Q. Alan T. of Perth, Western Australia, is planning a month-long family vacation in California with his young children, and wants suggestions for the ideal itinerary.
A. Thank you for your interest in FTF’s custom trip planning service. Since you have the entire month of September for a California vacation with your 5 and 7-year-old children, we are happy to suggest an ideal family itinerary. As you’re visiting one of the largest states in the U.S., it will most certainly be a road trip; there’s no reason to fly within the state unless your children begin to hate being in a car.
We propose that you space out the long drives with several days at each stop so that does not happen!
Here’s the FTF Directory of feature articles about California but you’ll find even more stories (such as blogs) on the site.
A note: you have indicated that you are looking for hotels with children’s programs for this age group. Since you are traveling when most American children are in school, very few hotels will have a full schedule of children’s programs, though some will have weekend activities. Please keep these in mind as you review the family hotels we recommend, and call ahead if you want to be assured that you adults can have time to yourselves. Even if the camp is not in session, most hotels can arrange private childcare for you with advanced notice.
You also note that you’d like to eat well, and California is one of the best states for eating. With its famous chefs and farm-to-table style of preparation, plus famous vineyards, there are many excellent and well-priced places to try. As long as you’re happy to eat on the early side (between 6pm and 7:30pm) with the kids, most restaurants will be happy to seat the whole family and will produce a kids menu or half portions or special dishes on request.
You’ll also find that some of the best rural restaurants are in small inns where you can stay the night, so this is another great way to enjoy a superb meal and wine while the kids dine quickly, then go play in your guestroom. Try to book one or two of these (maybe in Sonoma region) during your stay. There’s a fantastic Michelin guide to what’s good now.
As for a suggested itinerary, here are our thoughts going south to north. Depending on which city you fly from Australia to (we know Qantas serves Los Angeles), you can do the route either way. We favor starting south a bit more, because the beaches will allow your kids to get acclimated to the time zone change, and recover from jet lag in the most relaxed way. (Beaches north of Santa Barbara tend to have rough water and too cold temperatures for kids to swim.)
We have given you some direct links to relevant content within this email, but once you’re on the site you will find more, especially about local hotels, depending on where your interests lead you.
Day 1-4: Arrive San Diego and spend 4 nights here, enjoying the city’s remarkable zoo, beach and local attractions.
(See FTF’s Guide to San Diego Family Attractions) Both the zoo and the Wild Animal Park (you can camp there with advance planning) are wonderful adventures that your kids, who you say are interested in eco-adventures, will really enjoy. In San Diego, the famous old Del Coranado Hotel and the Loews Coronado Bay have children’s activities and some of the other recommended hotels have programs, but you’ll have to confirm their schedule.
There is also a great SeaWorld marine park in San Diego, where your nature-minded kids should take a behind-the-scenes tour with their excellent guides. It will get them much closer to the animals and trainers, and teach them about conservation. They are too young for the whale encounter program, but we highly recommend that you try to fit in one of these more custom tours at least once during your visit to California, because there are many, many excellent ones.
Day 5-7: Anaheim area themeparks. You may allow more time if you want to make a daytrip to Legoland in Carlsbad, and another 1-2 days at Disneyland in Anaheim. (See FTF’s Guide to Anaheim Family Attractions) This timing depends on how interested your kids will be in themeparks, but southern California has some of the best in the world and most families don’t want to miss them. For an unusual hotel after Anaheim, consider a night on the Queen Mary ocean liner berthed in Long Beach. There are also many beach resorts along the coast going north, such as the Balboa Bay Club with its kids program.
Day 8-12: Los Angeles. There’s so much to do in this city, which is a combination of sophisticated culture and arts, wacky Hollywood memorabilia, celebrity watching and shopping, and great surfing beaches. (See our LA Family Attractions Guide) The Natural History Museum and La Brea Tar Pits may be most interesting for your children. Los Angeles has a few hotels in the beachfront Santa Monica area with children’s programs.
Day 13-16 – Take your time along the Pacific Coast Highway, one of America’s most famous road trips. Look at this suggested itinerary for the PCH.
and choose a few places you’d enjoy seeing more of, then book a roadside motel or B&B in one of the small towns you go through, as this will allow you to meet some local families.
Day 17-22 San Francisco. Again, many wonderful things to see with the kids in terms of famous sights, but not too much wildlife within the city.
(See FTF’s San Francisco Family Attractions Guide) However, it’s the best time of year for weather, so definitely buy cheap bleacher seats to a San Francisco Giants baseball game and enjoy their beautiful waterfront stadium.
If you don’t want to spend so many days here, you can settle up north around Point Reyes National Seashore or go straight to the Napa Valley and Sonoma Wine Country. (See Wine Country Family Attractions) A few of the recommended hotels have kids activities on the weekends, and most of the vineyards do too.
Day 23-24: As you move inland, the California terrain changes quickly, and the Lake Tahoe region and Yosemite National Park are some of the prettiest places to enjoy it. From San Francisco, drive east to Sacramento. Sightsee in the Sacramento Gold Country. (see Gold Rush Country Family Attractions Guide) where the kids can pan for gold and see what Old West towns looked like.
Day 25-27: From here, it’s about 200 miles to Yosemite – where you can spend a few days camping, hiking, biking and taking tours with National Park Rangers. (See FTF’s Guide to Yosemite in Summer) Their free Junior Ranger program involves kids in looking for animal tracks, making rope knots, etc. and is a great way to involved them in their parks’ visits. Ask at any of the parks — even the pier in San Francisco has a national monument sailing vessel, and you can also pick up a “passport” where they record their visits.
Day 27-28: Return to San Francisco for a day of shopping and a nice meal, then depart from SFO.
We know these are a lot of ideas to get you started, so please get back in touch and let us know what you decide to do, and how we can be of help!
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.