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Northern California Highlights

clear day at the Golden Gate Bridge

Amazingly clear day at the Golden Gate Bridge

As I write this on less than four hours of sleep from our noisy hotel neighbors and a 6:00 AM flight, I’m sure I can’t do the Bay Area justice. We only had a few days, but I feel like we worked in all the things we wanted to see, and perhaps best of all, we returned home slightly under budget! Here are our Northern California highlights.

Day 1: Half Moon Bay to Monterey

Our first day was cut short because our flight didn’t arrive in San Francisco until 4:00 PM. We rented a car and drove south to Half Moon Bay for dinner. It was beautiful, and I had a delicious red snapper sandwich at Half Moon Bay Brewing Company. The weather was really windy, so we drove on down the coast after snapping a few pictures, arriving at the Embassy Suites Monterey Bay in Seaside around 9 PM.

I was very close to a mini fit when our room was not ready, but the hotel redeemed itself by giving us free parking and candy bars. We are cheap dates!

hard to find pfeiffer beach in Big Sur

Pfeiffer Beach, beautiful despite high winds

Day 2: Monterey Bay Aquarium and Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur

We started the next day at the aquarium as soon as the doors opened. It was a cool place, and our daughter loved it, but I didn’t really think it was any better than aquariums I’ve been to in Denver or Seattle. I’m glad we went, but for $108, I don’t think I’d do it again. It also got pretty crowded, maybe because of spring break? It was a good idea to be there early.

We grabbed lunch from the salad bar at Whole Foods in Monterey and headed down Highway 1 to Big Sur. I was mildly obsessed with finding Pfeiffer Beach, as I’d seen pictures online and was determined. Reading reviews on Trip Advisor were clutch, because the turn off is not marked at all, and we would have never found it otherwise. The weather was terrible with very strong winds, but it was well worth the $10 state park fee to spend a bit of time at the beach.

The sand there has a purple tint and the views are amazing. It would be fun to spend more time there on a less windy day. I suppose I did get a free dermabrasion treatment though!

Henry Cowell State Park Old growth redwoods

Pictures don’t do the big trees justice

Day 3: Santa Cruz

Day three was our best weather day of the trip, which was fitting because we wanted to go for a hike in the redwoods, then hit the boardwalk and beach. We chose the Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park because they had a trail with old growth redwoods. I’m not sure how to describe trees to make them sound cool, but if you’ve ever seen a 1700 year old tree, you understand. We also got lost trying to find the main entrance and got to take a sweet 3-4 mile hike in the redwoods where we saw virtually no one. Sometimes getting off the beaten path is the best part of the trip.

Boardwalk in Santa Cruz

Great weather in Santa Cruz

We spend the latter half of the afternoon on the boardwalk in Santa Cruz. At $32 per wristband, it was pricey, but we ended up having a blast. I think we rode the Giant Dipper four times. When your kid is finally old enough to ride and appreciate roller coasters, that’s a good day!

We found a reasonable diner type restaurant on the pier called Gilda’s. They had all you can eat spaghetti for $7.95, and I had a huge halibut dinner for $18. It was wonderful. We got to see the sun go down while the rides lit up on the boardwalk, which was probably worth as much as the price of the meal in itself.

Day 4: San Francisco: Alcatraz

Day four brought us back to the city, where we dropped our car off at the airport and were determined to rely on public transportation. While taking buses and subways may seem second nature to city dwellers, we have never lived somewhere cars are not required. Honestly, public transport makes us a bit nervous.

I have to say that San Francisco public transportation was cheap, clean, and easy. We took the BART to a stop right

Bay Bridge from Hyatt Regency

View of the Bay Bridge from the Hyatt Regency

near our hotel and then caught the street car to Fisherman’s Wharf to catch the Alcatraz ferry. All in all we spent $57 on city transportation, which included to and from the airport, much cheaper than taxis and way less than renting a car and paying $60 a day for parking!

Jim and I had been to Alcatraz before, and I’m not sure our eight year old really appreciated it, but I’m glad we went, and the weather was awesome. The last time I was there, it was freezing, so this was a huge improvement.

