Like many of our best discoveries, we stumbled upon the charming little town of Sausalito accidentally. Our children were complaining about walking all over the city of San Francisco, and how much their little tootsies hurt. I’m sure they were angling for a return to the hotel and some downtime involving an iPad, but we outfoxed them with a double-decker tour bus ride. The San Francisco double decker tour bus crosses the Golden Gate Bridge and then turns around in Sausalito for the return trip. In spite of being huddled together in pain from ears that were ringing from the whistling wind of the San Francisco Bay, we saw enough of the town that we knew we had to return for a proper visit. A little research discovered that there were plenty of fun things to do and places to eat in Sausalito.
Fun things to do in Sausalito with kids
What To Do in Sausalito
Visit the Sausalito houseboats
The 400+ Sausalito houseboats are located at the northern end of town in five marinas. If you have a car, it’s an easy exit of Highway 101. Enter via Gate 5, Gate 6 or Gate 6 1/2 road. I didn’t think it had the picture perfect charm of the Venice Beach canal-side houses but these houseboats are attractive in their own way.
The Sausalito houseboats are both varied in architecture and very colorful.
Fun fact: Otis Redding wrote his classic hit “Sitting On the Dock By the Bay” in 1967 when he was living on a Sausalito houseboat.
If you are going to be in Sausalito in September, check out the Sausalito houseboat open homes tour that runs annually. The homes tour is popular and so you need to book it early.
Get on your bikes!
We saw plenty of people cycling across the Bay Bridge but those winds are fierce! We decided not to follow their lead because it would have been too much for the children. OK, both the children and me, lets be honest – I’m a fair weather cyclist.
Cycling is an easy and fun way to explore Sausalito
For an easier bike ride, the Sausalito Multi-Use Path is a wide paved bike path that has been converted over an old railroad track (similar to the Shining Sea bike path in Upper Cape Cod). We found just like the Shining Sea bike path, you share the space with pedestrians and runners.
Go wine tasting in Sausalito
After all that exercise, it’s only natural to want to collapse on a sofa for some refreshment. The town has wine tasting opportunities thanks to its location near Napa Valley. We had the wine and the kids had some snacks.
Napa wine tasting is conveniently located near the Sausalito ferry.
Browse the art galleries of Sausalito
Or, better yet, multitask with an art gallery and wine tasting combo.
I’m a firm believer that wine tasting paired with art gallery browsing makes you more appreciative of the art.
The art galleries seem to be on the Bridgeway and Caledonia Street. FYI, the locals wanted to keep Caledonia street away from the tourist hordes so there was a time in the 1980’s and 1990’s when it wasn’t listed on the tourist maps.
Where To Eat in Sausalito with Kids
Among the many Sausalito things to do, you have to include hanging out in a good restaurant as one of its best pleasures. For a little town, there are a lot of great dining options that are also kid-friendly.
The Spinnaker is near the Sausalito Ferry and has great views of the harbour from the restaurant’s floor to ceiling windows. Expect lots of great fish and seafood, as well as some pasta and meat dishes. There is a children’s menu with the crowd-pleasing option of burgers and fries. You get amazing sunsets (so long as the weather is cooperating) at dinnertime.
This great position in the harbour gives Spinnaker its fabulous views.
The Napa Valley Burger Company has a large selection of burgers (including a junior-sized version) and an even larger selection of wine and beer to keep the parents happy.
If you have had your share of sourdough bread, then there are some great ethnic restaurants choices.
We love our Mexican food as you know. For lunch, we went to Copita located conveniently to the Bridgeway. Voted Best Mexican in the San Francisco area, we can attest the tacos are delicious. Copita is owned by celebrity chef, Joanne Weir, who has many books and television shows to her credit.
Avatars is another cool option that serves up Indian-Mexican fusion food. Seriously. I’ve never heard of this combination but its ingenious and delicious. For example, the Punjabi enchilada is a curry stuffed enchilada served with Basmati rice and peas. For the less adventurous child, there’s a children’s menu which offers up the simple pleasures of a grilled cheese sandwich.
