After our New Orleans trip ended, Mazzy, Harlow and I came back into the city to pack up our apartment and then after one night in my sister’s studio, we left for another whirlwind family vacation— a seven day road trip in Northern California (San Jose, Santa Cruz County and Monterey County), planned by Visit California to promote their new Adventures in Kidifornia series.
Mike wasn’t able to take a week off work so Allie came as his stand-in. The kids were initially upset that we weren’t going to Disneyland, but I told them not to worry, we would have a ton of fun anyway. Let’s just say, I lived up to my promise.
Day 1: San Jose
We left New York at 6:30am, which means we got to the San Jose airport at around noon, leaving us plenty of time to explore on Day One. First stop was checking into the Fairmont San Jose. This is our third Fairmont (the first in Mont Tremblant and then Mayakoba, Mexico) and I must say, I am continually impressed with their properties.
Our room was beautiful and they left both an adult spread in the room (wine, cheese, fruit) and a kid-friendly spread (popcorn, gummy bears, cookies) for us to have a quick snack before we headed out.
Luckily macarons and gummy bears make for a great first course because next on our agenda was heading to the San Pedro Square Market for lunch.
It’s a gourmet food court with a lot of locally sourced options. Mazzy had pizza, Harlow had pasta (plain, natch) and Allie and I both got tacos. California always has the best Mexican food. Besides Mexico, of course.
After we were fully satiated, we walked over to the Tech Museum of Innovation which the kids loved. I can’t decide if they were more excited about the jet pack simulator, building “social robots” or dancing in the human body exhibit, where they could see screens that showed their body’s muscles and bones mimic their movements.
Look at Harlow getting her skeleton to #poselikeharlow!
For dinner, we went to Original Joe’s, an old school Italian diner where the staff is dressed in tuxedos, that I’m told is a San Jose tradition. Pasta and meatballs all around.
At 9pm, everyone piled in bed and fell dead asleep.
Day 2: San Jose
Our day began with a buffet breakfast at Fountain, the restaurant in the hotel. Mazzy and Harlow both ran over to the large selection of cookies and cake pops, so I very gently spun them around to eat the eggs, pancakes and bacon first.
Mazzy settled on a huge plate of BREAD.
Then we drove to Happy Hollow Zoo, which the kids were thrilled to learn was half zoo and half amusement park.
After walking around the zoo section and spotting monkeys, petting goats, and making friends with a leopard, we hit up the large playground and went on some rides.
All the rides are perfect for Mazzy and Harlow’s age or younger. The biggest ride there was a kiddie coaster and after a little coaxing, Harlow decided to go on her very first roller coaster ride. She LOVED it and proceeded to go on about five times in a row.
Then we walked over to the brand new Hello Kitty Cafe, where there was a crazy line around the corner waiting to get in. The Hello Kitty Cafe is very popular!
After waiting a bit and gathering info on what was best to try, we were ushered in the tiny shop. It’s about as pink as you would expect with a friendly staff and all sorts of Instagram worthy cookies and mini cakes.
Honestly, I knew the place would be made for photos but I did not expect the desserts to be so delicious. We got their famous birthday cake, the chocolate cake, macarons, Strawberry Mint Lemonade, and a Strawberry Dream shake.
Every single thing was out of this world and my girls were in heaven. I actually liked the lemonade the best. It was perfect for a hot summer day.
We were supposed to to the Children’s Discovery Museum next (they’ve got a new Doc McStuffins exhibit), but we stayed at the Happy Hollow Zoo so long that we ran out of time. Plus, as always, the kids wanted to get in their hotel pool time.
We spent the next few hours at the Fairmont pool, which had lots of colorful floats and tons of families splashing around. After a few hours in the pool (yes, a few hours), we ordered room service for dinner.
Day 3: Redwood Forest and Santa Cruz
In the morning, we had the buffet breakfast at the hotel again (it’s REALLY good), packed all our bags and then left for the Roaring Camp depot in Felton, Santa Cruz.
The town is a re-creation of an 1880’s logging town, where you can ride an authentic steam train up to the top of Bear Mountain to see the Redwood trees. (You can also opt to take a train from the Santa Cruz boardwalk to Roaring Camp and then back again, for a more complete day trip.)
At first, we boarded the covered train in the back, but then quickly realized that the proper way to see the redwoods is the uncovered train, so you can look up and see all those amazing trees tower overhead.
