Harbor seals, sea otters, and egrets aplenty await where the land meets Morro Bay on California’s scenic Central Coast. Just under 4 hours south of San Francisco or north of Los Angeles by car, what was once a remote fishing village offers families an ...
Harbor seals, sea otters, and egrets aplenty await where the land meets Morro Bay on California’s scenic Central Coast. Just under 4 hours south of San Francisco or north of Los Angeles by car, what was once a remote fishing village offers families an ideal combination of nature and recreation, and without the crowds and exorbitant price tags that come with many California beach towns (shhhh). While the scenery is hard to top and dock-to-dish dining options abound, Morro Bay also registers high on my family-friendliness-ometer for some very practical reasons: available free street parking, abundant public restrooms, and great walkability. All together, it’s what a great coastal family destination should be. When you get there, and I hope you do, here are 4 great ways to experience Morro Bay with kids, along with recommendations for 1 great place to eat and 1 great place to stay while you are there.
1. Get Your Bearings at Morro Bay Natural History Museum
Morro Bay has the only California state park with a Museum of Natural History, and it happens to be FREE for kids up to 17 years old and is only $3 for adults—which might lead you to believe there’s not a whole lot there to see. To the contrary, I was quite surprised to find room after room of interactive exhibits and viewing areas that gave a fantastic overview of the natural forces shaping the landscape of the area and the marvelous creatures that call it home. It’s a great place to start your visit to Morro Bay with kids (or even without) and will especially help you identify many of the bird species you are bound to see and get the lay of the land. There is also excellent viewing of the bay from the museum’s lofty vantage point–keep an eye out as you never know what kinds of critters you might spot. Find out more: www.facebook.com/MBMuseum.of.Natural.History
2. Visit the rock—and sea otters, and hermit crabs…
A surprising number of visitors to Morro Bay are satisfied to enjoy Morro Rock as the photogenic landmark that it is as viewed from throughout the town. I encourage you to not be one of them. A visit out to the rock itself is easy enough and free—and may just prove to be your kids’ favorite highlight of your trip to Morro Bay. Forged as a “volcanic plug” twenty million years ago, Morro Rock is now an ecological reserve and home to numerous nesting birds as you’ll see when you walk the short trail from the parking area out to its south-facing side (stay left), where weather-worn pocks … and of the 200 peregrine falcon nesting sites in California, Morro Rock is home to two. Here’s a little peek at Morro Rock from my Facebook live video:
But don’t stop there. As you can see in the video, the beach below Morro Rock’s south side has foot-friendly sand and enormous boulders that make the perfect setting for some serious hide-and-seek (or hide-and-ambush, as my kids prefer). As you get closer to the beach’s end, the rocky jetty that juts to the left helps shelter this part of the beach from ocean wind, and there you’ll find more rocks and smaller pools that form between them when the tide is low—leaving many hermit crabs to be found. But one of the best reasons to venture out to the rock is for your best chances of viewing (and photographing) the adorable sea otters that favor this part of Morro Bay and often spend their midday slumber “rafting” in this area (the otters’ way of latching on to each other for safety while resting). Make sure to tell the kids you need to keep your distance and use very soft voices when observing these protected creatures.
Tip: For an even more memorable family visit out to Morro Rock, go by Surrey Bike! We picked up a four-pedal surrey (seated 5 of us just fine) from nearby Farmer’s Kites & Surryes and laughed our whole way there pedaling out along the bike path toward the rock—and giggled fantastically as we parked our “surrey with the fringe on top” right alongside the other cars in the area nearest the resting sea otters. Regular bike rentals are available, too. Find out more: Farmer’s Kites & Surryes
3. Kayak Morro Bay
More than 250 species of birds—including land, sea, and shore birds—frequent the Morro Bay Estuary Natural Preserve and its 800-acre wetland. Paddling along quietly in your kayaks, you will have some of the best opportunities to see the herons, cormorants, egrets, and other feathered residents of this protected region, especially on a guided tour with Central Coast Outdoors that will take you to the best viewing locations on the water and at the shore’s edge, and teach you all about their lifestyles and life cycles.
Pssst! Don’t miss the map of our Morro Bay recommendations and pinnable at the end of this feature.
