Lots of you will know that the blog has been quiet this summer as the family and I spent four amazing weeks travelling around California, an opportunity we had due to my husband’s change of jobs and a trip we just had to take before the boys become men and the moment is lost. It was a really big deal for us and I wanted to take the summer off of the usual pressure to post the right sort of thing on Instagram, so I documented our trip on a private account called Maman En Vacances (Mum on holiday), knowing that I wouldn’t need to worry about hashtags or engagement – I could just post what I felt like and would know that those who were following the account were doing so because they were interested in the trip.
But naturally I’ve had loads of questions about what we did, where we stayed and whether we’d recommend it and of course I’ve also got eleventy billion amazing photos to share with the world (sorry), so here we are – the first in what I expect will be a three parter (how do you fit a four week trip into 1000 words) all about our Californian adventure.
First up…. why Cali? Well it took a long time to choose where to go. Sri Lanka was a top contender, as was Costa Rica – this was James’ opportunity to have a good chunk of time off work for the first time in decades and for him the priority was finding some reliable waves to surf. We came pretty close to booking a more backpacker type adventure but when we visited Paris at Christmas and the little one got really ill, I was so grateful for an abundance of world class health care that we decided, for now, we need our creature comforts.
The Pacific coast is renowned for its surf spots and I’d visited California as a teen and had some great memories. So decision made, flights were booked (we chose to fly in and out of San Francisco as it was slightly cheaper, flights shorter and the airport much less busy than LAX which is a huge international hub) and I was given the task of plotting and organising our route!
The flight was brilliant which is a big, bold statement from someone who is completely terrified of flying (blog post about this to follow). Ten hours and fifteen minutes actually went by really quickly and a day flight meant we all stayed awake watching films, arrived tired (Cali is eight hours behind so it’s a long old day), pushed through and had dinner and then slept long and hard ready to get stuck in the next day. We were all up early but adjusted really quickly – and the bonus to early starts is that you can visit the busy places before they get too busy!
We stayed at the Hyatt Centric in Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco (but booked through Booking.com which worked really well for reasons I’ll explain in the next paragraph). I’d definitely recommend it; perfectly located (admittedly in the most touristy part of the city but that’s ok) and the beds were great – we had everything we needed and the hotel had a small pool and even let you borrow bikes, locks and helmets free of charge which was a bonus.
Most accommodation that we booked (that wasn’t through Air BnB or an independent resort) we booked through booking.com, selecting the option to cancel up to 48 hours before arrival. This meant that we had great accommodation confirmed but if we received an amazing tip in the run up to our stay or saw an awful trip advisor review or even, (as actually happened later in the trip), decided we wanted to change our itinerary just slightly, we had the flexibility to do this. You can manage all your bookings via an app and I found it really easy.
On our first day we rose early and headed straight to Pier 39 to see the sea lions and get a good view of the bay and the infamous Alcatraz prison. This was a perfect decision as the city is really slow to rise and with perfect blue skies we got some great views and didn’t have to battle a hundred other tourists. It’s a great city for an early morning run – the roads are empty!
Initially we had only twenty four hours to see all of SF’s sights so decided to do the most touristy thing imaginable and book tickets on a hop on hop off bus tour – but it was actually a great choice. We were all excited but jet lagged, so having someone show us all the big things we needed to see was perfect. Highlights were driving over the Golden Gate Bridge and through Haight-Ashbury (the hippy part of town) and Golden Gate Park. In hindsight I wish I’d waited to book the bus tickets through the hotel’s concierge as they were discounted but it wasn’t a big issue.
We ate a couple of overpriced and not too tasty meals in the main tourist district but had a great, traditional Italian meal before we left at Fior – the oldest Italian in the city! There was live music and the children were really well looked after.
On day three we picked up our car, which, I’l be honest was the only hugely stressful experience of the trip. We booked through Hertz as we’d had a bad experience with an independent car hire place on a previous holiday and the service was shocking. On arrival at the city branch, thirty people who had all booked and paid for cars were about to start a riot as they had no cars and no suggestions as to how we might all go about our journey! After a two and a half hour wait, by some miracle they called our name and up pulled the biggest, tank like SUV you’ve ever seen! We were the only people who left with a car that morning and were just so relieved that we could make our next stop that we would have taken anything. The beast had plenty of room but made my environmental conscience shiver. I’m so sorry planet earth 🙁
Next stop was a two night stay in Pacific Grove which is a cute residential seaside town a stone’s throw away from Monterey (the infamous setting of Big Little Lies) and Carmel. We stopped off at Santa Cruz and perused the skate shops and had a bite on the beach. I’d definitely recommend our Air BnB in Pacific Grove as having everything we needed and a nice view.
Monterey itself is pretty touristy but definitely worth a visit. We had an incredible morning at Monterey Aquarium – the jellyfish were mesmerising. My husband, the nature lover, saw sea otters and some incredible bird life.
We shopped at the nearby Trader Joe’s for food (kind of like Whole Foods) and enjoyed some self catering followed by ice cream sundaes at the world famous Ghiardellis!
I did the first of lots of thrift store browsing in picturesque Pacific Grove and we all enjoyed walking/jogging to Lover’s Point.
Next day it was time for our first big drive in the beast. The Pacific Coast Highway between Monterey and San Simeon starts off with 17 mile drive and continues on along through Big Sur State Park and offers some of the most stunning and varied scenery all bordered by the Pacific Ocean. We saw manatees sunbathing on beaches, passed through thick forests of gigantic trees and spotted (this was a highlight for James) an extremely rare Californian Condor.
Admittedly two out of three of the children were plugged into screens for most of the drive but it was a special one. One word of warning… the limited number of ‘rest stops’ along the route will absolutely fleece you as a tourist. Cans of coke were almost five dollars and they can see tourists coming from a mile away and nothing is priced so I think they make it up as they go along! So take a cool box/bag (we brought a big ice bag from home and bought ice packs cheaply when we arrived – everywhere had a mini fridge with a freezer) with food and drink to see you through the journey (probably 4-5 hours with a few view stops.)
We’d made the decision that we wanted to ground ourselves on a beachside location for a long stretch of time so that our road trip didn’t feel too hectic, we got some R&R and James got some surfing in so we planned to bypass Los Angeles completely on this big drive but did need to break up our journey from Monterey through to San Clemente (which I’ll tell you about in part two) with an overnight pit stop. Unashamedly inspired by Flora at Violet and Percy (who also has some excellent blog guidance on a California road trip) we opted for a stay in Ventura Beach.
Knowing we would really only have a night and a short morning in Ventura I didn’t want to overcomplicate things and was chuffed to discover Waypoint Ventura which is a converted (to a very high standard) airstream trailer park right alongside the beach (and as it turned out pretty close to the freeway which we might have found to be a problem if we had stayed for longer). It was perfect for one night and with the trailers equipped with loos and a shower it didn’t feel like camping or roughing it at all. The beds were really comfortable and linen was top quality.
Waypoint is about a ten minute walk from Venture town centre and its abundance of cool vintage stores, restaurants and a movie theatre. We enjoyed a healthy supper at Nature’s Grill (yum) and a not so healthy breakfast at Busybee’s 50s café and then we hit the road again for the two hour drive bypassing LA to our longterm stop which I’ll cover in part 2 tomorrow!
Have a brilliant weekend Mamans!