My husband and I are trying to squeeze a lot of family travel into our lives, since our firstborn son will be going away to college soon. That prompted us to take a trip to Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon and then took us on a road trip from San Francisco to Yosemite and back along the Northern California coast this past summer. For nine days Ryan, aged 16, and his brother, Jared, 10, were stuck with us 24/7, sometimes in one hotel room. And we survived to tell the tale.
Actually, everyone got along great and even our teen, who would rather sleep till noon when allowed, got up early to explore, sightsee and even hike. Miracles never do cease.
First Stop: San Francisco
We started our trip arriving to sun in San Francisco on a late August morning — the only day we really saw sun in the city. We soon learned that we had left summer weather behind on the East Coast. The locals are used to it (their warm weather arrives in September and October) and everyone you meet gleefully recites the quote attributed to Mark Twain, “The coldest winter I ever spent was the summer I spent in San Francisco.”
Our first mission was to find the BART public transit station at the San Francisco Airport. We made it to the Handlery Union Square Hotel (415/781-7800) on Geary Street just fine and were excited to see that the area was a hotspot for shopping, restaurants and people watching. We chose the Handlery because of its central location and the fact that it’s one of the few hotels with a heated outdoor pool (perfect, we thought, with the boys.) Nice pool, but we didn’t make as much use of it as we had hoped.
After we settled into our luxurious room, our first stop was the Cartoon Art Museum (415/227-8666)–fun for my comic-loving kids.
Next, we took a trolley to the famed Lombard Street, the world’s “crookedest street.” Though many drive down it, we hoofed it, both up and down to get the true effect. The homes and flowers on Lombard were beautiful and so was the view of the bay. Even the jaded teenager thought it was pretty cool since we don’t have steep streets like that in Manhattan.
We were determined to get onto one of the famous cable cars, which pass in both directions right by the top of Lombard Street, but they were so crowded, we had to let several go by until we found one we could squeeze onto. If you’re lucky, your kids can hang onto the sides and get a unique San Francisco experience. Just hold on tight!
Imprison the Kids at Alcatraz
One San Francisco highlight was the tour of Alcatraz (415/561-4900), which combines a boat ride, museum, and historic site all in one. Arriving on a foggy, cold morning made the deserted prison even more desolate. It’s a harsh reality for kids to try to imagine anyone ever being a prisoner in those dank cells, occasionally looking out barred windows at the sparkling city of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge, and freedom so close by.
Headphones are a must on this tour to fill you in on all the educational facts and fascinating trivia about the former prisoners, their conditions, and the tales of gun battles and prison riots over the cafeteria’s lousy spaghetti sauce. And of course, no trip is complete unless you take photos of your kids behind bars in an actual cell. Then when you get home, rent “The Rock” to see a prison movie filmed on the actual island.
For lunch, we headed to the recently renovated historic Ferry Building on the waterfront. There you can find dozens of vendors under the soaring interior selling a variety of expensive, fancy food and accessories. If you’re lucky, they’ll be handing out samples. We ate at the popular Gotts Roadside (formerly Taylor’s Refresher) with a friend who’s a local. Her advice: go early before the business crowds arrive. By the time we finished our delicious burgers and salads, the line snaked out the door.
Cycle Tour Across the Golden Gate Bridge
Another highlight of our trip was an afternoon bike ride. The trail from the Fisherhman’s Wharf area (tacky but fun) winds along the waterfront, past marinas, great views of the bridge, and the Exploratorium (415/397-5673). Unfortunately we didn’t have time to stop at this museum of hands-on science, but it is lots of fun, especially with younger children.
We did take a break to ride around the adjacent Palace of Fine Arts (415/567-6642), a structure that looks like an ancient Roman ruin, designed for the 1915 World’s Fair. If you find a spot with no tourists and sit watching the columns reflected in the nearby lake, you’ll feel transported to another, past world.