We found out that the average Redwood is 700 years old and 70 stories tall. To put things in perspective, I told Mazzy and Harlow each tree was five times taller than our apartment building.
After the ride, we took a little hike in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, which has a .8 mile flat circular trail that is completely kid-friendly. Even for the hiking averse, like Harlow.
Mazzy and Harlow loved seeing the big trees and climbing the ones that were on the trail. There was even one tree that had a large cut-out in the trunk so you could do inside it. When we saw a tree that had fallen over, exposing its roots, Harlow said it looked like Tinkerbells’s house. After looking it up on google images, I have to agree!
We had hamburgers and sno-cones at Roaring Camp and then drove down to a little beach town outside Santa Cruz called Capitola, where we were staying in an apartment from Beach House Rentals for the night. My first thought, upon walking inside, was I wished we were there for more than one night! The apartment was situated along a creek with a pretty dramatic bridge overhead and a strip of homes with lovely gardens and a walking path along the water that led to the beach.
It’s hard to explain because I had never seen anything like it. Unfortunately, you couldn’t quite capture it in a picture either.
After we put our stuff away, we hopped back in the car and headed to Natural Bridges State Beach, where there were— you guessed it, Natural Bridges!
It was too cold to go in the water (and little overcast that day), but truthfully, that’s how I like the beach best. The girls had a ton of fun splashing around in the water and getting the bottom of their clothes wet.
Then we surprised the girls by heading over to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, an amusement park similar to Coney Island. There is every ride you could possibly think of, for little kids and bigger kids, but the thing that makes the Santa Cruz boardwalk stand out is the rainbow colored people mover overhead.
Look closely and you’ll see the cavemen and women on the ride. I’m not sure what cavemen had to do with Santa Cruz, but they are a theme throughout the park.
The girls got cotton candy, rode every ride that their height allowed and had a fabulous time. We only planned to stay there for an hour, but the kids had so much fun that we stayed until way past their dinner time.
Best moment was Harlow riding the roller coaster, which was still a kiddie coaster, but considerably bigger than the one at Happy Hollow. On her first ride, she seemed absolutely terrified (watch the video, trust me), but then wanted to go again and again, screaming less each time. It was adorable. (You can see her get braver and braver on this video.) After that, she became a bit addicted to the more thrill-seeking rides and would be disappointed when Mazzy made the cut and she didn’t.
I guess she is becoming a daredevil just like Mazzy. She just needs to catch up in inches!
After tearing them away from the park (one more ride, Mom, pleeeeeeease????), we drove back to Capitola for dinner at Zelda’s on the Beach. As soon as we got there, we realized it would have had a really beautiful view of the ocean, if we got had gotten there before sunset. We could just barely make out some colorful little houses across the way and vowed to check them out the following morning.
Day 4: Watsonville and Monterey
After getting the kids out of bed and packing up the car once again, we drove to Gayle’s Bakery for a takeout breakfast. Gayle’s is known for their cookies, cakes and pastries and it did not disappoint. “This is BREAKFAST???” the kids kept asking. “Yes,” I said. “We’ll get croissants and muffins for now and a box of cookies to eat for a snack later.”
We took our pastries to Capitola Beach so we could see the colorful little houses in the daylight. The girls ran around chasing seagulls and skipping rocks, while Allie and I noshed on croissants and cinnamon buns. The colorful houses turned out to be one hotel, but it almost looks like a tiny slice of Positano, the colorful seaside village on the Amalfi Coast in Italy. It makes for a postcard perfect photo backdrop.
Next up, we had an hour drive to Monterey, so we kept it interesting by making some stops along the way. First stop was Seacliff State Beach so the girls could see the sunken SS Palo Alto.
Then we drove to Watsonville for Martinelli’s Tasting Room, which is like wine tasting except with apple cider. The girls had a blast sitting at the bar, taking sips of the different varieties and weighing in on whether they liked peach cider vs. pear cider. Personally, I was a big fan of peach.
Then we stopped at Adventures by the Sea in Monterey Bay for a 2 hour private kayaking tour. I opted to leave my phone on the shore so any photos or video we got was from Allie. Although I always love documenting our trips, I really appreciate the moments when I put my phone away. I think this might be why the kayaking tour was one of my favorite things we did on the trip.
That and the fact that we saw otters, harbor seals, and a sea lion right up close, dolphins a few yards from our boats and orcas jumping in the distance. We could not have asked for a better introduction to ocean life in the bay. One of the most interesting lessons we learned was to pull the kelp over our waists when we wanted to keep our kayaks from drifting.
