The California Bucket List: Your daily guide to the best adventures and experiences in the Golden State

Surfin' Santa Cruz like a local

A family getaway to Santa Cruz proved this eccentric beach town along California's Central Coast is fun enough for a 5-year-old yet cool enough for a teenager. The excitement of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk entertained our young daughter, while the Australian exchange student we're hosting zigzagged her way in and out of trendy stores on Pacific Avenue. We were in town to cheer on my wife, who was playing roller derby against the Santa Cruz Harbor Hellcats. Here's what we did with the rest of our time.

The bed

Instead of booking a generic hotel room, I decided to try Airbnb, an online vacation rental service (it is Santa Cruz, after all). A variety of Airbnb rentals can be found in the area, ranging from cottages to cob houses. We chose a two-bedroom bungalow next to the beach. At one end of the street was Pleasure Point, a well-known surf spot; at the other was Coffeetopia, a coffee shop where locals hang out.

The meal

Our favorite (and cheapest) meal of the trip was breakfast at Paula's (3500 Portola Drive; [831] 464-0741). At this surf-themed restaurant we ate our breakfast inside an old yellow van parked near the entrance. I had two eggs, potatoes smothered in salsa, and toast for $2.99. A true Santa Cruz experience — all for less than $20. For about twice that price, we had lunch at Hula's Island Grill & Tiki Room (221 Cathcart St.; [831] 426-4852), where we ate spicy tofu tacos, tofu-stuffed Vietnamese spring rolls and, from the kids menu, fried organic tofu sticks. As a nice touch, they handed out crayons and a scuba-diving picture for kids to color.

The find

A short distance from the busy streets of Santa Cruz is the George Washington Picnic Area, which has a serene redwood grove and creek along Branciforte Drive. The city park is open from sunrise to sunset and has several sites that can be reserved for group picnics. On a Sunday afternoon in late August, only two of the many picnic tables were being used, allowing us to sit in the shade and enjoy leftover pineapple pizza.

The lesson learned

We discovered the picnic area after leaving the Mystery Spot, whose website describes it as a "gravitational anomaly located in the redwood forests just outside Santa Cruz." Our curiosity wasn't strong enough, however, to wait 31/2 hours for a tour of this popular tourist destination where "the laws of physics do not apply." Next time we'll purchase advance tickets online.

The tab

Excluding transportation, we spent about $400, including $206 for a night at the beach bungalow, $18.60 at Paula's and $43.40 at Hula's.

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