We just got back from our family trip to Santa Cruz and I had to sit down and jot down my thoughts. With a lot going on personally, we considered postponing this trip to a later date. We didn’t and it turns out, it’s exactly what we needed to reconnect as a family and let go of the stress of every day life for a few days. Tyler and I share a joint love of the ocean and we’ve definitely passed it down to our kids. Santa Cruz is the perfect place for a gang of ocean lovers.
In this guide you will find my recommendations on where to stay, where to eat, what to do, and where to shop; all with a “travel in 2021” disclaimer. Pandemic travel can feel tricky to navigate, especially with kids in tow, but I’m here to show you it is doable.
Where To Stay In Santa Cruz
Our stay with the Dream Inn was hosted but all opinions are my own.
The Dream Inn Santa Cruz is located on Cowell Beach, and just a short walk from the Santa Cruz Wharf and Boardwalk. It is the only hotel in Santa Cruz located right on the beach! Every room is ocean view, spacious and has a private balcony. The heated pool is just steps from the beach with amenities to make the transition between the two seamless. We had such an amazing time during our stay.
We were really enamored with all of the staff we came in contact with. I am empathetic to anyone who has worked in the service industry through the pandemic and understand how exhausted most people are right now. However, the staff at the Dream showed no signs of that. They were friendly, helpful and always smiling––even though we couldn’t see it with their masks, we could tell from their eyes, of course.
The pool was the boys’ favorite part, hands down. The weather was a little iffy when we first arrived but that didn’t stop them from enjoying the pool for hours on end. The heated pool is big enough to socially distance from others. The pool deck has plenty of lounge seating. Not to mention, the drink shack where you can order snacks and cocktails. So convenient!
On the southwest side of the pool deck there are stairs that lead downward to showers and a door to Cowell Beach. We spent hours each morning walking the beach, dipping our toes in the cold waves, and searching for seashells. It felt so surreal at times being the only ones out there in such a beautiful setting.
It was easy to schlep all of our beach supplies down there for the day, too. We hung out for hours running from waves and taking turns burying each other in the sand.
Every room at The Dream Inn has an ocean view and balcony. Our room was on the first floor so not only did we have a great view of the ocean and pool, but our balcony was bigger. I loved going out there each morning with a cup of coffee to listen to the waves.
Overall, we loved staying at The Dream Inn and we can’t wait to go back!
Where To Eat
If you are living in reality at all, you know that the restaurant experience is very different than it used to be, especially while traveling. For us, we quickly realized that we needed to plan ahead as just “dropping in” somewhere was a thing of the past––for example, some restaurants had varied hours or limited capacity. At one point we attempted to just “walk until we found something for breakfast” and ended up hangry, with sore legs.
At the very end of the Wharf is a tiny cafe that sells seafood and other fare out of a to go window. For entertainment, steps away from the restaurant are viewing holes where hundreds of sea lions lounge and bark at each other when it seemingly gets too peaceful. Tyler had multiple cups of clam chowder on this trip from different places and maintains The Dolphin does it best.
Ideal Bar & Grill
Ideal Bar & Grill is open for patio dining (as of this posting date). The heaters on the patio were clutch with the ocean breeze. The menu is a wide range of food and great for families with picky eaters (always a challenge when we dine out).
Jack O’Neill Restaurant
Located on the Dream Inn property, Jack O’Neill restaurant has sweeping views of the ocean from every seat. Their food is locally sourced and offers options for the whole family.
In-Room Dining At The Dream
We found the in-room dining experience so convenient (especially after our little breakfast blunder) and ordered in multiple times. Jack O’Neill handles all in-room orders so the menus between the restaurant and room service are very similar. One thing on the in-room menu that I didn’t see in the restaurant––mac and cheese balls. Anyone who knows me knows I love a mac and cheese ball. So good.
What To Do
There are so many no- or low-cost family-friendly activities in Santa Cruz. Here is a list of a few of our suggestions. Check out our video below for more details!
- Hunt for “treasures” on Cowell Beach
- Explore Downtown Santa Cruz
- Have a picnic on the lawn of the Surfing Museum after touring it
- Watch the surfers at Steamer Lane
- Find creatures in the tide pools at Natural Bridges State Park
- If the timing is right, hike Natural Bridges and see the Monarch butterflies
- Wake up early to walk the length of the wharf–less of a crowd and the sea lions are more active
- Climb on the whale at Seabright Beach
- Stroll around Capitola
- Bury your dad in the sand
- Family beach day
Other Things To Do in Santa Cruz
- The Boardwalk: Sadly, we didn’t get to experience the full extent of what The Boardwalk has to offer because we were there during the week. As of the posting of this, a portion of the rides are only open on the weekends and reservations must be made in advance.
- The Boardwalk Arcade: I’m just going to preface this with saying I don’t love an arcade. But my kids do. We gave them each a set number of dollars on their arcade card and I expected it to be gone within 20 minutes. Much to my surprise, the games weren’t as overpriced as I thought and they actually got hours of entertainment out of it.
- Buccaneer Bay Miniature Golf: Located on the Boardwalk, inside Neptune’s Kingdom, is a two-story pirate themed mini golf course. It is super cute and features animatronics that keep it interesting!
- Visit A Local Brewery: We recommend Humble Sea for a kid-friendly atmosphere and delicious beer.
Santa Cruz Shopping
Leaf & Vine
I found this adorable plant shop on Instagram prior to our trip and knew I had to take a trip there. It is so beautiful in person, with moss lined walls, mature, lush plants, and a wide variety to choose from. Truly a dream for any plant lady!
Bookshop Santa Cruz
The signage on the front of the store is caught my eye. Bookshop Santa Cruz is an independent bookstore in the heart of downtown. All of us had so much fun browsing the thousands of titles and gift section. You can even shop online!