Hop on the Coronado Ferry to return downtown.
Landlubbers won’t want to miss downtown’s historic Gaslamp Quarter, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. When the sun goes down, the lights go up, summoning thousands to enjoy the Old World surroundings.
Cynthia Tomei, senior meeting planner for Chicago-based Blue Cross Blue Shield, has booked multiple company meetings in Gaslamp Quarter. “We return time and again for a number of reasons: delightful weather, excellent selection of hotels, scenery and an airport that is so convenient,” she says.
Tomei booked the company’s previous two meetings at The Westin San Diego, which has 29,000 sq. ft. of event space. She has booked two future meetings at The Westin San Diego Gaslamp Quarter, with 35,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
New to Gaslamp Quarter is Pendry San Diego, a 12-story debut hotel from the luxury Montage Hotels & Resorts line. The hotel features a modern beach vibe, 317 guest rooms and 35,000 sq. ft. of event space.
Manchester Grand Hyatt San Diego
Manchester Grand Hyatt San Diego sports an ideal waterfront location near Seaport Village, Petco Park and San Diego Convention Center in the heart of downtown. It has 1,628 guest rooms, 316,000 sq. ft. of event space, eight dining options and a 25,000-square-foot rooftop with whirlpools, fire pits and a sundeck. The 40th-floor Top of the Hyatt offers one of the best views in San Diego.
The 2.6 million-square-foot San Diego Convention Center awaits a green light for an expansion that would increase the facility’s contiguous event space. But plans have remained stalled since 2014, due in part to concerns about the project’s funding plan and environmental impact. Planners would do well to stay informed about the situation.
Hotel del Coronado
Coronado sits a mere 2 miles from downtown, but a world away. Considered the crown jewel of San Diego, this beautiful beach town has the widest expanse of sand of any beach in the county.
Slightly south of town is Silver Strand State Beach, a narrow strip that runs along a 7-mile isthmus connecting Coronado and Imperial Beach. The Strand produces gentle swells that are ideal for the beginning surfer.
Another good surf spot for novices is the beach at historic Hotel del Coronado, a remnant of the Victorian era. Though famed for its Sunday brunch in the historic Crown Room, its main lure is its beautiful white sand beach, where guests can bob in the surf or enjoy sunset bonfires.
To end your trip, head north to Pala for rest and relaxation at AAA Four Diamond Pala Casino Spa & Resort. Set against the incredible backdrop of the Palomar Mountains, the resort has something for everyone: a casino with 2,000 slot and video machines, 87 table games, live entertainment, a spacious pool and a luxurious spa.
The 507-room hotel also has 40,000 sq. ft. of meeting space that includes a 20,000-square-foot ballroom and 18 breakout rooms, many with outdoor patios overlooking the pool and garden.
Kristine Carber is a California writer who spent many years attending offsite meetings and now enjoys writing about them.
Finding Outdoor Dining in San Diego
It’s hard to dine inside when it’s balmy outside. Here are a few outdoor eateries with spectacular settings.
Caroline’s Seaside Cafe, located at Scripps Seaside Forum in La Jolla, has a 40-seat outdoor patio with stunning views of the Pacific Ocean. Patrons enjoy California-style cuisine made with organic ingredients from sustainable sources. Prime rib, salads, pastas and chicken are menu staples.
At 1500 Ocean, part of the landmark Hotel del Coronado, the coastal Californian cuisine includes herbs harvested from the beachfront garden. The emphasis is on seafood—think grilled octopus and local bass—but also includes lamb, duck and pasta. Private dining is available for up to 80.
JRDN is a 10,000-square-foot steak and seafood restaurant in the trendy Tower23 Hotel in Pacific Beach. Tables situated directly on the beach boardwalk provide seating for casual dining by day and casual chic dining by night. The decor is clean and modern, with fire pits, a 70-foot wave wall and an animated light show after dark.
Head to Imperial Beach and you’ll find Sea180-Degree Coastal Tavern (pictured), featuring a 180-degree view of the Coronado Islands, South Bay and Mexico. Uncrowded beaches make for a peaceful dining experience. The changing menu includes barbecued shrimp, filet mignon and local fresh catch. Fire pits are put to use after the sun sets. The outside terrace can hold 300.
