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California dreamin': why San Francisco to Los Angeles should be your next fly drive holiday with kids

Looking out over the Hollywood sign after a sunset hike (Elliot Wagland)
Looking out over the Hollywood sign after a sunset hike (Elliot Wagland)

“Daddy, can we visit California for our holiday this year?” our children asked. They are obsessed with the Golden State after watching hours of videos made by streamers and vloggers.

Fortunately for us — and our budget — our two boys had two weeks off for autumn half-term thanks to a quirk of the state schools they both attend. So we decided to skip the traditional two weeks abroad in the summer, and began planning and saving for our Californian adventure in the cooler months.

We booked our long-haul flights (which were much more reasonable than during the summer holidays) and headed Stateside to prove there’s more to life than YouTube videos. Our plan was set - fly directly to San Francisco then spend the next two weeks driving along the coast down to San Diego before flying home from Los Angeles.

My wife and I had visited California before so had a fair idea of what to expect and what we wanted to see. But the boys — both young teenagers — had never crossed the Atlantic before so this was all new for them.

A surfer heads for the ocean in Los Angeles (Elliot Wagland)
A surfer heads for the ocean in Los Angeles (Elliot Wagland)

San Francisco 

Where to stay

After a ten-hour flight and no sleep due to holiday excitement, we picked up a rental car (which was pain-free) at San Francisco airport. We entered the first hotel’s address into Waze and set off.

We arrived at the award-winning Argonaut Hotel (double rooms cost from £200 a night based on four people sharing, argonauthotel.com) wrestling with our jetlag to a warm welcome from the hotel’s concierge, who parked the car and whipped away the cases for us.

From the moment you step foot inside the wonderfully restored hotel, it’s clear how proud the staff are of its history and the neighbourhood. Sitting in the landmark Haslett building, a former timber warehouse, The Argonaut celebrates the bygone era of Fisherman’s Wharf and the colourful characters who used to live here.

Located directly opposite one of San Fran’s famous tram stations and slap-bang in the heart of Fisherman’s Wharf and looking over San Francisco Bay, the 252-room hotel is the perfect location to start your Californian adventure. You’ll wake up to views of the San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge.The wharf is also home to The Maritime Museum, where visitors can experience the sights, sounds, smells and stories of Pacific Coast maritime history.

The children couldn’t be more excited on our first morning — even if they did keep reminding us “it’s 4am at home”.

The Argonaut hotel overlooks the Golden Gate Bridge (The Argonaut hotel)
The Argonaut hotel overlooks the Golden Gate Bridge (The Argonaut hotel)

Extracurricular

First on our to-do list was Alcatraz (from £40 per adult including, alcatrazislandtickets.com), the infamous former maximum-security prison located just a short ferry ride from the shoreline at Pier 33. Alcatraz was a federal prison from 1934 to 1963, housing famous convicts such as Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly.  The prison island is part of the Bay Area’s 80,000-acre Golden Gate National Recreation Area and has inspired films such as Birdman of Alcatraz, Escape from Alcatraz and The Rock.

Although the children had never actually heard of Alcatraz before we booked our trip, the moment we stepped foot on the Island, they were hooked. It’s an excursion that will live long in their memory. With personal headsets on a guided tour, you’re immersed in its rich history and get a brief taste of what life was like as an inmate.

Next on our San Fran list, was an e-bike tour of the city. After walking nearly 30,000 steps the day before through China Town and Union Square, the electric cycle was a very welcome sight.

During the four-hour tour, our guide Annie from Unlimited Biking (tours from £60, unlimitedbiking.com) was as an encyclopedia of knowledge, she knew everything from the celebrities to the wildlife that live here.

San Francisco is considered one of the hilliest cities in the world, second only to La Paz in Bolivia, but the e-bike took the strain. We headed up and over the famous Golden Gate Bridge — painted red to increase safety and visibility of the sprawling structure. With cars and vans hurtling across the bridge as you cycle alongside them (separated by a barrier) it’s a memorable way to cross the bay but beware of the hurtling “serious” cyclists heading towards you as they’re a determined bunch.

Cycling over the Golden Gate Bridge (Elliot Wagland)
Cycling over the Golden Gate Bridge (Elliot Wagland)

After three nights in Fisherman’s Wharf we packed up the car, drove south along Route 101 and headed for SLO CAL (San Luis Obispo County)  a county nestled in California’s Central Coast just below San Francisco.

Pismo Beach 

With a long road ahead of us, we broke up the three-hour drive with a lunch and a skateboard purchase in the laidback town of Santa Cruz and the location of The Lost Boys movie, then got back on our way. Pismo Beach is a city in the SLO CAL region which is famed for its 80 miles of beaches, wineries, Monarch butterflies and most importantly, 315 day of sunshine — but we were only here for the night.

