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California

Before You Go

Best time to go: Anytime
We went: Early to late April

Once you have your flights booked, organise your car rental and parking spaces at all of the hotels on your route. You will often need to book in advance, especially in cities. If you prefer to travel without a satellite navigation system print off Google map routes for all of your destinations. It will give you the quickest route and an accurate estimation of times between destinations.

Finding locations at half way points for refreshments can then be sourced using a guide book, Lonely Planet Guides are excellent, (Time Out Guides for Cities recommended too).

Day One - San Francisco

Following a long haul flight and after picking up our hire car, we head for San Francisco. Our hotel of choice is Hotel Diva as not only is it centrally located, just off of Union Square, it also offers a 'Little Diva's Suite', a suite that offers two rooms, (adjoining) allowing space for two adults and two children, currently charging amazing rates of - $249 for the whole family.

Kids enjoy their own check-in and receive complimentary use of I-pods in their own room, plus hot chocolate coupons to use in the hotel's own Starbucks - www.hoteldiva.com

Top Tips

If arriving late on the first evening, Hotel Diva has an adjoining Mexican restaurant housed on the ground floor called Colibri, ask the concierge to reserve you a table for a delicious meal five minutes away from the comfort of your Kids Suite and the need for an early night without walking or transport needs - www.colibrimexicanbistro.com

Day Two - San Francisco
Muir Woods San Francisco

If like us you are still on U.K. time and you wake up early, fear not, the Starbucks in the lobby opens at 5.30 am and after a coffee and complimentary hot chocolate for the kids there is no better time to jump in the car and drive around San Francisco. Start at Lombard Street, and head for The Golden Gate Bridge via Telegraph Hill. The views of the bay with the iconic bridge and Alcatraz in the distance are fantastic.

Drive over The Golden Gate Bridge to Muir Woods National Monument to enjoy a beautiful, ancient redwood forest. The coast redwoods are the tallest living things. The Bohemian and Cathedral groves contain the biggest tress in Muir Woods, one 252 feet tall and one 14 feet wide. Just over an hours drive from San Francisco Muir Woods is a must.

Drive onwards via the coastal road to Point Reyes to enjoy spectacular views and if timed well, (January-April) you may even see gray whales migrating. We were lucky enough to see five on our way to the Point Reyes Lighthouse. There is so much to do here, check out the website for a full list - www.nps.gov/pore/index.htm

 

Top Tips

Wrap up warm for Muir Woods as temperatures can drop dramatically in the shade of the trees. Check out the website too for information on possible local road closures - www.nps.gov/muwo/index.htm

Day Three - San Francisco
Cable Car in San Francisco

Try out the local diner, Eddie's Cafe at 800 Divisadero Street, this traditional american diner serves waffles, over easy eggs and the usual breakfast offerings in a great setting, it even has a traditional jukebox in the corner. Walk off breakfast by heading to Union Square to ride on a cable car. Running every 12-15 minutes board the car here as it is the quietest place to jump on. Hang onto the rails to ride like a local and then ring the bell at pier 39 to let the driver know you are getting off.

Walk along the piers and see the sea lions basking in the sun, you will not believe how many there are and just how close you can get.

Whilst at the pier, walk along to Pier 33 to book your tickets onto the Alcatraz Tour. This must be done in advance but is well worth the queue to secure your places.

Walk the stairs up to Telegraph Hill and the delightful yet virtually vertical streets that wind steeply up and down. Lombard Street is not far and it is a great place to marvel at the infamous hills and views. A lovely walk back via China Town is recommended. The bustle of life in China Town is an eye opener for the freckles and they also found some cute handmade crafts in one of the many shops that line the streets in this district.

In the afternoon head to Golden Gate Park. Various gardens are on offer here but we loved the Japanese Tea Garden with it's almost unclimbable bridge and exotic flowers - www.golden-gate-park.com

 

Top Tips

Book onto the night time tour of Alcatraz and ensure you book for the audio tour. The boat trip over to the island in itself is unforgettable but wait until you enter Alcatraz and hear first hand from 'previous residents' what life on the island was really like, all the better in the dark.

