Sure, we walk to after school activities, from our car into work, to the park occasionally and, on a few bleary eyed Monday mornings you may have even spotted us running to the school gates, but in general we live in a stunning part of the country with beautiful fields, woods and hills just minutes from our doorstep.
We seem too caught up in our day to day hustle and bustle to take a minute and appreciate the beauty all around us.
With this in mind we took a short weekend trip to one of our favourite pockets of the world: the Brecon Beacons in Wales.
Three days of beauty, nature and quality family time with no screens. Yes, you read that right. No screens – I even surprise myself writing that!
Have a watch of our video (below) and check out our full itinerary on this page. We’ve included links to maps – and other stuff – for you to click on.
Day One: Henrhyd Waterfalls
1mile – 20mins there, 20mins back
Our trip started out with a quick 2.5 hour drive to our hotel in Ebbw Vale in South Wales.
The kids slept most of the drive and we didn’t even need to resort to ear splitting car songs to pass the time.
The highlight of this road trip is the beautiful Severn Bridge separating Wales from England – it’s a visual marker that you’re going from one world to another.
We stayed at a modest Premier Inn, which you always know is clean, reliable and well priced, but the best part about this particular Premier Inn is that directly next to it is a Brewers Fayre pub – more on why this is important later.
We made a quick stop at the Festival Park retail outlet, a three minute drive from our hotel, for a quick lunch and some new walking boots (did I mention we don’t do much walking?!)
Plus, I wasn’t going to argue with David when he told me I needed a new pair of boots. “Yes dear, if you say so,” I replied with a wry smile.
So, once we looked the part we headed off to our first stop, Henrhyd Waterfalls, which was about 40 mins away.
How to get a 6-year-old adventurer up for his first hike? Inform him the Batcave (yep, the actual one from The Dark Knight Rises) is just beyond those trees…and watch him go!
We decided to save the mountain for the next day, just in case we realised we were out of our depth early on.
The waterfall trek was a great starter hike and a magnificent adventure in its’ own right. A gorgeous, winding and moderately steep path guides you over wooden bridges and bubbling brooks to a stunning waterfall within 20 minutes.
Be warned: it was definitely not buggy friendly but with a firm grip on both of the children’s hands we all walked there without any meltdowns or accidents.
Your first view of Henrhyd Falls feels as though you’ve hit the jackpot but being able to cross behind the actual waterfall was an extra special memory that we’ll never forget.
The deafening noise of the waterfall made it feel as though we were in a blockbuster ourselves!!
The only thing I would have done differently here is bring a picnic as it was much more scenic to eat here rather than at an outlet shopping centre!
Tired and happy from a great first day we went for an early dinner at the pub next to our hotel.
Now, this pub may seem like any ordinary chain pub with decent food and affordable prices but with one big difference to anyone who’s ever dined with children: THERE IS A SOFT PLAY INSIDE THE PUB!!!
This meant that we were able to eat in peace and actually have a conversation without the need to hire a babysitter.
The quiet meal, after a long walk, was probably one of the best parts of the trip – I’m not even joking!!
Day 2: Pen-y-Fan
4 miles – Two hours there, One hour back
After munching down an all-you-can-eat breakfast, we now had the energy to tackle the biggest mountain in the south of the UK.
Pen-y-Fan rises 2,907 feet (886m) into the sky but it’s very much a “beginners” climb during the spring/summer.
I froze a large bladder of water (camelbak) that attaches to a big straw which pokes out of your rucksack. This meant we were able to sip cold water during the hike. We may have shared some germs but it beat carrying a bunch of water bottles.
It took around 50mins to drive to the base of Pen-y-Fan but it didn’t feel like that as there’s some stunning scenery to enjoy.
We easily found parking and filmed our “before” shots (watch the video for THE best intro to one of our vlogs ever).
The excitement of starting up the mountain made the early part of the climb easy but after encouraging breaks, snacks and lunch, Samantha was “done” after one hour – and one mile!
She got onto David’s back and Dylan was on foot, with mummy’s burden being to keep the inspiration and hydration flowing freely for all.
Half way up the mountain David’s back was still holding strong but Dylan started to flag.
Going into it we told ourselves we had no problem making it halfway and turning around – it was meant to be fun after all – but while taking a break we saw a lovely group of people trudge past us literally carrying a man in a wheelchair.
