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Family vacation: what to do with the small-fry set this December in San Diego.

There's more to San Diego than getting splashed by Shamu. Even if you're traveling with kids. And especially if you and your other half fancied yourselves to be sophisticated ladies before you began racing along together on the mommy track.

Just don't kid yourselves. If you're planning a vacation to San Diego with the missus and the kids this winter, of course you'll spend some time at SeaWorld and the world-famous San Diego Zoo. But don't shortchange your stay by believing that children--yes, even your children--can't also get some enjoyment out of more grown-up activities. You know, like visiting museums that don't dumb it down, or attending performances other than those that include singing dinosaurs. In short, find some activities that don't require you to check your brain at the door--and won't bore the little ones to tears, either!

START BY SETTLING IN

You'll probably want to make a home base for yourselves in San Diego's laid-back gay district, the Hillcrest neighborhood. It's a safe place for walking, with generous sidewalks, very little riffraff and lots of the diner-type restaurants that kids love. Plus, it abuts beautiful Balboa Park, home to the zoo and more than a dozen museums, as well as the annual Pride celebration. (Last summer, k.d. lang performed at the Starlight Bowl in Balboa Park.)

If you're looking for the comforts of home, try the Park Manor Suites Hotel (www.parkmanorsuites.com), a grand old park-side place that was once home to child actor Jackie Coogan and his family. Choose from studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom suites, each equipped with a full kitchen and separate dining area. Note that some rooms have balconies, which is lovely if you're traveling a deux, but nerve-wracking if you have toddlers in tow.

If you plan on taking in some live performances with the wee ones, you might prefer to stay in the Gaslamp Quarter, a renovated district where historic structures exist peaceably side by side with modern architecture. (Wyatt Earp owned several saloons here in the 1880s.) But be forewarned: The neighborhood gets rowdy on the weekends, with party-loving people stumbling in and out of the bars until the wee hours.

In the Gaslamp Quarter, the classy Prava Hotel (www.pravahotel.com) has fully equipped kitchenettes in each of its 56 rooms (some with balconies!) and is within walking distance of the San Diego Opera (www.sdopera.com) and the San Diego Symphony (www.sandiegosymphony.com). And it's quite normal to see several well-behaved youngsters in attendance at both of these highbrow venues, so you won't be the only ones if you decide to brave the theater!

SIT (AND STEP) ON SOME ART

Believing that anyone can appreciate modern art, the folks at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (www.mcasandiego.org) created a special booklet for their youngest visitors. Available at the front desk, the Garden Gallery Family Guide offers a child's-eye perspective on artwork installed outside. Part coloring book, part textbook, the guide encourages kids to explore and, more importantly, touch the art, from Roman de Salvo's Liquid Ballistic, a cannon-shaped teeter-totter that kids can hop on (the movement triggers a pump to spout water from the mouth of the cannon), to Gabriel Orozco's Long Yellow Hose, which forms a giant drawing throughout the garden.

Kids may also enjoy gelected exhibits at the innovative Mingei International Museum (www.mingei.org), located along El Prado in Balboa Park. "Mingei" is a relatively new word, coined in the 20th century to mean "arts of the people." Though its galleries are strictly "no-touch," some exhibits hold special appeal for children, like the giant collection of origami on display last spring.

SEE SOMETHING SEUSSICAL

One in four American children receives a Dr. Seuss volume as their first book. As a child growing up in Indiana, I thought Dr. Seuss had dreamed up those crazy-looking landscapes all by himself. Actually, the good doctor simply drew inspiration from the hillsides around his home in nearby La Jolla, Calif.

San Diego marked the "Seussentennial" of beloved author Theodor Seuss Geisel's birth on March 2, 2004. You can celebrate belatedly by exploring the foliage that matches the trees, bushes and flowers of your child's favorite books.

Some of the more fantastic species to be found in the gardens of Balboa Park (www.balboapark.org) and the craggy hills and cliffs of southern California include the bottlebrush tree, with its oddly shaped garish flowers; the screw pine, with its fanlike topknots and spindly trunks; and the fishtail palm, with its gently nodding plumes.

SAY HELLO TO THE PUPPET HEAD

For generations, the locals have loved bringing their children to weekend performances at the renowned delightful Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater, located in Balboa Park (www.balboaparkpuppets.com). Housed in one of the grand structures built originally for the 1935-1936 California Pacific International Exposition, the Puppet Theater has staged performances continuously here since 1947.