Apparently, that’s what the otters do too. They wrap their bodies and then lounge on their backs with their little faces soaking in the sun. We got pretty close to one otter and I swear there is nothing cuter than an otter with a dry furry face. Harlow fell instantly in love.
After kayaking, we checked into the Hotel Pacific, a pretty little inn within walking distance from the Old Fisherman’s Wharf, where we had dinner. We ate at Paluca Trattoria, which you might recognize from Big Little Lies. It’s the setting for the coffee shop that Madeline, Jane, and Celeste frequented after school drop-off. I tried sharing this with Mazzy and Harlow and they were all like, “Who’s Reese Witherspoon? I don’t get it.” Kids.
After dinner, we went next door for dessert at Candy World, a name that instantly got the kids excited.
Candy World is filled with buckets of saltwater taffy, along with ice cream, every gummy imaginable and chocolates.
We each got a bag of our favorite treats and walked the length of the wharf to watch the sunset.
At the end, is restaurant with a public viewing deck where anyone can go to watch the sailboats float serenely in the blue water as the sky turns the loveliest shade of pink.
It was perfection.
Day 5: Monterey
In the morning, we ate the continental breakfast at the hotel and then headed over to the Monterey Bay Aquarium (go early to avoid the crowds!), otherwise known as the inspiration for Finding Dory. They’ve got harbor seals lining the rocks, an Open Ocean area (actually titled the Open Sea in real life) and a famous octopus.
Honestly, I don’t think I ever appreciated aquariums until I went to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. It is amazing and I would recommend it for both kids and adults. Even adults not traveling with kids. It’s situated beautifully on the bay and we got the best weather ever.
Plus, the jelly fish, the sardines and the open sea exhibits are really something special. Mazzy and Harlow were also fascinated with the art made from trash found in the ocean. It started a really interesting conversation about being environmentally conscious.
After the aquarium, we walked along Cannery Row, which used to be a stretch of sardine canneries (the aquarium used to be one as well) but is now populated with cute shops and restaurants. We went to lunch at The C Restaurant and Bar at the Continental Hotel, which is right along the water. I recommend the calamari and the banana s’mores bar for dessert.
Once our bellies were full, we drove down Ocean View Boulevard which is exactly as advertised— a view of the ocean. You know the opening sequence of Big Little Lies with the crashing waves and rocky seaside cliffs? This is where they film it.
We drove to the Pacific Grove entrance of the famous 17 Mile Drive, which takes you through fancy houses, golf courses (the most well known being Pebble Beach) with lots of scenic overlooks to stop at along the way. The guard at the entrance will give you a map with points of interest. My favorites were the Lone Cypress and Ghost Trees.
17 Mile Drive ends at Carmel-By-the-Sea, which is an adorable town that looks like something out of a fairytale. All the houses in the neighborhood look like picturesque cottages with thatched roofs, covered in flowers.
We stopped for coffee and ice cream at the Cafe Carmel.
On the way back, we stopped at Lover’s Point Beach because Mazzy wanted to climb the rocks. I tried my best to keep up with her and make sure every step was safe but I was also watching Harlow who wanted to climb too, so Mazzy got ahead of me.
“Check each rock to make sure it doesn’t move before you step on it!” I kept calling out to her.
“I know, Mommy!”
“Slow down and don’t go where I can’t see you!”
“I know, Mommy!”
There were lots of kids climbing so I’m sure it was fine, but a cliff plummeting to the sea (even if she never actually went near the edge) is significantly more heart attack inducing than a tree!
Here’s Harlow lounging to keep safe.
We had dinner at Peter B’s Brewpub, which was walking distance from the hotel. They have fire pits outside and a sports bar inside, but the most important part was the kid-friendly menu. Chicken fingers and pizza all around!
While we were there, we again got into a whole discussion about water pollution and the environment, started by the restaurant’s use of paper straws. Mazzy argued that they didn’t work as well and I said that doing good things for the environment isn’t always the easiest or most convenient, which is why it’s important to spread the message of the harm plastics can cause. Then Harlow got really upset because she realized that we use straws and products in plastic packaging all the time and now I might have to change my entire lifestyle. No joke.
Day 6: Big Sur
We had breakfast at the hotel, checked out and then started our drive down Highway 1 to Big Sur. Along the way, we stopped at Point Lobos Natural Reserve which has some wonderful views of the ocean. We could also see seals and otters lounging on the rocks.