It was one of his goals to make it to the top, and his friends and family were determined to make that happen for him.
We all looked at each other and even Dylan thought if he can do it so can we!!! Shout out to that guy – what an inspiration?!
Part of the way up Dylan hit another wall when we saw an obelisk dedicated to a little boy named Tommy Jones just one year older then Dylan, who got lost on the mountain and lost his life there. Pen Y Fan is beautiful and manageable but not to be underrated. We also found that the SAS use trails along the mountain on its hottest days weighed down with all their gear as a training exercise. This inspired Dylan once again and after 10 minutes of convincing and almost quitting he declared “come on then. Let’s just do it!” And off he went ahead of us!!!
It was a sweet sweet victory when we made it to the top and got our picture at the peak. We made it! An out of shape family with two little kids made it to the top of a mountain as a team. What an accomplishment!
As excited as we were to make it to the top we had totally underestimated the journey back down. What must go up must come down. And our four year old little trooper was not impressed with this inevitability. With lots of breaks and promises of a hot dog and ice cream at the bottom we made it!
Our pack mule Daddy made it in good spirits surprisingly until he realised that when Sammy said she “needed a wee” it meant she’d already done one… all down his back. His positively seemed to fly away in the wind after this point as well. We made it back to the bottom and got our promises hot dogs and ice creams and had a lovely wade in the ice cold streams. You may even find our carrier still sat there if you choose to go yourselves! *face palm emoji* Please can we all take a moment of silence here. RIP trusty carrier. You served us well.
Exhausted and hungry we headed back to the hotel for showers and a lovely long meal and run around in the soft play until we crashed in our bed. With kids being kids they somehow still had energy to play for hours happily in the soft play while David and I had a proper date night and a 3 course meal with drinks at a great price. As the hotel and activities we chose were so cheap we didn’t mind treating ourselves to whatever we wanted on the menu, after all, we earned it.
Day 3: Super-tubing
After our big adventures and a drive awaiting us we knew we needed something a bit lower key to fill our day. We found a place that did tubing, like a big slide on an inner tube down a hill, minutes from our hotel at the same Festival Park Retail Outlet. We were able to all have a go for a reasonable price but often there are Groupons available so be sure to check this out first. Although our legs were tired from the days before we had a great time taking turns speeding and spinning down the mountain before our drive home.
We managed to get away with a memorable weekend trip for the 4 of us with meals, hotels and activities for under £300. Not even including the priceless memories and relaxing quality time spent together far away from the normal stressors of everyday life. What started off as a daunting feet I wasn’t sure we would complete because a proud achievement we accomplished as a family. This little trip is one of my favourite hidden gems of England and Wales and if you have a few days to replicate it yourselves we’d love to see your pictures and hear your stories. You may even see us there as I’m inspired to try it again, this time with three kids in tow!
You’ve finally booked that once-in-a-lifetime trip to San
Francisco so, naturally, you’re already imagining cycling across the Golden
Gate Bridge or smelling the salt water as you sail across to Alcatraz.
There are so many things to see and do in the city but did you know that you can explore even more of California’s natural beauty in the same break?
Well, you’re just 45 minutes away from giant Redwood trees, whale watching and a world-famous wine region, so why not add a visit to Sonoma County to your itinerary?
Think of our video below as the ‘tasting session’ before you choose which vintage experiences you want to savour.
Sonoma County in three days
Here’s the itinerary for the trip you saw in our video.
We packed too much into three days so we will definitely spread it out over a couple more days when we go again.
This is just a snapshot of our trip so you won’t be surprised to find out that there are many more hotels, wineries and towns to visit, simply head to sonomacounty.comfor more options and inspiration.
Day 1 – Winery
Unsurprisingly, the Francis Ford Coppola Winery is owned by the world-famous film director, but he places a focus on family, which is one of the reasons he installed a pool for children and adults to relax in.
We’d never been to a wine tasting before so made the most of
asking as many questions to our friendly sommelier, Ron, who didn’t seem to judge
us for our lack of knowledge!! Check out our uncut interview with him below.
The winery has a museum packed with props, costumes and artefacts
from Coppola’s famous movies.
There are more than 425 wineries in Sonoma County alone,
ranging from posh palaces to laidback locations in a rustic setting.
We were travelling with our three kids but – as we’d never been
to a vineyard before – we still wanted to have a taste of a classic Californian
With a pool pass, you could easily spend a whole day here – plan
which one of you is going to drink or whether you’re going to take an Uber back
to your hotel!