However, this is no ride for those without stamina. I almost gave up on the last leg when I saw the pathway high above us and knew I had to ride all the way up to get onto the bridge. Somehow I made it (going home is downhill) and it was worth it. Lucky for us the summer fog lifted for the late afternoon and we did have a clear view of the city, Alcatraz, and the Bay Bridge in the distance. Just don’t look down.
Evening in Chinatown
That night, we strolled from Union Square to the colorful Chinatown (a smaller version of what we have in New York). We ended up in a Japanese restaurant called Sushi Boat (700 Grant Ave.) that’s great fun for kids. Plates of sushi actually float by on a little water canal and you choose what you want from the passing fare. You can also order from the sushi chef who stands in the middle island. My kids got a kick out of seeing what they wanted before ordering it and thus were more adventurous than usual.
While you’re in Chinatown, stop by the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory (56 Ross Alley, between Stockton and Grant). Down an inconspicuous alley, in a tiny store, past a clutter of boxes of flour, you’ll find several women wrapping disks of warm, still-soft cookie around slips of paper. You’ll get free samples of the rejects and can buy bags of the crunchy cookies for a late-night snack or your plane ride home.
And, of course, while you’re in San Francisco you have to make the requisite stop for an expensive hot fudge sundae near the Fisherman’s Wharf at the famed Ghirardelli’s (415/775-5500). My advice: stop by the information booth in Ghiradelli Square and ask for free chocolate samples. No one had asked the day we were there so they gave us lots.
North to Yosemite
Now for the relatively boring part of the trip: a 4 ½ hour drive to Yosemite. Some nice landscape, but basically a good time for the kids to watch a movie on their portable DVD player. And even when you think you’re almost there and you’re finally in the park, it’s still a long drive to get to the hotels, but well worth the trip.
I recommend staying right in the park even though your options are limited. Basically there are glorified tents at Curry Village, upscale rooms at the Ahwahnee, and the hotel of choice for many families, Yosemite Lodge at the Falls (559/253-5635).
Don’t despair if you didn’t make your reservation a year in advance, as some advise. There are cancellations all the time, so check the website daily once you know your travel dates. We booked a great poolside room with two full beds at Yosemite Lodge — less than two months before our trip — after only a couple of days searching. The hotel offers somewhat rustic, but very clean and convenient lodging. They have even added TVs at the request of many guests. At the end of a long day hiking and biking, it was actually appreciated.
Yosemite Lodge has a great location right across the street from lower Yosemite Falls where there are beautiful views and nice hikes. It’s also fun to watch the climbers climb what seems like a sheer rock wall and wonder how they do it.
There’s a huge pool the kids will love, and bike rentals on site. Even dinner in the cafeteria-like restaurant is fun because everyone can choose what they want from soup to chili, sandwiches or more. There’s also a nicer restaurant on the premises, the Mountain Room, with good food and waterfall views (advance reservations required 559/252-4848).
Be sure to check out the nightly schedule of free, ranger-led talks at the outdoor area at Yosemite Lodge. We heard talks about taking photos at Yosemite and saw a fascinating slide show about climbing Yosemite’s El Capitan, one of the largest exposed granite monoliths in the world. (It made me real happy I didn’t have to spend the night sleeping on a little ledge 3,000 feet above the ground.) To find the many ranger-led talks, campfires, sing-alongs, and art classes, check the weekly schedule in the free newsletter you’re given upon entrance to the park.
Exploring the Yosemite Trails
Our best adventure in Yosemite was to the Vernal Falls Mist Trail. It’s a good idea to start early in the morning to beat the crowds. Once you climb high the trail tends to get steep and wet from the falls’ mist. Some people bring rain ponchos for this part of the journey, but if the weather’s warm (and it’s much more like summer here than in San Francisco), the spray simply cools you off. Be sure to hold tightly to children here and wear hiking shoes – sneakers or sandals could cause you to slip.
The most breathtaking view at Vernal Falls is catching rainbows in the waterfall’s mist. You keep thinking you’ve seen the best view and then you climb a little higher and it gets even better. This is truly Mother Nature at her best.
