California Dreaming: Santa Monica

Once we arrived in LA we had a little time to kill before we could check into the apartment we had rented in Venice.  We were all hungry and when I saw we were staying not far from Huckleberry Cafe, I knew that's where we had to go for lunch.  I had read a lot about Huckleberry on blogs and travel articles so I was excited to check it out and we weren't disappointed.  

After lunch we wanted to drop off our bags and check out our apartment.  We have rented several houses/apartments over the years and this was one of the best places we have ever stayed in.  There was plenty of room to spread out, everyone got their own bedrooms, and best yet, there were lots of toys and games for the kids to play with.  Once we got there and they saw all the kiddie stuff, we just hung out for a few hours so they could play and unwind.

Once everyone was sufficiently relaxed, we drove back over to Santa Monica to play on the beach and have dinner.  We walked along the Santa Monica Pier and then Alan and the kids headed down to play in the sand and watch the sunset while I did a little shopping nearby.  

Right along the beach is a group of restaurants owned by the Blue Plate Restaurant Group.  We were all in the mood for seafood so we chose to eat at Blue Plate Oysterette.  The food was delicious and the decor was classic New England meets Southern California cool.  

Photo courtesy of Blue Plate Oysterette

Photo courtesy of Blue Plate Oysterette

Photo courtesy of Blue Plate Oysterette

Photo courtesy of Blue Plate Oysterette

California Dreaming: Santa Barbara to Los Angeles

Since we weren't even spending 24 hours in Santa Barbara, I didn't do a lot of research about where to stay.  Luckily, I found the Agave Inn, a remodeled motor inn located on the outskirts of the city.  It was perfect for what we needed and came with the added bonus of being across the street from a fantastic French bakery, Renaud's Patisserie. 

We decided to pass through Ojai on our way down to L.A. and it is a gorgeous drive through the mountains from Santa Barbara.  We spotted all sorts of wildlife along the way including a coyote!  The town itself has a funky, new-ageish feel and is home to many spas and spiritual retreats.  One of our main reasons to visit Ojai was Bart's Books, the largest independent outdoor bookstore in the country.  

On our way out of town we spotted The Farmer and The Cook, an organic market and restaurant.  We picked up snacks for the road, the most delicious sun-dried tomatoes and some olive oil from Ojai Olive Oil.  Made locally in the surrounding hills, the ranch where the oil is made is open for tours on Wednesdays and Saturdays, but we had to settle for just buying a bottle at the market.  

As we approached Los Angeles we couldn't resist pulling over at one of the many beaches along Hwy 1 and dipping our toes into the surf along with the seagulls and pelicans.

California Dreaming: Paso Robles to Santa Barbara

When we started researching our trip, I was intrigued by the town of Solvang, which was settled by Danish immigrants who travelled west trying to escape the midwestern winters.  I didn't quite know what to expect but as we pulled into town it felt like a part of Denmark had been plunked down in central California.  

We walked around town, stopping in at some of the shops and a great used books store, The Book Loft, with a museum dedicated to Hans Christian Andersen on the second floor.  There is a nice history of his life and work and some beautiful cutouts that he created.  

A good tip we use often is to stop into used book stores and let the kids pick out some new (to them) books to read in the car.  We usually can get several book for less than $20 and at least a couple of hours of quiet during the car ride.  That was the case here but we also picked up some new books of Andersen's fairy tales that Ava really enjoyed.

There are Danish bakeries throughout the town so we just picked one and stopped in.  We all had a little   treat while we checked out the history of the Danish monarchy on the wall outside.

As we headed out of Solvang, we spied Ostrichland, an ostrich farm/zoo and the kids begged us to stop. While Alan waited in the car, I took the kids through it and bought a tray of food and we spent about 15 minutes with the ostriches and emus.  This place is the definition of a tourist trap but sometimes you have to just give in and go with it.

This area has lots of wineries and we drove by The Hitching Post restaurant, prominently featured in the film Sideways.  We would have stopped for lunch but unfortunately we passed by too early for that.  

