Named for the European spa town of Karlsbad, in the Bohemia region of what’s now the Czech Republic, Carlsbad (pop. 105,328) was established in the 1880s as a spa town and vacation resort. Remnants of the historic resort area still survive along old US-101 in the center of town, and a few flower and strawberry fields have survived the ever-expanding tide of sprawl. These days Carlsbad’s spa-town heritage lives on at Omni La Costa Resort and Spa (760/438-9111, $299 and up), a 600-plus-room complex of luxurious rooms, health spas, golf courses, and tennis courts covering 400 acres of hills on the inland side of I-5.
Carlsbad’s other main attraction is the first American outpost of the popular European children’s theme park Legoland (877/344-5346, $97 adults, $91 children). Covering 128 acres above the Pacific Ocean, the park is divided into multiple areas, including Miniland USA, where miniature landscapes modeled on New York, New Orleans, New England, and Southern California have all been constructed using millions of the trademark plastic bricks.
South Carlsbad State Beach (760/438-3143, $10-15 per car, seasonal rate), three miles south of town, is one of the nicest and most popular places to camp on the Southern California coast, with its spacious campsites ($35-50) with hot showers spread out along a sandstone bluff above a broad beach. However, swimming can be dangerous because of strong riptides. If you don’t want to camp or pay the parking fee, leave your car at the park entrance, which is well marked on a surviving stretch of the old US-101 highway.