Lappert’s Ice Cream is a family-run chain of ice cream (and gourmet coffee) stores. The flavours will whisk you off to far-off places like Manila Mango and Mexican chocolate cinnamon swirl.
Where To Stay in Sausalito California
The Casa Madrona is a small 4 star boutique hotel with great harbor views in Sausalito. It’s a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World. With children you can book a hillside cottage suite. Staff will help you with your luggage but it would be more sensible to leave most of your bags in the car.
Getting To Sausalito California
Getting to Sausalito is pretty easy to reach from San Francisco via ferry or by car. One of the ferries to Sausalito goes from Pier 39/Pier 41 at tourist-central Fisherman’s Wharf. The ferry conveniently stops at Sausalito’s main thoroughfare, Bridgeway.
The San Francisco – Sausalito ferry
Alternatively if you are driving, Sausalito is the first stop across the San Francisco Bay after the Golden Gate Bridge. We stopped off on our way out of San Francisco to Muir Woods and further on to Napa Valley.
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Orange County is the typical Southern California paradise that the world expects from SoCal. No wonder then that there have been so many recent television shows set in the area, including 4 seasons of the O.C. and reality television fodder, Laguna Beach, The Hills and The Real Housewives of Orange County. If people are going to be beautiful, wealthy and live a charmed life, the least they can do is let us watch them live out their lives and provide us with entertainment. So why should you visit? I’ve listed below 30 reasons to visit Orange County in California. Get off the couch, folks, and go live the life you see on television even if its only for a vacation.
Sunny, affluent Orange County is the dream California that advertisers sell.
The End of the Road
- The famous Pacific Coast Highway ends at Dana Point in Orange County. If you’re going to do a road trip it makes sense to go to one end or another of the road, right? We did the smart thing and headed south on the PCH towards guaranteed sunshine in southern California.
- Orange County is blessed with miles of sand and surf. But the kicker? It’s also got near-perfect weather all year-round so you can actually enjoy the beach for more than just the summer.
Another perfect beach day for residents.
- Crystal Cove State Park, one of the best beaches in the OC, is 3.5 miles of beachfront perfection. There are lots of activities at the park – hiking, stand-up paddle boarding, kayaking etc. We went for the obvious simple pleasures – boogie boarding and swimming.
The beautiful Crystal Cove StatePark.
- The OC is famous for its tidal pools. We are talking hours of entertainment for inquisitive kids while you hang out in the sunshine on a beach chair.
Explorig tidal pools left in the rocks.
- As you would expect, surfing is a big part of outdoor sports in the OC. Huntington Beach, known as ‘surf city’, is home to one of the largest world surfing competitions.
- Get a panoramic view of the OC from 500 feet in the air on the Big Orange Balloon at Orange County Great Park. Bonus: It’s really cheap!
The tethered helium ballon takes passengers up into the sky for a panoramic view.
- You can visit Mickey Mouse and friends in Anaheim – a theme park experience which can be made more fun with Julie’s 25 Secret Tips for Disneyland. Really need I say more?
A local favourite, you get delicious burgers and milkshakes with a view over the beach below.
- California’s famous In-n-Out burger is headquartered in Irvine. They are famous for the freshness of their burgers so you know their stores in the area have to be good.
- For dinner with a view, check out Splashes at the Surf & Sand Resort at Laguna Beach. The food was good, but the view was amazing. It’s right on the beach perfect for walking off some of the calories that you just imbibed.
- Irvine has hundreds of miles of on-road and off-road dedicated biking paths. Obviously, these paths are good for hiking too.
A bike basket filled for a day at the beach.
- A planned city built by the Corporation of Irvine, Irvine is pretty, landscaped and has roads that make sense. It consistently gets rated as one of the safest cities in the USA.
All tha sunshine and no rain does mean the non-ocean view is a desert landscape,
- Orange County Great Park is a former Marine base turned into 1300 acres for outdoor enjoyment, including a Farmer’s Market, sports fields and playgrounds.
Great cycle trails but watch out for those hills!
- Perhaps your idea of outdoor exercise, is flexing your credit card finger muscles. Even the mall at Fashion Island in Newport Beach has an ocean view!