Keep your eyes peeled for harbor seals as well along the way. If conditions are right, you may also have the chance to paddle the “back bay” where we had the good fortune to paddle by several harbor seals snoozing on a sleepy “haul out” they favor in this quieter part of the bay. Central Coast Outdoors has several paddling tours available, including 1.5- to 2-hour family-friendly short paddles, half-day tours, sunset paddles, and private tour options (great for families and those with wee travelers). Find out more: www.centralcoastoutdoors.com
4. Hike Black Hill
As you drive up and up through the Morro Bay Golf Course toward the Black Hill trail head, you might wonder just how much of a hike there will be left once you reach it. Though the view from the staging area is impressive already, the 3-mile round trip hike up through coastal pines, brush, and wildflowers will gain you another 600+ feet in elevation, and earn you a spectacular 360-degree view of Morro Bay and its neighbors once you reach the top of Black Hill. For us, it was the perfect way to end our visit to Morro Bay, looking out at the places we had played, kayaked, bicycled, and dined during our visit, and getting our legs well-stretched before the drive to Los Angeles. Find out more: http://morrobay.org/things-to-do/outdoors/black-hill
1 Great Place to Eat: Tognazzini’s Dockside
If you like extremely fresh seafood that’s sustainably harvested by small fleets–whose boats dock within a mere block or two from where you sit, you will love dining in Morro Bay. And Tognazzini’s Dockside restaurant, as it happens, is owned by a commercial fisherman whose fishing operation and fresh fish market are right next to the restaurant. The casual atmosphere at “Dockside” puts families at ease and kids menu options ensure everyone will be happy here, even as mom rolls her eyes back in ecstasy over one of the day’s specials: halibut cheeks piccata. But don’t kid yourself–no matter how full you think you are after dinner, you will find room for dessert when you first lay eyes on that strawberry-banana chimichanga, and I say go for it. You’ll need something to occupy you while the kids enjoy making at-table s’mores anyway. Find out more: www.morrobaydockside.com
1 Great Place to Stay: Inn at Morro Bay
Bird lover’s will especially delight in The Inn at Morro Bay’s location–adjacent to the heron and egret rookery (for optimal viewing, go down to the inn’s large waterside deck that ends right at the edge of the rookery, and bring your binoculars). Our king room with queen sofa bed was plenty spacious to also fit a rollaway (extra fee), as well, and we still had room for the five of us to stretch. Flipping on the fireplace in the evenings was also a special treat once we could finally get the kids out of the courtyard swimming pool and Jacuzzi. Note that the rooms have mini refrigerators and coffeemakers, but just showers and no bath tubs. I leave it up to you whether or not to reveal the 32″ flatscreen TV concealed behind the panels above the fireplace.
The Inn at Morro Bay’s on-site restaurant, 60 State Restaurant, serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner with extraordinary views of the bay (I took the lead photo from their outdoor dining patio before breakfast one morning). While they don’t offer a children’s menu, there are plenty of breakfast items so suit–just be warned that an order of “pancakes” turned out to be three fluffy plate-sized pancakes that could have easily fed all three kids, but I heard no complaints from my crew as I myself delighted in the spinach eggs Benedict (full menu available on website). Find out more: www.innatmorrobay.com
Listen as the clip-clop of hooves on antebellum cobblestone give way to a riverfront sax player’s solo, while the savory notes of jambalaya and freshly baked French bread tickle your nose. Parked on the shores of the raging Mississippi, “NOLA” grants visitors an authentic Southern experience, right down to the refreshing mint juleps and fragrant magnolia trees.
From thrilling swamp tours to swapping French Quarter ghost stories, and devouring poboys stuffed with tender gulf oysters, there is no shortage of unique, family-friendly activities in the Crescent City. If you’re heading to New Orleans with kids, here are my top 4 recommended activities along with 1 great place to eat and 1 great place to stay while there.
Activity 1: Ride the St. Charles Streetcar
The St. Charles streetcar, the oldest continuously operating streetcar line in the world, is a great way to get out of the French Quarter and explore the southern charm of the Garden District. Purchase a one-day Jazzy Pass for three dollars and hop on and off the streetcar at will along the 13-mile round trip route.