When you get to the top there are great places to rest for the hike back down so bring snacks and water for an energy boost. We decided to take another way down that was not as interesting or well marked. In fact, we weren’t sure we were even going the right way, and were just contemplating turning back till we met a family with a GPS tracking system who told us we were on the right path (thank God for electronics).
Once we made it to the bottom, we were famished. The nearest spot for food was a busride away at Curry Village where you can find pizza, hamburgers and other fast food. Then we did one last hike for the day to Mirror Lake. Don’t forget your bathing suits and towels. Even in August, the water was freezing, but it was a refreshing and beautiful break.
Visiting the Great Sequoias
Our last morning, we left Yosemite National Park via the Wawona Road or Highway #41 towards the South park entrance so we could take a Big Trees Tram Tour (reservations recommended, 209/375-1621). This company features the giant Sequoias at the Mariposa Grove and it was well worth the hour’s drive.
The open-air tram takes you to see all the largest trees and gives you a fascinating tour with history and fun facts that you wouldn’t find out on your own. There are great photo ops of these magnificant natural wonders that are some of the world’s oldest and largest trees. Our favorite: the Grizzly Giant, almost 3,000-years-old and 96-feet around at the base.
Monterey and the Pacific Coast
For the next part of our trip, we had another long, four-plus-hour drive to get to the coastline. In Monterey we stayed at the Holiday Inn Express Marina (831/884-2500), a convenient entry point to the area. Added features were a great buffet breakfast as part of the daily rates, and a lovely hot tub to warm up in after the cold coastal mist.
The area’s highlight — for kids and many adults — is the celebrated Monterey Bay Aquarium (831/648-4800), one of the oldest in the nation. It is located in a converted cannery and had a truly amazing exhibit called “Jellies: Living Art.” I never thought of jellyfish as works of art before, but they really are colorful, fascinating, and beautiful. Also fun were the hands-on stations where you can touch a variety of fish and sea creatures.
Monterey’s Cannery Row is an adjacent area filled with touristy gift shops, ice cream parlors and restaurants. (Yes, there’s a Starbucks, too.) To see the area, park the car. You can ride a local trolley, rent bikes, or even take a kayak out for a waterside tour all better options with active kids.
If seafood’s your love, head to the nearby Fisherman’s Wharf for a true outdoor seafood buffet. We did what one guidebook suggested and taste-tested our way down the pier. Dozens of restaurants compete for your business, offering free samples of their clam chowder claiming it’s “The Best.” If you’re not full by the time you reach the end, choose your favorite and order a sourdough bread bowl filled with the delicious stuff, or choose an order of shrimp, oysters or clams. If seafood’s not your thing, you may want to go elsewhere.
A Hotel Find: The Asilomar
Our next night we stayed at a find of a hotel, Asilomar. Originally a YWCA camp and conference center opened in 1913, this large resort is situated in Pacific Grove along the ocean, and hosts many conferences, family reunions, and retreats. Just recently it began expanding its regular tourist traffic and I highly recommend it, especially if you’re traveling with a group.
You can take a self-guided tour around its many buildings designed in the Arts & Crafts style of architecture, stroll along the private beachside boardwalk, or swim in an outdoor lap pool. More rustic than the usual chain hotel, it reminded me of a cross between my college dorm and summer camp. We loved it for its differentness.
One evening we went to the nearby Fishwife (831/375-7107), a great fish restaurant with a Caribbean accent. It’s within walking distance of Asilomar but popular with locals, too, so you will have to make an advance reservation or risk a long wait. Afterwards, we hung out in the hotel’s cozy main lodge where people sat by the fireplace, worked on computers, or played pool or ping-pong. Then we retired to the building where our room was located and built our own fire in one of the meeting room fireplaces. Instead of ending the day to a silly cartoon or reality show – there are no TVs in the rooms to my kids’ horror — we actually sat by the fire and read for a change.
Breakfast was served family style with delicious fresh-squeezed orange juice, hot oatmeal with a huge bowl of raisins and brown sugar, or eggs, biscuits and more–there’s an option to include it in the reasonable room rates.