Major Meeting Venues
Manchester Grand Hyatt San Diego
Hotel Karlan San Diego
Newly renovated DoubleTree by Hilton property; 174 guest rooms; 14,000 sq. ft. of event space; upgraded spa; new gastro pub; pool with cabanas.
Omni La Costa Resort and Spa
Luxury hotel with 604 guest rooms; eight swimming pools; 17 tennis courts; 110,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; two championship golf courses; spa.
Hotel del Coronado
Historic seaside hotel built in 1888; 757 guest rooms; 65,000 sq. ft. of event space; waterfront dining; famed Crown Room Sunday brunch.
Loews Coronado Bay Resort & Spa
493 guest rooms; private marina; three heated pools; spa; 65,000 sq. ft. of event space; outdoor terrace accommodates up to 250.
La Jolla Shores Hotel
Landmark resort; 128 guest rooms; 12 beachfront tennis courts; par-3 golf course; poolside patio for 200; 10,000-square-foot beachfront.
Lodge at Torrey Pines
Craftsman-style hotel; 175 guest rooms; full-service spa; 13,000 sq. ft. of event space; two 18-hole golf courses.
Bahia Resort Hotel
Peninsula location is secluded yet convenient to major attractions; 313 guest rooms; nearly 20,000 sq. ft. of flexible meeting and event space.
Catamaran Resort Hotel and Spa
Polynesian-themed hotel; 310 guest rooms; 20,000 sq. ft. of event space; two 19th-century style sternwheelers (one holds 450); beachside space for 1,000.
Hyatt Regency Mission Bay Hotel, Spa and Marina
California coastal chic atmosphere; 429 guest rooms; 30,000 sq. ft. of event space; three pools; full-service marina.
Harrah’s Resort Southern California
1,064 guest rooms; 39,000 sq. ft. of event space; multiple pools; lazy river; swim-up bar; spa; nine restaurants; groups can take advantage of onsite gaming offerings.
Pala Casino Spa & Resort
507 guest rooms; casino with 2,000 slot and video machines; 87 game tables; 40,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; pool; spa.
Andaz San Diego
Ultra-modern downtown boutique hotel; 159 guest rooms; rooftop pool, restaurant and bar; 18,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; fitness center.
Hornblower Cruises & Events
Located downtown; San Diego Bay cruises; corporate charters for team building, dinners or full moon excursions for 1,000.
Downtown Kimpton hotel; 235 guest rooms; rooftop lounge with pool and fire pits; 14,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
Manchester Grand Hyatt San Diego
Waterfront location near Seaport Village, Petco Park and the convention center; 1,628 guest rooms; 316,000 sq. ft. of event space; eight dining options; 25,000-square-foot rooftop; 40th-floor Top of the Hyatt lounge.
Marriott Marquis San Diego Marina
Adjacent to convention center; walking distance to Gaslamp Quarter; 1,305 guest rooms; new 277,000-square-foot meeting facility opened in 2016; 446-slip marina; resort-style pool with cabanas.
Pendry San Diego
New 12-story luxury hotel by Montage Hotels & Resorts; 317 guest rooms; 35,000 sq. ft. of event space; six restaurants and lounges.
Renaissance San Diego Downtown Hotel
258 guest rooms; third-floor rooftop bar with fire pits; pool; 16,000 sq. ft. of function space.
San Diego Convention Center
1,288,823 sq. ft. of meeting space; 525,701-square-foot exhibit hall; outdoor terraces; downtown, bayside location.
San Diego Marriott Gaslamp Quarter
AAA Four Diamond downtown property; 306 guest rooms; 8,000 sq. ft. of event space; Altitude Sky Lounge overlooking Petco Park.
The Westin San Diego
436 guest rooms; 29,000 sq. ft. of event space; pool; fitness center; spa; three dining options.
The Westin San Diego Gaslamp Quarter
450 guest rooms; 35,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; pool; fitness center; lends athletic gear to guests.
US Grant Hotel
Historic hotel built in 1910; 270 guest rooms; $13 million refresh enhanced all 33,000 sq. ft. of event space; four ballrooms; $6.5 million art collection.
USS Midway Museum
Decommissioned aircraft carrier housing naval museum; docked on San Diego Bay; accommodates 4,000 for receptions; holds 700 events per year.