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Weekending the Northern California Coast

  • October 9, 2021

Despite the road congestion and occasional earthquake, living in Northern California does have its perks! Among those, are the rugged coastline to the west, with The Golden Gate Bridge, Muir Woods, and Big Sur, and the stunning Sierra Nevada Mountains to the east, with Lake Tahoe, the Giant Sequoias, and Yosemite National Park. It makes for some incredible day trips and weekend jaunts for my little family from our home base nestled in the Central Valley. 

Since we happen to homeschool too, we enjoy the ability to travel off-season when everyone else is in school. It saves us money and beats the crowds. Plus, I do it guilt-free because, every single time, I see how much learning my girls take away from the trip.

Join us in our recent trip to world-renowned Carmel-by-the-Sea, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and Santa Cruz.

The Splendor of Carmel-by-the-Sea 

Carmel-by-the-Sea is truly the “land that time forgot.” But don’t be fooled! This is by careful design. I have read a lot of French country magazines, and this entire town could have been taken straight out of any of them. There is not a place to turn your eye that is not stuffed to the brim with charm and quaint. The sidewalks are cobblestone, and every shop looks like a cottage. Some of the best ones are tucked down hidden alleyways and surprise staircases. Even the gas station is charming, not to speak of the flowers! Carmel seems to not have flowers planted in it but to have been carefully tucked into a garden wonderland with the sidewalks draped over the clambering roots of enormous sycamore trees. By the way, beware the uneven sidewalks. You are supposed to obtain a permit to wear high heels here (not even kidding).

We stayed in Carmel on our trip and allotted one full day just for this little town. My first priority was to get to a bookstore. My husband knows that’s where he’ll find me if I ever get lost. I bought a book about houseplants for its vintage artwork as my own souvenir and two delicately embossed journals for my girls. Then, inside the front cover, I wrote to them mentioning the places we would visit on this trip. A scandalous habit of mine is to write in and date every book I give as a gift. These became their memory books of our trip. My 10-year-old is a burgeoning writer and journaled in hers. So much better than any five-paragraph essay I could have asked her to write after the fact. My 6-year-old made notes, pressed flower petals, and drew pictures of our travels. 

The whole air of the town makes you feel a little bit fancier. My girls got to try on their best manners as we dressed for dinner and ate at an authentic Italian restaurant. No kids menu here! We even used our per favore and grazie. It definitely gave them a fun taste of formal dining that felt worthy of breaking out all the etiquette lessons. Life skills for the win!

Then, we hiked down the hill to the beach to see the sunset—we hoped. Carmel is tucked in a valley where fog rolls in from the coast many evenings, but this night we were lucky. The girls made castles and adorned them with Pacific kelp and sand dollars. My husband and I took in the view and were serenaded by an unexpected Scottish piper in full regalia who stood at the top of the dunes and played as the sun dropped, ending with Amazing Grace just as it slipped over the horizon.

Ah, back to real life! On our next day, we traded the magic of Carmel for a homeschool vacation experience that is a bit more conventional—a trip to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium

Monterey, California is only a few minutes drive from Carmel, and the aquarium is its claim to fame. Forget the fish; the building itself is an architectural marvel. Housed in an abandoned sardine cannery, much of its original brickwork, steam pipes, and machinery are still on display. It’s a wonderful peek into the region’s fishing and industrial history. Disney and Pixar fans will recognize many exhibits since the Monterey Marine Life Institute in Finding Dory was based on this real-life aquarium.

My girls marveled at the multi-storey Pacific kelp forest, laughed at the antics of frolicking sea otters (both inside the aquarium and outside in the ocean), and gently touched decorator crabs, starfish, and rays. I was impressed with the amount of staff standing by and eager to talk about the animals. Their enthusiasm was contagious as they chatted with my girls about the animals, their behavior, and their environment. They emphasized the importance of recuperating as many animals as possible so they can be returned to the wild. My 10-year-old, who has spent most of her life wanting to work with animals, was inspired. I think one of the best perks to traveling for homeschoolers is that it broadens your child’s interactions with people who work in all sorts of careers. The staff didn’t lecture the kids with boring facts. They engaged them as peers with whom they had something fascinating to share. 

I’m fairly certain that it was somewhere in here that we acquired the germs for our family’s post-trip cold, but it was well worth it. This was not an experience any of us will soon forget! A wrong turn leaving the aquarium took us past a pond with swan boats, and we couldn’t resist stopping. After our paddle around the pond, it was back to Carmel for another sunset and then Day 3.

Santa Cruz – Sea Lions and Big Trees

If Carmel is the West Coast’s take on a European seaside hamlet, Santa Cruz is its Coney Island with its boardwalk, wharf, and amusement park. Even the wildlife is raucous and brash. No frolicking otters, it’s seagulls out for your funnel cake and sea lions feuding for wharf space.

This day was the P.E. component of our homeschool trip. We skateboarded and scootered the boardwalk, had some beach food and ice cream, and then drove a bit out of town to hike in the old-growth Redwood forest. 

These Redwoods are not the tallest of the tall on the Pacific Coast, but they’re as close as makes no difference. The tallest is 277 feet and about 1,500 years old! The trail was dotted with informative signs, and docents wandered around ready to share about the geology, plants, and wildlife (banana slugs live here!). One gentleman stopped to tell the girls how the trees grow “from the inside out”—describing the living cambium layer hidden between the dead bark and the heartwood in the middle. There was a crosssection of a Redwood stump with the concentric rings marked with various dates in history: the landing of Christopher Columbus, the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The enormity of these trees, in both space and time, is difficult for even adults to fathom. My girls were in awe. No picture does them justice.

We stopped by a river—more like a creek—to skip stones and write or sketch in the journals. Then, it was time for our drive home, sad to leave but missing our cat.

This was definitely not the “school-iest” trip we’ve been on as homeschoolers, but it did offer some unique learning moments and sparked additional study when we got home. My girls were inspired by future career ideas. They tried new food and a new language. They saw vastly different landscapes and learned about strange wildlife. All this, a three-hour drive from our home. 

Many homeschoolers study about the places they travel in advance, and we do that too. But I do favor the study-when-you-get-home approach. Doing the trip first makes everything so real and relevant and provides those mental hooks on which kids will hang the facts and information. We are reading about the sea creatures friends we made in the aquarium. We are studying the history of the area from Indigenous peoples to the present day. It has given us something to do while we nurse our colds, cuddle our cat, and dream about our next Northern California getaway.

Written by Vida Mercer: Vida is a second-generation homeschooler, writer, writing coach, and curriculum developer. Born and raised in Southern Maryland, Vida met her husband, Jonathan, literally on horseback during a stint in North Texas. Now, they live in Northern California where they love to travel, day trip, and weekend with their two daughters. They, of course, incorporate their adventures into their homeschool lifestyle and wouldn’t have it any other way!

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