This article was first published in LA Travel Magazine print, summer 2022 edition.
Carlsbad, California feels like the best of America due to its small-town laid-back feel and proximity to the ocean. Situated 30 mins north of San Diego and a couple hours south of LA, Carlsbad is a charming community with 7 miles of pristine beaches and picturesque hilly inland regions that make an unforgettable road trip escape.
The main town – Carlsbad Village – feels both vibrant and safe as people walk their dogs, kids dine together and shimmy down the sidewalk on their skateboards, past racks of clothes for sale outside the boutiques. Each time we return we wonder how much better life could be if we lived here, because the area feels easy compared to Los Angeles. While many people flock here for a golf getaway, Legoland adventure, or beach escape, we continue to fall in love with Carlsbad’s outdoor dining, craft breweries, and overall quality of life where charming quintessential sunny Southern California just vibes.
EXPLORE + PLAY
Carlsbad drew us back again this spring for the annual Flower Fields exhibition that occurs from early March through early May. Over 50 acres at Carlsbad Ranch have transformed into a sea of vivid colors thanks to skilled farmers keeping the ground perfectly irrigated for 30 days. They create sixteen hues of papery ranunculus flowers. Once upon a time, these same hills grew poinsettias for the Ecke family who sold them as cut flowers and later grew them in pots using a photosynthetic trick to make them bloom in time for Christmas – creating the traditional Christmas flower that is now ubiquitous in the US. See a greenhouse filled with many varieties of poinsettia, but not before posing for a photo on a tractor or oversized chair in the blooming flower fields with your loved one.
Make reservations to visit the Carlsbad Aquafarm lagoon and learn how oysters and mussels are locally grown before feasting on as many Carlsbad Blond oysters as you can stomach. As part of the hour tour, you’ll practice how to properly shuck these homegrown briny meat mollusks before slurping them down.
Meander the cute area known as Carlsbad Village to peruse local shops or grab a lavender latte, white chocolate mocha, or another fun coffee medley at the open-air Succulent Café dripping with air plants, little multi-colored desert florae, and walls of hanging succulents. Take a moment to savor the setting and watch hummingbirds buzz over your morning coffee. Wander the village to admire street murals emphasizing and celebrating the business nearby like a doughnut superhero or sea turtles with a boy holding a 3-D umbrella by @SnyderArt or a giant robot pouring water out of a windowsill that dons a massive wall outside Crackheads and Choice Juicery. At The Goods, coffee comes with luxuriously decadent doughnuts with varieties like Carrot Cake or Vermont Maple Bacon.
For those looking for a little more adventure, rent zippy fast e-bikes from Pedego Electric Bikes (in Carlsbad Village) to cruise up or down the coast, admiring the glistening crashing surf as you glide into another laid-back California surfer town. Stop along the way to check out vintage stores and local outdoor markets. Oceanside or Encinitas is just ten miles away.
DINE + WINE
Make reservations for CAMPFIRE, a popular New American restaurant and cocktail bar where a return to the origins of cooking is emphasized. A 2019 Michelin Bib Gourmand recipient, CAMPFIRE is a local favorite because wood-fired cooking is always the best idea. In the heart of Carlsbad Village, find this rustic cool glamping campy designed restaurant with an aqua CAMPFIRE sign outside that reads in small print, “Don’t exist, Live.” A World War II-era Quonset metal hut anchors the space behind. CAMPFIRE uses red California oak in a 12-foot wood-burning hearth. Their most popular dish is the roasted lime peanut broccoli with chermoula and guests love to share the tableside S’mores. Campfire opens for dinner at 5 PM. Nearby is also Jeune et Jolie, a Michelin Star restaurant offering a 5-course set-priced tasting menu.
We recommend spending part of the evening down a little alley next to CAMPFIRE at Carruth Cellars, a buzzing outdoor wine tasting room where you can enhance your tasting flight with a cheese, olive, and salami charcuterie board. This urban winery buys the grapes from the country (northern and central CA) and makes the wine in the city right next to the beach in Oceanside. They have successfully produced 15 award winning wines as rated by the San Francisco Chronicle. Some of our favorites sipped here included the Cabernets, a GSM Blend with Paso Robles grapes, and Chardonnay from the Russian River. Glasses and bottles are available for sipping away your afternoon or indulging in early evening escapades at this friendly spot.