Its dark-stained mahogany benches with polished brass fixtures offer riders a stately seat from which they can meander past posh antebellum mansions, budding botanical gardens, and delectable eateries. Notable stops along the way include the Civil War Museum, the Audubon Zoological Gardens, and the Lafeyette Cemetery #1. Find out more: http://www.neworleansonline.com/tools/transportation/gettingaround/streetcars.html
Tip: During your St. Charles streetcar ride, don’t forget to look up. You’ll see signs of Mardi Gras past hanging from every limb of the Great Oak trees; Mardi Gras beads.
Activity 2: Climb Ancient Oaks in City Park
New Orleans’ City Park boasts 1,300 acres of enchanted outdoor space smack dab in the heart of the city. The 7th-most-visited urban park in the United States is a veritable kid mecca where you can lounge next to fairy tale ponds surrounded by a canopy of trees dripping with southern moss, watching swans elegantly glide by.
Get the lay of the land by hopping aboard City Park’s historic train for a ride around the blossoming botanical gardens or rent a paddle boat and explore the flora and fauna along the banks of Big Lake. With feet back on solid ground, head to the park’s old Casino building and set little climbers free on ancient Oaks, then chow down on piping hot beignets, lakeside. Find out more: www.neworleanscitypark.com
Tip: Be sure the check the City Park online events calendar to get the scoop on numerous outdoor musical performances happening during the Spring and Summer seasons.
Activity 3: Eat Beignets at Cafe Du Monde
Spring, Summer, Winter, or Fall, there’s nothing else more inherently New Orleans than a piping hot beignet covered in a hill of powdered sugar deliciousness, and there’s no other location more authentic to treat yourself to said delight than Cafe Du Monde in the French Quarter. This iconic New Orleans cafe has been serving locals and tourists alike, their fill of cafe au laits, coffee with chicory, and beignets since 1862.
Open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Cafe Du Monde serves Louisiana’s state doughnut made fresh to order without much fanfare, but just trust us, the taste makes up what is lacking in flair. If you think you might not be able to live without beignets once back home, buy a box, or ten, of their beignet mix, and enjoy a bite of New Orleans anytime you get the urge. Find out more: www.cafedumonde.com
Tip: Cafe Du Monde has no hostess and seating is first come, first served. The locals have developed a hover-and-plant approach, so if you spot a table that seems almost done, just hover near them, then plant yourself in their seat as soon as they vacate.
Activity 4: Step Back in Time at Houmas House Plantation
Named “The Crown Jewel of Louisiana’s River Road,” Houmas House Plantation and Gardens offers visitors an opportunity to experience the grandeur of sugar barons past. Voted Best Historic Mansion in the USA Today Reader’s Choice Awards, it was once described as “The Sugar Palace” and was, at one time, the largest producer of sugar in the country, turning out an astounding 20 million pounds of sugar a year.
What remains is a 38-acre glimpse into pre-Civil War southern life. After your tour, step back and enjoy the slow creak of a rocking chair, sip a fresh Mint Julep while the gentle breeze rolls off the Mississippi to cool your perspiring brow. If time allows, treat your taste buds to a 10-course dinner at Latil’s Landing, one of the Top 20 Restaurants in America, then burn off some calories by strolling through one of four inviting gardens. Find out more: www.houmashouse.com
Tip: For a bird’s eye view of the gardens, head to the Tea House at Mount Houmas, and whether or not you partake in adult refreshments, pop into the Turtle Bar to see this uniquely renovated garcionarre.
1 Great Place to Stay: Omni Royal Orleans
The Omni Royal Orleans is a 345-room, 4-Diamond AAA-rated hotel located in the heart of the famous French Quarter. Accommodations include standard guest rooms, suites, and luxury suites, befitting families of all sizes, and include complimentary access to a state-of-the-art fitness center and a rooftop, outdoor heated pool with views of the French Quarter and the Mississippi River.
