Here are six coastal family lodging possibilities, all with rates that start at less than $150 a night.
The Bay Club Hotel and Marina, 2131 Shelter Island Drive, San Diego; (800) 672-0800 or (619) 224-8888. www.bayclubhotel.com. Shelter Island isn't an island at all. It's a man-made finger of land, lined with hotels, restaurants, boat slips and yacht brokers, plopped into San Diego Bay. The Bay Club offers 105 rooms; all have decks or balconies, and most have big marina views. (Ask for a room on the north side, looking toward Point Loma.)
It's close to downtown, the airport and Balboa Park, not too far from Sea World. It has a restaurant and heated pool.
Though its grounds aren't spacious, there's plenty of room to ramble across the street, where there's a little beach with half a dozen fire rings, a long grassy area and a playground. Also, for better or worse, you may find yourself eavesdropping on a concert next door at Humphrey's; the music carries easily across the water. Rates $99 to $229, sometimes lower if things are slow.
Crystal Cove State Park cottages, Crystal Cove State Park, Laguna Beach; (800) 444-7275, www.crystalcovebeachcottages.org or www.reserveamerica.com. These waterfront shacks, built from the 1920s to the 1950s, are what you picture when you close your eyes and think "beach cottage."
There are 13 cottage lodgings available for rent (all sleep at least four people; one sleeps nine), and 24 others are awaiting restoration. You can eat at the Beachcomber Cafe or up the hill at Ruby's Shake Shack.
Rates are $121 to $191 (assuming four guests) for the nine private cottages with kitchens, $32 to $98 ($23 for each additional guest) for rooms in the three dorm-style cottages (where alcohol is not allowed). But booking is difficult. Reservations are accepted up to seven months in advance, and cottages get grabbed up immediately. So forget about this summer (unless there is a cancellation). Also, guests are limited to seven nights a year.
Casa Malibu Inn on the Beach, 22752 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu; (310) 456-2219; no website, but e-mail via firstname.lastname@example.org. This two-story, 21-room hotel, built in 1949, sits on the coveted ocean side of PCH, about seven miles north of Sunset Boulevard and just a few hundred yards south of the Malibu Pier. For a handy playground (and picnic tables with ocean views), try Malibu Bluffs Park, on the west side of Pacific Coast Highway.
The inn is simple, with the rooms arranged around a modest grass-and-brick courtyard and a couple of patio tables, but the ocean presence is intimate. Eight beachfront rooms with open-beam ceilings hang right above the sand. Co-owner Richard Page says that in coming months, the lodging will get new furniture and switch to flat-screen TVs. (The property is set up for Wi-Fi.) The most affordable rooms, which run as low as $139 on winter weekdays and as high as $239 on summer holidays, are the 10 garden-view units. Rates $169 to $499.
Gray's Inn & Gallery, 561 Embarcadero, Morro Bay; (805) 772-3911, www.graysinnandgallery.com. Here's a destination for a sleepy sort of beach trip, with perhaps a little wine-tasting thrown in. Besides browsing the shops and feeding the three obstreperous sea lions in the odd little Morro Bay Aquarium (a nonprofit rehab center for distressed animals), you can rent a kayak or canoe, take a bay tour by semi-submersible vessel or run around in the Cloisters Park playground at the north end of town.
The inn, which sits right in the middle of Embarcadero, the town's waterfront main drag, has three "motel apartments," each with kitchen and deck above the bay. There's no pool, but you have miles of beaches to the north and Montana de Oro State Park to the south. Units A and B hold up to four people; Unit C, two people. Rates go as low as $120 in winter, as high as $187 in summer.
Best Western Cavalier Oceanfront Resort, 9415 Hearst Drive, San Simeon; (805) 927-4688 or www.cavalierresort.com. San Simeon, the collection of roadside lodgings that grovel at the foot of Hearst Castle's hill, may not seem like a place you'll want to linger long. But the Cavalier resort is a haven.
The 90-room hotel has two outdoor pools, 900 feet of ocean frontage, lots of grass for kids to run around on, a few outdoor fireplaces that staffers stoke in the evening, and a restaurant.
But a few miles south, don't forget, you'll find the eateries, shops and beaches of Cambria, not to mention the Shamel County Park playground (on Windsor Boulevard). Rates $99 to $319.
Alegria, 44781 Main St., Mendocino; (800) 780-7905 or (707) 937-5150, www.oceanfrontmagic.com. This is a much-amended 1861 house with neighboring cottages -- 10 rooms and suites in all, some with TVs.
In a notoriously quaint town full of B&Bs; (and a playground at Friendship Park), this is the only one with its own trail down to the beach, about 200 steps. Hot tub, no pool. Rates $159 to $299, with three-night discounts that drop summer rates as low as $109 and winter rates as low as $79 (based on three- or four-night stay).