You will never forget the first time you see or touch a
giant Redwood tree, there’s something special about being in their company.
We travelled three hours to the Drive-Thru tree in Leggett but Sonoma’s Armstrong Redwood Park was just as good and so much closer to San Francisco.
You can drive through the reserve for a fee but if you park
next to the visitor’s centre, on the right, it’s free and you can walk around
the forest instead.
It’s not the longest or hardest hike in the world – it was
all stroller accessible and our three kids found it a breeze – in fact, they
wanted to keep going and it was adults who wanted to stop and get some food!
Capture the kids’ imagination by going to the visitor centre
and getting a ‘Treasure Map’ which includes some fun clues for children to hunt,
while also guiding you around the park.
There are more challenging hikes, if you normally like to
hit the trails, so there is something for everyone here.
Sonoma isn’t just famous for its wine, it’s also well known for its craft beers, including one of the most decorated breweries in the world: Russian River Brewing.
In 1997, the owner of Korbel Champagne Cellars in Guerneville decided to hire someone to brew some beer and he ended up making some of the first double IPA’s which the country is now famous for.
In 2003, Korbel decided to leave the beer industry and transferred all beers and rights to the Russian River Brewing Company, who have a microbrewery in Santa Rosa and a huge resort-style brewery and gardens in Windsor.
We didn’t find out just how big its beers were until we were back in Southern California and we were told off by our friends, so make sure YOU try Pliny the Elder and Blind Pig IPA when you’re there!
Getting more than 1,000 subscribers, winning an award, and being asked to appear live on the radio are three things we didn’t think would EVER happen to our little channel – let alone that they would all take place in 2018!!!
Before New Year’s Day 2016, I was planning on just uploading some videos to my personal YouTube channel but after reading two chapters of Steve Jobs’ biography I was inspired to start-up a “proper website” – and brand – to see what might happen.
So, I nabbed Twitter and Facebook handles, bought the domain name, asked my brother-in-law Simon to teach me how to use WordPress and I made my New Year’s resolution official!!
After the excitement of publishing and promoting the blog post I suddenly felt sick – and it had nothing to do with the beers from NYE.
What had I just done?!!!! Now I actually had to follow my spontaneous, very public resolution through and make this blog happen, otherwise I’m that person who starts a blog but doesn’t see it through.
I also had a few other fears: would people care/like what I was going to write/produce; and, what if it doesn’t take off to a respectable level and I embarrass myself? I usually only compete when I know I’m going to succeed, whether it’s a game of pool or a job.
“Why can’t you make a successful blog without people needing to know about it?!!” I thought to myself.
Three Years On
Well, I’m now sat in exactly the same position as three years ago: on the bed, listening to the kids let off steam outside – while I try to write a blog post.
This time, I’m posting a link to a radio interview that we did live on BBC Radio Berkshire where we talked about winning a national award and the trips we have planned for 2019!! None of this would have happened if I didn’t hit publish three years ago, decide to take a risk and put myself out there.
Is this now such a successful vlog that we can quit our day jobs? No way, not even close.
Do we have people approach us to make videos for them? Yes!! This is new over the past six months and is amazing!
Are we prolific vloggers/bloggers? Nope, but that’s something we’re working on this year! We know we need to social media more, too!!
Do I wish we didn’t start the blog? Some days, but those initial fears of embarrassing ourselves etc have gone away. As it turns out, we’re always going to embarrass ourselves in our videos but that’s what makes the filming together as a family so much fun.
Right now we’re making content that we’re proud of and that people seem to like! We’re also still very new to this business and understand that it takes more than five years to really establish yourself online.
What are you trying to say?
What I’m trying to say, in a rambling way, is: if you’ve got an idea or ambition that you keep putting off – DO IT!!
My football club has the latin motto: Audere Est Facere: To Dare is to Do – if you don’t try, you’ll never succeed!
It might not take you to the fame and glory that you’ve daydreamed about but at least you’re on the right flightpath towards it!
And, hey, if you don’t reach your final destination, the layovers will provide experiences for you to grow as a person, learn some new skills, meet new people and hopefully live your life without a major regret.
We are not the finished article yet, but why not hit publish, go on an adventure and see what happens, too?!
Who knows, you might find yourself on the radio within three years?!! Have a listen below!!
