California Dreaming: The Ultimate Family Road Trip Through the Golden State

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California is possibly the most exciting outdoor adventure playground on the planet, and its attractions, mountains, lakes and rivers, beautiful coastline and pristine beaches mean it’s kid-friendly, too. My only reservation about this trip with my two children – Ellis, 9, and Jemima, 7 – was whether 12 days would be enough to do it justice. Our journey began in Los Angeles. I picked up a red Mustang convertible (a road-trip cliché, I know) at the airport. We planned to drive 1,000 miles, so the expense seemed warranted. By the time I had completed the paperwork, squeezed all our luggage into the sports car’s trunk and navigated my way onto the formidable six-lane highway in the direction of Santa Monica, it was well past midnight.

The kids bouncing their heads off the soft top and laughing like loons made me question why on earth I thought attempting a road trip alone with two children was a good idea. When we reached Santa Monica and pulled up at our hotel, Shutters on the Beach, we were welcomed by an Oscar-winning smile from the parking valet, and my misgivings disappeared. We checked in to our room with a picture-perfect view of Santa Monica Pier and fell asleep before our heads hit the cloud-like feather pillows.

In the morning, eager to get to the beach, I reached for the room-service breakfast menu. “WARNING: chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer may be present in food or beverages served here,” it read. I laughed out loud, weighed up our odds of survival, and opted instead for the Axe Restaurant on hip Abbot Kinney Boulevard where I conscientiously ordered organic eggs and a side of kale, washed down with reverse-osmosis purified water. We left $50 lighter, but toxin- and guilt-free.

The kids ran ahead as soon as we stepped onto Santa Monica Beach. They watched, open-mouthed, the pageantry of outdoor activities: from Olympic-worthy performances on metal rings to gravity-defying slack-lining, joggers, cyclists, roller skaters, surfers, volleyball players and yoga gurus, all silhouetted against the big blue California sky. Scanning the svelte bodies, I vowed to eat only salad for the remainder of the vacation. Ellis had a go at slack-lining and displayed a surprising aptitude for it. Jemima defaulted to hanging upside down on the rings for an hour — her favorite pastime. Should they flunk at school, I’m confident they have the talent  to join Cirque du Soleil.

After a cursory visit to Santa Monica Pier, which is wonderfully tacky, we meandered along the impressive 4.5-mile ocean path to Venice, with rows of tables selling second-rate art  and tawdry tourist tchotchkes. The highlight was a sunbathing dog in a bikini named Lisa.

The following day, we headed to Paramount Ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains for a slice of Hollywood history. This is where Paramount Pictures made most of its westerns. About 700 acres of it are no longer used, but are open to the public for trekking and picnicking. Stumbling onto an abandoned Wild West town was a highlight of our trip, due, in part, to the fact that it’s off the tourist circuit and you’re unlikely to see another soul.

Down the road from Paramount Ranch is the historic town of Cornell, where you can step back in time and see the original roadside country store and post office, which date back to the 1800s. Bob Dylan and Steve McQueen used to hang out here. It’s definitely worth a visit to take pictures of the time-worn porches and sample some homestyle cooking. Show me a child who doesn’t like mac and cheese and chicken pot pies.

We took the 10-mile Canyon Road to Malibu, stopping briefly to climb the white picket fence of Reagan Ranch, where Ronald and Nancy were famously pictured on horseback, and made it to the beach in time for sundown at the aptly named The Sunset, a pretty wood-clad restaurant on a quiet sandy road with uninterrupted views of the ocean.

It would have been criminal to leave LA without seeing a few A-list attractions, so I planned an ambitious day, starting with a drive to the concrete suburb of Watts. The neighborhood has a shady reputation, but is better known for Watts Towers and its 17 soaring, bejeweled steel spires. These Gaudi-esque towers were created by Simon Rodia, a semi-literate Italian immigrant tiler, who spent 33 years building them.

It was a hectic race to Tinseltown to join the throngs of tourists paying homage to their favorite celebrities on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The kids loved holding handprints with Harry Potter and Hermione Granger at the TCL Chinese Theater. We grabbed a legendary Cali In-N-Out burger for sustenance before taking a whistle-stop tour of Warner Bros Studios, arriving somewhat spent at Sunset Ranch for our private ride. The horses, while intimidatingly big, were well-seasoned and walked happily docile in single file across the barren hills for a full two hours, passing right underneath the Hollywood sign. The views of the setting sun over LA are epic from here and on a clear day you can see forever.

The next morning marked phase two of our trip, and we headed north. An eight-hour drive along 300 miles of coastal roads might seem daunting with children, but with pit stops and scenery, you hardly notice the time passing. Three hours in, we stopped for lunch in Port San Luis, an authentic commercial fishing harbor. Stepping out of the car for the first time since we left LA, the smell of the Pacific Ocean and the arresting sounds of the sea lions barking from under the pier reawakened our senses.