Once in Santa Barbara, we toured the Presidio.  It was built by the Spanish in the late 18th-century and contains the second oldest building in California, El Cuartel, a two-room soldiers quarters.  After the tour, we spotted Handlebar Coffee across the street.  The iced coffee was delicious and we grabbed some of their in-house roasted beans to take home.  

The kids needed to burn off some energy and Alan found the most amazing playground in a local park.  It is called Kid's World, located in Alameda Park and it was one of the best playgrounds we have ever seen.  It has a two-story wooden castle to climb through and explore, cable slider, tire bridge, a large whale to climb on and lots of seating on the periphery for adults to sit and enjoy an iced coffee.

For dinner that night we went to Brophy Bros. located at the head of Santa Barbara Harbour.  Serving all manner of seafood, the restaurant was packed and lively, i.e., perfect for a family.  The fish and chips and fried calamari were big hits at our table.

After dinner we went for ice cream at Rori's.  Made with all organic ingredients, every flavor sounded better than the next, from salted caramel to root beer float to my favorite, peanut butter chocolate candy swirl.  

California Dreaming: Paso Robles

From Morro Bay, we headed inland to Paso Robles for a couple of nights.  The area is known for its large number of wineries, olive oil and walnut production and Paso Robles is it's center.  There are lots of great shops and restaurants here, many of which are centered around the charming City Park.  We stayed right across the street from the park at the Paso Robles Inn.  We had a large suite with a sitting area, small kitchen, and best of all, a hot tub on the back porch.   The town is also known for its hot springs and it was pure luxury to put the kids to bed and soak in the hot tub with a glass of the local wine.  There is also a heated pool that the kids took advantage of on more than one occasion and which served as a nice way to wind down after a long day of being in the car.  

There is plenty to see in the area and we got an early start the next day and stopped in at a winery that came highly recommended, Ventaux Vineyards, in nearby Templeton.  We arrived just as they were opening and were able to sample a few of their fantastic wines while the kids ran around outside and played with the resident dog.  The woman who assisted us gave us lots of great tips, including recommending a local place where we ate dinner that night.  

Photo courtesy of Ventaux Vineyards

Photo courtesy of Ventaux Vineyards

Photo courtesy of  Ventaux Vineyards

Photo courtesy of  Ventaux Vineyards

She also tipped us off on a beautiful drive back into Paso Robles and we found some great places to stop along the way.  The first place was Limerock Orchards, a walnut orchard with a beautiful shop and tasting room that sells all things walnut-related:  oils, brittle, butters, and more.  We picked up some wonderful walnut oil and brittle (which did not last long).  This is also a nice spot to stop and enjoy a picnic.

A little further down the road Pasolivo is pressing their olives into the most delicious blends.  We particularly loved the basil (great on pizza) and lemon.  They also have really nice vinegars and spice blends.  You can sample everything and the kids really got into tasting all the different oils and trying to guess what the additional flavorings were.  

We found ourselves back in Paso Robles at lunchtime and went to Artisan, right across the street from our hotel.  Everything was fantastic but I had one of the best pizzas I've ever eaten!  All of the ingredients on the menu are sourced locally and lunch is a casual affair with sandwiches, salads, and pizzas on offer.  A number of wines (and beers) are served "on tap."

We peeked in at General Store next door, which has a little bit of everything (hence the name) but it is all something you would want to have in your house.  

Across the park from General Store was the kids favorite find, Powell's Sweet Shoppe.  Although it feels like a mom-and-pop kind of place, it is actually a chain.  With Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (the original one) playing on a loop, you can find every kind of candy there is.  I saw many things that brought me back to my own candy-buying days and that I hadn't seen since.  

Based on a tip from a local, we toured the San Miguel Mission in San Miguel, about a 15-minute drive from downtown Paso Robles.  Spanish missions can be found all over California in varying states of preservation.  This one was on the small side but we had the place almost to ourselves and I loved all of the original artwork in the church, which is still in use most days.

