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Planning the California leg of the trip mostly revolved around where we would be on Saturday, April 30th. It’s one of the most important days of the year in our family – our baby’s birthday!

Jasper turned six on this day and we planned his day to be one of minimal travel where we could find cupcakes and balloons easily and enjoy attractions for a little boy. The coastal towns along Monterey Bay would provide the perfect match for all of our criteria for six-year-old birthday fun!

We would spend the morning at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and then drive down the coast to the Monterey Bay Aquarium for the rest of the afternoon.

Our Santa Cruz hotel, the Carousel Beach Inn, was right across the street from the main entrance to the Beach Boardwalk. The amusements wouldn’t open until 11:00 AM so we had a very leisurely morning. The day began by Facetiming back home while opening the gifts we brought with us all the way across the country. Note the flat, easily-storable shapes of said gifts that fit perfectly under the back seat! We used every square inch of storage space in our Rav4 for this trip!

Every birthday boy needs birthday balloons so we drove out to Safeway, the standard grocery store chain out west for those easterners like us who were unaware! A BB-8 balloon also caught Jasper’s eye so we left with a spunky floating droid as well.

We were still back at the Boardwalk well before opening time and held a birthday photoshoot while it was still empty. The birthday boy wasn’t exactly excited or entirely cooperative for this part of the day, but Mommy managed to get a few decent shots with the promise “you’ll love these when you’re older!” It was such a bright and colorful setting to perfectly capture the California-ness of the day.

We returned to our room, packed up and loaded our car, and then returned at 11:00 when the rides opened.

First up was the Ferris Wheel, which Mommy and Jasper rode together and quickly remembered how deceptively frightening ferris wheels can be! The view from the top, right on the edge of the ocean with a clear shot to the mountains, was breathtaking.

All four of us rode the Tornado, which required manually spinning our hanging seats while circling around the center pivot, similar to the teacups at Disney World. The boys then rode a few kiddie rides, the Convoy trucks, Sea Dragons, and Bulgy the Whale, before Jasper and I ended together with the Rock & Roll cars which was surprisingly our favorite of all the rides.

We easily enjoyed nearly hour’s worth of rides before any lines started forming.

The drive down to Monterey began at noon and time was of the essence if we were going to make it to the aquarium with plenty of time to visit before closing time, so we ate sandwiches in the car for lunch. Traffic was heavier than I expected and the drive ended up taking longer than estimated at nearly two hours.

Entering Monterey, we easily found vacant parking on this early afternoon in a parking garage that was a short walk from the front door of the aquarium. We’d have three hours until closing time to explore the aquarium which sounded like just the right amount of time.

Right away, we were treated to a random act of kindness while paying for tickets when the father ahead of us in line handed us an unused child’s ticket voucher. The birthday boy’s ticket was free!

We’re familiar with North Carolina sea life after visiting the coastal aquariums many times so it was interesting to note the different species of the same animals living off opposite coasts. Both coasts have stingrays, but they are bat rays here in California and Atlantic stingrays in North Carolina. Monterey is home to leopard sharks instead of our familiar sand tiger sharks. These animal species variations were a common note of interest on the trip as a whole, from the differences in sea life to blue jays to squirrels.

Jellies are always a favorite and the boys enjoyed the touch pools and various play areas throughout the aquarium.

We watched for the penguin feeding and briefly stopped by the otter feeding which was just as crowded, but Jasper decided finding a glass of water was more important than watching the otter feeding anyway! That’s alright, Jasper, witnessing an otter meal isn’t anything unique and something we can see any day!

We returned to the signature Kelp Forest at the end of the day when the crowds had thinned considerably to find the viewing room almost deserted. We enjoyed our nearly private viewing, mesmerized by the gentle swaying of the long stalks of kelp and the all the fish darting throughout.

At the gift shop, Jasper chose to buy a stuffed otter (whom he named Ottery) and dolphin (immediately named Dolphiny) with the birthday money he’d received earlier in the day.

Before finding our motel, we drove to a Whole Foods to pick up cupcakes, vanilla for the birthday boy and chocolate for the rest of us, and sushi dinner for Mom and Dad. We made a separate stop for the kids’ beloved McDonalds Happy Meal. We were keeping a strict no-Micky D’s policy on this trip that absolutely did NOT apply on his birthday!

We checked into the Butterfly Grove Inn, a small family-owned motel in nearby Pacific Grove. Our room was in an old house on the property that had been converted into multiple motel rooms and our first floor room was huge! We keep it simple when choosing our lodging and always end up in a typical motel room with a couple of beds and a tiny table with two chairs. This room had a large living area with a full-size dining table and four chairs so it was the perfect room to be spending a birthday evening. We had plenty of room to enjoy our dinners and cupcakes.

This California birthday for our Carolina boy will be a memorable one, for sure!

Jasper’s rough draft for a postcard he mailed home to his otter-loving Aunt Kristen: “My birthday was otterifik!”

Monterey Bay Aquarium