Carlsbad struck it rich with, of all things, water. The city got a boost when pioneer John Frazier tapped a mineral spring in the 1880s and its “miraculous curative powers” were a hit. You can still buy this magic elixir today at the Carlsbad Mineral Water Spa (once Frazier’s Well) in Carlsbad Village and, once fortified, you’ll be ready to tap into the laid-back scene. It’s fun to wander around and discover other historic sites (be sure to check out the former Twin Inns, a striking 1887 Victorian structure) while enjoying the restaurants, shops, antiques stores and lively bars in the village. Beyond the village, you’ll find beaches, parks, high-end golf resorts, Legoland, small museums and more of Carlsbad to explore. The tab: My husband and I spent $50 (plus $8 registration fee) for a night at South Carlsbad State Beach campground (a short drive from the village) and about $200 for food and drinks.
My husband wanted to go camping. Quelle horreur! I haven‘t been camping in years; nice hotels with cushy beds and indoor plumbing are more my speed. For the sake of marital harmony, I took one for the team. “OK,” I said reluctantly, “but we won’t be cooking weenies over a campfire — we’re going out for every meal.” I cautioned him that it’s almost impossible to get a weekend reservation in the summer, but darned if he didn’t get lucky. We borrowed our son’s tent, which sleeps two (uncomfortably), and grabbed some beach chairs and sleeping bags and off we went.We got a good spot on the cliffs overlooking the ocean; after setting up our tent we hit the beach, which is accessible from a steep staircase, and worked up an appetite.
The closest I got to cooking over a fire was dinner at aptly named Campfire, which opened last year and has a camp-y theme that includes outdoor fire pits and a tepee for kids to play in. We ordered a delicious mess o’ grub: chicken liver pâté, roasted broccoli, pork chop adobada and lamb crépinette. Dessert was do-it-yourself s’mores.
Park 101 opened at the end of June and is already a hit. The outdoor spot has a coffee/doughnut venue, a salad/sandwich line and a rooftop bar. This is a cool place for drinks, but my dry tri-tip sandwich was not worth $15. Breakfast was at Cafe Topes, a locals’ favorite, featuring all the standards plus an extensive list of Benedicts and a gooey cinnamon roll.
Carlsbad has nearly 50 miles of hiking trails throughout the city. We took the Rancho Carrillo loop, an easy stroll, because it was a twofer: The hike included a stop at Leo Carrillo Ranch Historic Park, where we were greeted by preening peacocks that have the run of the place. The ranch, which features many of the original Old California-style buildings where the movie actor and his famous friends hung out, is worth a visit by itself.
Camping can be fun. I enjoyed the experience, sitting on a bluff overlooking the ocean, mellowing out. If you are not a happy camper, there are many lodging choices in Carlsbad, from motels to five-star resorts.
2725 State St.;  637-5121, thisiscampfire.com
3040 Carlsbad Blvd.;  434-2217, park101carlsbad.com
3091 Roosevelt St.;  434-8673, www.eatatcafetopes.com
Leo Carrillo Ranch Historic Park, 6200 Flying LC Lane, carrillo-ranch.org
Carlsbad lodging, visitcarlsbad.com/resorts