The key to planning the perfect family beach vacation is to find a spot with something to please everyone. That can get tricky, but here are a few suggestions your family will love. You'll find places with safe amusements for toddlers, plenty of activity for the teens, and a dollop of rest & relaxation for mom and dad.
There are plenty of family friendly attractions in San Francisco, from riding cable cars to checking out such tourist favorites as Chinatown and Fisherman's Wharf. Take a bay cruise or seaplane tour, or rent bicycles and ride around the bay, the Presidio, or even across the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin County.
You could easily spend a whole day just cruising around Golden Gate Park. Rent a paddle boat, check out the museums, watch the bison, stroll through the gardens, or just let the kids play.
San Francisco beaches are great for strolling and taking in some stunning views. There are quite a few hiking trails, and at Fort Funston there's an observation deck where you can watch hang gliders soar off the cliffs.
Ocean Beach, at the end of Golden Gate Park, is exhilarating, and a great place for a stroll on the beach. But if you're looking for a swimming spot, China Cove or Aquatic Park are your best bets. Be warned, however, the water's cold year round, so you might prefer to rent a kayak and paddle around the bay.
Santa Cruz has something you won't find anywhere else on the West Coast - the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, a major seaside amusement park. This 96-year-old park features kiddie rides, games, arcades, laser tag, restaurants, miniature golf, bowling, and plenty of entertainment to wear out the entire family. Two of the rides are National Historic Landmarks: the Looff carousel, built in 1911 and the Giant Dipper wooden roller coaster, built in 1924.
Santa Cruz is a great little beach city, and if you want to learn to surf, you'll find gentle waves and a surfing school to help you. Expert surfers head out for the big waves.
You'll also find all the beach activities you'd expect: swimming, boogie boarding, wind surfing, beachcombing, fishing, volleyball, boat and kayak rentals, and more. There are miles of beach in the Santa Cruz area just waiting to be explored.
Roaring Camp Railroad is a fun way to see the redwoods in the Santa Cruz Mountains. You can take the train round trip from Santa Cruz to Roaring Camp and back.
The big attraction in Monterey is, of course, the world class Monterey Bay Aquarium. Petting a ray is a real hoot! (They feel like wet mushrooms.) Cannery Row is a fun place to browse, and Monterey has a great children's playground, Dennis the Menace Playground.
You can rent a kayak or go on a whale-watching cruise. Keep your eyes peeled for those adorable sea otters floating in the Bay.
For an unforgettable experience, take a guided horseback ride in Pebble Beach, where you'll find some of the most stunning scenery on the coast.
Huntington Beach and Newport Beach are great family beach vacation spots. You'll find long stretches of sandy beach, and more activities than you'll have time for on one short vacation.
Take surfing lessons in "Surf City" (Huntington Beach). Enjoy an evening bonfire right on the beach. Go rollerblading or bicycling, play beach volleyball, swim, fish, or listen to an outdoor summer concert.
For nature lovers, there are coastal wetlands in both cities, and for fun lovers, there's the Balboa Fun Zone in Newport Beach. You can enjoy rides and arcade games, or rent boats of all sorts to explore the quiet waters of Newport Harbor. For a bit of adventure, take a trip to the island of Santa Catalina, or board a whale-watching cruise.
Huntington Beach and Newport Beach are also close to many popular attractions, like the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, Knott's Theme Park in Buena Park, and Disneyland in Anaheim. (Even if you plan to spend a lot of time in Disneyland, consider staying in Huntington Beach. It's family-friendly, and so much nicer than Anaheim.)
There are so many possibilities for family fun in the San Diego area, it's hard to know where to start. You'll find numerous family-friendly beaches, and plenty of fun things to do. San Diego is the second largest city in California, but it feels a whole lot friendlier than that.
Moonlight State Beach in Encinitas features a playground for the kids, a snack bar, fire rings, beach volleyball, tennis courts, and restrooms.
Coronado boasts the fluffiest white sand beaches you're likely to find anywhere.
The calm waters of Mission Bay and San Diego Bay offer a host of recreational opportunities. You'll find boat and kayak rentals, bay cruises and whale-watching excursions, bicycle rentals and miles of trails.
Attractions in the San Diego area are many and varied. Popular family choices include Legoland (in Carlsbad), SeaWorld, the San Diego Zoo, historic Old Town, and Balboa Park.