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California Dreaming Family Road Trip

A Family Road Trip could well be a recipe for disaster, especially with a wifi obsessed teen and tween. So, I make sure that our route from Los Angeles to San Francisco is dotted with internet friendly hotels. Our trusty steed is a comfortable Volvo jeep from Sixt car rentals − it’s easy to book online and organise its return to an alternate city. The journey starts at Santa Monica as we check-in to the super trendy Shore Hotel. We are offered a glass of champagne on arrival and slip out to the pool with the best view on Santa Monica’s Ocean Avenue. There’s so much more to this town than pristine beaches. Third Street Promenade hosts great stores and eateries with sculpted dinosaurs and animal trees. We hire bikes from Perry’s Cafe which has rentals dotted along Ocean Front Walk. As we take the winding bicycle path to Venice Beach my daughter Nicole is instantly swayed towards the henna tattoos. A cacophony of buskers, Bob Marley and entertainment from a $5 freakshow beckon, but we keep peddling. We are part of bohemia and this teenage heaven gets a cool thumbs-up.

Back on Santa Monica Pier there’s lots to do at the retro Pacific Park fairground complete with wooden rollercoasters and the absolute end of the road signpost for route 66. Inspired by the body builders and svelte-like models on rollerskates whizzing past, we take the healthy option to eat at the True Food Kitchen. Mouth-watering smoothies with Kale and mangos wash down our grass-fed-beef burgers.

A bus tour is the best way to get our bearings in the sprawling LA metropolis. We take the long established Starline Tours red route from the Chinese theatre. Rodeo drive is a decadent display of over indulgence and even the Pretty Woman factor doesn’t entice us to get off the bus. Instead the kids love the upbeat graffiti covered stores on Melrose and funky eateries like Pinks Hot Dogs. We spend ages walking along Hollywood Boulevard while the kids search for their favourite stars. California is theme park paradise and we opt for Universal Studios. We jump on the newest rollercoaster rides and end up drenched at some old jewels like Jurassic Park and the stunt show Waterworld. We move in to the city centre next night to stay at the Radisson Midtown Hotel situated close to Staples Centre. I bought tickets on line for a Lakers basketball game and we find ourselves rubbing shoulders with the kid’s favourite actor, Will Ferrell.

We wave goodbye to LA and start our drive along the Pacific Coast Highway. Highway One takes us past Malibu mansions and the crystal blue coastline. Soon we start to climb the winding roads through the national parklands en route to our first stop at Santa Barbara. We check-in at the Fess Parker by Double Tree which is situated on the seafront and a great location to explore State Street and the pier. The kids hit the hot tub and I take the opportunity to stroll on the Mediterranean-like seafront, as Donald Trump and his entourage jog past.

One night isn’t enough in this cosy haven that smacks of old Andalucia but we set off again. ‘Look at the lovely wine-gardens,’ the tween points out on the road to San Luis Obispo. Our hotel at Apple Farm is fantastic for families and we are greeted on arrival with a glass of local wine and warm chocolate chip cookies. The rooms in our family suite are adjoined and cosy, decorated with vintage-apple-crate design. Downtown San Luis is home to Bubblegum Alley − my daughter informs me that her favourite Youtubers have been here. We can smell the sweet sickly stench of chewed gum as we approach it. Some people choose to leave notes and other mementos attached to their gum but my crew just stick a blob on the wall. Ideal for families SLO boasts the stunning Pismo Beach and famous Hearst Castle nearby. We get up early next morning to eat breakfast at Morro Bay. A mound protrudes just outside the harbour like a giant weathered sandcastle that the tide forgot to take out and a skateboard museum amuses the kids for a while.

As we cruise along Big Sur the kids never once ask, ‘Are we nearly there yet?’ The waves are a shade of turquoise blue that only the ocean can mix up. Big Sur is more a state of mind or rite of passage than a destination and we are delighted that the kids ‘get it!’ We stop at a gallery and restaurant for a chance to ponder the glorious three hour drive we have taken.

We are fully in our stride as we cruise in to Monterey and John Steinbeck country. Yes, Cannery Row is a ‘tourist trap’ but no longer ‘a stink’ as described by the author of the same novel. Instead the profuse aromas of warm chowder and homemade ice-cream fill the air. Monterey Bay Aquarium is a thrill for the kids and the little sea otters give displays of affection as they twist and turn on to their backs. The colourful jelly fish are a must see. Later we dine at the delicious Beach House restaurant at Lovers Bay − named after the religious pilgrims who came to this site to pray rather than the other kind of lovers.

Next morning I insist that my teen gets to know Steinbeck, after all he has read The Pearl. We eat lunch at Steinbeck House where the author was born and lived as a boy. It is lovingly preserved and run by the volunteers of Valley Guild who have created a welcoming restaurant. With appetites sated, the Steinbeck Center is only a stone’s throw away on Main Street, Salinas. Here the author’s work comes to life as we are treated to memorabilia and clips from the movies East of Eden and the Grapes of Wrath amongst others. I have to be dragged away by the family from my homage and ninety minutes later we are driving in to San Francisco. The San Remo hotel is over 100 years old and houses the atmospheric Dior d’Italia restaurant which has been around since1886. We are serenaded by wonderful live jazz as we dine on authentic Italian cuisine.

There is so much to do in San Francisco it’s difficult to choose. Alcatraz is a must see and the audio tour takes us through every step of the cell-block. It’s pricey but book online to avoid the queues. Later we hire bikes to cross the Golden Gate Bridge and take in the overwhelming views of the bay and Marin County. Muir Woods, with Redwood trees stretching over 250 feet high is a great way to spend the day on the other side of the bay. We stop off in Mill Valley for lunch, a nice alternative to the bustling Sausalito.

We move into the Westin St Francis Hotel − an iconic landmark in Union Square and close to Westfield shopping centre with all the brands kid’s love. It’s a stone’s throw from Chinatown. Our CityPass assures entry into the main attractions including all transport options. We take a wooden tram from outside our hotel down to Pier 39 and dine at Pier Market restaurant. The fun packed Exploratorium and Madame Tussauds fill up the next day and all too soon we’ve reached the end of the road.

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Michelle Jackson is the Irish author of six bestselling novels set in exotic locations. Her best known titles include One Kiss in Havana, Three Nights in New York and 4am in Las Vegas. She is a travel writer for a variety of Irish national newspapers including the Irish Mail on Sunday and the Sunday World. Sometimes she pops up in TV as a panelist on the Irish lifestyle program Midday on TV3.

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