There’s nothing like a little insider knowledge. We spend a good chunk of our summer in Northern California, where I grew up. Each year, I pick a few activities that I think my girls, aged 8, 9 and 11, would really enjoy. We do all kinds of things, from chilling out at the beach to whitewater rafting.
Going to No. Cal? Here are 12 of my recommendations of fun activities to do with children:
1. Get excited about science at the California Academy of Sciences. A combo natural history museum, planetarium, aquarium, research and education programmes all under one (living) roof. Its purpose is to engage all ages and backgrounds about life and its sustainability – two very important issues of our time. Have a butterfly land on your shoulder in a rainforest, experience an Earthquake or see proof that the earth spins with the Foucault Pendulum.
2. Explore the new Exploratorium in San Francisco. Though billed as a museum, it’s more of a sprawling thought-provoking experience! Think science meets art in pod-like stations (exhibits), where you meander from one to another to explore, create and tinker.
3. Shop in Union Square. Famous for attracting flagship stores, San Francisco’s Union Square boasts Uniqlo’s first West Coast store and Lush Cosmetics made it their first US location. This all adds to the coolness factor for my pre-teens. (Oh, and if you can afford it, stay at Four Seasons just for the views).
4. Ride the Ducks in San Francisco Bay. You certainly won’t be bored in this tour that makes use of former WWII DUKW vehicles (think a combo truck/bus/boat). In this 90-minute tour, a local “Captain” drives you through Chinatown, Embarcadero, Downtown, North Beach,and then right into the Bay! Kids (and adults) can steer the boat if so inclined! My girls loved the humour, funky music and duckbill–shaped kazoos.
5. Watch the Bay Lights. At dusk, the western span of the San Francisco Bay Bridge turns into an art installation with 25,000 dancing, pulsating and glittering LED lights. Designed by New York artist Leo Villareal, the computer-generated display shows non-repeating patterns of fish, clouds, fog, waves, cars and trucks, and it’s spectacular. Get a table at a local restaurant, or just bundle up and walk along the Embarcadeo Promenade or hangout out on Pier 7.
6. Taste wine while the kids swim. Want to get in the whole wine tasting thing, but worried the kids may be bored while you critique a Malbec? Well, your worries are over! The Francis Ford Coppola winery in Geyserville takes the California wine tasting experience to a whole new level. In addition to fabulous wine for adults, think swanky swimming pools to help keep the kids occupied.
7. Go whitewater rafting on the American River. Like skiing? Then you’ll love whitewater rafting. You essentially “surf” the whitewater rapids – and it can give you a major adrenaline rush. Rapids are classed by difficulty (1 = easy; 6 = not passable). The American River, near Sacramento, has nearly 200,000 visitors raft its rapids each season. It’s a short trip from San Francisco (2 and 1/4 hours) and on the way to Lake Tahoe, making it a perfect side trip or destination on its own.
8. Pan for gold in Gold Country. There’s something about gold that makes people dream. When it was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in 1848 in Coloma, it changed California forever. You can still try your luck at the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park (which is right by whitewater rafting, making a perfect day out). Good luck!
9. Stay in a yurt. Kids have to be at least six to do this one, but it’s just WOW. Treebones in Big Sur is a luxury cliffside resort just off the famous Highway 1 (which is a destination on its own). It’s like camping, without all the hassle.
10. Check out the Monterrey Bay Aquarium. Just a little further along Highway 1 is Monterey Bay. The Aquarium’s missions is to inspire conservation of Oceans, and it delivers in spades. Interactive exhibits and close up views of sea life entertain and intrigue.
11. Visit the Boardwalk and body board in Santa Cruz. We always stay at the Dream Inn where you can laze by the pool that overlooks Cowel beach and the working pier and boardwalk. Leave the car for a few days and ENJOY!
12. Geek out at the Tech Museum in San Jose. What a gem! Wow. I don’t usually rave about technology museums. They can be, erm, boring, conjuring up images of dusty mainframes, the first PC and maybe even an Apple II. Certainly kids would ask to leave as soon as you got there. But in Silicon Valley, the home of really cool geeky stuff, and The Tech is full of interactive hands-on exhibits utilising Silicon Valley’s most innovative technologies.
If you go:
California Academy of Sciences 55 Music Concourse Dr San Francisco, CA 94118 +1 (415) 379-8000 http://www.calacademy.org/
Dream Inn 175 W Cliff Dr Santa Cruz, CA 95060 +1 831-426-4330
Exploratorium 15/17 Pier San Francisco, CA 94111 +1 (415) 528-4444 www.exploratorium.edu
Monterey Bay Aquarium 886 Cannery Row, Monterey, CA 93940 +1 (831) 648-4800 www.montereybayaquarium.org
San Francisco Ride the Ducks 2766 Taylor St San Francisco, CA 94133 +1 (877) 887-8225 sanfrancisco.ridetheducks.com
Francis Ford Coppola Winery 300 Via Archimedes Geyserville, CA 95441 +1 (707) 857-1400 www.franciscoppolawinery.com
Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park 310 Back St Coloma, CA 95613 +1 (530) 622-3470 www.parks.ca.gov
Tributary Whitewater Tours 6400 California 49 Lotus, CA 95651 +1 (530) 346-6812 www.whitewatertours.com
Treebones Resort 71895 California 1 Big Sur, CA 93920 +1 (805) 927-2390 www.treebonesresort.com
The Tech Museum of Innovation 201 S Market St San Jose, CA 95113 +1 (408) 294-8324 www.thetech.org