What a great problem to have — how to select the best destination on the California coast for your upcoming vacation. With so many great options, it is difficult to choose, but we can help with our quick primer.

Half Moon Bay

Advantages — With its quiet, quaint streets, fine dining, and incredible open spaces from Redwood Preserves to pristine beaches, this is a perfect coastal destination for those looking for a romantic getaway. Far less developed than Santa Cruz or Monterey, Half Moon Bay allows you to throttle down and enjoy the beautiful ocean views and nature’s delights like beach combing, horseback riding, hiking and nature walks.

Disadvantages — Half Moon Bay is very small and undeveloped — meaning it lacks some of basic services and creature comforts, has very little nightlife, and has very few indoor activities for children. Traffic into and out of Half Moon Bay can be stop and go! Especially with Covid-19, out of town drivers looking for some cabin fever relief are swamping the roads in pursuit of a nice coastal drive or a trip to the beach. Also, weather can be cooler and fogger than Santa Cruz and Monterey so bundle up!

Learn more at https://explorer1.com/halfmoonbay/.

Santa Cruz

Advantages — Yes, they do have some nice beaches, excellent surfing, and wonderful open spaces and forests that are close by in the Santa Cruz Mountains. It also has an abundant supply of stores, restaurants, nightlife and music venues, bowling, indoor miniature golf, and, yes, the world famous Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. It also has warmer summer temperatures than Half Moon Bay and Monterey.

If your looking for a coastal destination that would cater to a family with older children; a young couple that loves to experience nature during the day and dancing at night; or foodies that want to experience annual events like the Greek Festival or dine at anyone of a number of fine restaurants, then Santa Cruz would be a great choice.

Disadvantages — Summer traffic can be a real issue to get into Santa Cruz. Also, it is really busy. It has a rather large population and when you balloon it with large numbers of tourists…well you get the idea. The city is also dealing with a large homeless population, and, a much darker issue, drug addiction and a needle exchange program that leaves some of their streets littered with syringes.

Learn more at https://explorer1.com/santacruz/.


Advantages — Perhaps the perfect blend between Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz is Monterey. It has the abundant supply of stores, restaurants, nightlife and music venues. Indoor activities like movie theaters, and the world famous Monterey Bay Aquarium. The coastline can be a little rocky, but Lover’s Point in Pacific Grove or Asilomar State Beach are great beach options for couples and families alike.

Disadvantages — It’s a longer drive from the Bay Area (1 1/2 to 2 hours). It has cooler weather temperatures than Santa Cruz. Fewer activities for older children — although more than Half Moon Bay. It also has fewer places for music and nightlife.

Learn more at https://explorer1.com/monterey/.


Advantages — It is a small, quaint coastal village with fine dinning, boutique stores and abundant art galleries. It does make for a nice romantic getaway, but I don’t think it’s a good option for families with children. The coastline is beautiful. The homes and building are wonderful.

Disadvantages — It seems to cater to an older, more affluent tourist, so, if you are a younger adult, you may want to think about Fort Bragg for nightlight, music, and casual dinning. The other real disadvantage is the drive. From San Francisco, it would take 3 to 3 1/2 to drive there. And the road is really windy!

Learn more at https://explorer1.com/mendocino/.