Our family trip to Joshua Tree National Park
Hello, April!

Our family trip to San Juan Capistrano


Earlier this week, I wrote about the first half of our spring break trip to Joshua Tree National Park. I'd love to share a recap of the second part of our trip in San Juan Capistrano, California. Let's go!

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San Juan Capistrano

After the remote desert of Joshua Tree National Park, we were excited to get to the beach.  Our trip to San Juan Capistrano came about through Home Exchange when a woman reached out to me with interest in staying in our home. Otherwise San Juan Capistrano would not have been on my radar for a trip. But I'm so glad this worked out because we found San Juan Capistrano to be fun and family friendly. That's a big perk of Home Exchange, discovering new places you love that otherwise you might never have considered.

Another perk of Home Exchange is the warm hospitality. When we arrived at the house we found Easter baskets for each of the kids, snacks for us, and a friendly note encouraging us to help ourselves to anything and to try making fresh orange juice with backyard oranges!

The home where we stayed was about a 12 minute drive from the beaches of Dana Point plus was conveniently located near Trader Joe's, Target (to buy the sand toys we forgot to bring!), and great restaurants. We were in a quiet neighborhood with walking paths and a nearby soccer field (which Dash was thrilled with) and a playground. Whenever I'm on the west coast I always gawk enviously at the beautiful plants that grow so abundantly, and I did plenty of that during walks on our trip.


It turns out we're a beach family

This was our very first beach trip as a family of five and we all loved it. We've taken the boys to the Texas coast before but years ago (May 2018!), and Maeve had never been. I wasn't sure how much time we'd spend at the beach because the weather forecast seemed chilly to me, but we ended up going to the beach nearly every day and we all loved it.

It dawned on me that the beach is like a playground that kids and adults can all enjoy at their own speed. With kiddos aged 3 to 10, it's rare to find a family activity that everyone can enjoy equally. So I was very pleasantly surprised that the beach offers something for everyone. When we travel, Chris and I usually crave places that are green and chilly, like the Pacific Northwest: the opposite of Arizona weather. I'm usually not drawn to the beach because we already get so much sun year-round. But I grew up making annual beach trips with my family and on this trip found a renewed love for the beach and ocean.

Our favorite beach to visit was Doheny Sate Beach where there was easy parking, a wide beach, and a great beach cafe (Doho Cafe) that we hit many times. Maeve was especially delighted by the smoothies. I can recommend the fish tacos and do not miss the elote.

The boys braved the surf and by the end of the trip we had rented wet suits from the friendly Killer Dana Surf Shop so they could try body boarding and surfing. Maeve and I enjoyed chilling on the beach, playing with sand toys, and watching all the surfers. We're heading back to the beach this summer when we'll go to San Diego and now I'm even more excited for that trip.


Ocean adventures

Ahead of our trip, I booked a half day fishing trip for the boys and myself through Dana Wharf. The boys first had a fishing lesson and then we headed out into the ocean to fish. We had such a great time! The boys took to fishing right away and bravely scooped up live sardines and dead squid to hook on their lines. They could cast out so far and we all ended up catching at least one fish. Dash caught five!

I love being with my kids out in nature and doing things that I hope will give them more understanding and appreciation of our natural world. Plus, I love doing adventurous things with them on my own so that they'll always think of their mom (and women generally) as adventurous and capable.

Another great ocean adventure on this trip was Chris taking the boys body boarding and surfing. This was a bit spontaneous and I was skeptical of renting the surf board but I'm so glad that Chris led the way on this (with encouragement from the surf shop owner). The boys loved being out on the waves and I was especially impressed at how well Cedric took to surfing by getting up on his knees for a few waves. We'd love to get the boys surf lessons this summer in San Diego so I'll take any recs for that if you have them.