The children watched wide-eyed as fishermen with leathery faces filleted their catch with the skill of Samurai warriors, and gasped in delight at the huge vats of pick-your-own live crabs, oysters and shrimps in huge plastic vats. At the end of the 1,300ft sun-bleached pier is the Olde Port Inn, an old-school seafood restaurant with glass-topped tables, which allowed us to peer down into the sea below as we ate our fish and chips.

Heading back to Highway 1, we discovered Avila Valley Barn, a farmers’ market that proved hard to tear ourselves away from. It had a petting area of llamas and gobbling turkeys, pony rides and hay bales piled high for climbing, an ice cream counter serving unique flavors like cinnamon cream, pumpkin, eggnog and root beer, and a little barn with a straw-scattered floor where you could buy freshly baked apple pies, juicy peaches and just-picked sweetcorn. We piled back into the car laden with enough organic supplies to keep us going for a month, leaving my salad diet in the dust.

The time had come to play my favorite Joni Mitchell album, put the roof down and soak up the vistas. I had purposefully vetoed iPads on this trip in favor of music, conversation and an audio recording of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. Ellis was in the front seat and we were bonding big time. I know scenery isn’t high on most kids’ list of favorite things, but I lost count of the number of “Ahhhhhhhs” that came out of their mouths as every sweeping bend in the elevated costal road revealed even more staggering panoramas. Jemima observed, “Heaven is kissing the sea,” and we travelled in silence for quite a while, in awe of the beauty of Mother Nature.

We got to Big Sur Campground and Cabins weary, but in high spirits. We checked in to our cozy A-frame log cabin, nestled among giant redwood trees and I began unpacking the bags. I heard Ellis squeal, and found him with a grin from ear to ear after a surprise encounter with a skunk. We had arrived. I lit a fire and threw on a few juicy rib steaks and let the children run, torches in hands, to the campsite playground to make new friends. I poured myself a glass of chilled Napa Valley wine and let the magic of the Big Sur take hold.

We woke to the smell of campfire smoke and coffee. The children were up and out of the door before I could get them out of their pajamas, and I encouraged them to enjoy the freedom. We spent that day in the impossibly perfect river that runs through the campground, riding down baby rapids on bouncy black inner tubes hired from the office hut, swinging on ropes like Tarzan and Jane over the deep pools of clear, turquoise water.

There are lots of walking trails in Big Sur, with spectacular scenery for those willing to break a sweat. My children aren’t experienced hikers and I’m the most exercise-allergic person I know, so I chose the two-mile Valley View Trail in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, put on my happy face and trainers and dragged the kids along. Within no time, frowns were upside down as they climbed on fallen giants acting out scenes from The Hunger Games. There were challenging moments when they collapsed in protest saying they couldn’t go on, but it was worth it when we got to the top and could see all the way to Monterey. ‘Wow! It looks like an oil painting,’ I said breathlessly, turning around to find myself  alone — the kids were already racing back down the mountain trail.

Less than a mile from the trails of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is a long, unmarked road, which leads to my favorite place in world, Pfeiffer Beach. The sea is wild and relentless in parts. It’s not somewhere to swim but, rather, to dance in the effervescent white foam and stand arrested as waves cinematically power through the Neolithic Rock Arch. Stay for sundown and you’ll agree. There aren’t words to describe the palette of colors in the sky reflected upon the water. I felt genuinely sad to leave Big Sur, but I had to tell myself it was a true indicator of a successful adventure.

It was a typical California day — not a cloud in the sky and the route inland on the 101 to LA was fast, wide and awesome. We stopped in San Luis Obispo for lunch at Madonna Inn, a landmark California hotel that could give Barbara Cartland’s bedroom a run for its money. We over-indulged on tri-trip beef and barbecue sauce and practically rolled out of the grotesque, carved wooden doors.

Back on the road, we spied Pismo Beach in the distance and took the next exit to explore the sand flats, dotted with families picnicking out the back of their pick-up trucks and watching the kite surfers floating past. The beach was backed by sand where tweens were whizzing around on dune buggies.

When we finally arrived back at Los Angeles airport, I reluctantly handed back the Mustang keys. I am a California girl at heart. I long for my children to surf on the weekends, soak up sunshine for more than 10 days a year. We got our fix of the California sunshine, but we won’t be able to stay away for long.

By Abi Campbell



Rooms at Shutters on the Beach, Los Angeles, cost from $620 per night ( Tent pitches at Big Sur Campground and Cabins cost from $60 per night; RV/trailer pitches from $70 per night; cabins from $130 per night

Rooms at Madonna Inn cost from $250 per night.

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