Cruzing the Boardwalk

Compared to the endless summer of our home in Sydney, San Francisco beach days leave something to be desired. We were a bit surprised to learn that going to the beach in NorCal usually entails lots of flannel, down and wool. And insulated mugs with warm beverages. If the cold winds and water temperatures in the low 50s don’t discourage your kids from playing in the water, then the many rip currents and undertows should. Sure, there are those days that are sunny and warm, but you’re much more likely to be greeted by a huge fog bank hovering just over the coastal foothills.

cloudy beach

Enter Santa Cruz.

boardwalk sky buckets
Santa Cruz is, for many in the Bay Area and beyond, a destination with beautiful scenery and miles of sandy beaches. Buffered from the near-constant northwest winds, Santa Cruz enjoys far more sunny days than, say, San Francisco’s Ocean Beach. Spring and fall are as nice or nicer than summer. Plus, the south-facing beaches offer many opportunities for your kids to play in small waves, boogie board, build sand castles or play Frisbee. All without having to be swaddled in layers of insulation. And there’s a roller coaster! It’s just the dose of “beach day” that cures a homesick Aussie.

boardwalk girls

The ROAM Report : Santa Cruz

Travelers – Tina Davis, Richard, Skye (14) and Jenna (12) Benyon

Date – Lots of weekends, including trips in February and July 2015

Itinerary – Two nights at the Ocean Pacific Lodge in Santa Cruz

Budget – Accommodation and meals averaged approximately $300 per day

The Good Stuff 

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk  Built in 1907, California’s oldest surviving amusement park takes you right back to your days as a child at an amusement park or county fair. Within a stone’s throw of the Municipal Wharf, it costs $32 per day for an all-inclusive wristband. We commit to the season pass which is only $75 per year – not bad if you return often – and we get there early to buy tickets (usually arriving at 10:30 a.m. when the park opens at 11:00 a.m.) Loads of kids roam around alone without issue but we still keep an eye on ours – for now.

SantaCruz roller coaster

You can stay all day, gorge yourself on the usual amusement park fare of corn dogs, funnel cake and chili-cheese fries, or wander off to the pier or surrounding areas for seafood. Sick of the nausea-inducing rides? Walk two steps down to the sand and lie down on the beach before heading back for more.


Surfing  There is a dizzying array of surf spots in the Santa Cruz area, from tame beginner spots to world-class point breaks dominated by aggro locals. There are numerous surf schools, including the Santa Cruz Surf School and Surf School Santa Cruz, that can take you and your child out for a lesson. Water temps, while warmer than areas north, still require a wetsuit year round. (Unless you are just playing in the shallows or boogie boarding for a bit.)

boogie boards

Roaring Camp Railroads  Don’t miss the chance to ride the 1880s-era steam train through the redwoods or down into Santa Cruz. Beware, the railroad isn’t open all day every day, so advance tickets are definitely a must. The company also operates close to 20 different themed days and nights over the year; some of the most popular being over the Christmas holidays.

Roaring Camp Railroads

Ziplining  Is hiking through miles of majestic redwoods not exciting enough for your jaded brood? Let them channel their inner Katniss Everdeen with a thrilling fly through the forest canopy. The two-hour adventure features six lines with two 150-foot sky bridges. Just remember that kids have to be at least 10-years-old, weigh 75 pounds and stand 4-feet-4-inches tall. (There is also an upper weight limit of 250 pounds.)  

Hiking Trails  Santa Cruz is surrounded with county and state parks. Too many to list.
Monterey and Half Moon Bay   The world famous aquarium and other Monterey attractions are only an hour south. The waves of Maverick’s and other Half Moon Bay attractions are only an hour north. (Heading north, be sure to stop at Duarte’s Tavern in Pescadero for cream of artichoke soup and whatever berry pie they’re serving.)

The Not So Good 

Downtown Sketchiness  Any trip downtown will yield a plethora of party shrapnel, homeless folk, unleashed dogs and plenty of trustafarians asking for your spare change.  While Santa Cruz can feel edgy at times, it is safe to walk around during the day and evening. That guy behind you with the roided-up physique, shaved head and neck tattoos? He’s probably very friendly.

The Holiday Crowds  Holiday weekends can get very busy in every part of Santa Cruz. Traffic is slow around town, so plan your time accordingly. Because of that, we prefer a hotel near downtown or the pier so we can leave the car parked and walk.

Good to Know 

Ocean Pacific Lodge  We return here often but the cost really depends upon the time of year and time of week you are staying. Over one long weekend in February, one night was $240 and another was only $75. Obviously weekends over summer are more expensive everywhere, as the weather improves. The Ocean Pacific Lodge also includes breakfast. It’s the typical style—waffles, toast, pastries, cereal, fruit, yogurt, tea, coffee—but it’s nice to not have to head out for breakfast and you can take something to snack on later in the day.

Santa Cruz Dream Inn We also like this spot because it’s got a great pool for the kids and is located right on the sand by the pier. Have a glass of wine on one of the many deck chairs in the pool area while your child splashes around. An added bonus is that you are steps away from the sand, the pier and the boardwalk. The shops and restaurants downtown are just a 15-minute walk.

dream inn

Las Palmas Taco Bar  There are plenty of places to eat but a favorite is a taqueria called Las Palmas Taco Bar. It’s down at the end of Front Street near the Beach Boardwalk. It’s really small, but their food is great and reasonably priced—we ate there for $40 for four people.

las palmas

Saturn Café – We love this vegan restaurant on Laurel Street. They have excellent food – truly something for everyone – and it is reasonably priced. About $80 for a family of 4, including drinks.
Beware Bay Area Traffic  If you are driving from the Bay Area on a weekend, plan to drive early Saturday or late Friday to avoid the traffic on Hwy. 17.

Good Family Trip? 

A sunny day on the Beach Boardwalk rivals that of a seaside amusement park anywhere – the Santa Monica Pier, Coney Island and Luna Park in Sydney, included – which makes the beach and all the rest of Santa Cruz’ attractions  icing on a family weekend cake.

boardwalk entry girls

by Tina Davis, October 2015

Want more family trip ideas? Read more ROAM
Got feedback or more ideas on this story? Email ROAM
Want to write about your family trip? Contribute to ROAM

© ROAM Family Travel 2015 – All rights reserved

Keyword:family vacation, family travel, family holiday, travel with kids, family vacation in Santa Cruz, Boardwalk with the kids, Santa Cruz family travel


Don’t miss a single trip! Enter your email address in the box below to subscribe to ROAM and receive notifications of new posts by email. Check your inbox for an email to confirm your subscription, click the link and you’re ready to ROAM!