That helped put us in the mood for the aquarium, where we spent most of one day (because we had called ahead for tickets, we waltzed past the monster line). Several of the exhibits—the three-story kelp forest and the wonderfully psychedelic "Jellies: Living Art," for example—are triumphs of aesthetics as well as science. The interactive sections are clever and inviting: Lucy and Ike loved petting the bat rays, and the Splash Zone, an area for kids nine and younger, has real penguins, a crawl-through coral reef, and a huge molded clamshell you can climb into. The aquarium is ideally situated on the bay and feels, to an extraordinary degree, like an extension of it, as though the curators had managed to bring the ocean inside.
Our last morning in the area, we debated a visit to Carmel, the posh, pretty beach town where Clint Eastwood used to be mayor. But we decided we'd rather take a look at Point Lobos, a state park on the coast that I'd been hearing about for years. This is one of only two places (the other is at Cypress Point, across Carmel Bay) where you can see stands of Monterey cypress, wind-twisted trees that cling precariously to the outermost rocks on the shore. Silvery lace lichen dangled from some of the gnarled branches, and others were covered in a sort of paprika-colored fur—actually an algae that gets its unusual hue from beta-carotene. Far below, the roiling surf looked like so many overactive cauldrons.
The Home Stretch
Santa Cruz to San Francisco
It's a pleasure to roll into Santa Cruz, the sun-kissed banana belt of the northern California coast, the place where summer feels like summer. Alas, this was also the part of the trip where we threatened to pull over and put the squabbling kids out of the car. (There's a moment like that on every family road trip. Right?Tell me there is.) And it was also the point at which a silver-haired man in a Mercedes yelled and swore at us for littering, after he saw my husband toss from the car window a small bunch of wildflowers that were making the kids sneeze.
Luckily, summer city, as we thought of it, had plenty to cheer us up. For one thing, there is the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, an old-fashioned, remarkably clean amusement park with an actual brass-ring carousel that dates from 1911 and a bracing but not brain-rattling white wooden roller coaster (the Giant Dipper) built in 1924. The boardwalk has the fanciful, diligently exotic trappings of pre-Disney fun palaces: Moorish details on the Casino Arcade, carved seahorses on the carousel. I'm particularly fond of the age-guessing booth, where, strangely, the age guesser always surmises you're younger than you are, unless you happen to be a child. And I love the first inkling of twilight on the boardwalk, when neon the color of gumdrops spangles the sky, and teenage sweethearts in identical baggy jeans join the flocks of families.
We didn't have time to visit the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, which occupies a lighthouse overlooking a popular surfing beach, Steamer Lane, where the local talent, seal-like in their wet suits, nose over long, white curls of wave. And we didn't have as much time as I would have liked on the Paci-fic Avenue pedestrian mall, a shaded promenade with a smattering of hobby shops and cafés, home furnishings stores, and—this being a college town—bookstores (especially the marvelous Bookshop Santa Cruz). We did have coffee and pastries one evening with my niece Caitlin, who goes to U.C. Santa Cruz, and her boyfriend, Nate. They introduced us to the sheltered back garden at Lulu Carpenter's, a café on Pacific, where we had a fulfillingly collegiate conversation about the death penalty and the drumming craze on campus.
We stayed that night at the Babbling Brook Inn, a bed-and-breakfast tucked into a forested garden off a busy street. It has a big waterwheel that splashed outside our window all night, and a waterfall, too. Our room, with its fireplace and soft white counterpane, made me sleepy the moment I saw it, but Ike wanted to wander the grounds, which he called Ewok Village.