Fit in a Irish coffee during your stay. Famous in San Francisco since it opened it's doors in 1952, The Buena Vista is the place to go - www.thebuenavista.com/irishcoffee.html

Day Four - San Francisco
Boudins Bakery San Francisco

Today is our last full day in San Francisco before we head for Lake Tahoe so we decide to exercise our legs with a cycle ride over The Golden Gate Bridge. Grab a cable car to Fisherman's Wharf where you can pick up some great bikes for all ages and requirements (with safety helmets too), from Blazing Saddles - www.blazingsaddles.com

From here we cycled over the bridge, which was amazing and loved by all, even the smallest freckles, onto Sausalito. Stop over here and enjoy the quaint shops and delicious cafe's for lunch before cycling onto Tiburon, 16 miles in total. Grab the boat back from here to Fisherman's Wharf to return your bicycle.

Stagger into Boudins Bakery, a two minute walk along the wharf, to sample the original and world famous Clam Chowder. Served in a sour dough bowl and enjoyed whilst watching fresh sourdough being made in every conceivable shape, this is an experience not to be missed - www.boudinbakery.com

 

Top Tips

Make sure you pick up a map from Blazing Saddles for the cycle ride and if you are feeling weary at Sausalito make your way back from here before taking on the extra miles to Tiburon.

Our freckles, 11 and 9 at the time, were fine with the route but it is hilly in places. Sun cream and water also worth packing!

Day Five - Lake Tahoe
Plump Jack Hotel, Lake Tahoe

Off to Lake Tahoe today for a couple of days skiing. A very long drive (approx. 5 hours) but as we pull up in Squaw Valley we all decide it was well worth it. The slopes are so wide and if you go at the end of March, early April, you will find the snow still powdery yet the mountain runs very quiet. On one day we literally had the piste's to ourselves.

We were lucky enough to have found a magical hotel called the Plumpjack which was fantastic. Welcomed at reception with a hot non alcoholic cider we all rated this as one of our favourite hotels of all time - www.plumpjacksquawvalleyinn.com

Top Tips

At check in go to the Plumpjack's adjoining ski shop and order your ski equipment. Tell them that you are staying at the Plumpjack and not only will you receive a discount but your ski equipment will be magically transported to your locker at the hotel. Each day simply give your name to reception and they will bring your equipment to you, hassle free.

Book the Plumjack Cafe for your first night when you book your rooms, widely regarded as Lake Tahoe's premier dining destination, tables are hard to come by. The food is delicious and set at the foot of the mountain the views are great too. In the hotel bar next door sit by the crackling wood fire with a hot drink before hitting the massive beds in the rooms, heaven.

Day Six - Lake Tahoe
Squaw Valley Lake Tahoe

A great way to get the whole family to ski together and to improve at the same time is to book a private instructor for you all, for the day. We did this at Squaw Valley and made the most of having the lifts and runs to ourselves. Great fun and really safe as helmets have to be worn by all in the U.S. Spend the day enjoying run after run of brilliant white snow and perfecting parallel turns and snow ploughs.

Top Tips

Ride the cable car to the top of the mountain to take a dip in the swimming lagoon and spa at High Camp. The open air pool is a hot 102 degrees whilst the contrasting cold Sierra mountain air means that you do not hang around on the edge for long.

Breathtaking views of Lake Tahoe and a great place to float and watch the skiers and snow boarders zoom by - www.squaw.com/swimming-lagoon-and-spa

Day Seven - Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe

Ask the hotel for toboggans and hit the slopes. For lunch and a change of scenery, drive to the edge of Lake Tahoe, a 20 minute drive away from the resort and the local town here is well worth a visit too. The lake itself is spectacular and the local restaurants and shops are great to walk around, all enjoy views of the lake and sell unusual hand made trinkets that are good gift options.

Top Tips

Pop into one of the huge chemists in town and collect exciting American treats for the long journey ahead. The kids love picking out unusual snacks and treats to keep them interested in the car.

Day Eight - Monterey
Zoltar Monterey California

Six hours to Monterey from the Plumpjack so we plan to break the trip with a visit to an outlet mall. The kids never seem to tire of looking for bargains in Abercrombie and Fitch and Hollister so a promise to stop here keeps them happy. We found The Great Mall in Milpitas - www.greatmallbayarea.com a perfect place to stop as only an hour and a half from here to Monterey.

Once in scenic Monterey, spend the first few hours checking out Cannery Row and Fisherman's Wharf. Book yourself onto a whale watching boat trip and also check out the famous aquarium for opening times.

 

Top Tips

Fisherman's Wharf has lots of penny machines and fair style rides so make sure you have plenty of quarters available for the kids. The replica "Zoltar Speaks" fortune teller machine from the movie 'Big' featuring Tom Hanks sits at the entrance to the pier and the kids loved having their fortune told here.

