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Gill’s Blog: My family road trip in California

An overseas road trip is a memorable adventure at the best of times. When it's the family’s first holiday after a global pandemic and the destination is California, the excitement factor was understandably off the scale.

We flew with British Airways via London to celebrate some delayed special birthdays with my sister, brother-in-law, nephew (17) and niece (14).

First stop was Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco and a three-night stay at the Argonaut Hotel, an ex-cannery factory that has been beautifully renovated with a wine-tasting bar and lovely restaurant. It's a great location to discover the city, with the iconic tram pick-up point on our doorstep leading to Chinatown, Little Italy and Union Square.

San Francisco is a very easy city to stroll around. On our first day, we walked down to Union Square, ending up in bustling Chinatown for lunch before checking out the famous crooked Lombard Street, which has appeared in many movies, most famously Steve McQueen's Bullit car chase.

We visited Alcatraz in the evening, seeing the different cells and learning about the escapes and infamous residents on an informative audio tour.

Cycling over the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito for lunch was harder than we expected, climbing the steep hill before you cross needed a large dose of determination but was rewarding. A lovely little quaint town awaits on the other side and the seafood lunch was fabulous. Unsurprisingly, we caught the ferry back.

We collected our car before leaving San Francisco and heading to Napa, an easy drive passing through endless vineyards and olive groves en route. Our home here was the River Terrace, just a 5-minute walk downtown but in a quiet location with a more country feel and a lovely outdoor sitting area with a firepit and restaurant.

With a taste for outdoor picnic areas, the following day we grabbed an Uber and visited the V.Sattui Winery around 30 minutes away where we tasted seven different wines and enjoyed the tour.

Napa is famous for its Cabernet Sauvignon which was delicious. You can buy your favourite bottle to complement lunch with the biggest sandwiches and cheese at their fantastic deli.

Back in Napa itself, we discovered the local Farmers Market and couldn’t resist a sensational savoury crepe with pesto mozzarella and Parma ham whilst Arthur picked up some hand-crafted Napa Distillery Bitters.

My sister’s family met up with our cousins from Sacramento and took the kids for a day on the rollercoasters and waterslides at Six Flags theme park whilst Arthur and I decided to check out some more wine tasting before meeting them for dinner at Celadon.

Yosemite was next and on the drive there we stopped at a beautiful town called Yountville, which offers something quite different, with its Michelin-starred restaurants, award-winning tasting rooms, world-class art, fine accommodations and incredible natural surroundings.

As this was a flying visit to Yosemite National Park, we just needed a base, so stayed in a functional and newly opened Marriott in a feeder town called Oakhurst, just outside the south entrance.

The drought had caused recent fires that thankfully had been contained with no fatalities although many trees and wildlife had been harmed and local businesses affected.

A pass must be organised in advance to enter the park, which is presented at the gate and $35 per car is charged, giving unlimited access for the duration of your ticket.

We drove for around 35 minutes before passing through a tunnel where there are stopping places and viewing points to enjoy the immense granite mountains of El Capitan and Half Dome.

We managed a hike to Mirror Lake to see some of the waterfalls, but many have dried up in summer with spring the best time to see them in their full beauty. I would love to return and stay longer to enjoy the water sports and other hikes, including Bass Lake.

I have heard amazing things about Carmel and Monterrey so was very excited about my first visit. The towns sit side by side, each offering something quite different. Carmel-by-the-Sea is a unique, European-style village nestled above a beautiful white-sand beach where everything is within walking distance.

Monterey's Cannery Row was once the centre of the sardine-packing industry and today is a popular strip of gift shops, seafood restaurants and bars in converted factories. In this video, as narrated by “Edinburgh’s answer to Attenborough”, you can spot the resident sea lions, otters and other wildlife that hang out at the harbour.

We stayed a couple of nights at Carmel’s Mission Inn with a great outdoor area with fire pits and it was here we discovered our newfound love for “Cornhole”, a popular US game in which players or teams take turns throwing fabric bean bags at a raised, angled board with a hole in its far end. Our evenings quickly turned into Cornhole tournaments with a bottle of Californian Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir!

No trip to Monterey County is complete without exploring the 17-Mile Drive, an idyllic stretch of coastline that takes you through a range of landscapes from dramatic cliffs, white-sand beaches and mystical forests to well-groomed golf courses and glimpses of luxurious mansions as you pass, as well as the wildlife making unexpected appearances.

The longest drive of the trip was from Carmel to Santa Barbara, an entire day spent on the road, stopping along the way for the wildlife and spectacular scenery on the rugged stretch of California’s central coast.

The section of Highway 1 that runs through Big Sur is considered one of the most scenic driving routes in the United States, if not the world. We were so lucky to see whales and elephant seals at San Simeon, just looking down onto the beach where about 30 of these creatures were lying, grunting away.

There was a buzzing atmosphere when we arrived in Santa Barbara on Friday evening with the streets heaving with partygoers celebrating the 'Old Spanish Days' fiesta. It was incredibly busy and often hard to find somewhere to eat but by Sunday things had calmed down significantly.

Santa Barbara has a real holiday vibe, so was an ideal spot to spend our last few days. The Harbour View Hotel was on the beachfront and an easy walk to the main area of State Street. Along the beachfront, there are plenty of water sports available and the boys even managed a bit of fishing (with little success!).

For the first time on the trip, we managed to do a bit of shopping; mainly at our favourite Bath and Body Works, stopping along the way at Marshall's for a new suitcase to fill.

A brilliant way to see the town is to go on the trolley tour where highlights included the Funk Zone - once a vibrant manufacturing hub and now home to some of the city’s best restaurants, wine-tasting rooms, breweries, boutiques, creative collectives, galleries and hotels.

The Santa Barbara Mission was fabulous too. Founded in 1786, it is open to the public with a museum, lovely gardens, a chapel, and a historic cemetery. We also caught a glimpse of the homes in the Montecito Hills though no sighting of Harry and Meghan.

Travelling back in BA’s new club class cabin was a terrific way to finish a wonderful trip. We packed a lot in, but it was well worth it.

I am a dab hand at planning a US road trip, so please get in touch if you'd like me to help plan yours.


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