After driving further, we stopped at Garrapata State Park and Beach, which might be one of my favorite stops on the trip. It’s a beautiful spot with crashing waves, high cliffs, a wooden foot bridge and fields of little yellow flowers.
Not to mention Big Little Lies again, but this is where they filmed all of Jane’s running scenes.
Then we drove down to Bixby Bridge (which is also in the opening credits of Big Little Lies) and took a few photos along the cliffside, right next to a sign that warned of steep cliffs and falling rocks so if you bring kids, make sure you are extra cautious.
I promise, we kept the girls far from the edge.
Lunch was at a place called Nepenthe. If you ever want to feel like you are winning at life, EAT HERE.
They’ve got big juicy hamburgers, a ping pong table, colorful cushions and a postmodern rustic bar/restaurant space with a wraparound terrace that makes you feel like you are sitting on top of the world. All of that without even mentioning the view.
Even Mazzy and Harlow appreciated how cool this place was and took advantage of every vantage point and amenity. I actually looked up Nepenthe to see what it means and it said, “a drug described in Homer’s Odyssey as banishing grief or trouble from a person’s mind.” I concur.
After a very long lunch (we stayed there as long as possible soaking up the scenery), we kept driving South, down the most curvy part of Highway 1 to Pfeiffer Beach. Most of the trail was closed so you couldn’t go all the way down to the beach, but the view of McWay Falls was STUNNING. McWay Falls is an 80 foot tall waterfall that just casually unloads onto an already ridiculously beautiful beach.
Big Sur seriously has some of the most jaw-dropping scenery I have ever had the privilege of visiting. This is Harlow feeling like she can conquer anything after a five minute hike.
Later that afternoon, we checked into our final room of the trip at the rustic Big Sur River Inn.
There is a river along the back of the hotel with Adirondack chairs in the water, so you can relax with a drink while your kids play on the rocks.
It was wonderful. Even better? The daughter of the owners of the inn is a long time fan of my blog. She left me a note in my room, which made our stay feel extra special.
We ate dinner at the Big Sur River Inn Restaurant right next door. I don’t really remember what I had for dinner but I know that Harlow ordered the S’mores for two for dessert and it was actually more like S’mores for ten. Melted marshmallow and chocolate came in a big cast iron skillet with graham crackers for dipping.
When I asked the kids to sum up what they liked most about California, Harlow said with a big chocoloate stained smile, “EATING THIS!!!”
Day 7: San Francisco
On the last day, we had a three hour drive ahead of us to get to the airport in San Francisco. We left early in case of traffic and stopped in Carmel-by-the-Sea for breakfast at a place called the Little Swiss Cafe. They had pancakes, bacon, eggs, waffles and everything we could possibly want for breakfast.
They also had an awesome mural that wrapped around the entirety of the room. At first glance, it looked like a farm scene that changed seasons, but upon closer inspection, we found tons of little surprises like Disney characters, Minions, Happy Feet Penguins, characters from Shrek and the three blind mice. Playing I Spy with the mural entertained the kids for the entirety of our meal.
We were about an hour ahead of schedule and then when we were about 15 minutes away from the airport, we got a notification that the flight was delayed two hours. Remember when I said that Big Sur was the perfect way to end our trip? Nope! We decided the perfect ending would be a detour into San Francisco.
We stopped at Alamo Square so the girls could see the Painted Ladies, which they recognized from the opening of Fuller House.
Then we drove down super curvy Lombard Street (Mazzy said it felt like a really slow roller coaster and I joked that this entire trip had just been to test Allie’s driving skills) and lastly, we drove across the Golden Gate Bridge and got out to take in the view.
Then we decided that view wasn’t good enough and drove all the way up to the highest viewpoint on Hawk Hill. By that point, Mazzy and Harlow refused to get out of the car. “Not another scenic overlook!” But Allie and I thought it was totally worth it.
Project California Road Trip Complete.
Thank you so much Visit California for sending us on this whirlwind adventure down the California Coast. We loved every moment of it. Also, now that I’ve been to LA, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, Santa Cruz, and Monterey with my kids, I feel qualified in saying that you can’t go wrong with a family vacation in California. If you want to learn about more #Kidifornia adventures, click here.
I would recommend any one of the cities we visited. Best option? If you have the time and can swing it, travel the entire coast!
To follow our adventures in real time, follow @mommyshorts on Instagram! And please feel free to ask me any questions in the comments.