Day Nine - Monterey
The Lone Cypress 17 Mile Drive California

The early morning whale watching boat trip is a must. We saw over thirty humpback whales which was incredible. The boat trip lasts approximately two hours and it can be called off if the sea is too choppy. Organise it early into your stay in Monterey as if cancelled on one occasion you can re-book for a second outing. As with San Francisco, seals bask in the sun under the piers and you can hear them barking at one another as they soak up the rays.

In the afternoon leave plenty of time to visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium - www.montereybayaquarium.org

Early evening and a drive around '17 Mile Drive' is another must do. Recognised as one of the most scenic drives in the world, this coastal road is superb. Pick up a map at the entrance, although you have to pay a small entrance fee, it really is worth it. Stop at each of the 17 points, not forgetting the renowned 'Lone Cypress' - www.pebblebeach.com/activites/explore-the-monterey-peninsula/17-mile-drive


Carmel is not far from here and its pristine beaches provide the perfect place to sit and watch the sun set. Rules apply abundantly here so make sure you check out the list before making yourself comfortable. Nothing is allowed to be left on the beach and as smoking is not permitted either you can be sure that wherever you choose to sit, you will only be sat on pure white sand.

 

Top Tips

There are many organised boat trips and some are more whale friendly than others. Shop around or ask your hotel to see which ones offer the best for watchers and most importantly the best for the whales wellbeing.

Even if gloriously sunny before stepping on the boat, make sure you have warm clothes, it is chilly out in the open water. The sun reflecting off of the sea makes sunburn a concern too. Pack high factor sun cream as time flies watching pod after pod of humpbacks peep out of the water and before you know it, you have a sunburnt face!

Day Ten - Route 1
Route One California

The drive through Big Sur on Route 1 can not be long enough, the views are unforgettable and each corner gives a different outlook, each as special as the last. We stop for lunch at The Post Ranch Inn. Children under 18 are not allowed to stay at this incredible hotel, which is a shame as it is spectacular. Children of any age however are welcome to have lunch. I can not recommend this highly enough. The floor to ceiling glass that line one entire wall of the restaurant, facing onto the Pacific Ocean, leaves you unable to eat as views are breathtaking.

Email well in advance and mention children's ages to secure a table - www.postranchinn.com - N.B. the restaurant does serve pizzas so there are options for everyone.

The coast line in San Luis Obispo en route to Los Angles is home to 7,500 elephant seals, stop here to stretch you legs and watch young pups frolic in the surf.

 

Top Tips

Stop at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve on your way out of Monterey. The walk around the rocky point allows you to view seals and their pups and also sea otters, all swimming and feeding in the wild - www.pointlobos.org/nature/wildlife

Day Eleven - Los Angeles
Universal Studios Los Angeles

Staying with kids in L.A. is not easy. Walking is out of the question and trying to park with the car is also time consuming. Stay in Santa Monica as the beach there is good for walking and the windows out onto Venice Beach are great for people watching. Shutters on the Beach is a luxurious option - www.shuttersonthebeach.com

A great outdoor Mall called 'The Grove' - www.thegrovela.com - beckoned as it was where our smallest freckles wanted to see the American Girl shop. A lovely restaurant called The Farm - www.thefarmofbeverlyhills.com served up milkshakes, smoothies and delicious salads and I would recommend here for lunch with the family.

Universal Studios is a fun day out for all whilst in L.A. The studio tour is great and the rides are good fun too. Check out The Mummy and Jurassic Park for best in thrilling fun.

 

Top Tips

Buy a VIP (called the Front of Line Pass), for Universal Studios. Although expensive it is well worth the extra cost as you do not queue at all and you can finish a ride and be on it again within seconds, brilliant. Buy the pass at the entrance to Universal Studios (there is a special booth for these passes) - www.universalstudioshollywood.com

Day Twelve - San Diego
Tower 23 Hotel San Diego

A couple of hours drive away from Los Angeles is San Diego. I recommend booking a room at Tower 23. This hotel is fantastic and one of our all time top ten places to stay. Situated next to the famous Crystal Pier, the setting is beautiful. Rooms are modern whilst being spacious for the family and very comfortable.

JRDN Surf is the name of the hotel restaurant and is a popular choice in San Diego. Be sure to book a table before arriving - www.tower23hotel.com

Top Tips

Watching the sunset from Crystal Pier is incredible and a world renowned experience to savour. 

