Monterey, California

The MY (Monterey County Youth) Museum in Monterey has all manner of hands-on activities (MY Museum / August 21, 2011)

After a long car ride, my wife and I stopped at Lovers Point Park in Pacific Grove to let our 4-year-old daughter, Ediza, release some energy. Its beach is popular with kids who like to ride boogie boards and check out hermit crabs in the tide pools. Ediza chased seagulls and collected seashells.

We eventually made our way to Veteran's Memorial Park in Monterey, where a friend had set up her 1984 Volkswagen camper van — named Brownie — for us to sleep in.

The park, about a mile uphill from Old Monterey and the Fisherman's Wharf area, feels like a forested oasis with 40 campsites available on a first-come, first-served basis. We paid $32 a night ($27 to camp, plus $5 for a second vehicle).

The campground has clean bathrooms with lockers and showers. Best of all, it has a nice playground and a large grass field where deer wander.

Each campsite has a picnic table and a fire pit with a grill for cooking — there are several grocery stores nearby — but we opted instead for pizza and beer. Then my wife, Amber, patiently made Jiffy Pop over the campfire, and we ate burned popcorn as the fog rolled in.

The fog was still there in the morning when I got up to take an early walk at the Huckleberry Hill Nature Preserve adjacent to the campground. The trail system is said to have great views of the coastline, but on this mid-April morning all I saw was misty fog.

After packing up we drove downtown to the MY (Monterey County Youth) Museum, a cheaper, child-friendly alternative to the Monterey Bay Aquarium (admission is $7 for adults and children, compared with $29.95 for adults and $19.95 for children at the aquarium).

With that said, the museum is small and can get crowded. It's best to arrive about noon, when many children are napping, to avoid the crowds. On the Monday morning we were there, the museum was full of young kids and their parents.

MY Museum's interactive displays include a gigantic bubble machine, pretend hospital (where there's a giant game of Operation) and a crafts station stocked with toilet paper rolls, wine corks and other materials to satisfy the creative urges of most children.

Ediza's favorite station was a make-believe theater where kids can dress up and perform on a stage complete with a velvet curtain. In the backstage dressing room, children were ripping off costumes only to quickly put on another. Our daughter dressed up as a princess, unicorn, chicken and pink poodle.

To coax Ediza out of the museum, we lured her across the street to Paris Bakery at 271 Bonifacio Place. The bakery has an overwhelming display of French pastries, and for the kids there are cookies shaped like the Eiffel Tower. For about $21, we bought two sandwiches, a small quiche, two tasty pastries, a cookie and a breadstick.

With our picnic safely packed, we took a short drive to Monterey Bay Park, where we stowed our car in a beachfront lot for $1.50 an hour. We ate our lunch while watching sea lions chase one another in the water and kayakers launching in the bay. Ediza ran around collecting rocks and feathers.

She still had energy to burn, so we headed to the Dennis the Menace Playground — the most elaborate playground we have ever visited. Among its features are a climbing wall, a variety of slides and a suspension bridge. The drinking fountain was in the shape of a lion, which meant Ediza had to put her head in its mouth to take a gulp of water.

At the playground, we recognized families we had seen earlier in the day at the MY Museum and beach.

"We have to make the Monterey rounds," one mom said to me.

We continued on our rounds to touristy Fisherman's Wharf, where parking is $1 for 30 minutes. I drank local coffee from Carmel Valley Coffee Roasting Co., Ediza ate a corn dog and fries, and we bought saltwater taffy as gifts.

Instead of buying an overpriced T-shirt from one of the souvenir shops, we made our way to the local Goodwill thrift store at 571Lighthouse Ave. Amber and I bought warm sweaters, which we quickly put on for a walk among the vibrant flowers and the rugged coastline.

Of all Monterey has to offer, that simple walk along the beach was just the best.

travel@latimes.com