Day 5: Presidio and Golden Gate Bridge

Perhaps the best public transportation in all of San Francisco is the free bus from downtown to the Presidio caled the PresidiGo shuttle. It picks up right by the Hyatt Regency, where we were staying, and drops off right at the Presidio Transit Center. From there, you can pick up another shuttle that goes around the park and has a stop right by the Golden Gate Bridge. It was way quicker than the Muni bus and cost nothing. I believe the service is mostly for commuters, but it was certainly useful to us tourists on this trip.

Budget Breakers?

We stayed pretty close to our projected budget for this trip. We spent a bit more in Santa Cruz, but a bit less in San Francisco than we planned. My biggest stupid mistake was losing our Alcatraz tickets and having to pay $7 to use the business center to reprint them. It was also a real challenge to eat on $80 per day because most dinners were $60 or more. We balanced it out by eating cheap lunch and free breakfast at the hotels.

Having gold or platinum status through hotel credit cards helped tremendously, especially at the Hyatt in San Francisco. We had a club room, which gave us free snacks and drinks from the lounge on the top floor. Besides a killer view, we actually made one meal from appetizers and took advantage of free water and soft drinks.

It’s very tempting to throw caution to the wind and over indulge on vacation, but I’m really glad we made it home with money left over. I love being on vacation, and I always wish we had more time for travel, another good reason to work hard at this whole financial independence thing.

Have you been to Northern California? What is your favorite site to visit?

About Kim Parr

Kim Parr is a private practice optometrist, freelance writer, and personal financial blogger. You can follow her journey to 20/20 financial vision at Eyes on the Dollar.


  1. It sounds like you guys had a pretty fun trip!
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  2. Sounds like a great trip overall Kim! I’ve been to Northern California twice, but they were both very short trips. We’re wanting to go back and do some wine tasting and see the Redwoods. I always thought the same thing about the BART - you can’t beat it.
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  3. I super love that Golden Gate Bridge picture, it is really a breathtaking one. We are also planning to have a one week vacation with my daughter.
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  4. I LOVE Northern California! I used to work for a hedge fund and managed a property that we owned that was near Half Moon Bay, so I spent a lot of time out there. It’s challenging to stay within a budget while eating there, but the great thing is that there are so many wonderful walking tours you can do that are either free or super cheap because it’s a state park.
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    • The California State parks we visited were awesome. Besides the aquarium, Alcatraz, and the boardwalk, everything else we did was pretty much free.

  5. Sounds like you had a wonderful trip, Kim. Northern California is so beautiful. Our brownie troop has been going to San Francisco in December to see the Nutcracker as a reward trip for all the girls’ fundraising efforts. Such a beautiful city and it is easy to get around with public transportation, unlike LA.
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    • I think the weather in LA is probably nicer, but I really like how compact everything is in San Francisco. The few times I’ve been to LA, I feel like all I did was drive.

  6. Sounds like a fun trip. Alcatraz has always been on my to-do list since I saw the ’79 movie with Clint Eastwood. Love a good prison break!
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    • I have always been fascinated with Alcatraz. Being so close to civilization yet locked up must have been torture, but somehow appropriate?

  7. I love, love, love the Monetary Bay area and had a wonderful time there with my daughter. Even though California is too expensive to live it is so beautiful and I miss it a lot.
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  8. It all sounds SO beautiful, Kim! I often talk with the kids about the giant Redwoods in California and how we’ll visit them one day. Can’t wait! And terrific job on coming in under budget - that’s no small feat!
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  9. Wow! You lucked out with a clear day! When we went to San Francisco, we couldn’t see the top of the bridge until late afternoon. We explored the fort under the bridge, went to Alcatraz, Fishermen’s Wharf, and Lombardi Street. We loved Lombardi Street (the crookedest street) so much, we drove down three times;0) We only spent two days there on our 21 day road trip adventure. It was such a fun trip and it sounds like you had a great time too!
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  10. I love northern cali and especially Big Sur/ Carmel area. I agree about the aquarium. Great but not THAT great! Glad you had a good time and thank you so much again for letting us stay at your place!
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  11. Sounds like a wonderful trip, Kim! We’ve been to San Francisco a number of times and love going there. But, I’ve never been to see the redwoods. As a fellow tree fan, I think they sound amazing. Glad the public transit worked out well for you-that’s a great savings!
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  12. Thanks for sharing your trip! Victoria and I are fairly certain we will head to San Fran this Summer. We are looking forward to planning our trip. It sounds like public transit is the way to go?
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