At check-in, Omni Royal Orleans’ youngest guests are welcomed with an Omni Kid Crew backpack filled with mini-explorer necessities like binoculars, crayons, activity book with stickers, and other goodies to keep young minds active. And when you head downstairs to the Rib Room to gorge on exquisite French rotisseries and prime cuts, make sure to say hello to Dalton, their maitre d’ who has been proudly hosting foodies at this historic restaurant for more than 50 years. Find out more: Omni Royal Orleans
1 Great Place to Eat: Acme Oyster House
Give kids their first oyster experience at a New Orleans institution that’s been serving up fresh seafood fare since 1910. An oyster lover’s paradise, you can have these nuggets of the sea any style: oyster shooters, raw, charbroiled, rockefeller, or fried and stuffed poboy-style in the middle of crispy French bread.
Acme Oyster House’s no-frills, hole-in-the-wall vibe makes it the perfect kid-friendly atmosphere where you’ll dine with locals eager to advise you on all the best kept secrets of their special town. And don’t fret, for those who haven’t quite acquired the briny taste for oyster, there’s plenty of Cajun and creole delights to please your palate. Find out more: Acme Oyster House
Road trips. One of the most cost-effective and flexible ways for a family to travel, they can also create enough memories to fill volumes of scrapbooks. But, if there’s anything we learned from the Grizwold family in the movie National Lampoon’s Vacation, is a little advance planning can avoid a few bumps along the way. Over countless hours and miles on the road, here are ten items we have learned to never travel without on a road trip with kids.
1. Sports Equipment
If you resonate with the expression, “the journey is the destination,” your road trip style may be to take the back roads, stop at roadside attractions, and take the occasional detour. Slow, explorative travel is fantastic for families, as adults and kids need regular breaks to stay alert and interested in the local scenery.
Rest stops and parks present an excellent opportunity to do just that while tossing a Frisbee, kicking a soccer ball, or shooting some hoops. At a minimum, we always carry a tennis ball, so the dog can join us in an impromptu game of fetch.
2. Trivia Questions/Cards
When your last nerve can’t handle another “Are we there yet?,” break out a pack of Beat the Parents trivia cards. As the name implies, kids ask parents more challenging questions while they receive elementary-age questions of a similar nature. The team with the most number of correct answers wins the game.
We like trivia cards (vs. trivia games) because they eliminate the risk of miniature game pieces falling into air vents and door jams. However, you can always extract the box of questions from, say, the game of Trivial Pursuit and return it to the game at the end of your trip.
3. Travel Pillows
When it comes to a cross-country adventure, travel pillows are a necessity for staying comfortable and power-napping as a passenger. We recently discovered this adjustable travel pillow with a belt strap that secures around your neck or back for sleeping and lumbar support (also good for driving).
As a bonus, the removable pillowcase can be removed and tossed into the washing machine. Tip: In colder months and climates, we also bring a few comfortable blankets and pass them around the car as needed.
4. Car Window Shades
If the mid-day sun is making travel hot and uncomfortable for passengers, a blanket or beach towel can be rolled up into a window to help create shade. However, when our kids were young enough to nap in the car, we used car window shades specifically designed to prevent sun glare and help block harmful UV rays. There’s no reason the family with older kids (or no kids at all) can’t take advantage of the same helpful products–especially when they lend better visibility than the old beach towel!
5. Paper Map/ Road Atlas
As the saying goes, Ain’t no school like the old school! Call me a fuddy-duddy, but believe there is merit in teaching kids to navigate with a paper map as a companion to using technology like Google Maps or a vehicle’s built-in automobile navigation system (and certainly as a backup when technology fails).
Not only does reading map help passengers orient themselves to the topography, it fosters curiosity about possible trip excursions and detours. Most US states offer free state maps at official welcome stations. We love the Rand McNally Best of the Road Atlas & Guide for the city insets and themed itineraries at the front of the book.
6. Ample Supply of Snacks
One of the biggest vacation expenses is feeding your family on the go. We’ve found a bit of advance planning and expert packing can help avoid impulse purchases from convenience stores and fast food drive through windows.
If heading out for more than a long weekend, we make a run to Costco or Sam’s Club a few days before the start of a trip (tip: travel with your membership card(s) and replenish on the road). Shop for non-perishable items you know your kids will eat, splurging for some special treats. If you’re short on shopping time, you can have Amazon deliver a healthy snack bundle (as shown).