An Arts Community
In the Pageant of the Masters, European paintings by Old Masters are faithfully recreated on a stage by live actors.
- I have to admit I did think that people getting dressed up and re-enacting Old Masters paintings for the Pageant of the Masters would be a good laugh. I came away impressed at the sheer pageantry of the show. It’s art, theatre and Hollywood magic all combined into one impressive show narrated by a booming Morgan Freeman voice.
- Less fancy, and across the street from the Festival of the Arts/Pageant of the Masters is the Sawdust Art Festival which can basically be described as Etsy in the sunshine with sawdust.
- In fact, there is art everywhere in the streets of Laguna Beach. What’s not to love?\
No, this isn’t in London. It’s a sculpture in downtown Laguna Beach.
Fun Day Trips
- ‘You can take a day trip to pretty Catalina Island from either Dana Point or Newport Beach.
- You can also go whale watching trips from Newport Beach.
- Both Los Angeles and San Diego are a couple of hours from the OC. Traffic, however, can make this trip much longer. Sure it could be a fun day trip or you could just go crazy sitting in the car for hours.
Orange County has so much to do but is also located near other great destinations.
Great Hotels and Transport
- The Resort at Pelican Hill in Newport Beach is a fantastic place to stay (with or without kids). Set on 500+ acres with accommodation in little bungalows and a golf course, pools, spa, restaurants, you may be loathe to leave this hotel. It would, however, be a shame to miss the rest of the OC!
- The OC has an airport named after John Wayne who used to live in nearby Newport Beach. Technically it is an international airport (probably because it flies to Cabo in Mexico?)
- There is a super-cute Laguna Beach Trolley that runs a shuttle service around the town for free on weekends. Of course, the trolley starts at 11AM on Saturdays and Sundays because anything else would be uncivilised.
The cute little Laguna Beach Trolley operates on weekends to transport visitors.
For more suggestions, check out A Local’s Guide to Orange County by a blogger friendwho grew up in the area. Have you been to Orange County? What else do you recommend?
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The mind boggles when you think about how old the California redwoods are. When some of these trees in Muir Woods were saplings 900 years ago, the world would have been a vastly unrecognisable place. To put things in perspective, in 1144 AD, the French and Germans were off on a doomed Second Crusade. In 1150 AD Angkor Wat in Cambodia was completed as the Khmer empire reached its height. Nearly a millennium later, the Middle East is still a mess (albeit a different kind) and Angkor Wat is a well-trod tourist attraction.
We visited the California redwoods at Muir Woods with kids in tow because it was easily accessible to San Francisco. Even though we did not have time to visit Yosemite or the UNESCO world-heritage listed Redwood National Park, we still wanted our children to see a primeval forest.
Easy trails and its proximity to San Francisco make Muir Woods perfect for a family visit.
A Quick Intro to California Redwoods
Folk hero, Woodie Guthrie, wove the California redwoods into the American popular consciousness with his catchy song, This Land is Your Land. Luckily, the redwoods are mentioned in the first verse because, let’s face it, most people only know the first verse of a lot of songs.
This land is your land, this land is my land.
From California to the New York Island.
From the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf Stream waters,
This land was made for you and me.
Woodie Guthrie from This Land is Your Land
So, I grew up hearing about redwood forests without actually knowing what they were. It took a trip to Muir Woods to clear up what exactly redwoods are and how they are different from sequoia trees.
Why are California Redwoods special?
Trees similar to redwoods grew along the Western US coast hundreds of millions of years ago. Nowadays, there are two types of redwood. The coastal redwood which grows along the coast and its near relative the giant sequoia which you find in Yosemite National Park.
Redwoods get their name from the tannic acid in their bark which protects them from fire and fungal attacks.
The difference between sequoias and coastal redwoods
The coastal redwoods are taller reaching a height of up to 380 feet compared to the 300 feet of the sequoias. Redwoods are younger (up to 2000 years old) while sequoias can be up to 3200 years old.
This tree trunk that was felled in the early 20th century has the passage of time marked on its rings.