Shows this month include traditional stories, like Mother Holly, a Grimm fairy tale about two sisters who fall into a well and travel to a land where good behavior is magically rewarded, as well as more contemporary tales, like Santa's Blast-Off, in which jolly old St. Nick is kidnapped by aliens.

SET ABOUT ON A MIDWINTER'S STROLL

Happily, after a funding scare earlier this year, December Nights in Balboa Park (www.balboapark.org/december_nights.html) is back for another season. On Friday and Saturday, December 3-4, all the museums in the park throw open their doors for free, with special evening hours. Dancers, actors and musicians perform on numerous outdoor stages.

Founded in 1978 as Christmas on the Prado, the event took on a new name in 2002 in a well-intentioned effort to make it more secular. The Grinch couldn't steal Christmas entirely away from this festival, which still features a tree-lighting ceremony, carolers and a candlelit procession down the park's main drag, El Prado.

Though this is a free event--Balboa Park's holiday gift to San Diego--bring some spending money just in case. You might want to sip some hot cider while you stroll around the grounds.

Last year, the free event attracted 100,000 people, so get there early if you want a good spot for the tree-lighting ceremony. And bundle up: Sunny San Diego turns chilly at night, with evening lows in the 50s.

See? Culture and kids do mix. There's something for everyone in San Diego, whether you're traveling with toddlers or teens. Relax, have a great time, and say hello to Shamu when you see him.

RELATED ARTICLE: BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG RESORT

This year, the historic Hotel del Coronado (www.hoteldel.com) flips the switch on an anniversary moment. The world's first outdoor, living, electrically lit Christmas tree was illuminated here in 1904; the tree-lighting ceremony on December 1 will celebrate 100 years of tradition, with more than 50,000 dazzling lights outlining the Victorian main building and topping a 140-foot tree.

If you're there on a Sunday and ready to splurge, stop for a buffet brunch in the world-famous Crown Room, decorated with whimsical crown-shaped chandeliers designed by Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum, who made his home for several months at a time at the Del. (Brunch is $49.95 for adults, $21.95 for children 7-12, $49.95 for children 2-6 and free for children 2 and younger.)

A classic hotel built in the spirit of grand East Coast resorts, "The Del" has played host to the glamorous and the rich since it opened in 1888. Marilyn Monroe filmed Some Like It Hot here in 1958. The property sits at the edge of Coronado Beach, named one of America's Best Beaches by the Travel Channel for three years running. The hotel is known as a family-friendly venue, and features some innovative programming for kids as well as programming designed specifically for teens.

RELATED ARTICLE: SMALL BITES

When the tot announces, "I'm hungry," you'll want to know where to find kid-friendly eateries that can answer in the affirmative to the question, "Is there a burger on the menu?" Here's our list.

Corvette Diner (3946 Fifth Ave.; 619-542-1476; www.cohnrestaurants.com) The waitresses wear poodle skirts and bouffant 'do's. Oh, and there's a cute little Corvette parked in the center of this Hillcrest neighborhood restaurant. Burgers, fries and milkshakes are the stars of the 1950s-inspired menu.

Hash House a Go Go (3628 Fifth Ave.; 619-298-4646; www.hashhouseagogo.com) A favorite among Hillcrest's late-night gay bar crowd, the Hash House is known for hearty homestyle favorites updated with a twist. Choose from such specialties as hash made with meatloaf, roasted red peppers, spinach and smoked mozzarella (breakfast), roasted chicken pot pie (lunch) and sage-fried chicken (dinner).

The Prado at Balboa Park (1549 El Prado; 619-557-9441; www.pradobalboa.com) The kids will have to wear their nice manners at this Balboa Park eatery, but it's worth it if you want a nice place to eat in between museums. One of the few sit-down restaurants in historic Balboa Park.

Indigo Grill (1536 India St.; 619-234-6802; www.cohnrestaurants.com) Lesbian chef Deborah Scott samples cuisines from Alaska to Oaxaca at this Little Italy restaurant with an innovative menu. Let the kiddies eat their burgers (in this case, a nut-crusted buffalo burger, available only at lunch) while the mommies nibble on pumpkin-and-sesame-seed-crusted brie.
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Author:Lee, Gretchen
Publication:Curve
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Dec 1, 2004
Words:1551
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