California With the Kids: A Family Travel Guide

AFAR’s editor in chief on the no-stress way to do Disneyland, favorite kid-friendly hotels, and where to eat in Berkeley.

California With the Kids: A Family Travel Guide

AFAR’s editor in chief has a special connection to the Sea Ranch, California

Photo by Julia Cosgrove

Julia Cosgrove, AFAR’s VP and editor in chief, will soon be raising her two daughters—Willa, six, and Margot, nearly four—in the house in which she grew up in Berkeley, where she has lived since 1988 (including a few stints in L.A., New York City, and Dublin). For the past year, she has split her time between Berkeley and the rugged Sea Ranch coastal community near Mendocino, a place that design historian David S. Gebhard called “the California architectural moment of the 1960s.”

Here is Julia’s insider take on her home state, and the experiences not to miss—the best places to eat in Berkeley, favorite kid-friendly hotels, and the no-stress way to do Disneyland.

In this series, we are spotlighting a destination we love—California—through the experiences of people we admire who call it home.

The Sea Ranch community is three hours north of San Francisco.

The Sea Ranch community is three hours north of San Francisco.

Photo by Julia Cosgrove

During this lockdown year, you’ve spent more continuous days in California than ever before. I’ve seen you post these incredible photos of Sea Ranch. Tell us more about this area and why it’s so special to your family.

The Sea Ranch is this really unique community on the northern Sonoma Coast, just south of Mendocino County and about three hours north of San Francisco. The coastline is rugged and wild—and staggeringly beautiful. Founded in the mid-1960s and planned by a group of modern architects affiliated with UC Berkeley, the “Ranch” consists of a couple thousand homes designed to blend in with the surrounding natural landscape. There are also three swimming pools, tennis courts, a golf course, and miles and miles of trails that wind along the bluff, through coastal meadows, and up into the redwood forest. The building materials of the homes and other structures include lots of wood, some sod roofs, and really inspiring modern architecture.

There was a show at the SFMOMA a few years ago devoted to the Sea Ranch. I started going as a kid when my parents would rent a house for the week or weekend with some friends and bring me along. When the pandemic hit, we were in-between houses in the Bay Area and so we ended up spending about half the year up there. My kids learned how to ride bikes there. We spent every day outside, and we toggled between Zooms and the beach and the river as often as possible.

You normally live full time in Berkeley. What do you recommend for a perfect day in Berkeley, with or without kids?

I do a lot of the same things with my kids that I did before I had them. For families who are interested in staying in Berkeley, I recommend the Claremont Hotel & Spa, which is now a Fairmont property. It’s close to Tilden, a 2,079-acre regional park that is home to a lovely old merry-go-round and a steam train ride that delights toddlers and preschoolers.

Berkeley is known as an eater’s dream town, and we really are spoiled with wonderful options for families: Fournée Bakery, Nabolom Bakery & Pizzeria, Boichik Bagels (which ignited the great California–New York smackdown a few weeks ago), Nick’s Pizza, the Great China, Gordo Taqueria, Vik’s Chaat Room, Bartavelle, the Kebabery, and Kirala are our family’s casual favorites.

For families with older kids, lunch at the Chez Panisse Café is wonderful—and highly memorable to any food-obsessed kid (I speak from experience). It’s fun to walk around the UC Berkeley campus, and we really enjoyed the kids’ programming at the Berkeley Art Museum before COVID came along.

Going beyond Berkeley (and to traveling more broadly again), what are a few experiences you’d recommend for families?

Close to me, we enjoy the beaches in Point Reyes National Seashore. We love the town of Healdsburg in Sonoma County, where a new Montage property recently opened. We also love the Central Coast, from Paso Robles to Santa Barbara (my favorite restaurants are also places that welcome kids—Bell’s Los Alamos and Barbareño). Big Sur is a must-do with slightly older kids—there’s nowhere quite like that landscape in the world. Yosemite and the eastern Sierras take my breath away every time I see them. And my kids love Palm Springs and the desert communities.

What are your favorite kid-friendly hotels in California?

My kids have been so spoiled by the wonderful, fun, and welcoming hotels we’ve stayed in up and down this state. They still talk about the robes, teddy bears, chocolate-chip cookies, and bathtubs at Meadowood Napa Valley, so we’ll be back there as soon as we can. The Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay had a great kids’ scavenger hunt when we stayed there—and their restaurants and outdoor dining areas managed to be both classy and incredibly family-friendly. We were all blown away by the location and over-the-top luxury of the Rosewood Miramar Beach in Montecito. In Orange County, the girls were treated like royalty during two visits to the Monarch Beach Resort (recently reflagged as the Waldorf Astoria Monarch Beach Resort & Club). I’m still finding monarch butterflies from that hotel in corners of my house. Oh, and we loved glamping at Mendocino Grove. We’ll be back there this summer.

Theme parks are often a big part of family travel in California. What are your tips for visiting? Do you love or hate them?

I’ve been to Disneyland twice in my life: once as a little kid (I ran out screaming from Sleeping Beauty’s Castle and that was that) and once three years ago. My husband and I brought our then three-year-old daughter and her baby sister to stay for two nights at Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa. We took the parks nice and slow, and Willa, my eldest daughter, absolutely lit up when she met Elsa from Frozen, Doc McStuffins, and Minnie Mouse. I teared up on the “It’s a Small World” ride. The hotel delivered me a negroni to my room at the end of a long day. All told, A+. If you’re going to do it, stay at the park at the Grand Californian and splurge on the things that will make your day easier.

Tell us a bit about your background—where did you grow up and are your parents from California?

Sure, so my mom was born in California. Her parents met at Stanford where her dad (my 100-year-old grandpa Edgar) attended law school on the G.I. Bill. My late grandma Jerry worked as a librarian at Stanford after serving as a WAVE [Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service] during World War II. When my grandpa graduated from law school, he drove up and down the state looking for work, and the family eventually settled in San Bernardino in the late 1940s. He tells wild stories of driving out to the high desert near Joshua Tree with gallons of water bumping along in the back of his car, in anticipation of breaking down in the middle of nowhere.

My mom came north for college at UC Berkeley in 1968 and felt like she had landed in paradise. Fast-forward 20 years and she convinced my dad, a lifelong New Yorker, to move west and put down roots in Berkeley.

Why do you think it’s lucky to be a kid growing up in California?

This state is huge and full of the most wonderfully diverse people, places, and experiences. Where California leads, the country follows. I really believe that. And I believe that our progressivism, innovation, and natural beauty are unmatched. What could be more inspiring to a kid than that?

>> Next: How California’s Post Ranch Inn Continues to Innovate

From Our Partners
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
More From AFAR