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Trip Report Trip Report - California Road Trip with Teens

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Thanks again to all the input everyone gave before the trip. The short answer is - if you want to pull off a California 5 day sampler, it's doable and fun and you get the flavor. But no - you don't see everything and it's not for everyone. Here is our version. Probably too wordy, but I’m having too much fun remembering the random details.

First I picked a theme, so I wouldn't get distracted by all that we "could" do. April in Boston is typically pretty cruddy and I work full time under the fluorescents/indoors, so the theme was outdoors, outdoors, outdoors. Note - it was 80 degrees and sunny in Boston the day we left ;) Maybe someone else would have an arts, shopping, sports or amusement park theme.

So, I tried to have all components of our itinerary anchored in "how can we be outdoors and experience what makes California so special (kind of redundant sounding but it worked)... First step was to rent a convertible through carrental8.com, a third party vendor. This site targets UK/AUS visitors and offered huge discounts. No $300 drop fee for picking up at SFO and dropping at SAN, in addition to deeply discounted rates. The convertible was a great way to get my teens excited about California. Note: I had a friend rent through this site as well, and he was initially told, at the rental counter, that his rental was going to be denied since the rental was through a company for out of country travelers. My friend said that's ridiculous and the rental company said, oh ok, here's your car. Just want anyone using this co. to be prepared for that possible hiccup.

For destinations/activities - outdoors - with our limited time frame, I decided that if we could get in a hike, a bike, a beach and a kayak, our trip would be a success. The question was where to do what - that's where everyone's feedback in this forum made a huge difference. Thank you!

SF activities in 1.5 days: Alcatraz, bike across Golden Gate to Sausalito, cable car ride, Fisherman’s Wharf, Lombard St.

We had 3:20pm ferry tickets to Alcatraz. Second leg of our flight was delayed, so we were cutting it very close. carrental8.com had listed a Sebring or Mustang as convertible options. They pulled up in a Mitsubishi Eclipse. We had 3 bags and my kids are 5'10 and 5'8. But we were in a hurry so my son pretzeled himself into the back with a piece of luggage and my daughter scooted her seat up until her knees were by her chin to give him more room and my purse was in my lap. Not going to work! I went back to the manager and gestured at our situation and said this was not what I signed up for (literally) and within 5 minutes they pulled up in a shiny new black Mustang convertible. Amen. On our way. But now we might miss the Alcatraz ferry. Paying extra $60 for the GPS paid off within minutes as we easily made our way to Pier 33. Parked right in front of the pier. (Keep in mind my total disbelief at ease of getting into city and parking coming from Boston).

Thumbs up. Alcatraz excursion was booked on Alcatraz Cruises online. Easy. I wanted to add my friend and they appeared to be sold out just days before the trip, but then just a day before I went back and they had tickets. If you find yourself in that situation, keep checking back. In terms of going to Alcatraz with kids...I realized I needed to remember they were just kids, in spite of their height, when my 11 yr old daughter said, weeks before the trip "What's Alcatraz?" and I replied "It's a museum of a prison where they used to put the worst kind of criminals." and she said "Oh. I don't think I want to go." A few days before the trip, I was going over the final itinerary with them and my daughter said, "Will we see the prisoners as we walk through?" She thought it was still an operating prison. That's an excursion for when they're closer to 16 perhaps and more apt to get into trouble. Audio tour told the story of Alcatraz very well and ferry ride provided lovely views of city as nice intro to our visit.

HOLIDAY INN – Fisherman’s Wharf
On booking.com I reserved 2 nights totaling $306. I wanted to be in a good location. It was perfect. The room was comfortable for the 3 of us and each morning we walked down to the wharf (skipping the $22/per person hotel breakfast) for delicious coffee and pastries at the Waterfront Bakery just around the corner. Then would wander the wharf as it woke up. Weather was great. Alternately, cool and warm – recommendations of dressing in layers very appropriate. The hotel bar was never very busy, but it was a nice place to plop down around 5pm each day for a drink, Shirley temples and the a game of pool for the kids. The Israeli/French (?) bartender there each night was very nice as was anyone else we met in the hotel.