Santa Cruz and San Mateo
When driving North back towards San Francisco, it won’t take much to convince your kids to stop in Santa Cruz, a laid-back California college town with miles of beaches that’s a surfer’s delight. The highlight for kids here is the boardwalk, a Coney Island-like amusement park with bumper cars, an old wooden roller coaster and haunted house. Buy a strip of tickets and let the kids have some old-fashioned fun, complete with cotton candy and corn dogs.
Unfortunately we weren’t there on a summer Friday night when there are concerts on the beach. There’s also a nearby surfing museum and one of the last drive-in movie theaters in the state (free for kids under 12), complete with car heaters if the weather’s nippy.
Then it was almost time to go. Our last stop was the San Mateo Marriott, chosen for its convenient location to the San Francisco Airport. We were pleasantly surprised at how nice it was, not just an “airport” hotel.
The San Mateo Marriott had a sizable pool and exercise room, plus a great concierge lounge that advertises Heavy Hors d’Oeuvres. They weren’t kidding — you could eat a meal out of them. Even the Late Night Snack service provided us with giant candy bars, a real hit with the kids. Breakfast was a choice of bagels and lox, bacon and eggs or lots more. And the beds and linens were so luxurious we were sorry to leave them behind to head to the airport.
The best thing about these vacations is the time we get to spend together as a family, especially seeing our kids away from their friends and unplugged from computers, cell phones, and most electronics (though gagdgets and electronics do save the day for long stretches of driving).
All in all, California was a big hit with our family. The best part is that there’s still so much left to do that even the boys agree we’ll have to come back and visit again.
Bethany’s Travel Tips & FAQs
When to Go: If you’re going to northern California in July or August, be preprared for cold and damp weather. Forget those cute shorts; pack lots of layers and an outer jacket or fleece.
Getting Around: San Francisco’s BART transportation system is a great deal. From the airport, it’s not a problem unless you have tons of luggage, since you have to cart it up and down escalators, elevators, along platforms and then on the street to your hotel. But at $5.15 a person from the airport station, it’s a lot cheaper than a cab (about $37, toll and tip to Union Square) and was a fun adventure, especially for families not from cities with such mass transportation.
Savings Coupons & Discount Cards: If you’re in San Francisco for several days and plan to visit lots of museums, you may want to check out the Smart Destinations Card. Starting at around $58/adult and $49/child (for one-seven day increments) it gives you free entrée to 31 top attractions including theAquarium of the Bay, California Academy of Sciences and Golden Gate Bay Cruise among others.
There’s also the City Pass, priced at $86/adult, $64/children, with the option for seven consecutive days of unlimited cable car rides and admission to the California Academy of Seicnes, Exploratorium, Blue and Gold Fleet Bay Cruise and more.
Must Dos & Must Sees: Is a cable car ride a must? Yes. We learned that the lines are even longer down at the waterfront than around Lombard Street. Some people wait an hour or more for a ride at the terminal near Fisherman’s Wharf, where there are street entertainers to help the time pass. But the secret is to hop on somewhere along the Powell & Lombard Streets route, especially early and late in the day when the tourists aren’t out in droves.
Alcatraz, too, is busy and is in fact the city’s most visited attraction. You’ll need advance reservations to get the day and time you want; make them online before you leave home. My advice is to go on the earliest boat you can so you have the rest of the day to explore the adjacent Fisherman’s Wharf. Expect to spend at least three hours for the entire excursion.
Our bicycle ride is a lasting memory that may be most appropriate for children ages 8+. (I’d recommend a bicycle-built-for-two with younger kids, so Mom or Dad does most of the work.) It is a little disconcerting to ride on the bridge’s narrow pathway with traffic rushing past on your left — and the icy water down below on your right — and people on foot coming at you in both directions. I did feel safer on the parts of the bridge with high fencing. (My kids would say I’m a sissy, but I prefer to think of it as a safety-minded Mom.)
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