For dinner, we tried out Pier 46 Seafood Company.  Both a fish market and a sit-down restaurant, it seemed to be popular with the locals and had very good fish tacos, fish and chips, and a fantastic crab cake salad.  There is also a Trader Joe's right next door, so you can stock up (as we did) on snacks for the road or grab an after dinner treat.  

California Dreaming: Big Sur to Paso Robles

When you google "Big Sur Lodging" there are plenty of options but when you look closer they are usually a.) very romantic and, b.) very expensive.  This would be fine if Alan and I were traveling alone but since that was not the case, it took a little more digging.  Luckily, I stumbled upon the Big Sur Lodge and it was perfect.  Located in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, the lodge is a great base for exploring the area.  Accommodations are a series of cabins nestled among the trees and several options are available:  rooms with fireplaces, kitchenettes or both, as well as family rooms (which we had) that sleep 4-6 people.  Our room had a separate bedroom for added privacy and all rooms are without telephones, televisions and alarm clocks!  We dropped our bags and took two hikes that are located right on the lodge's property, one to a waterfall and the other to a lookout over the surrounding hills.  

If you plan on being in Big Sur overnight, make a dinner reservation.  We did not and we were scrambling to find a place to eat.  We decided to just try the restaurant at the lodge and it was (unexpectedly) very good.  The menu emphasizes organic ingredients and sustainable agriculture and has a wide variety of offerings.  There is a kids menu and a really nice beer and wine list, with many of the wines from nearby Carmel and Paso Robles.  They also serve breakfast and lunch as well as having an espresso bar.

The next morning we stopped for breakfast at Big Sur Bakery and Restaurant (where I had really wanted to have dinner the night before).  Don't be fooled when you see the gas pumps.  Look up the hill and you will see what all the parked care are really there for.  Delicious pastries and breads, freshly made lattes, and a fabulous view are more than enough reason to sit and savor your morning meal here.  And yes, she did eat that whole cinnamon roll!  

Right next to the restaurant is the Big Sur Charter School, which we all found incredibly charming...

When we planned the trip we didn't want to be in the car for hours on end, and lucky for us, there is plenty to see and do as you make your way down the coast.  Just a few minutes down the road from the Big Sur Bakery is Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.  An easy 15-minute walk on the aptly named Overlook Trail brings you to the site of the McWay Waterfall House, of which now only a terrace remains, but the view is what is really captivating.  To your left is the waterfall for which the house is named, which drops 80-feet down directly into the Pacific.  

We needed to get to San Simeon for a 1:00 tour but about 7 miles north of there, we had to stop at Piedras Blancas, a rookery, or breeding ground, for the Northern Elephant Seal.  The animals are here throughout the year and the website claims that it is home to about 17,000 sea lions.  There is a boardwalk along the beach that provides a great view of all the activity, from mothers nursing their pups to adult males fighting for prime space on the sand.  

San Simeon is William Randolph Hearst's home, designed by Julia Morgan, coincidentally the same architect who designed Asilomar, the lodge we stayed at near Monterey.  The only way to tour the house is by timed guided tour and there are many different tours on offer.  Based on some online research, we decided the best one for the kids was the Grand Rooms Tour, which is recommended for first time visitors and covers most of the common rooms in the main house, Casa Grande.  Our tour guide was wonderful with the kids and they were in awe that someone actually lived in a place like this.  Among the highlights of our tour was the movie theater, where we enjoyed a short silent film just like the guests of Hearst would have.  Once the tour is over, you are free to roam the grounds and explore.  The setting is as beautiful as the house and it would almost be worth it to just wander around outside and skip the tour.

On the way out, we were lucky to catch a glimpse of a herd of zebras that are descendants of ones that used to part of a zoo Hearst kept at San Simeon.  

Hungry for lunch, we continued on Hwy. 1 to Morro Bay and Taco Temple.  Home to an all-you-can-eat chip station with the most delicious tortilla chips and salsas and specializing in seafood tacos, this was just what we needed after a long day on the road.  A few things to keep in mind:  they only accept cash or local checks and they are closed on Tuesdays.  But if at all possible, stop at an ATM and pass though here on the other six days of the week as you will be missing out if you don't.