Just ten minutes up the road, find your way to Valle, which brings Valle de Guadalupe cuisine to California with smoked notes and charred components. A prix fixe menu curated by Chef and winemaker Roberto Alcocer (who owns Malvo in Valle de Guadalupe) includes charcoal oven cooking and woodfire essence with California fresh ingredients. The newly-opened restaurant is stunningly designed featuring wooden fixtures and natural elements and sits on the bottom floor of the Mission Pacific Hotel across from the ocean and 2,000-foot-long fishing pier. The four-course sensory tasting menu is definitely enhanced with the exceptional wine pairing from Baja’s Valle de Guadalupe plus a dessert wine and port from Europe. The menu is designed for the curious eater who likes to explore new tastes with little creative surprises along the way like mesquite coal-fired banana leaf-wrapped squash meant to be placed in a tortilla, marinated charred cauliflower, or a decadent dessert shaped like a flower with its pistil dipped in bee pollen.
After dinner, admire the restored (and relocated) Victorian bungalow home next door. You might recognize it from the movie Top Gun, where Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis turned up the heat before riding off into the sunset on a motorcycle. Presumably, a signature dessert experience will be possible inside to take you back to 1986 or at least to get you ready for Top Gun: Maverick to take flight in theaters Memorial Day weekend.
For brunch, continue on with the Baja theme since you are so close to the border. Check out cactus-laden Tulum-Esque Casero Taqueria on the Carlsbad hillside for refreshing spicy Mezcal cocktails and beautiful views from the back of the restaurant’s fire pits. Featuring a Baja-inspired brunch menu and great price points, Casero offers an outstanding breakfast burrito with soft scrambled layered eggs with citrus braised pork and a filling Baja Breakfast Bowl with chorizo, beans, and potatoes topped with sunny side up eggs. Add some carnitas or shrimp tacos for good measure.
For sushi lovers, Blue Ocean Robata and Sushi Bar is THE place because the luscious fresh sushi and sashimi is so fresh and prices can’t be beat, especially for lunch specials (12-3) or during weekday happy hour (3-6). Gorge yourself on an impressive sashimi platter, hand rolls, or tempura. This splashy modern geometric and wood designed venue is a stunner – both uplifting and inspirational – but serves equally stunning specialty rolls, grilled skewers, sake and creative cocktails. Sit at the bar and chat with the sushi chef master over ikura or kampachi with truffle oil. You can even pick up an omakase box to-go and bring it to the beach.
For more fun, try beer tasting samples at Barrel Republic in the Carlsbad Village. This place is a mecca for craft beer lovers. A pay-by-the-ounce magnetic wristband allows you to freely walk around and pour your own beers. Sample and compare over 52 rotating beers. No bartender needed and no commitment to a beer you don’t love. Suds that excited us include High Watermelon wheat beer from San Francisco, Ginger Pear Cider from Common Cider Company out of Sparks, NV, and Japanese Rice Lager from Trustworthy Brewing Co. from Burbank, CA.
And for those looking to grab a quick bite loaded with options all under one roof, look no farther than the newly relaunched Windmill Food Hall – reopened with every imaginable cuisine like pizza and calzones, ramen, sushi burritos, tacos, Thai dishes, Greek gyros, and more.
STAY + REST
The Cassara Carlsbad, part of the Tapestry Collection by Hilton, is the perfect place to stay when visiting the seasonal Flower Fields because you can literally walk down the road to the entrance or view the bright rows of ranunculus flowers from the well-heated ‘quiet’ hotel pool. Nestled in 12 lush acres over the Pacific Ocean, our room sat above the field designed like an American flag, with the ocean in the distance. Rooms have been renovated to reflect modern clean lines while the lobby has been redesigned with mid-century modern furnishings. Recently, the hotel unveiled 29 two-bedroom Karlsbad Family Suites for guests to enjoy with loved ones when they need time away from home. A complimentary shuttle can take guests within a 5-mile radius as well as Carlsbad’s one-of-a-kind Ride the Tide open-air beach trolley with daily service to Tamarack Beach.
Amenities include access to two pools – a ‘quiet’ pool and a ‘family’ pool complete with a splash pad, socially distanced BBQ grills and fire pits, and locally sourced libations and small bites available at The Cassara Kitchen & Bar. The family-friendly Cassara Carlsbad is also adjacent to LEGOLAND California, which features a private pedestrian entrance. The resort offers convenient access to water sports at the Carlsbad lagoon, scenic running and biking paths, golfing at The Carlsbad Crossings and outdoor shopping at the Carlsbad Premium Outlets.
Book a fourth-floor balcony room that sits above the expansive shoreline horizon for sunset views. Situated atop a 50+ acre complex, 28 suites of the 208 guest rooms come with tantalizing views. You can be sure of a sound night’s sleep here too as the signature luxury Westin Heavenly Bed is one of the best. Next to Legoland, the family-friendly Westin also offers the same nearby fun and transportation amenities along with a one-hour free bike rental.