Vacation Ideas in Central or Northern CA?

Updated on January 03, 2011
K.L. asks from San Jose, CA
10 answers

My family wants to plan a family vacation somewhere in Central CA or Northern CA....
I have a two year old and a 3 months old.

Here's our criteria:
-close to restaurants, shops, sight seeing; able to get there by stroller or foot
-sandy beach to play on and/or other swimming place (preferred but not necessary)
-sights (i.e., zoo, aquarium, or a big park or other attraction)...
-hotel or cabin (3-4 stars or higher preferred)
-no more than 5 hours by CAR from Silicon Valley
-kid friendly place or thing to do

Here's what I thought about:
Monterey -- good aquarium, but no beach. What else is there to do other than the aquarium?


Santa Barbara?

Big Sur?

Somewhere up North?

Any suggestions or ideas or references that you know of would be greatly appreciated. Thank you!

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answers from San Francisco on

Pajaro Dunes and Sea Ranch both offer houses and condos of varying sizes either right on the beach or closeby. Sea Ranch has great walking/hiking and tidepooling and Pajaro Dunes is great for sand dollar hunting. Sea Ranch is North along Hwy 1 near Mendocino and Pajaro Dunes is between Santa Cruz and Monterey. There is a resevoir on the uphill side of Hwy 1 above Sea Ranch if you want to swim or picnic.

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answers from San Francisco on

See what you think of these.

Not Monterey, but slightly north - Capitola. Not sure on hotels, but if you're willing to go upscale, try a beach rental via something like There are great beaches there, cute communities, and Monterey aquarium is not far (Dennis the Menace Park, I think it's called, is very cool). Plus Santa Cruz.

South of Big Sur is Cambria. Again, good place for a vacation rental.

More south, Pismo Beach (definitely nice hotels, restaurants and cute shops, right on the water) and San Luis Obispo (10 minutes inland). We did the Madonna Inn last summer and that was really fun, but my girls are a bit older - the heated infinity pool was worth every penny. Thursday nights are Farmers Market night in downtown San Luis, and there are face painters and such. There are a lot of kid things to do in SLO and surrounding areas and great parks. Nearby Avila and Pismo have the beaches.

Closer to bay area is Half Moon Bay. Ritz Carlton would fit the bill for the hotel, there are miles of beach, plenty of restaurants, Downtown Half Moon Bay is fun to wander. Monterey Bay Aquarium a bit of a drive, but not terrible.



answers from Salinas on

Hi- Not sure what you mean, no beach in Monterey? I live in Carmel right next door and we have the most beautiful beaches I have ever seen, Mexico and Hawaii included. The Monterey Penninsula is made up of Monterey, Pacific Grove and Carmel and the whole area is very close together if you visit one town, you really visit them all. We stick out in the monterey bay and are surrounded by amazing beaches. There are more fun things to do here than you could imagine. Point Lobos is a world famous nature preserve, Carmel Valley is lovely and has wineries and restaurants. Downtown Carmel is great shopping, restaurants, art galleries and a stunning beach on Carmel Bay. Cannery Row next to the Aquarium is right along the bay, it's a little touristy with restaurants, shops etc. Fisherman's Wharf, Dennis the Menace Park, an awesome Rec trail that rings the bay are all within walking distance of Monterey and Cannery Row. Finally if you do come this way nothing in the world comares to a day down the coast to Big Sur. It takes about 40 minutes and your driving on the edge of the cliffs but the drive itself is stunning. The town of Big Sur has restaurants and some shops, an incredible State Park & more beautiful beaches. OK I'm starting to sound like the Chamber of Commerce.
Here check out this site and they'll tell you the same :)
I love my home and think everyone who has the chance should visit, you will fall in love too! Enjoy your summer vacation!



answers from San Francisco on

I haven't done it myself, but my brother-in-law and family go every summer to a "camp" put on by UC Santa Barbara. They stay in the dorms (suites) and say the food is good. They have activities for children (I'm not sure how young they take them) giving the parents a break and a chance to do something on their own.



answers from San Francisco on

These are all great options. Here is an article on things you can do in Carmel/Monterey beyond the Aquarium.

Here is one person's perspective on Yosemite with similar age of kids.

Sea Ranch is another nice option.

Tahoe in the Summer

Santa Barbara will probably be a bit further than 5 hours but has a great zoo. Wine country could be an option with a visit to Traintown. If you look through bigbluetrunk, you will find reviews on a lot of things to do, etc. in all these places.

Good luck and happy planning!



answers from San Francisco on

Hi! Lake Tahoe could be great! Lots of lake activities. You could stay right on the lake on the north or west shore. Maybe even find a house rental. You could also stay in Squaw Valley ( and ride the cable car to swim in the lagoon, play in the village and then drive (~20 mins) to the lake for more swimming, boating etc.

Another thought is to hit someplace in the foothills/gold country - along hwys 80, 50 & 49. Many beautiful rivers for swimming, cute towns for strolling/shopping/eating and lots and lots of historical sites/activities.

My main reason for suggesting mountains vs. coast is that the coast weather can be so unpredictable with fog etc. Inland, you're sure to get lots of sunshine and warm temps.

Good luck and have fun!



answers from Portland on

Monterey, or Big Sur are Great choices. There is plenty of outdoor activities in both areas either way you can't lose, also go to Santa Cruz or Capitola.



answers from Fresno on

We go to Monterey all the time with my kids since they were only a couple of months old. Here is some ideas. We always stay at the Monterey Marriott. Great kid friendly restaraunt and hotel, but VERY nice. You can walk to the wharf to eat or shop. There is also a cheap massage place across the street that I sneak over too. You can also walk to Dennis the Menace Park (the best and biggest park I have ever seen) or the Monterey Sports Center (indoor swimming). It is a 5 minute drive to Cannery Row, the aquarum and many small beaches. Monterey is also a 45 minute drive to Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk or Gilroy Gardens (both are amusement parks that my 3 year old loves since she was 2 years old.)



answers from San Francisco on

Sandy beaches are in short supply. I am not sure that there is anywhere that has all of that, but here are some ideas for different places in the vicinity.
Six Flags Discovery Kingdom (Vallejo)
Stinson Beach (Marin County)
Bay Area Discovery Museum (Sausalito)
In San Francisco, you could stay in/near the Marina District: Chrissy Field is a nice beach. At the end there is a pool and rock climbing place. Plus the Exploratorium and Palace of Fine Arts. There is a lot of shopping on Union Street and Chestnut Street. There is a bed and breakfast on Lombard (King Edward's?) that is in the middle of it. Fairly quick hike over the hill to Ghiradelli Square and further on to Pier 39.
Napa does not have a beach, but is 20 minutes away from Discovery Kingdom and does have kid friendly stuff to do.
Sonoma Train Town is awesome!
I live in Napa, and we go to Scientopia, Party, Bounce, and Jump (aka PB&Js), and various parks. Send me a message if you want more details.



answers from San Francisco on

A new children's museum just opened in Monterey called My Museum. My parents took my 3 year-old son there and he had a blast. Smaller, but many interactive displays and exhibits.

Also, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk has many rides for toddlers, and Capitola's Beach has a sheltered water inlet in which the kids can play. We took two 3-year-olds to the Boardwalk and then the beach last month. Great shopping and restaurants in Capitola right by the beach.

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