Mission Bay: Almost Paradise

By Diane Anderson-Minshall

Originally published on Advocate.com February 04 2013 1:20 PM ET

Every year for the last several, my copilot and I have managed to make it to the Caribbean: the Cayman Islands, Turks and Caicos, Riviera Maya, Belize, Cozumel, and the Bahamas. Our favorite by far has been Club Med in Cancún, an all-inclusive five-star resort on the tip of the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. It’s a place where we can snorkel for hours, drink endless piña coladas, bodysurf, learn how to do Cirque du Soleil–style acrobatics, eat any hour of the day, go sailing, hear comedians and live bands, and then take a siesta on the hammocks near our room — all without having to whip out a credit card, make reservations, take a bus someplace, or worry about things like time, money, and supplies. They take care of all of that, and everything is within walking distance of your room.

So yeah, Club Med Cancún is perfect, except for two things. Like many high-end resorts in Mexico today, it has military-style armed guards posted all around, just to ward off potential attacks from drug traffickers — a sad but necessary reality in a country where crime rates are escalating even in usually safe tourist areas (don’t even think about going to Acapulco). But perhaps more important to danger-lovers like me, even if you wanted to jet down to Cancún regularly, international flights have become increasingly expensive lately, prohibitively so for some travelers.

I wondered, though, was it possible to re-create that all-inclusive Caribbean resort feel without actually leaving the U.S.? I went on a quest and can report back: The answer is a resounding yes.

In 1962, Jack Skirball, a movie producer who was behind a number of notable films including Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, discovered Tierra del Fuego, a newly manmade 44-acre island nestled within the vast Mission Bay area near San Diego. He decided to build a fantasy island that would attract both families and the rich and famous from nearby Los Angeles. He filled it with many artifacts from Hollywood (the porpoise fountain from Cleopatra) and history (the island is home to the state’s largest collection of original mission bells from along El Camino Real, the California mission road that became the first highway in the U.S.). Celebrities soon came to play, including Natalie Wood and Paul Newman.

Today the island is much more than Skirball could have imagined. Located about 120 miles south of L.A., it’s a gorgeous mixture of South American–style jungle canopy and Southern California palms. There is greenery everywhere except at the shore, which offers a different micro-ecosystem depending on which side you are on.

The whole island is now called Paradise Point Resort and Spa, a AAA four-diamond bungalow-style resort that’s like a beautiful, exotic enclave in the heart of San Diego, an easy escape that’s insulated but not isolated. In fact, during our weekend stay, only once, when I glanced behind me from the water and noticed the traffic on the bridge connecting the island to the mainland, did I remember we were minutes from the city. We could have been anywhere, and that was the beauty of it.

As we do in the Caribbean, the two of us spent a lot of time in the water, taking advantage of what is now the 4,600-acre Mission Bay Park. Anyone can access it from the outside rim (the area’s planners hoped to make it available to anyone regardless of class or race), but only visitors to Paradise Point get the kind of exclusive access that lets you bunk for the night about nine feet from the ocean.

Water is key to the resort’s success; there’s a mile of sandy beach encircling the resort, a freshwater lake, and a rather intoxicating lagoon filled with sharks and rays and other large fish — a focal point that draws kids and adults for hours of almost meditative staring. Add the five swimming pools and hot tubs, and that’s a lot of liquid.

A good vacation spot offers plenty of options. At Paradise there were several lesbians paddle-boarding, families in pontoon boats and power boats, straight couples learning to sail, crazy middle-aged couples riding Jet Skis (ahem, that was us), and many other people, even kids, kayaking, bodysurfing, swimming, and snorkeling. Motorized watercraft makes it easy to go around the entire island without going out to sea (which you could do as well), and there are areas where you can gun your Jet Ski motor up to 60 miles an hour or more, which is why I was left feeling like Evel Knievel, my smile as wide as a Miss America contestant’s.

The resort has its own private marina, so all you have to do is call down and tell the staff what you’d like to do, which could include a scenic bay cruise to see the sunset or an opportunity to get within arm’s length of pelicans and sea lions in their own happy habitat.

If you’re traveling with children, the resort also has its own water taxi service to SeaWorld (you’ll definitely know you aren’t at Club Med) and there are several fire pits for roasting s’mores over bonfires at night. The resort store sells s’mores-making kits that include everything from the firewood to the marshmallows, and other supplies such as pellets you and the kids can toss to the fish in the lagoon. Honestly, though, most of the kids I saw seemed to be happiest running in and out of the water and digging in the sand back on shore.

At any resort, finding same-sex couples is usually a bonus, not a given. But at Paradise we were surprised not just to encounter other queer couples but also to find such diversity among them. One 20-something black gay couple kissed and held hands outside their bungalow while they waited for one of the hunky concierge guys to pick them up (the concierge fellas drive golf carts and will give you a ride anywhere on the island at any time of day or night). In the bungalow next to us, a 40-something lesbian couple spent long hours in the Nantucket chairs outside their abode, talking until long after sunset. At breakfast at the Barefoot Bar & Grill (where the plates are piled high, the food is good, and you can dine al fresco next to the marina) two lesbian couples juggled five kids between them, all loud but adorable towheads who jumped and squealed every time one of the many birds perched near their table dared to move.

After the sun went down and a slight chill hit the air, we headed to Baleen, San Diego’s signature waterfront seafood restaurant, which draws both resort guests and locals who trek over the bridges to get to the island for the food. It’s no surprise that The New York Times called it “one of the best dining secrets in San Diego.” Right on the bay, with indoor and outdoor seating and a copper-topped fireplace, Baleen feels lush and tropical just as a resort eatery should. Fresh fish is a specialty, but the Creole shrimp and grits and the duck-and-bacon mac and cheese surely have their devoted fans as well. I had a dish made of mussels, venus clams, cockles, diver scallop, jumbo prawn, and Spanish chorizo that I have been trying to re-create at home ever since.

The spa stays open extended hours, which is good, because you’ll want to be outside as much as possible during the day. (I couldn’t stand to be out of the water, but the resort also has an 18-hole putting golf course, four-wheel quadracycle surrey and bike rentals, and a decent-size fitness center.)

The Asian-themed spa is small but luxurious, and its treatments are based on five locales — Hawaii, Bali, Fiji, Thailand, and the mainland — to create signature experiences for each visitor. A number of them sound enticing, but I couldn’t pass up the Volcanic Earth Clay Ritual, a Balinese treatment where the spa therapists spread clay all over you to detoxify you, give you Balinese foot massage while you lie there in the clay, have you shower with aromatic water, and then wrap it all up with a full body massage that left me feeling cocooned and rather emotional.

I passed on the ride back to my room and instead walked in the water lapping the shore all the way to my bungalow, picking up small shells as I went. The vacation was so immersive I forgot, for a moment, where I was and just reveled in how I felt. Back at my bungalow, a chic and modern suite with sliding glass doors that opened straight out to the bay, I lay down and fell asleep immediately. I was out for 10 hours, perhaps the best rest I ever had.