Redwoods are about half the diameter in width. The bark of redwoods are also about a 1/3 less thick than that of the giant sequoias. So we are talking tall and thin versus shorter and wider.
My kids could easily fit into one of the splits in a tree trunk.
The feed and care of redwoods
Coastal redwoods drink approximately 500 gallons of water per tree! In the winter, the area gets about 40 inches of rainfall per year. In the summer, the redwoods get most of the water from the fog and then when the water hits the soil, more water gets taken up by the shallow root system.
In winter Redwood creek swells with torrential rainstorms.
Burls at the bottom of a tree are dormant buds that can sprout a new tree.
The trees roots go down only about 10 feet deep but spread out nearly 100 feet. You would think such a tall tree would just be top heavy and topple over!
So much ground cover in the forest.
We spent considerable time looking for a four leaf clover only to discover it was California sorrel, a different plant.
The undergrowth is so dense and you can hear the rustling of leaves and animals around you.
Why visit the California Redwoods at Muir Woods with kids?
We saw a family in front of us arguing with their stroppy teenage daughter who clearly did not want to spend the day with her family. So why should you visit Muir Woods if you are in the area?
- It’s a short hop, skip and a ride away from San Francisco.
- California redwoods are the tallest living things in the world (cool fact for little kids)
- The hikes can be as short as 45 minutes or as long as hours depending on your abilities/interest.
- The boardwalk paths make using strollers easy if you have toddlers with you.
- You’d have to be a really stroppy teen to not appreciate the quiet and peace. Or, give them something really depressing to think about by telling them that their problems are a speck of dust in the vastness that is time as evidenced by the redwoods.
People have said that Muir Woods is a crowded tourist trap. I didn’t think it was but, even if it were, so? The redwoods are still amazing to see in real life. Neither did we feel it was particularly crowded. Sure, you don’t have the forest to yourself but we didn’t expect that level of seclusion either. I may have lived in Europe too long – for crowded you need to be in the tiny towns of Italy during holiday season.
History of Muir Woods
Redwood Canyon, the area that covers Muir Woods was a part of the many redwood forests that covered Northern California. In the early days, the trees in Redwood Canyon were saved from being cut down because it was a particularly remote area. Afterwards, it belonged to the landholdings of a private owner, Rancho Sausalito. The ranch got sold in the 1890’s and attention finally turned to the area. A local businessman and his wife, William and Elizabeth Kent, bought the land in 1907 to save it from developers and donated it to the federal government. The same president that created the first national monument, Devils Tower in Wyoming, designated the valley the United States’ 10th national monument in 1908.
As a member of Congress, in 1916 Kent also introduced legislation that created the National Park Service. The NPS is celebrating its centenary this year.
Muir Woods is administered by the National Park Service.
The national monument was named after the early conservationist, John Muir, who felt it was a great honour.
This is the best tree-lover’s monument that could possibly be found in all of the forests of the world.
The redwoods in Muir Woods are not the oldest of the redwoods. They are ‘merely’ on average 600-800 years old. The oldest redwood in Muir Woods is about 1200 years old.
The aptly-named Cathedral Grove trees soar into the sky like church spires.
Visiting Muir Woods National Monument
Muir Woods National Monument is a 560 acre park with 6 miles of trails. The main canyon trails are paved and an easy walk. The park office has maps with marked trails for you to buy onsite. Check out this website for some easy 2-5 mile hikes in Muir Woods. My 10-year olds had no problem with the easy 1/2 day hike we did in Muir Woods.
Paved trails make it easy for children, including younger children in strollers.
If that is not exciting enough for you, unpaved trails out of the canyon connect with the trails at Mt. Tamalpais State Park nearby. William Kent and others wanted to extend Muir Woods beyond its original area but they couldn’t because of the National Monument designation. Instead, there is a fairly seamless connection with Mt. Tamalpais State Park which was established in 1928 and de facto extended Muir Woods.
This path leads to the Canopy Trail from which you can access the state park or return to Muir Woods.
In the early days, visitors were allowed to climb on and around the trees! Needless to say, such activity wasn’t so good for the trees. There are signs everywhere to stay on the paved trails.