Oh, and as we’re trying to promote ourselves better in 2019, please subscribe to our YouTube channel and why not give this post a share, if you think it will inspire someone?!
Life of Reilly won Vlogger of the Year at the UK’s Travel Media Awards on Wednesday!! We were up against some talented and brilliant YouTubers so we didn’t think we had a chance of winning but the judges really liked our style and storytelling.
There was not ONE moment that we ever thought that we would ever win an award when we started this blog so this news is beyond our wildest dreams!
Receiving the Vlogger of the Year award
We have just tried to make videos that we would want to watch while researching a trip.
Our YouTube channel has grown over the past two years: we were sat at 12 subscribers for ages, then that moved to 100 for a few months but now we’re on our way to 3,000 and chugging along nicely!
What’s been going on?
Huge apologies, if you’re more of a reader than a video watcher!! We’ve neglected our website a bit and have hardly posted – we even forgot to post that we had a new baby!!! This is mainly down to focusing on the videos and not having enough time to write a post after spending weeks editing a video.
In our defence, David has been doing a Masters degree, creating a new Masters degree and making a documentary over the past two years, while also keeping the day jobs going!!! Alicia has started her own business and we had baby Jude in April, so things have been super-busy!
As the videos are doing best, we’ll continue to focus on those but we’ll hopefully be able to up our web and social media game again, with a tiny bit more free time again!
Anyway, we just wanted to share our news with you!!
We’re super-excited about winning this award and it’s made all of the hard worth worth it.
We’ve filmed quite a few videos that we haven’t managed to edit yet, so hopefully we’ll get to show you more of these before we head to the USA for another big trip next year!
California is one of the only places in the world where you can spend the morning surfing in the ocean and finish the day carving down a mountain on your snowboard. (Hang on – let me quickly add that to my bucket list!)
Traditionally, we’ve always hit the mountains in the winter and stuck to the beaches during the summer months but this year that’s ALL going to change!
We’re heading to the Sierra Mountains in August which are, believe it or not, more popular during the summer than the winter!
A view of Lake Tahoe during the winter with someone’s face in the way!
How does that work, eh?
Well, all of the cabin rentals in Lake Tahoe, for example, change with the seasons and transform from winter wonderlands to summer stopovers, complete with barbecues ready to smoke that fish you caught on the crystal clear water just hours before.
Back in the day, my favourite part about snowboarding was taking my battered and bruised body (yep, I’m that good on the slopes) into the hot tub and having a beer. When I saw people jump into the freezing cold swimming pool, I thought it was only there for dares and weirdos – I didn’t even think it might be used by normal people during the summer.
Before kids, we usually avoided California during the high season to snag cheaper plane tickets so, the rare times we were there for the summer, we’d stay and play where the sights and sounds were the opposite to England.
Surely beach life is the Life of Reilly?
It’s a bit like an American coming to England for the summer – they wouldn’t choose to go camping in the New Forest if they haven’t been to London or experienced Stonehenge before. It’s nice, but it’s not for your first trip, unlike Hull on a warm day?!! No contest!!!
Why head to the mountains during the summer?
Now Dylan’s in school we have to take holidays during the summer, or face a very public battle with the UK government. So, after our big trip in 2015 when we went to Disneyland and enjoyed beach days in Southern California, we feel ready to start looking for new experiences.
My new appreciation of rural American culture is great for Alicia, who’s really looking forward to this trip because she’ll get to go back in time to an all-American vacation that’ll remind her of going on holiday as a kid.
So, what will we be looking forward to? Well, the lakes around Tahoe, Mammoth and Yosemite are some of the most beautiful in the world.
Lake Tahoe during the summer. Photo: Erin Toomey
Travelling across the Atlantic Ocean for some ‘nice walks’ would be a snore-fest for anyone under 10 (probably 25, really) but these aren’t normal stretches of water: the shores around American lakes are filled with beach-ready families playing in the sun, while the water is packed with wake-boarders, water-skiers and swimmers.
One of our neighbours in England grew up near Sacramento in California, which is slap-bang in the middle between the Pacific Ocean and Lake Tahoe. Her family always chose the inland trip.
Erin explains: “A day at the lake feels more relaxed to me. You don’t have to worry about sharks or an undertow and, most importantly, the trees and mountains make for a beautiful backdrop to the day.”