Skateboarding in Santa Cruz (Elliot Wagland)
Skateboarding in Santa Cruz (Elliot Wagland)

Where to stay

We pulled up just off the 101 and checked in at the vibrant Pismo Lighthouse Suites (family rooms cost from £195 per night based on two adults and two children sharing, pismolighthousesuites.com). The ocean-front hotel is quaint with a family feel and boasts a putting green, a year-round outdoor pool and a hot tub for guests. The breakfast buffet is included with your stay, and can be enjoyed on the balcony of the breakfast room while you watch the sunrise (assuming you’re an early riser).

Perfectly positioned along the Pacific Coastal Highway, the hotel has easy access to the beach with its community of sociable dog walkers, joggers and very cool surfers.

Pismo Beach itself is a small city of 8,000 residents and is full of surf shops and beach restaurants, with the Ventana Grill and its Latin-inspired menu being a culinary highlight. The city recently renovated the pier, which is now bustling with sun enthusiasts and locals with their fishing line and bait.

The sun sets over Pismo Lighthouse Suites (Pismo Lighthouse Suites)
The sun sets over Pismo Lighthouse Suites (Pismo Lighthouse Suites)

Extracurricular

Just a short journey inland was Central Coast Trail Rides (rides available from £100 per person, cctrailrides.com), a family-run stables with over 40 horses which is set across 400 acres of Paso Robles farmland where we tried our hand at horse riding.  We were greeted by Brian, the coolest and only real-life cowboy we’d ever met. “We’re in the business of making people happy,” he told us before we saddled up.

From the moment Brian welcomed us to his family ranch, all our fears (well: my fears) of getting on the back of a huge horse were eased. Our two boys were like old pros, galloping off into the SLO CAL sunshine like at the end of a Western movie, while I cautiously chatted away to my retired service horse Bruno like an old buddy.

The Wagland boys take instructions from ranch owner Brian (Elliot Wagland)
The Wagland boys take instructions from ranch owner Brian (Elliot Wagland)

Santa Barbara and Venice Beach

Our next stop, San Diego, was a five-hour or 300-mile drive away. Over the course of two weeks, we would cover nearly 1,000 miles, so we decided, again, to break up the drive.

We de-camped for two nights in Santa Barbara, a city filled with Mediterranean-style buildings reflecting its Spanish colonial heritage. We explored the vibrant and diverse culture, and took in a few hipster bars during our short stay. With Halloween only a few days away it was bursting with decorations and giant inflatable figures that made it an unforgettable couple of nights.

Electric bikes on the Santa Monica cycle and scooter path (Elliot Wagland)
Electric bikes on the Santa Monica cycle and scooter path (Elliot Wagland)

For our next location, we headed to the uber-cool neighborhood of Venice in Los Angeles. Just 90 minutes from Santa Barbara, this ultra laid-back area is not one to be missed. Staying at the almost-beach front Hotel Irwin (double deluxe rooms cost from £250 per night based on four people sharing, hotelerwin.com), we were just a stone’s throw from where the Barbie movie was filmed. Cycle and skateboard hire shops proudly showed off pictures of Barbie and Ken — aka Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling — roller skating past their shops as the movie was being filmed. It was all very showbiz.

After two solid days of skating and cycling along the coastal path, and even bumping into Santa Monica’s part-time resident Joe Wicks, both children declared they were moving to Venice Beach as soon as they were old enough. We didn’t tell them about the multi-million-dollar property prices!

San Diego 

Our penultimate destination would be San Diego, another hefty drive broken up by fast food stops and exam revision in the back of the car. We finally arrived in the sprawling city, home to the world-famous San Diego Padres baseball team, whose stadium is slap-bang in the middle of the Gaslamp Quarter.

Where to stay

Tucked away in Mission Bay in the heart of San Diego, Paradise Point Resort & Spa (Garden Bungalow Suites cost from £579 per night based on two adults and two children, paradisepoint.com) is a sight to behold. Surrounded by lush, tropical gardens, tranquil lagoons, and one mile of sandy beach, there’s an almost Caribbean feel to this California holiday park. We opted for a two-bed beach bungalow, and the children were more than happy to hunker down on the sofa bed for two nights.

With five swimming pools, beach bonfire pits, a marina, five restaurants, an award-winning spa and endless recreation options, this 44-acre site will keep you entertained without even setting foot out of the resort. Though we decided to go and explore…

Paradise Point Resort & Spa (Paradise Point Resort & Spa)
Paradise Point Resort & Spa (Paradise Point Resort & Spa)

Extracurricular

With the children obsessing over San Diego resident and YouTuber FaZe Rug who boasts 24 million subscribers, we headed to straight to Belmont Park (tickets from £20, belmontpark.com) — where he films many of his videos.

Two years shy of its centenary, the amusement park is just a short drive from the hotel and has plenty of (free) parking. After failing to spot Mr Rug, we spent most of the day riding the rollercoaster, strapped to a zipline or on the bumper cars. The children thoroughly enjoyed it — and so did we!