Although everyone says Muir Woods is busy, we found plenty of opportunity to strike out on our own.
Muir Woods National Monument is 12 miles away from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and about a 1/2 hour drive. There is parking available but it does get busy!
If you are like us and do not have time to visit Yosemite National Park, I would strongly urge you to visit the California redwoods at Muir Woods with kids. The California redwoods are magnificent and encourage you to think about what a small place you occupy in the world. A little retrospection and humility is good for everyone, including children!
“What would you recommend for lunch?”
“You mean, here?” The waiter responded as if startled by the question. “To eat?”
Considering I was sitting in a booth in his restaurant at lunchtime, it was my turn to be bemused.
After a pause, he said, “The breakfast here is really good.”
I did not find his opinion very helpful since I was at the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo at lunchtime. Maybe he was feeling stroppy because he was not wearing lederhosen unlike the waitresses who were outfitted in drindl dresses.
Visiting the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obisbo which is quirky and fun for the whole family
I was at the Madonna Inn because so many people have Inn on their bucket list that I thought I really have to see it. So my husband and I went with another couple on a mini road trip from Santa Barbara where we were staying. We were so entranced by the experience that we took our children there for a meal when we visited the area again. Clearly, the dizzy waiter was part of the places’ oddball charm and did not affect our opinion of the place.
Boy is it odd. My experience with the waiter was just the beginning. Of course, the hot pink Mock Tudor exterior of the building was a dead giveaway that we were entering a different world.
Despite the concerns over ordering, our lunch was excellent. I had a tuna melt sandwich in sourdough bread which was crispy and fresh. My husband’s pastrami on rye smelled equally delicious.
On our first trip, we didn’t try any of the cakes (available for take out) but they looked suitably over the top as well. Despite my love of cakes, I felt these looked sugary enough to send non-diabetics into a coma.
When we went with our children, there was no way my kids were passing up on dessert. We had a selection of sundaes, cakes and pies. After the taste-testing, we agreed that the carrot cake was superb.
clockwise from top left: carrot cake, cherry pie, lemon cream cake and a strawberry sundae
We sat in the bar area which was red leather booths with time-weathered copper-topped tables. The walls were decorated with a drawings that would not be out of place in The Museum of Bad Art. There was lots of Pepto-Bismol pink everywhere. Even the salt shaker held candy floss pink salt.
The women’s room was a riot of color too. The men’s room is famous for its fixtures and fittings. We saw a group of women exiting the men’s room. They had gone in en masse to check it out.
This place definitely believes too much is not enough. The Inn, opened in 1958, is an homage to vintage decor. Lots of vintage decor, in one place, with sparkle thrown in for good measure. Sort of like if Vegas went vintage.
The restaurant has a party room in full scale hot pink with mirrors and fake flowers. It’s the sort of place Barbie would host her wedding reception. There’s lots of pink, red, flowers, sparkle and mirrors.
cuteness overload! welcoming piglets, and my daughter deciding to take a bow at her imaginary wedding reception
Although my daughter thought it was very cool, she admitted that if she were five years old, she’d have thought she had died and gone to heaven.
The Madonna Inn itself is further up the hill. It is famous for having 110 rooms each with a different theme. Sadly my husband was done with kitsch and I couldn’t convince him to take a look. Beer tasting in San Luis Obispo took priority over seeing the fuchsia-coloured tennis courts.
Some postcards of the individual Inn rooms.
You can check out the individual rooms online before you book. All the rooms are pictured and have associated whimsical names to match their look. I liked the Yahoo room (the bed is a golden carriage on wheels), the San Francisco (red/gold bordello theme), Oriental Fantasy (you can guess) and Krazy Dazy (70’s psychedelic). It’s the sort of hotel that you’d want to hop between rooms if you are staying more than one night.
Visiting the Madonna Inn:
The Madonna Inn is considered a landmark resort in Central California. It is located in the outskirts of San Luis Obispo at 100 Madonna Road. The Inn has a spa, wine tasting room and boutique as well as the restaurant facilities.