And when it comes to washing down said snacks, traveling with a reusable water bottle also cuts down on bottled water purchases and helps foster a mindset of environmental responsibility. We invested in a set of Klean Kanteen stainless steel water bottles years ago and they’re still going strong.
7. Books on CD or Audio Books
This suggestion is for anyone who has ever traveled on long stretches of the open road with two or fewer radio stations. Available to check out or download from most public libraries, audio books can both save your sanity and increase your overall family literacy.
Subscription-based services like Audible.com and Kindle Audio Books are popular alternatives to the public library. Popular with commuters, podcast downloads can fill several hours of empty airtime on your next mega trip.
8. Gallon Size Ice Cream Pail with Lid
From the emergency potty to motion sickness receptacle, never underestimate the utility of the common gallon ice cream pail. And, when it comes to pail selection, a sturdy, locking lid will be the most important design consideration.
Beyond collecting bodily fluids, we’ve used ice cream buckets for spontaneous sand castle building and to carry home shell souvenirs. As a bonus, you first need to consume a gallon of ice cream! You may even want one bucket for every passenger in your car (stacked together for easy storage). Click here for a ready-to-go set of 5.
9. First Aid Kit
From legitimate emergencies to the occasional skinned knee, we feel every family should stock a first aid kit in their vehicle’s trunk or glove box. The most commonly used items in our family are crushable ice packs, tweezers, and scissors, but we like a kit with rubber gloves and mouth guards to protect everyone during CPR.
Jumper cables are a must for anyone living in, or traveling through, a cold climate. A battery powered jump starter, however, is an excellent choice for anyone traveling to a remote location where they may not have access to a hot battery.
When we lived in Minnesota, a battery powered jump starter came to our rescue more than once in our own garage. A variety of choices are available in different price ranges, charging capacity, and durability. This is one purchase where you may want to read the customer reviews and consult your trusted auto mechanic. Click here to see several options with customer reviews at Amazon.
LGBT parents know that they struggle with many of the same issues as their straight counterparts–getting their kids to eat better, trying to understand new math, and picking where to go for a great family vacation.
They also know that they are not alone. The number of LGBT families in the U.S. is growing rapidly. According to a recent study by Community Marketing, Inc., between 6% and 29% of LGBT Gen-Xers report having a child under the age of 18 living in their home. The study also found that there is a significant number of LGBT Boomers who have grandchildren.
While there is no easy answer on how to get the kids to like broccoli or how to solve 2 + 2 in fifteen steps, the specific question about where to go for a great family vacation is becoming easier to answer as more destinations across the U.S. are both family-friendly and LGBT-friendly. Here are 10 destinations topping the list with that winning combination.
1. Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Twenty-three miles of stunning beaches is one of the main reasons the Greater Fort Lauderdale area is a top family travel destinations. In addition to the surf and sand, Fort Lauderdale offers many family friendly attractions ranging from the Museum of Discovery & Scienceto Butterfly World. Visiting LGBT families can take added comfort in knowing that this southern Florida paradise is also home to one of the largest concentrations of same-sex couple households in the U.S. More tips & resources for your trip: http://www.sunny.org
2. Los Angeles, California
Los Angeles is not just the entertainment capital of the world, it is also an awesome family-friendly destination. A child’s imagination will soar at the sight of the Space Shuttle Endeavour at the California Science Center or travel in time inside the spectacular Dinosaur Hall at the Natural History Museum of Los AngelesCounty. There is also the always fun Universal Studios Hollywoodthat includes The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. For some LGBT immersing, you can plan some sightseeing with Out & About Tours, which offers walking and driving tours that focus on LA’s LGBT history, and visit the nearby city of West Hollywood, which has a large LGBT population and many friendly retail shops and restaurants. More tips & resources for your trip: www.discoverlosangeles.com
From Broadway shows to world-class museums to famed parks and gardens, New York City is a giant playground for visitors of all ages. In addition to kid-friendly attractions such as the American Museum of Natural History and the Statue of Library, a must see attraction and important learning opportunity is the Stonewall National Monument located at the historic site of the 1969 Stonewall Uprising that helped spark the modern LGBT civil rights movement in the U.S. More tips & resources for your trip: https://www.nycgo.com/