Good food, good friends, and guinea pigs

We found plenty of great food during our time in San Juan Capistrano. Our favorites included The Shwack for great fish tacos on a patio, Orange County Creamery for ice cream, and Coffee Importers for delicious bagel creations (Chris and I shared the lox bagel – that lemon pepper makes it!) and for ice cream scoops later the same day. A funny little story about Coffee Importers is that I was texting a Gilbert friend during our trip about something else and mentioned where we were. She excitedly replied back that she loves the area and especially a spot called Coffee Importers. It worked out that we could go later that same morning and we loved it. I love serendipitous travel discoveries like that.


Other hits include Hidden House for coffee and a "bagel bomb" (a sphere of bagel bread filled with cheese and herbs. Messy to eat but so good!), and JD Flannel for what Chris and I agreed might be the best donuts ever. Oh! And one other exciting food related note to share: we noticed Dash eating much more adventurously on this trip! He readily tried the samosas we got in Joshua Tree, and happily tried bites of our fish tacos.

I was blown away on our last day when Dash went to the beach cafe by himself to order lunch. I assumed he would come back with a burger but he returned with an order of fish tacos. What?! I tried to play it cool but inside I was having a triumphant dance party. It was a highlight of the entire trip for me!240328_SJC_dash_maeve 240328_SJC_guinea

Another high point of the trip for me was getting to spend time with my dear friend, Sarah Powers! She lives about three hours north of San Juan Capistrano and so we drove to meet in the middle at the plant-filled Matthew's Garden Cafe in Pacific Palisades. Sarah and I talk regularly on Voxer but haven't spent much in-person time together so it was so lovely to have a conversation in real time. It was also nice to have a half-day getaway and time with a friend after a lot of family time together! Plus I feel that I earned my "I drove on L.A. highways" adulting badge.


And finally, guinea pigs. Sarah, who actually used to live near San Juan Capistrano, had some great local recs for me. One was Zoomars, a sweet petting zoo experience for kids (and conveniently right near Hidden House and a playground). I took Maeve one afternoon and it was a highlight for us, especially the guinea pigs. There's a large guinea pig enclosure where you can sit with your very own guinea pig for as long as you'd like.

Maeve is pretty timid, especially around animals, but she warmed up to our guinea pig, Nemo!, and would pet his back while I fed him. By the end of our guinea pig session she was petting his head and delighting in his squeaks. She would still only feed him by quickly dropping lettuce in his vicinity but for a girl who is very shy of animals (and most things) this was a big achievement.

Speaking of bravery, I noticed each of my kids being brave on this trip and pointed it out to each of them. Dash ate fish tacos. Cedric went out into the ocean by himself to catch some waves. Maeve pet a guinea pig, slept in new places, and went pee on the “scary” potty in Joshua Tree National Park. (Fact: pit toilets are indeed scary.)


Final trip notes

A few other tidbits to share include that the kids got tons of screen time during our drives and during our stay as well. We would try to get everyone out for at least one extended activity a day but when we were home they often wanted to chill out with screens. Do I love that? No. But is it terrible? Also no. Honestly I think as the kids get older it's easier to manage screen time because we can give the boys limits and they will obey them (even if begrudgingly). With a three year old it's harder, especially as she sees her brothers on screens.

Overall the kids were awesome and got along really well. Towards the end of the trip we started to see some more challenging behavior which is understandable. We were out of our routine and spending a lot of time together for over a week. What helped was finding some one on one time with each of the kids so I want to remember to look for that on future trips. It also really helped me to find some solo escapes. My trip to see Sarah was wonderful. And another morning I went to Orange Theory and then sat at Hidden House and read for a long time. Trips should include relaxing for the parents as well as the kids!


I'd love to know if you've visited the San Juan Capistrano area and have any recs for us. The couple we exchanged with also loved their stay in Gilbert so I think it's likely we might do the exchange again. I didn't make time to visit the mission this time (doh!) but definitely will next time.


P.S. Our first Home Exchange experience in Madison, Wisconsin.