The last two years, my daughter and I have done a quick trip to Monterey before school started. This year, daddy joined us and we decided to go to Santa Cruz instead. We went swimming at the Dream Inn, built sand castles and explored tide pools on the beach, rode the Rock-O-Plane at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, dressed up and put on a show at the Santa Cruz Children’s Museum of Discovery, rode a steam train at Roaring Camp Railroads, hiked (walked) through the Redwoods at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, ate poke bowls at Steamer Lane Supply, celebrated happy hour at Hula’s Island Grill, and enjoyed organic, seasonal ice cream at the Penny Ice Creamery.

When we arrived, we took a walk along the Santa Cruz Wharf while we waited for our room to be ready. The Aloha Outrigger Races and Polynesian Festival was happening, and while we missed the race, we got there in time to enjoy the Ho’omana Hawaiian Duo and Ha’a Hula Dance Group, and Talia relished in drinking coconut water out of a fresh coconut.

Dream Inn
Location, location, location. A Joie de Vivre boutique hotel, the Dream Inn sits on the site of Jack O’Neill’s first surf shop, adjacent to the wharf and historic Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, and a short walk from local shops, restaurants, Yacht Harbor, and Downtown Santa Cruz. The room was “retro-chic” and we loved having a private balcony with a view of the beach – and the surfers, who were out there morning ‘till night. We took advantage of an online deal that included welcome cocktails and daily breakfast at the hotel’s restaurant, Aquarius, which looks out on the beach as well. We enjoyed $5 glasses of wine, a Shirley Temple, and spinach hummus. The breakfasts were enormous – and delicious – but Talia only got about a quarter way through her only-on-vacation chocolate chip pancakes.

Santa Cruz Boardwalk
I remember going to Santa Cruz Boardwalk, the Coney Island of the West, as a little girl when my dad lived in nearby Watsonville. An historical seaside amusement park, the Boardwalk features the 1924 Giant Dipper wooden roller coaster and a 1911 hand-carved Looff Carousel (merry-go-round) with the old-fashioned ring toss, where you grab the ring and toss it in the clown’s mouth. There is an indoor arcade with video games, pinball machines, a vintage game collection, miniature golf, and laser tag. Admission is free, and ride tickets are affordable. In fact, when we were there, they were celebrating Retro Nights and all rides were only a dollar after 5 pm. Santa Cruz Boardwalk does a great job letting you know in advance which rides your little ones can go on, with height requirements on the website and on signage at the ticket booths. We discovered the magic number: 42, and we were pleasantly surprised how many rides our daughter could go on because she just hit the 42” mark–or if she couldn’t ride herself, she could ride with a chaperone (AKA daddy and mommy). We rode the Rock-O-Plane—a ferris wheel with cages that spin upside down—also known as the zipper at many state fairs. So much fun! However, I might have avoided the Tornado, had I read the description, “ a high voltage teacup ride,” since I don’t do well on a regular teacup ride. Not so much fun. Just eight more inches before she can ride the Giant Dipper!

Santa Cruz Children’s Museum of Discovery (MOD) 
Whenever we travel, we always check out the local children’s museum. We love the Children’s Discovery Museum of the Desert in Palm Springs, Monterey County Youth Museum (My Museum) in Monterey and, of course, the Bay Area Discovery Museum in Sausalito. One day, we’ll get a children’s discovery museum in Napa – in fact, I met Patrice Keet, the co-founder and executive director of MOD, and she offered to come to Napa to meet with community leaders if there is a real interest. Wouldn’t that be great? Located inside the Capitola Mall (in Capitola), MOD provides an interactive, hands-on learning environment with themed areas of play, including agriculture and health, redwood and forest, ocean and harbor, technology and innovation, as well as a dedicated area for toddlers ages 2 and under. Our daughter could have spent all day putting pieces of materials in the wind tunnel and catching them when they came out.

Next visit, we’ll be sure to check out the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History, which has a brand-new intertidal touch pool that lets you get your hands wet as you examine local marine life. We’ll also try to time it to be there on the first Friday to dive into a hands-on, all-ages art activity, along with exhibitions, live music and a bar at Free First Friday at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History.

Roaring Camp Railroads 
Located in nearby Felton, the area’s first railroad, the Santa Cruz & Felton, began carrying visitors to the Big Trees and the beach in 1875. In the 1880s, narrow-gauge steam locomotives were used to haul giant redwood logs out of the mountains. Roaring Camp’s steam engines date from 1890 and are among the oldest and most authentically preserved narrow-gauge steam engines providing regularly scheduled passenger service in America. Preserving a piece of the 1880s and early California was the dream of Roaring Camps founder F. Norman Clark, who passed away in 1985, and his daughter and widow have continued to operate the railroads since. We took the one-hour round-trip Redwood Forest Steam Train through towering redwood groves and up a winding narrow-gauge grade to the summit of Bear Mountain. There is also a Santa Cruz Beach Train that runs daily throughout the summer and weekends spring and fall.

Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park 
Directly adjacent to Roaring Camp Railroads is Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, which features the only remaining old-growth grove in the Santa Cruz area. The 0.8-mile loop flat trail is stroller-friendly, and there’s even a bathroom and water fountain on the trail, which is something all parents can appreciate. The tallest tree in the park is approximately 277 feet tall, and about 16 feet wide. Keen-eyed visitors may spot banana slugs, black-tailed deer, coyotes, bobcats in the forest, and steelhead trout in the river.

Natural Bridges State Beach 
We had planned to visit the Monarch Butterfly Natural Preserve, however, we didn’t realize our timing was off. The park’s Monarch Grove provides a temporary home for thousands of Monarchs, but they typically begin arriving in mid-October and leave by January or February. From late fall into winter, the Monarchs form a “city in the trees.” The beach itself is worth a visit. With its famous natural bridge, is an excellent vantage point for viewing shore birds, migrating whales, as well as seals and otters playing offshore. Further along the beach, public access tidepools offer a glimpse of life beneath the sea. Low tides reveal sea stars, shore crabs, sea anemones, and other colorful ocean life.

Steamer Lane Supply 
A combination café and surf shop at Lighthouse Field in Santa Cruz, Steamer Lane Supply has a concessions contract with California State Parks and operates in a tiny building between the two large parking lots near Steamer Lane. There are a few chairs and benches outside, where we enjoyed a salmon poke bowl, tuna quesadilla, kimchi hotdog, and housemade watermelon and ginger aqua fresca. Very environmentally-conscious, no plastic bottles, bags or packaged foods are used at Steamer Lane Supply.

We really wanted to dine at Assembly, but it’s closed on Monday and Tuesday. Assembly is part of the Glass Jar, a farm-to-table restaurant family founded in 2009 by Kendra Baker and Zachary Davis and dedicated to the nexus between sustainable food and community. In addition to Assembly, they have the Picnic Basket, where we picked up some tasty sandwiches and salads, and the Penny Ice Creamery, where flavors change with the seasons, and feature locally farmed and organic ingredients. Dan had the Earl of Grey; I had cardamom pistachio chocolate chip, and Talia enjoyed cookies n’ cream. One evening, we enjoyed happy hour at Hula’s Island Grill, a throwback to the popular tiki restaurants and bars of the ‘50’s and 60’s.

If you’re visiting Santa Cruz, check out Your family guide to Kids’ Activities or pick up a copy of Growing up in Santa Cruz: the publication for families in Santa Cruz County, a monthly, free publication with a calendar of events. We also got some great tips from our friend Michelle, who lives there and has two little ones herself. Two of her recommendations that we didn’t get to: the cement ship in Aptos and Junebug’s Gym in Santa Cruz. We’ll definitely be back!