Day Thirteen - San Diego
Feeding Dolphins at Sea World San Diego

San Diego is home to both Sea World and San Diego Zoo. Although Sea World is worth a visit - www.seaworld.com - to hand feed dolphins, watch world famous killer whale, 'Shamu' jump and splash to the crowd's excited clapping and cheering and to see turtles and beluga whales, San Diego Zoo is not to be missed. Orang-utan's, pandas (even the red variety), polar bears, hippo's and much much more. The animals appear so happy and stimulated as they roam around in large natural habitats. Having a family and having visited many many zoos around the world, this beats them all. You can even sleepover here if organised in advance - www.sandiegozoo.org/zoo

Top Tips

The Gaslamp Quarter is an interesting area of the town to visit. Plenty of history here and some one off craft shops in the old part of town. Lunch here rather than in one of the amusement parks as the Mexican food, (begin so close to the Mexican border), is excellent.

Day Fourteen - San Diego
La Jolla, San Diego California

Our last day in San Diego and we head for the scenic coast of La Jolla (pronounced La Hoya). La Jolla in Spanish means "The Jewel". Located fifteen minutes away from downtown San Diego, La Jolla has wonderful beaches, cultural activities and great restaurants.

Top Tips

Visit the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego - www.mcasd.org - around lunchtime and enjoy delicious food in the outside garden. Lovely setting under huge umbrellas and the staff are particularly good with kids.

Day Fifteen - San Diego to San Francisco

Back to San Francisco for return flight home and we drive back via a one night stop over in Santa Barbara. We did not have time to enjoy Santa Barbara as we were simply using this town for a quick rest. Just outside of Santa Barbara we find a great (yet rather unusual) traditional Danish Town called Solvang, (Danish for "Sunny Fields").

You can walk amongst traditional Danish streets, selling traditional Danish food and drink, in traditional Danish shops. Well worth stopping here for aebleskiver (delicious traditional Danish doughnuts) - www.solvangusa.com

Back in San Francisco and we head straight back to Hotel Diva. We return to our favourite italian restaurant form our first week here - www.pucciniandpinetti.com - just a five minute walk away from the hotel and where kids can build their own pizza. Raw dough, fresh sauce and various toppings are offered and once the kids have designed their pizza, it is whisked away to be cooked, this place was a hit with our freckles.

 

Top Tips

On the return drive leave the scenic route for the Highway. Although not as enjoyable, it knocks hours off of the drive back to San Francisco.

If like us you are returning to San Francisco and the delights of Hotel Diva, you can ask to leave a bag or two here for collection on return. The ever helpful staff held our bags with no question or extra charge.

Day Sixteen - San Francisco
Haight Ashbury San Francisco

The last day in San Francisco has to be set aside for shopping. So many different areas to explore but none as interesting or diverse as Haight-Ashbury. Shops such as 'Kidrobot' will please the freckles whilst the adults can check out 'Behind the Post Office' for latest fashions and innovation from new designers. Stroll the streets to find interesting one off's in some amazing looking stores.

Union Square with it's huge Bloomingdales and NikeTown is close enough to the hotel to fill up before heading to drop off the bags.

Top Tips

Head to Russian Hill/Nob Hill for Swensens' famous ice creams and sundaes. Flavours like blueberry cobbler, apple cranberry sorbet, mocha almond fudge and lemon sherbet await to awaken your sense - www.swensensicecream.com/menu/parlour/scoops

Top Trip Tips

San Francisco
Before leaving for San Francisco read the Tales of the City books by Armistead Maupin, (not for the kids). It is impossible not to fall in the love with the characters and the setting of these novels and once hooked you will want to visit the places from the books. Visit Macondray Lane, just north of Green Street, between Taylor and Jones to walk the rickety wooden stairs, one of San Francisco's 400 unmarked and overgrown public stairways to see the inspiration for Barbary Lane.


Watching movies such as 'Big' and 'Escape from Alcatraz' before we left for our holiday really made it fun for the freckles when seeing and hearing familiar sights during the trip.


Lake Tahoe
If you have never set foot on a ski slope before or if it has been a while since you were last on one, head to Snozone in Milton Keynes (other locations across the UK available) for refresher/beginner classes. It is a great, fun way to prepare the family for the slopes and saves lots of basic instruction and wet bottoms when you would rather be enjoying having the wind running through your hair - www.snozoneuk.com

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