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California Family Road Trip

When you think of. family holiday in California images of Mickey Mouse, the Hollywood Blvd, Baywatch Beaches and Studio tours spring to mind. But as always we wanted to find something of the soul of one of the most famous locations in the world.   

Avoiding hectic Hollywood we opted for family friendly coastal destinations where we found ourselves swimming with sharks and dolphins, making s'mores under giant redwood tress, secret food tours and getting up close and just missing a date with Clint Eastwood - our Southern California road trip was certainly a once in a lifetime holiday.



Laguna Beach

Piling into our gigantic people carrier at LAX we headed straight for San Diego, and our 1st stop, the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club.

However the lure of the iconic seaside resort of Laguna Beach was a too much and we had to make a pit stop as we passed the beautiful upmarket seaside community for ice creams and a dip in the sea after our long flight. I had spent a little time here in my LA days and had made a TV series in Ireland based on an MTVs series which was set in the town. So I was excited to show the place to my family.

La Holla, San Diego

Our first 'home' was the La Holla Beach and Tennis club. This fancy resort is 12 miles north of San Diego in the upmarket neighbourhood of La Jolla. Along with several tennis courts as you'd expect, the resort has a large pool and an array of beach toys for the kids to play with. There are also 3 restaurants on site. 


After breakfast in our plush self catering apartment directly overlooking the water, it was into the swimwear and straight down to the private beach.


As our baby girl Erin built sand castles,10-year old James took the complimentary  boogie boards & hit the waves with Daddy only to get the shock of his life when a group of snorkelers informed him there were 4ft Leopard sharks in the water.


Much to James's relief it turns out Leopard sharks are only interested in crabs!


Old Town, San Diego

That evening we took a step back in time by wandering around San Diego Old town.  Cantina style restaurants and bars occupy the brightly lit strip and it really felt like the set of a Spaghetti Western Movie. As we walked we all practiced our gunfighter swagger and I expected to see Clint Eastwood strolling down the street... but more about him later!


Dinner can always be challenging with a toddler but we received such a warm welcome that night at the buzzing Cafe Coyote, voted the best Mexican food in San Diego for a whopping 15 years in a row! And it took no time for us to understand why. The margaritas deserve the same accolade by the way! The portions were HUGE so I would recommend that you stick to a couple of starters to share if you're starving rather than one each or just go straight to the main event.

San Diego Safari Park

The next morning we piled into our people carrier fondly dubbed “the A-Team Van” and headed to The San Diego Zoo Safari Park.


This time the set was like something out of Jurassic Park. The tram is best way to see the animals in their massive open air habitats. Baby giraffes snuggled with their mamas, Lions, Cheetahs and a vast array of wildlife were all housed in one of the most progressive zoo’s in the world. We are passionate about sustainability and conservation so it was truly amazing to see the ethos of this enormous park be all about preservation and re-populating all of the species that are endangered around the world. It gave us a great opportunity to show our kids about the need to respect the wildlife we share this planet with.


Marina del Rey


Next stop on our road trip was Marina Del Rey, just 20 minutes from LAX and the immediate neighbour of Venice Beach.


For dinner we strolled across the road from our hotel, The Jamaica Bay Inn, to Killer Shrimp, a legendary restaurant located directly on the marina. Who knew that lobster macaroni and cheese would be a toddler favourite?


The next day as we swapped parenting duties Siobhan got her zen on by doing paddle board yoga while I relaxed with the kids by the pool. Later we headed to the Hornblower champagne and lunch cruise, it’s a wonder how Marina Del Rey gets less press than nearby Venice Beach, but it’s also nice to be one of the better kept secrets of Southern California.


It was time for me to get my kicks by trying parasailing for the 1st time. Thats when you are strapped to a parachute and a high powered speed boat that then rips across the waves sending you high into the air for a view of Venice beach that has to be experinced. While I was busy at that the kids and Siobhan ate ice cream and enjoyed the free Latino music made famous by “Bueno Vista Social Club” in the quaint but buzzing Fisherman’s Village.  

Santa Barbara


Our journey to Santa Barbara was breathtaking and even though it can be tempting to take the short cut on the 101 freeway don’t. The Pacific Coast Highway personifies the spirit of carefree California, passing through Malibu and along the coast, it’s a must see.


We stayed at the very kid friendly Santa Barbara Best Western Pepper Tree and we soon discovered we were never going to ram in all the must see sights this famous town has.

The Double Dolphin sunset cruise cruise was just the ticket as were time poor but gave us a memorable evening soaking up the world renowned vistas of Santa Barbara.

Starving after our sea legs got a dusting we headed to the new Benchmark Eaterie on the famous state street for a scrumptious bite to eat before bed.

The Santa Barbara Food Tour was a great way to take in the sights and to eat our way around the town which Neena our tour guide informed us has the most restaurants per capita than anywhere else in the US.

We even managed to fit in a date night in the Funk Zone. The location for most of the wine tasting rooms in Santa Barbara. Our friendly concierge arranged for a babysitter and we were off! The tasting rooms all individually styled wine bars that were once warehouses in the Industrial park of Santa Barbara but through gentrification is now a picturesque Mecca to wine lovers.

Big Suir and  Monterey

I was stoked to be hitting up Monterey, the location of one of our favourite TV shows, Big Little Lies.


We stayed in the unique setting of Big Sur Glen Oaks. Our accommodation was a luxurious oak cabin nestled into a forest of hundreds of giant Redwood trees. James loved the toasted the complimentary s’mores on the outdoor fire pit after exploring the incredible forest we were in.


The Monterey Aquarium is world famous for being the setting for Find Dory. Here visitors can touch Stingray’s and view incredible breathtaking marine habitats. Again the focus of this reserve is to protect and repopulate the states oceans and it takes that role very seriously with all profits going into conservation projects. 


Whale watching is famous in Monterey and although the trip took four hours it was more than worth it when i witnessed a 50ft humpback whale lurch next to our boat

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Nearby is the picturesque Carmel By the Sea which is synonymous with Clint Eastwood who was once the town’s mayor.


After ate a mouthwatering seafood lunch at famous eatery Flaherty’s, we were ocean bound as we hit the waves at Carmel’s beautiful beach where locals gather to watch the sunset. As we watched dolphins swimming near the shore I remember thinking, now I know why Clint calls this home. We knew we had to pop to his restored bar at Mission Ranch for a sunset beer. 

As we arrived I had to ask if Clint was around as the locals had said he is often seen enjoying the live music and mixing with guests, to which I was heartbroken to be told “Oh you just missed him”.


Anton & Michel’s in Carmel was the meal we will most remember. Owned by Anton who hails from Lebanon and his Irish wife, Maria who have lived together in Carmel for over 50 years, the award winning restaurant is a fave of Clints, and even with a toddler in tow we didn’t feel we were a nuisance. 


Our final destination was the lovely harbour town of Ventura. After a five hour drive back from Monterey we collapsed into the Four Points By Sheraton. We went out to dinner in one of the many fabulous restaurants dotted along the marina which is within easy walking distance of the hotel.

The next day it was up and out to hire an electric boat from the Fisherman’s wharf. Piloted by our daughter Erin and James it was a fun way to view the harbour.


With over 1000 kilometres clocked up over 11 days it was great to see how much thought and effort is made to cater to families in what is rightly fully dubbed Kidifornia by the the VisitCalifornia tourist board.

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