You don’t have to don a wetsuit to adore Santa Cruz’s family-friendly beach town vibe. But it sure enhances the fun.
Since the early 1900s, Santa Cruz’s beaches, redwood-filled state parks, and annual wildlife visitors (whales! monarch butterflies! orcas!) have lured families.
Though this itinerary can be tackled in a jam-packed weekend, those with a week to spare will find themselves easing into the casual beach life like a local.
At Chaminade Resort while the kiddos swim in the pool, parents can alternate spa treatments and sip bubbly. Prefer to sleep closer to the sand? The retro-themed Dream Inn is just steps from Cowell’s Beach.
After dark, downtown’s Hula’s Island Grill serves kid-friendly chicken skewers and kid cocktails.
Wake up early for breakfast at the wildly popular Cafe Brazil. Tropical fruit smoothies and Latin-themed breakfasts attract the college crowd.
Year round, Santa Cruz gets a slew of animal visitors, though none as celebrated as winter’s monarch butterflies. These creatures populate the eucalyptus groves at Natural Bridges State Park. Even if the butterflies aren’t in residence, this beach houses tide pools, and plenty of sand to soak up the sun.
Grab bagel sandwiches at Bagelry.
Year round whales, sea otters, seals, and sea lions populate these waters. In spring you’re likely to spot orca whales and possibly some great white sharks. Search for sea life with Stagnaro’s Whale Watching Cruises. They typically serve lunch on longer trips.
Grab pancakes at Zachary’s. Be sure to pack up some hiking snacks.
Explore Aptos‘ massive redwoods at Forest of Nisene Marks State Park. Families with younger kids appreciate the interpretive trail, high above the creek. Swimmers will find plenty of spots to cool off in the chilly water.
Sit under the redwoods at burger with a microbrew and curly fries. The downstairs patio has a few games to keep the kiddos entertained.
Spend the afternoon hunting for sea glass at Seacliff State Beach. Check out the sunken cement ship. Build driftwood forts on the sand.
If you like the quiet of Aptos, check into the Best Western Seacliff Inn.
Join local tribes at Beer Thirty for a pint of lager in the kid (and dog) friendly beer garden. Order BBQ from the Fish Lady’s stand next door, or pick up burgers at Carpo’s. Across the street, Michael’s on Main serves pasta and steaks.
Gear up for the day the kids have been waiting for. Pick up bagels at Firefly.
Motor up into the redwoods to Felton to ride the Roaring Camp Railroad to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk. Ride historic amusement park rides and play in the arcade. Sign your older kids up for surf lessons at Cowell’s Beach.
Dinner options abound. However for a solid meal, order wood-fired pizza and superb pasta at Santa Cruz’s Ristorante Avanti.
If it’s Thursday, hit up the beach dance party at the Crow’s Nest. Eat here or grab tacos at next door. Parking is atrocious, so be prepared to walk.
For your last day in the sun, pick up pastries and coffee at Gayle’s.
For an iconic beach village vibe, head down to Capitola Beach. Rent stand up paddle boards or surfboards. Play in the waves. Surf by the jetty. Dig in the sand. Wander around the shops. Line up for a slice at Pizza My Heart.
When you’ve exhausted your brood, sit down for post-beach dinner at Paradise Beach Grill, or Margaritaville.
Before you hit the road, join local clans to watch the sunset from the pier.