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Can a staycation satisfy a world traveler's itch to wander?

Kayakers in San Diego. Situated along Mission Bay, the Catamaran resort offers an ideal locale for water sports.

Scrolling through photos was the last straw. A fairy-tale castle; a fado (folk song)  performance; an antique streetcar navigating an undulating track. Revisiting a February trip to Portugal made my heart ache.

For a travel writer who thrives on destinations as far-flung as Greenland and Namibia, 2020 has been wearying. I haven’t missed the busy pace of my work-travel life, but I have missed the change of scenery I’ve been privileged to enjoy. By the end of summer, my husband, Chris, and I were tired of the four walls of our San Diego home. We were desperate for a breakout.

We decided to try a staycation, something I’d never thought to do previously but that seemed a logical pandemic option. I’m not talking about pretending our home is a resort. Nor was I going to pop a tent in the backyard. Puh-leez—I’m too old to rough it.

I had recently wrapped up the latest edition of my book 100 Things to Do in San Diego Before You Die. In researching it, I thought I had experienced pretty much everything my hometown offered. Would a staycation be able to satisfy our travel craving?

The Catamaran Resort features lush tropical gardens with a Polynesian theme.

The Catamaran's lush, Polynesian-themed gardens invite wandering.

Without a doubt, Californians are lucky to have enviable vacation options close by. That’s what led Chris and me to sign up for a three-night swoon at a beach resort, the Catamaran, a venerable, Polynesian-themed hotel along Mission Bay, San Diego’s water sports playground. We counted on the resort, built and still owned by the local Evans family, to provide safe harbor for bonding and escape.

With visions of palm trees swaying in the breeze, it wasn’t hard to view what we were doing in an almost altruistic fashion. Sure, in 20 minutes we can day-trip from our house to a beach. But our hearts go out to the local shops and restaurants that have lost business or even shuttered, and for families who have lost jobs.

Overnighting close to home meant supporting our community that much more. Another unplanned benefit of a local stay: The 13-mile drive to the resort might be the closest to a carbon-neutral vacation that we’d ever experienced.

Part of the Catamaran resort surrounds the pool.

Guests relax at the pool, which is surrounded by two-story bungalows.

The Catamaran sits between Pacific Beach and Mission Beach. The resort faces the calm Mission Bay, but the oceanfront is just a block away. The property has grown to 310 rooms and is dominated by a 14-story tower.

About half of the rooms occupy two-story wings that wrap the pool area or sit bayfront. Accessed by exterior doors, these rooms are my pandemic pick because they avoid the tower’s enclosed corridors and elevators where physical distancing and mask rules might not be well respected.

Ducks waddle about the resort's gardens.

The resort's koi ponds attract waterfowl.

In fact, beyond our bay-facing room, we were able to avoid all indoor areas, except for our check-in at the lobby, where a towering rock waterfall and an ocean breeze through several large doorways created an inviting tropical vibe. (Plexiglass dividers at the front desk, where we received our keycards, helped to keep guests and employees safe.)

The Catamaran’s lush gardens shouted Polynesia, with koi ponds lacing between palms and tree ferns, and ducks waddling about tamely. Outside our room was a hibiscus shrub with the largest, most voluptuous blossoms I’d ever seen, marking time by opening at sunrise and closing at sunset. Compared with our water-wise garden at home, the grounds were extravagant.

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Diving into something new

The resort’s restaurant, Oceana Coastal Kitchen, jump-started our vacation on our first morning there. We sat outdoors facing the beach, enjoying perfectly prepared chilaquiles rojos—tortilla chips simmered in a red sauce and topped with eggs—which is one of our favorite breakfast dishes.

Stomachs sated, we thought it was time to savor the bay, and I recalled childhood days when my grandmother brought me here for sailing lessons. On this day, with stand-up paddleboarders in some kind of Zen zone drifting across our view, I decided to try paddling. What’s a vacation for, if not to experience something new? It never dawned on me that a paddleboard might be tricky or much of a workout.

Chris demurred. “I think I’ll take a kayak and follow you,” he said.

At the resort’s dock, equipment awaited on the sand. Chris needed no explanation to push out in the kayak. But I had to ask for guidance on using the paddleboard. The attendant replied, “Just try to stand at the center of the board, facing straight forward.”