A day at the lake is similar to a day at the beach, but with even better views! Photo: Erin Toomey
One of Alicia’s best friends, Jessica, lives in hot – but oh so cool – San Diego. She and her gorgeous family book a week off every summer to head to the mountains.
The Carlson family enjoying Mammoth Mouuntain in the summer!
They say they enjoy it just as much when the snow’s melted as when they’re wrapped up wearing gloves and goggles.
For years, I thought it was the annual Beer Festival that they drove six hours for, but there’s more to it than that, apparently!
“We love it because it is so beautiful and there are so many things to do. We love the outdoors, and it just feels like we are getting away from it all and escaping everyday life,” said Jessica.
“We are spoiled in Southern California and can go to the beaches all the time, so the mountains are a different experience for us with real weather changes, seasons, and different activities offered there that we cannot do at home.”
Jessica and her children visit Mammoth Mountain in the summer and the winter!
What about ski resorts during the summer?
The ski resorts are all open for business and have their gondolas turned on to take mountain bikers to the summits ahead of a high-octane descent.
They also have all of the food and drink that you’d want/expect after a day hiking, plus loads of cool activities for everyone: young and young at heart!
The Blue Streak at Heavenly includes a 50mph zipline!! Photo: skiheavenly.com
To get an authentic feel for your trip, you can hire a log cabin, during a winter or summer getaway. We loved having our own place – and big space – to unwind when we were there in the snow a few years ago – it’s much better than being cooped up in a hotel room.
There are cabins available for every budget, even as far as $2,000 a night lake-front estates via Luxury Retreats – just remember to book early to save yourself some money!
This is Squaw Valley, near Lake Tahoe, which was the venue of the 1990 Winter Olympics. Photo credit: Life of Reilly
We can’t wait to see a completely different side (and climate) to the places that we’ve already visited in California.
This summer, we’ll finally get to experience the might and magic of Yosemite, reach the peaks of the mountains we’ve only conquered when they were white with snow, and get that all-American experience at the lakes.
Read all about our summer trip to the Californian – with our two mini people in tow – very soon!
Sponsored by LuxuryRetreats.com but, as you’d expect, all of the words, opinions and experiences are from the Life of Reilly only!
I grew up in 1980s England and learned a lot about America from the films that I watched – on Betamax, of course – with my brothers and sisters, every weekend. Superman, The Goonies, Back to the Future, Home Alone, Grease – you get the idea.
They all offered very exciting views of the USA and it really did seem like a world away from our quiet rural village in Hampshire. No joke: we had to travel 20 miles to get to a McDonald’s (it didn’t open in our nearest town until 1990) and our local cinema only had one screen, and was weeks behind the rest of the country.
Weird and wonderful American myths/untruths were formed, until I finally got out there after meeting Mrs Life of Reilly in 2004!
During my first trip out to the USA, I was constantly laughing to myself about the things that were true, false or completely new.
So, here’s my lists of random things that I couldn’t believe were true about the USA, plus some observations which you might only know if you have friends or family out there.
50 random observations about the USA
Steam coming up from a New York sewer when we were there – see, it’s not a special effect!
The smoky sewers you see in New York are completely real – not special effects by movie-makers.
Portion sizes are big: True. But, it’s normal to only eat half and take the rest home for dinner the following night. Every restaurant is ready and willing to hand you a doggy bag. It’s only socially acceptable to do that in England at a pizza restaurant!
A simple, great invention: you can clip the petrol pump handle at the petrol station so you don’t have to hold it the whole time when you’re filling up. It un-clips automatically when the tank’s full. I kind of remember this in the 80s, why did this option go in the UK?!
Tailgating is a famous American past-time where sports fans eat and drink in the stadium car park before a game. It’s normal to rig up your own BBQ and big screen with satellite TV. Lots of ‘tailgaters’ don’t even have a ticket for the game but want to soak up the match-day atmosphere and feel part of the day more.
This was the Tailgating that I experienced at a Chargers v Raiders game, complete with BBQ and TV!
Waiters and waitresses receive the minimum wage and rely on tips, so the UK average of 10% won’t cut it. Tipping has gone up from 15% to 20% in the last few years, so be ready for that. You’re also expected to tip your bartender at least a dollar a drink – even when they’ve just taken off the top off a bottle of beer and not even poured it!!!!
There really IS a gap between the doors of public toilets. I thought this was something created for films so the characters could spy on each other easily.