4. Orlando, Florida
Dubbed the theme park capital of the world, Orlando attracts more than 60 million visitors annually. Disney, which received a perfect score on the HRC Corporate Equality Index that provides an in-depth analysis and rating of large U.S. employers and their policies and practices pertinent to LGBT employees and customers, operates five of the city’s top parks. Needless to say, most if not all of them are on the travel bucket list for most families. More tips & resources for your trip: http://www.visitorlando.com/
5. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Philadelphia is a city steeped in American history but there is nothing “old and stodgy” about this amazing family-friendly destination. Liberty Bell Center, Please Touch Museum, and The Franklin Institute are all great examples of the city’s fun and interactive attractions. In addition, the City of Brotherly Love (and Sisterly Affection) has been very proactive in welcoming LGBT visitors. It was one of the first cities in the world to create a LGBT-inclusive tourism ad campaign. More tips & resources for your trip: www.visitphilly.com
From hiking the famed Camelback Mountain to exploring the Musical Instrument Museum, the greater Phoenix area offers the opportunity to experience a diversity of activities in a single destination. And while it might seem cliché a ride in a rainbow-colored hot air balloon, it is strongly recommended. Phoenix and the surrounding cities of Scottsdale, Tempe, and Mesa, are all LGBT-welcoming, with non-discrimination policies and some openly LGBT officials. More tips & resources for your trip: https://www.visitphoenix.com/
7. Provincetown, Massachusetts
Located on the Northern tip of Cape Cod, Provincetown is most famous for two things: being the location of the Mayflower’s landing in 1620 and being a leading LGBT summer vacation destination. During the height of the summer season, more than half the city’s visitors are members of the LGBT community. The annual Provincetown Family Week identifies as “the largest annual gathering of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer-identified parents and their families in the world.” More tips & resources for your trip: http://www.provincetowntourismoffice.org/
In addition to 70 miles of beautiful beaches and nearly always pleasant weather, San Diego is home to world-class family attractions including the San Diego Zoo, LEGOLAND California, SeaWorld San Diego, and Balboa Park. October is an especially good time to visit for the annual Kids Free promotion. For the entire month, child admission to bay cruises, theme parks, museums, and other activities are free with paid adult, plus restaurants offer special Kids Free deals and hotels offer special amenities to children 12 and under. As a testament to its LGBT friendliness, San Diego Prideis the largest civic event in the city. More tips & resources for your trip: http://www.sandiego.org
Monuments and memorials and museums…oh my! A family trip to Washington, D.C. can appeal to many interests including science, history, and art. From artwork by Andy Warhol at the National Gallery of Art to information on the persecution of homosexuals during WWII at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, nearly all of the major museums in the city have LGBT related items. More tips & resources for your trip: www.washington.org
Has a Family Travel 411 feature eased your family’s travel planning yet? Last week I found myself explaining the Family Travel 411 concept to a new acquaintance in the travel sphere:
“It’s like your good friends are going to a place that you know well, but they’ll only have a limited time to see it–with kids along for the ride. Which four activities would you recommend they put at the top of their list to experience the place, and what would be one great place to stay and one great place to eat with kids that you could recommend while they are there?”
As I added the past year’s destinations to the map in celebration of the site’s third birthday (this week!), I was amazed and honored to see the scope of advice our 411 features contributors have shared through the site.
For those of us visual types, it’s especially fun to see them plotted on the globe–and it can be helpful and inspiring to peruse family travel-worthy destinations by region.
So have a look below at everywhere we’ve been so far on this site, and click the box in the upper right to zoom in on the areas you’ve been eyeing for your future adventures. Click the pins for links to our 411 features and inspired travel stories, and be sure to subscribe for updates and new destinationscoming in the months ahead.
And hey, THANK YOU for reading and supporting this site with your click-throughs to Amazon.com and our affiliate partners, and sharing the Family Travel 411 articles you find helpful with your friends.
PSSST! Traveling with babies or toddlers? Visit my TravelswithBaby.com site that’s celebrating 10+ years online!