Elephants, giraffes, kudu, wildebeests and water buffalo have stared us down throughout the day, but we are searching for something more elusive. The pick-up carrying us on this safari adventure rumbles against the rocky earth, bouncing my wife and me around as we stand in the truck’s open-air back section. Suddenly, we see it: a northern white rhino. There are only six such animals alive on the planet, and we are 25 yards away from one. In all likelihood, the beast will someday soon disappear for good, but on this day we watch the walking-ghost wallow in a watering hole.

We are not at the end of an expensive multiple-day journey into the wild, we are not in Africa, and we are not staying in a hut. We are in San Diego, we are at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and we are staying at The Catamaran Resort Hotel and Spa.

The San Diego Zoo’s lesser known and more remote sister operation, the Safari Park, is just 30 minutes from The Catamaran. The hotel is perfectly placed on peaceful, playful Mission Bay in San Diego. I landed at the resort, after considerable research, as a result of a mission I began months earlier: to plan the ultimate Valentine’s Day getaway weekend for my lovely wife.

The motivation for my mission was strong; my wife and I are expecting our first child this summer, so it was our last Valentine’s Day during life as we know it for, well, a long, long time. And so for this special getaway we selected the wondrous city of San Diego, which has been aptly called, “heaven on earth.”  

"Much like Minneapolis, San Diego is rich in water,” said Mike Staples, General Manager at The Catamaran. “With the Pacific Ocean by our side and Mission Bay in our backyard, there certainly isn't any shortage of playground space. We are fortunate to have such a unique location between the ocean and the bay so our guests get the full San Diego experience with us.”

We certainly got the full experience at The Catamaran. In real estate they say it’s all about location, location, location, but at The Catamaran the service complements the picturesque location and adds to the total package. We arrived on Valentine’s Day itself, to discover a surprise gift of champagne and chocolate covered strawberries in our suite. After enjoying both, we opened our unit’s sliding glass door and walked barely 20 steps to the water’s edge.

We were right on the beach, and a full moon shined from above to illuminate the bay. Talk about the perfect start to the ultimate Valentine’s weekend.

 "If our guests aren't lying poolside or getting treated in our bay front spa, they're probably riding a beach cruiser on the vibrant Pacific Beach boardwalk, taking advantage of the nightlife on Mission Boulevard and Garnet Avenue, or having an adventure on a motor boat, jet ski, or paddle board,” Staples said. “You simply can't get bored here."

During the next couple days at The Catamaran, we tried our hand at many of the activities Staples mentioned. The photos below provide a glimpse of the highlights from our time at and around The Catamaran.

With our suite right on the beach, I simply had to step outside and take a stroll to find this spot to watch the sun rise over Mission Bay. Later in the day, we had a blast renting paddle boards at the resort.

I brought a collapsible fishing pole to The Camaran; fishing from the beach provides good action for spotted bass. It's also a great area for swimming with warm, calm water in protected Mission Bay. In the evening, all Catamaran guests receive a pass for a free 1-hour cruise aboard The Bahia Belle.

The 1,800 acre San Diego Zoo Safari Park, home to more than 2,600 animals representing 300 species, is just north of The Catamaran in Escondido.

The head of a giraffe weighs 65 pounds. There are currently 13 giraffes at the park.

The San Diego Zoo is leading over 100 conservation projects across 35 countries. One example involves the California condor. In the 1980s only 22 condors remained on the planet; the zoo began breeding them and has since hatched 181 condors and released 80 birds into the wild.

You don't want to miss the daily cheetah run at the safari park. Cheetahs can accelerate from 0 to 70 miles per hour in 4 seconds.

The grounds at The Camaran features several beautiful waterfall and pond features with exotic parrots, koi fish and ducks, both outside (above) and inside (below).

The resort also has a fantastic spa, where we enjoyed a relaxing massage that felt great afer a day of water sports. You definitely work up an appetite for meals at the resort's Atoll restaurant, below. We looked out at Mission Bay for breakfast and dinner.

During our last night at The Catamaran we drove to Sunset Cliffs Natural Park, a few minutes away. What a view! It was the ideal ending to our Valentine's getaway.

With all the activities and amenities on Mission Bay in San Diego, The Catamaran Resort is a fantastic place to bring a family. As we watched the sun set over the Pacific Ocean on the last night of our last pre-children, Valentine's getaway, I realized we have a wonderful new adventure ahead of us in parenthood. And that someday we may just need to bring our children to the heaven that is San Diego.

The website for The Catamaran Resort Hotel and Spa is www.catamaranresort.com. For more information, call 800.422.8386 or email reservations@catamaranresort.com.