California conjures up wildly divergent visions of what constitutes the perfect vacation. So, it wasn’t surprising that once our family boarded our flight to San Francisco, I discovered we all had very different ideas of what kind of vacation this would be.

With a bit of compromise (and a few rolls of quarters) we explored the coast from San Franciso to Santa Cruz tasting a sizeable sample of the California experience.

Set up Base Camp at the Seascape Beach Resort

From San Francisco, follow the coastline south on Highway 1 about 70 miles (113 km), just past Santa Cruz to Aptos, where Seascape Beach Resort serves as base camp.

Seascape is billed as a “casual” resort, with many units featuring kitchens, so you can stock up on wholesome groceries from New Leaf Community Market, order meals and drinks poolside, or eat at several on-site restaurants. The resort’s 17 mile (27 km) private beach is the perfect spot for some serious treasure hunting for the kids, as well as downtime for the grown-ups. Pack some snacks and plan to spend early mornings here.

Or send the kids and the spousal equivalent ahead, and book an in-room spa service. The signature bamboo massage will leave you deeply relaxed, and grateful your bed is a scant few steps away.

Santa Cruz’s Beach Boardwalk: Disneyland’s Cousin

Next, head less than ten miles (16 km) to Santa Cruz’s Beach Boardwalk . It may not be Disneyland, but to a five-year-old, it more than fits the bill, with a 1911 Loof Carousel (complete with brass rings), the Giant Dipper roller coaster (one of the world’s oldest), plus a plethora of kiddies’ rides and games. Tickets are $1.00 each, and rides run between three and five tickets.

Just don’t leave the resort without your roll of quarters. Meters here, and in towns throughout the region, require quarters, or a parking paycard (available from No credit cards accepted.

Explore Monterrey

Same deal for the meters in Monterey, 25 miles (40 km) along Highway 1, through verdant fields of artichokes, berries and all the produce you’ll be buying back home next week.  Make at pit stop at Phil’s Restaurant, just over 10 miles (16 km) out from Seascape. Entree portions are obscenely huge, enough for two normal appetites.

You’ll be glad you saved on lunch when you hit the shops and sights of Monterey. The $100 bill you drop for admission at the Monterey Bay Aquarium for a family of four seems steep, but proves well worth every cent, especially once you hit the blue, backlit jellyfish displays, conjuring up memories of hypnotic lava lamps.

Explore the Great Outdoors: Cowell Redwoods State Park

When the sun is too hot (or your quarters are spent), head north on Highway 9 about 20 miles (32 km) for a hike through the old growth redwood trees at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, sure to satisfy nature lovers and active kids alike. It’s also one of the best places to explore the geology, native plants and aquatic life of the San Lorenzo River.

Finish with a Stop in Felton

Stop in at Felton on your way back to see the largest covered bridge in the nation, and pick up a cup of Larry’s Famous Chai at The White Raven Coffee House.

This is a great town to linger in on your last day here, for its unique shops, coffee houses, and the Big Trees Narrow Gauge Railroad, which can take you via steam train through the Redwoods, to the Santa Cruz beach again—just in case your kids didn’t get their fill the first time around.

Photos by Scott Mucci, Adam Freidin, onecle, Craig Racicot/Monterey Bay Aquarium & courtesy of Roaring Camp Railroads