Easier said than done. My legs wobbled and ankles writhed as I tried to stay balanced. With a light wind at my back, the paddle seemed like an afterthought—99 percent of my effort went into staying balanced. I made it a few hundred yards to the aquatic center where I once took sailing lessons, all downwind, but when I turned into the wind I plunged into the bay.

Didn’t I once tip a sailboat next to this dock? For a moment I thought of swimming back to the resort dock, towing the board behind. Instead, I summoned courage and gave it another try, much as I had with a little sailboat decades ago. Success!

A macaw shows off its wings at the daily parrot show.

Jacqueline A. Kohlman, an exotic-bird handler at the Catamaran, with a macaw.

During our stay, a few resort activities had been curtailed in line with local pandemic restrictions but were expected to return in the months to come. In addition to the spa and fitness center being closed, the resort’s weekly beach luau did not happen; and the Bahia Belle, a paddle wheeler that loops around the bay, wasn’t running.

However, we had other opportunities to decompress. A big screen was set up on the sand one night for socially distanced moviegoing outdoors. There was a daily bird show with the resort’s half-dozen parrots, and lei-making and hula lessons entertained guests on the weekend. Given the challenges of 2020, the opportunity to enjoy fresh sea air and water views and be taken care of by an engaged team made up for the resort’s curtailed offerings.

Socially distanced sunbathers.

A socially distanced yoga class on Mission Beach.

We walked to the oceanfront beach a few times. The nearly 4-mile-long, deep stretch of sand provided ample room for distancing, even with weekend crowds. Just before sundown, a group convened for spacious yoga, an activity unrelated to the resort. The busy boardwalk paralleling the sand was another matter. The Crystal Pier area was particularly crowded, with most sunseekers strolling, cycling, and skating mask-less.

This area is home to the bulk of Pacific Beach dining, including JRDN restaurant at the posh Tower 23 Hotel. “It’s been a difficult year for the restaurants in P.B., to be sure,” George Gadonas, our waiter there, said. “But we’re doing our best.” The open-air restaurant brought a mod glow to the funky boardwalk, its terrace separated from the crowd by glass, providing an unhampered sunset vista.

The blackened salmon sandwich was a feast for me, while a beautifully seared rib eye landed for Chris, both living up to Gadonas’ promise, as did a silky pinot noir from Delmore, a small-production winery in Santa Barbara County.

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Together, not apart

Yes, we were keeping it all in California, and we also kept the family theme going. On our second full day at the resort, I invited my 85-year-old mother and my sister—they live in San Diego, too, and were also locked away from their usual routines—to join us for a beach afternoon.

We shared sandwiches, salads, and a bottle of Champagne on our hotel-room balcony, with a parade of scampering children, sailboats, and cyclers gliding nearby. We easily could have been at a resort in Mexico. Mom and my sister were giddy over our temporary berth, and each joked about sleeping on the couch that night—a notion I quickly put to rest.

Riding the boardwalk in a surrey.

Exploring the boardwalk in a surrey.

“Wouldn’t a bike ride along the boardwalk be fun?” I asked Mom, half-joking.

“Sure,” she replied, dismissively.  

My mother has not attempted a bike ride in years. But I had a plan up my sleeve. I excused myself and ducked over to the water-sports center to negotiate for a surrey. A four-seater was available and I pedaled down the boardwalk to the lawn fronting our room.

Mom’s eyes brightened. “Where are we going?” she asked excitedly.  

The four of us piled into the surrey and cycled the boardwalk down the bay and back. This is the kind of serendipity I try to be open to while traveling in less strange times, and yet during The Great Pause of 2020, I found it just a few miles from home. I don’t know when the pandemic will be over, but I decided then that the Catamaran was a lesson in appreciating where you’re at.

David Swanson’s writing and photography have been featured in National Geographic TravelerAmerican Way, and the Los Angeles Times.

If you go to the Catamaran in San Diego

Reservations: 858-488-108; In November, garden-view rooms start at $169, plus tax and $30 per day resort fee (rates higher Friday and Saturday). Rooms in the “400” building are particularly idyllic. Bayfront rooms start at $282.

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