For travellers able to locate their sea legs, whale and dolphin watching is a real treat. We were fortunate enough to sit pride of place on the Captain’s Bridge as we arrived at San Diego Whale Watch (cruises start from £40 per person, sdwhalewatch.com). We headed out of the marina and chugged into the Pacific Ocean as the children re-enacted the iconic Titanic pose.

After two hours of spotting just a kayaker and a few pelicans, we were then greeted by a pod of dolphins who frolicked in the waves of the boat — much to our delight. Despite having headed to the deepest part of the Ocean Rim accessible within our time limit, unfortunately it wasn’t our day to spot a whale. Maybe next time! But the magnificent dolphins were a sight we’ll never forget.

A pod of dolphins swim alongside Elliot’s boat (Elliot Wagland)
A pod of dolphins swim alongside Elliot’s boat (Elliot Wagland)

Los Angeles 

For the last few days of our trip we were heading to Hollywood. We drove back up the 101, setting off at first light to avoid the traffic and within just two hours we had arrived.

Where to stay

You feel like a movie star from the moment you drive through the gates of The Hollywood Roosevelt (Double Deluxe rooms cost from £250 per night based on four people sharing, thehollywoodroosevelt.com). Even the car park oozes glamour as you’re welcomed by a bronze statue of Charlie Chaplin and the enthusiastic valets.

Located on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and opposite Mann’s Chinese Theatre (the one with the handprints), you’re right in the heart of Tinsel town. This historic hotel reflects classic Hollywood in every sense. Built in 1927, it dates back to the Golden Era and has played host to stars like Marilyn Monroe, Chaplin and Errol Flynn. Even the swimming pool looks like it’s straight out of a movie — apt considering it featured in Catch Me if You Can with Leonardo DiCaprio.

Some of the rooms and suites are even named after movie stars. There’s the Marilyn Monroe Suite and the Gable & Lombard Penthouse (named after Clark Gable and Carole Lombard). There’s also an option to stay alongside the vintage 1960’s-style tropicana pool. The epitome of cool, you can sit alongside a David Hockney mural as you sip your cocktails and hang out, while the children rack up a food bill at the chicest cabana in town.

We stayed in a double room with two Queen beds and no movie star name — though it was more than adequate with enough room for all four of us.

Every moment you spend walking through the hotel feels special, with its air of Hollywood history and accompanying parties. It really is the place to be if you want to feel part of the Los Angeles set.

Rooms at the Hollywood Roosevelt overlooking the pool (The Hollywood Roosevelt)
Rooms at the Hollywood Roosevelt overlooking the pool (The Hollywood Roosevelt)

Extracurricular

You’re never short of things to do in Los Angeles especially when it comes to theme parks. We spent a day at Universal Studios, another favourite of the social media stars, as well as the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, where sampled butter beer, and even battled Team Bowser in their latest attraction in the park, Super Nintendo World. It was absolutely exhausting but it makes you feel like a kid again.

Luckily for us the sun was shining after we chose to sit at the front of the Jurassic World Ride and left looking like we’ve been drowned by a megalodon. If you can't get enough of movie tours, there's also Warner Bros. Studio Tour (a two hour guided and 2 hour self-guided tour from £55, aged 11 and above, wbstudiotour.co.uk), home to such shows as Friends, Big Bang Theory and Gilmour Girls.

On our final day in Los Angeles we wanted to make sure the children were tired ahead of the long flight home, so we were off hiking. Hollywood is full of tourists and there’s a person on every street corner offering you a celebrity-based excursion, but we wanted to try something different. We decided to take our two bundles of energy on a sunset hike through the canyons and up and behind the Hollywood sign.

The view from behind the Hollywood sign (Elliot Wagland)
The view from behind the Hollywood sign (Elliot Wagland)

We joined our guide Chris from Bikes and Hikes LA Tours (private tour from £140 per group, bikesandhikesla.com) and set off on our yomp, heading toward some of LA’s most famous tourist attractions. We jumped in an Uber, as it’s easier and quicker than driving yourself around and we were off again. Only locals would know the area up and behind the Hollywood sign and our guide Chris certainly did, he could also capture the perfect “jumping in front of the sign” picture with just one press of the shutter. Oh, he was good!

The two-and-a-half-hour hike was worth every penny, we reached the sign just as the sun was setting, it was timed to perfection. After filling our camera phones with hundreds of photos we headed back down with our hearts full of Hollywood, and both boys planning our next trip. Our guide even dropped us back to our hotel as our phone batteries had died during our sunset photocall. Now that’s what you call service!

Getting there

Flights with Virgin Atlantic from London Heathrow to San Francisco, returning to London from Los Angeles from £488 per person (including complimentary food, drink and inflight entertainment), virginatlantic.com.

You can plan your trip to California at visitcalifornia.com