Wednesday 5 September 2018

Making memories in California

Natural Bridges State Beach, Santa Cruz
Credit: William Lam
When I was a career gal, I worked in New York for about 18 months during the late nineties as a financial journalist. As well as embracing the American work ethic, I spent my generous British holiday allowance travelling around new England, upstate New York, Puerto Rico and the sultry New Orleans. The one place I never managed to visit was the West Coast, despite picking up a guide to California from my local Barnes & Noble. Over the years, Highway 1 has taken on mythical status - it was the vacation that got away...

Almost two decades later, my husband and I were talking about our next summer holiday. Our kids had reached the ages of 14 and 11 so we were ready for a more ambitious trip. My hefty - and now vintage - California guide book was still gathering dust on the bookshelf. In an impulsive moment, we decided to resurrect my old plans to visit the West Coast. Using my husband's air miles, we hastily booked return flights to San Francisco before we could change our minds!

After months of research, we planned out the route and booked a mix of hotels and Airbnbs along the coast from San Francisco down to Los Angeles, and then back up again via the Sequoia National Park. In July, we finally flew out of London Heathrow for a three-week trip, armed with sweaters, swimming costumes and walking shoes.

Californian dreaming...

It turned out to be one of our best family holidays. At every stop along the coast, there were new things to discover: spectacular scenery, coastal biking, sea-kayaking, barking sea lions, curious bears 😬 and lots of city sights. We took Granny with us part of the way and also met up with friends and family. It was like several holidays rolled into one! Best of all, everyone got on famously and because my husband was engaged in the 'here and now', he didn't have too much opportunity to think about work. For once, reality lived up to the dream... 

Travel tips from our West Coast trip

San Francisco

Take an Uber out to Crissy Field Beach at sunset to photograph the Golden Gate Bridge with the sun melting behind the steel fretwork. Top tip: take a warm jumper - it gets pretty chilly after sunset.

The Golden Gate Bridge

Jump on on the old cable car - we caught the Powell-Hyde line from Fisherman's Wharf - to get the lie of the city. Top tip: go early (like 8 a.m.) while you're still jet-lagged to avoid queuing. 

Do visit the noisy sea lions on Pier 39 - they are great entertainers, whether they are slobbing out on the dock or chasing each other in and out of the sea. They started hanging out on the pier after an earthquake in 1989.

Santa Cruz

Simple! Just stay at Dream Inn where you can lounge by the pool with cocktails and quesadillas from the bar, or swim with seals in the sea... all while the sea lions bark under the boardwalk. Travel blogger supremo, A Modern Mother, recommended this place and I'm so glad she did. Think chilled-out beach vibe with vibrant decor and comfy beds. Top tip: borrow hotel bikes for free and cycle along the coast to the Natural Bridges State Beach.

Dream Inn, Santa Cruz


You can't stay here without visiting the world-class aquarium (leopard sharks, sea otters, awesome jelly fish and a kelp forest), but also make time for a stroll around the dramatic coastline at Point Lobos. Top tip: find a ranger who will explain the difference between seals and sea-lions. If you're lucky, he'll even let you look through his telescope!

Point Lobos

Big Sur and south

Driving along Highway 1 is a treat in itself - it's hard to resist all those vista points. Bixby Creek Bridge is an amazing feat of engineering and a nerve-jangling sight! Then there is the scenic waterfall cascading Bounty-bar style onto a beach in the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park (a short hike from the highway).

Bixby Creek Bridge
Credit: William Lam

My favourite pit-stop? The elephant seal beach near San Simeon. We just pulled off the road and stumbled upon dozens of blobby elephant seals piled up on the shore - grumbling, snoring, flicking sand and heaving their enormous, slug-like bodies up and down the beach. Hilarious to watch!

Top tip: keep lots of storage space on your phone - you'll want to take endless photos and video clips.

Santa Barbara

No question about it, my favourite memory here was body-boarding in the surf on Hendry's Beach with family friends (who kindly supplied the boards!) There's also a nice restaurant on the beach - Boathouse - but you'll need a reservation.

Sea-kayaking in the harbour was fun but book early, particularly if you want to catch a ferry out to Santa Cruz Island to see more wildlife.

Sea-kayaking in Santa Barbara

Top tip: if you suffer from 'straw hair' as I do in the sun, pop into the Aveda store in the chichi Paseo Neuvo mall and buy some Damage Remedy treatment - it's a miracle cure!

Santa Monica / Los Angeles

My kids would tell you to visit Universal Studios, but I would say hit the beach! Miles of sand and surf extending from Santa Monica to Venice Beach. We arrived on a Saturday evening just before sunset and it was like circus school down there: people performing acrobatics on the exercise bars, high-powered yoga and tight-rope walking.

Santa Monica beach
Credit: William Lam

For a more cerebral activity, visit the Getty Villa, a replica of a Roman villa from Herculaneum, although I imagine the real thing was not quite so immaculate. My son enjoyed the new Percy Jackson audio tour.

Top tip: try breakfast on the beach at the Perry's cafe and watch the locals playing volley ball with Sinatra tunes belting out from the cafe speakers. (And if you succumb to Universal Studios, download the app to check out waiting times on all the rides.)

Sequoia National Park

There's lots to do in this national park - climbing mountains, swimming in lakes, or even visiting the underground Crystal Cave - but you mustn't miss out on visiting the giant Sequoia trees. As the largest living tree, General Sherman is the star of the forest, but there are plenty more to blow your mind. The circumference of these trees is as big as 30 metres. They are true wonders of nature and if you're lucky you might even spot a bear or four on the trails, as we did... but that's another story.

Tree-hugging the McKinley Sequoia tree
Credit: William Lam

Top tip: order a packed lunch from Wuksachi Lodge and take a day-long hike across the park (using the free shuttle bus to reach different points of interest). 

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