Rented bikes through Bike and Roll San Francisco/North Beach location. They were great. They advised me that we did not need the more expensive mountain bikes for excursion. We rented hybrids, which were perfect. We had the luxury of a friend who lived nearby to guide us to down to Fort Mason State Park, Marina Boulevard, across Golden Gate and down to Sausalito for a delightful walk and lunch on the water. Biking through San Francisco was comfortable with teens. You do need to be alert but I never felt too anxious as I would’ve in Boston or New York. The pace is just a bit more sane and safe. The kids biked up the couple steep hills to get to the bridge. I walked up (embarrassed) - but if you have smaller kids or don’t think you can bike the whole thing, there are only a couple spots where you will get off your bike. Shouldn’t deter you from this excellent excursion. The bridge was busy on a Tuesday morning. I’m not sure it would be advisable to do this on a weekend day when you’re navigating multitudes of bridge pedestrians and getting tailgated by amateur bike racers thinking they own the bridge because they bought a bike shirt and spandex shorts. For us, there weren’t too many of either, so it was just right.

We checked the ferry schedule as we entered Sausalito on our bikes to pace our visit accordingly. There is a place to lock your bikes up next to the ferry so you’re free to walk around.

After dropping off the bikes back at their North Beach location, we walked a couple blocks to do the requisite cable car ride. We waited for an additional time in the line in order to snag outside seats. We (okay, “I”) left my daughter’s purse with cell phone, iPod, and cash on the cable car. Luckily, our cable car excursion was just to ride it to the end and then come right back, so our original car was the one behind us and the drivers had found it and held onto it. Cheers to them!

After breakfast at the Waterfront Bakery, we were on our way to Elkhorn Slough for our kayak. The drive was 2 hours. As we were leaving SF, I realized we hadn’t driven down Lombard Street! Turned around. Was worth it. Very fun in the convertible with the full view up – and down.

Rented kayaks through Monterey Bay Kayaks. We arrived comfortably at 11:30am for a 12pm reservation for a 2hr tour. Monterey Bay Kayaks offers a 2hr and 3hr tour. 2 hours was honestly more than enough and I love kayaking and I love nature/wildlife. I was a little disappointed at the environment as a Willy Wonka-style enormous electrical plan loomed immediately over the entire area. The otters, sea lions and harbor seals were all present and charming and our guide was very good, but in terms of feeling like you were one with nature – this place is not it. I asked our guide how the Monterey Bay kayak excursion in Monterey Bay proper was different and he said we would’ve possibly seen more wildlife such as dolphins and whales. In hindsight, I wish we’d done that instead even if it was out of a more developed area.

Elkhorn Slough was right on our way to Big Sur though. After a very tasty lunch in the marina next to our kayak excursion, we embarked upon the final hour or so to Big Sur. I decided to detour to do the 17-mile drive, which slowed us down a good bit, but was yet more impressive scenery. Not sure it was entirely necessary though since we had more and more beautiful PCH driving the next day as we left Big Sur for LA. It did give us a chance to drive through Carmel by the Sea which is one of the coolest coastal towns I’ve ever seen.

Arrived at BIG SUR LODGE around 5:30pm. At first, I thought $200/night was steep for a room with picket fence segments as headboards, but then I appreciated the deck on the room, size of the room, refurbished bathrooms and more importantly, the incredible location right in Pfeiffer State Park. We were pooped so we ate dinner in the hotel restaurant, which I never do, since I like to get out locally as much as possible. However, the food and service were excellent. The restaurant had a big fire going. The lighting was very warm. It was too chilly to enjoy their outdoor dining area, but that looked really cool, including the outdoor bar area. I had a veggie sandwich that was like nothing you could ever get anywhere else. Rainbow layers of incredibly fresh veggies (artichokes, zucchini, tomatoes, red onion) with cheese on amazing bread. Not the soggy (but tasty) version we call a veggie sandwich here on the east coast.

Breakfast in the restaurant. Again – amazing. Great food and service and beautiful setting in the woods in the morning sun. We drove up to the trailhead for the short hike to Pfeiffer Falls. My kids were duly amazed by the size of the trees. My sports obsessessed son outstretched his arms and exclaimed “I can’t believe how big this tree is! It’s so amazing! I’m going to hug this tree! I’m a tree hugger!” Made the whole trip worth it. Then we drove up and across to the Pfeiffer Beach. The weather was incredible making for perfect setting as kids jumped in and out of the water and we felt so small against the stunning cliffs, rocks and waves.

