Staycation has become a dreaded word that means the place you visit when you can’t afford a real family vacation. But it’s possible there is a coveted family vacation destination spot right in your own backyard. It’s certainly true where I live, just three short miles from Huntington Beach, California.
Many a weekend, I have burned synapses in my brain trying to think of some fun family adventure for my daughters and me. Usually, I think of places that involve miles of driving, parking nightmares and wads of cash. I rarely entertain the notion of cruising over to our neighbor town, Surf City, for a burger on the pier or a leisurely bike ride on the strand. (Yep, it’s the same Surf City lauded in the classic Beach Boys song. Sing along with me, “Surf City, here we come.”)
Recently my children and I were invited to see Huntington Beach through the eyes of tourists. We will never take this charming local treasure for granted again.
Where to Stay
When you live as close to Huntington Beach as I do, spending the day there and sleeping in your own bed seems most logical. But for a truly authentic Surf City experience, you need to spend the entire weekend there, sunup to sundown to sunup, to immerse yourself in the off-beat, laid-back culture of sun worshipping by day, bonfires at sunset, late-night beach strolls under the watchful moon and new mornings that begin with the roar of the surf.
As for where to stay in Huntington Beach, it’s up to you and your budget. Overnight accommodations range from no-fuss inns to first-class resorts with postcard ocean views. We were fortunate enough to stay at the Hilton Waterfront Beach Resort, the AAA Four Diamond expanse that has defined the Huntington Beach coastline since 1990. It’s a beautiful property, not to be confused with the Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort & Spa, another relaxing and rejuvenating destination right down the way. (Remember: Hilton to the left, Hyatt to the right.) If you go to Hyatt and book at this hotel, Traveling Mom will receive a referral fee.
What’s great about the Hilton is that it’s within walking distance of Main Street and thriving local hot spots. Surrender your car to the valet on Friday and forget about it until Sunday. Each beach-themed room has a balcony and your own personal view of the Pacific Blue.
How to have fun, fun, fun in Surf City:
- Stroll the historic pier for a bird’s-eye view of all the beach action. Reward yourself with a shake or burger at Ruby’s Diner at the end.
- Rent bikes from Zack’s Too, rollerblade or hire a pedi-cab to cruise the eight-mile oceanfront strand.
- Shop at the quaint boutiques and surf stores along Main Street for the best beachwear around.
- Eat breakfast with local surfers at the renowned Sugar Shack Café.
- Stake out a firepit in the late afternoon for a sunset barbecue and bonfire with friends.
- Feeling adventurous? Take a surfing or boogie board lesson.
- Visit the International Surfing Museum.
- Take a sea kayak or Duffy Boat tour of nearby Huntington Harbor.
- Teach your kids to appreciate nature at the Shipley Nature Center or Bolsa Chica Interpretive Center; then hike around the Bolsa Chica wetlands.
- Spend the day at Central Park, where you can hike, play Frisbee golf, ride horses and eat under the trees at the park’s café.
Free in Huntington Beach
I’ve driven by Huntington Beach so many times down Pacific Coast Highway on my way to someplace else and never truly appreciated the eight-mile stretch of white sand hugging the blue Pacific — a staging ground for so many of the fun—and free–family vacation activities in Surf City: biking, rollerblading, sunbathing, kite-flying, picnics, and everyone’s favorite sport – people-watching.
Even if you don’t feel like burning one little calorie or spending a dime, you can still have a good time. Stroll the timeless pier and watch bobbing surfers try to catch that worth-it wave or sit in a beach chair and let an amateur volleyball game spike your interest.
Cheap in Huntington Beach
My kids and I rented beach cruisers from Zack’s Too one morning and it turned out to be the highlight of our weekend. Sometimes the simplest pleasures really are the best. My youngest and I shared a bicycle built for two ($18 per hour, $50 per day). It was weird and wobbly at first, like motherhood itself. But if you want to keep an eye on your young ones, they’re always right behind you.
We sailed down the strand, greeting red-faced morning joggers. The brisk ocean breeze was better than a jolt of java. Our destination was Dog Beach, where four-legged friends run free, chasing balls and fetching Frisbees out of the surf.
As I straddled my bike on the crest overlooking Dog Beach, the sun newly risen and my windblown children laughing at the canine capers below, I felt truly happy, a world away, forgetting that my real home was just a couple miles down the road.
Where to Eat
After returning our bikes, we walked a few blocks to the Sugar Shack Cafe for breakfast, where local surfers hang out after hanging ten. Again, if you want a true Surf City experience, the Sugar Shack is the place to go. It was featured on the Food Network as one of Southern California’s most authentic early morning diners. Honestly, I half-expected to see a Beach Boy walking around.
Other great dining options include Duke’s (Pacific Rim menu) at the foot of the pier and Fred’s Mexican Cafe and Cantina across the street. If they’re not oceanfront enough for you, take a quick stroll to Ruby’s at the end of the pier where you will dine, literally, on top of the water.
If you’re looking for something higher end, head back to the Hilton for the great seafood and steak at the Palm Court restaurant. The fish is so fresh you can practically see them swimming in the ocean from your perch at an outdoor table.
What to Do at Night
Downtown Huntington Beach takes on a new life at night, a more relaxed pace, as locals and visitors wind down from a day of sun-drenched activities by dining, souvenir shopping or catching a movie.
One experience you can’t miss is a bonfire at the beach, where you can roast hot dogs or marshmallows, make s’mores or just cuddle with a loved one and stay warm. With more than 600 concrete fire rings in the sand, getting one, you’d think, would be no problem. Not so. Fire rings are available on a first-come, first-serve basis, and they are in such demand, beachgoers frequently stake them out by noon.
We walked back to the Hilton after a fully-catered bonfire prepared by Toes on the Nose ($150 for up to eight people–best one I’d ever been to!). Completely sated by marshmallows and cuddles with my daughters, I remembered what Dorothy said in the final scene of “The Wizard of Oz”: “If you ever go looking for your heart’s desire, you don’t have to look any farther than your own back yard.”
Lynn Armitage, our TravelingSingleMom blogger, has finally woken up and smelled the surf.