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Weekend Escape

Baby Steps in the Wilds of San Diego


SAN DIEGO — Somewhere between the 500-pound baby rhinoceros, the 5-foot-tall baby giraffe and the litter of red river hogs, I became very grateful that I am a human mommy. Neither my Danny Mac nor my Fiona came into the world placidly, but at least no hoofs were involved.

My friend Suzann was a bit more sanguine. "Well," she said, gazing across the Wild Animal Park's African veld at a family of slumbering rhinos, "if your head weighs 800 pounds, how bad could it be to have a 500-pound baby?"

Glance at the infant in question--which lacks a horn but otherwise looks like an adult rhino, only smaller--and you know the answer. Pretty bad. The gestation periods alone--14 months for a rhino, 12 for a giraffe--do not bear contemplating.

As far as I could see, only the monkeys have it as easy as we do, and they carry their children around for the first year or so. After just three days trekking through the wilds of San Diego with 2-year-old Fiona on my hip, I was ready to concede that the greatest evolutionary development was not the opposable thumb but the invention of the stroller.

We did not go to San Diego in search of gratitude or lessons in comparative maternity. My husband, Richard, and I just wanted to get out of our house, our city and our clamoring heads for a few days in March. We wanted to spend time with friends and their daughter, preferably in a place where someone else would make the beds.

Unwilling to face the Friday evening traffic, we left Saturday morning and drove straight to the zoo, in Balboa Park. Literally a Hundred Acre Wood (and veld and new rain forest), the San Diego Zoo has earned a reputation as one of the best on the planet. And with tickets as much as $32, it ought to be.

The deluxe package we bought ($32 adults, $19.75 children 3 to 11, free for ages 2 and younger) included tickets for the Skyfari aerial tram, which aren't necessary unless you have a 4-year-old who wants to ride "the buckets in the sky" first thing. It also included a narrated tour on a double-decker bus and access to the zoo's shuttle bus service, which isn't narrated but is convenient for footsore kids and arm-weary parents.

It was spring, so we went off in search of babies, and we found plenty, especially in the Iturri Forest, completed since the last time we visited. At the Iturri hippo tank, a sign tried to convince us that a 1-year-old--almost as big as its mother--was still technically a baby. Little okapi hugged the flanks of their parents, and those red river piglets were unbelievably adorable. The baby Schmidt's spot-nosed guenon stole hearts as it climbed up its mama-monkey's tail and stared at children in the crowd with a wide-eyed wonderment that mirrored the kids'.

"The rhinos are cool, but I like the babies the best, " Danny Mac announced as we left the park to meet our friends and to check in at the Park Manor Suites Hotel, three blocks from the entrance to Balboa Park. We have stayed there many times and love it so much that my husband didn't want to mention it in print because, he said, "We'll never be able to get a room."

The hotel is fabulous. Once an apartment building that was a summer pied-a-terre for L.A. visitors, it has a wildly baroque lobby and period charm in every room. (Ours still had its turn-of-the-century built-in icebox.) The beds and bathrooms, though, are all modern and, fortunately for those of us with kids, seemingly indestructible. Most important, almost all rooms have lovely kitchenettes with a microwave, coffee maker, full-size refrigerator, dishes and cutlery. A nice continental breakfast, served on the top floor of the building amid views of the park and San Diego Bay, was included in our rate, $149 plus tax per night.

Park Manor Suites is also within walking distance of the Hillcrest district, chock-full of restaurants, cafes and good used bookstores. We went to City Delicatessen, a diner on University Avenue.

The staff was patient with our rather unruly party. The menu is huge, and our food ran the gamut--a great cheese-steak sub and omelets, fine pastrami sandwiches and a vegetarian sandwich that was a bit greasy and heavy on eggplant. (That's what you get for ordering vegetarian in a deli.)

The next day we had breakfast and admired the hotel's view before heading out to Balboa Park, which on a Sunday is kid paradise. We saw a show at the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater and played on the playground, splashed in fountains and listened to a bagpipe player--all before lunch.

We ate at Prado, which, according to its sign, is the best new restaurant in town. This may be true. Our food was great. The shrimp quesadilla, chicken sandwich and huge chopped salad were all fresh and sophisticated.

The kids' meals were just as good. For $6, they included a mound of tasty taro chips, some of the meatiest chicken fingers I have seen and a colorful reusable plastic cup with a cool bendy straw. (I personally cannot get enough colorful reusable plastic cups with cool bendy straws.)

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