Then. More driving ;) We left Big Sur at 12:49pm and pulled into Malibu, after sunset, in a very very dense fog. Kind of a bummer. I had booked a guest cottage at a premium rate in Malibu for just one night, which is hard to do. We were admittedly behind the 8-ball at this point in terms of our LA/Malibu experience. It’s now 8pm. I called the realtor and begged out of the night’s stay. I couldn’t rationalize paying the most money of the trip for lodging for such a crummy experience. He was a nice guy and said ok. 9pm - we’re sitting in a strip mall in Malibu calling hotels. We ended up paying $100 (saving me A LOT of money) to stay at the Comfort Inn at Warner Center. At this point, I thought the least I could do was take my kids to In & Out Burger. Now it’s 9:30pm. There is a 10 car line for In and Out Burger. Something smells. I realize I haven’t showered since Tuesday evening (at this point, I had to admit I was more in Amazing Race-mode than I probably wanted to admit). Mood is not good even though my wallet is breathing a sigh of relief. We end up getting McDonalds and eating it in our room while my daughter points out stains on her sheets and I have to hide my real feelings and tell her they boil the sheets, it’s fine. I shower in the not-so-clean shower and go to sleep, kind of. The next day, I tell my kids that we were really having the authentic California experience…visions of Malibu danced in our heads, but we instead ended up eating McD’s in a motel on Ventura Blvd., averting our eyes as we drove by XXX, adult film theatres and news vans hoping no one takes the hubcaps off our convertible while we slept. For $100, the place was fine and friendly and in a jam, I’d stay there again.


Woke up. Car was still intact. Enjoyed the free motel breakfast. (“Enjoyed” used generously). Really sunny. Donned our bathing suits and tons of sunblock and headed to Santa Monica around 9am. Santa Monica weather: Zero visibility. Chilly. Foggy. Santa Monica fun factor: Excellent. I had brought ProKadima, Frisbee and volleyball on the trip which we used here and at Big Sur. We spent the morning just playing beach games and when the pier opened, the classic street entertainers and amusement park attractions added to the more kid-oriented fun. Kids said it was one of their favorite parts of the trip. Playing volleyball on the beach next to the semi-pro locals was the kind of memory I wanted them to have.

When planning the trip, I read so much about how Santa Monica was great for shopping. I’m not a shopper and it all sounded too touristy. I thought Malibu was the right way to go. In hindsight, Santa Monica was very cool and not too touristy at all. Would’ve been the place to stay from the beginning.

Getting out of Santa Monica around 2pm was probably the worst traffic we experienced the whole trip. Not horrible, but would be a factor if we'd been on a tighter schedule. Parking garage that was empty at 9:30am was beyond full. Just a heads up for anyone planning to visit this area midday on a Saturday. Can't imagine if weather had been nice.

Drove to Carlsbad to stay with a friend. A good way to unwind the trip.

DAY 6 – SAN to PVD. Home at midnight. Up at 5:30am for work/school…

As far as traveling with kids, I’m one of those parents who is already pretty strict about screen time. There were no movies on the plane (Mainly, I just didn’t want to schlep a laptop. Would not have fit in car anyway!), no Gameboys, PS-whatevers at all. If they didn’t want to look out the window, they could read and they could listen to music, or God forbid, talk to me. It’s important with kids to set expectations ahead of time. I told them I didn’t know how it would go but it was going to go on my terms given I’m the (only) adult and more experienced traveler but my intentions would always be trying to do what is best and fun for everyone and could they each let me know 1 thing they really wanted to do (Alcatraz/boy, beach/girl). The only sour teen moment was my daughter in the backseat of the convertible with the top down. “the wind’s in my face.” “Do you want my sunglasses or hat?” “No.”…then “I’m cold” “Would you like my sweatshirt or we can stop and you can get a sweater and pants out of the trunk?” “No.” At that point, I just ignored the fact that she spent 2 hours of our PCH drive leaning over into the seat next to her not seeing anything. Her choice. So, taking turns in the front became more frequent.

The end! Thanks again for all the input. It helped a lot in achieving the hike/bike/beach/kayak goal and more successfully.

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