Toilet seat covers are available in pretty much every public toilet, so there’s no need to make your own germ barrier with toilet paper! This latest version in New York is on another level, though!
Up until a few years ago, customers didn’t pack their own bags at the supermarket, someone would do it for you. Vons and Ralph’s, still have bag-packers.
Most traditional radio stations only cater for one genre of music. Even then, they all seem to still play 80s and 90s music and random one hit wonders as part of their regular playlists still, too. There are now digital Sirius stations but you have to pay for them!
You’re ALLOWED to turn right on a RED LIGHT, as long as you won’t cause a crash and there isn’t a sign which tells you that you can’t do it.
Drive-through ATM cashpoints are a common sight in most cities.
Drive-through ATM cashpoints can be found in most cities. Photo by Andreas Praefcke.
Most normal people don’t live in houses the size of the McAllisters in Home Alone or Steve Martin in Father of the Bride. Just like the majority of English people don’t live in a quaint thatched roof cottage with a river running through their back garden.
TV News outlets really do have helicopters – and a fleet of satellite trucks – for one city. There are several of these stations with all of these resources in each city, too!
UNIVERSITY American Football matches regularly pull in crowds of up to 120,000 per game – that’s the size of Wembley and White Hart Lane combined…for university sport! The average crowd for a normal student match in the UK is probably minus-five because the substitutes have gone off to the pub.
University American Football game Michigan vs Eastern Michigan which was watched by 110,000 people…110,000 for a UNIVERSITY match! Photo by Andrew Horne.
University sport (sorry, get your American accent ready, “College Sports”) are also featured LIVE on major sports channels – even the finals of the kids’ Little League baseball series! It’s very weird watching children playing a sport on ESPN.
Football (soccer) actually does seem to be getting bigger in the States. Most kids play it when they’re growing up, instead of baseball and there’s now more English football on TV so the next generation will probably have a Premier League team that they support.
Postmen drop off AND pick up mail from the box at the front of your house. So, there’s no need to walk to the other end of your village or drive to your local supermarket to send that annoying free-post letter you didn’t want to send in the first place!
In-N-Out Burger is only available in five States (California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah & Texas), so if you see one, you should probably give it a try! It also has a secret menu which has the best combinations, so make sure you come back here to find the link, before you order.
One of our Animal Style burgers from In-n-Out
The Cheesecake Factory doesn’t just serve cheesecake. In fact, it’s a restaurant first and then a dessert place second. The cheesecake is the highlight though, unsurprisingly.
When watching an American TV show…you know those points where a dramatic moment is repeated in the British version? This is when there would be adverts on in the States. They also usually have commercials before the end titles so they can avoid a break between two shows. Adverts are more frequent, too.
There are random town/road names which keep popping up big cities: Who or what is Lafayette and Sepulveda?!
Some American towns really like the idea of bringing in roundabouts but they over-explain the signs and make it really confusing – even when you know how a roundabout works!!
Ever seen a more confusing roundabout since the Arc de Triomphe? Photo taken in Mountain View, Northern California by Danielle Reich.
In built-up areas, it’s quite normal to not know when one town ends and another begins . The best tip that I can offer is wait until you see another IKEA, Wal-Mart or Target.
Shopping mall car parks are FREE! It makes sense to not have to pay to park for the cinema or to exchange an item!!
In big towns and cities, every STREET has its own exit from the freeway, usually every quarter of a mile. Definitely NOT the average 5-10 miles in between junctions that we have in the UK.
Many towns and cities have numbered streets, and also road names which are in alphabetical order, eg: Apple Street, Bacon Street, Cheddar Street. Pretty handy when you’re trying to work out where a certain road is.
Broadway in New York City.
Tax is added on AT the cash register, so when you get your $1 out to pay for a 99c item they’ll ask you for $1.07 or whatever the tax is in that State. Oregon is the only state with 0% sales tax – sounds like a good place to pop into for the day to buy an iPhone – or at least have the satisfaction of paying $1 for a $1 product!
The coins are really tough to read and work out – there aren’t many numbers so you have to know how much a dime or a nickel is! Also, the smaller coins are sometimes worth more than the bigger ones!
Pushchairs and buggies are called “strollers.” People won’t understand what you’re talking about if you use the English names, unless they work at an airport.
You really DO get free soft drink (soda) refills at most restaurants, and bottomless filter coffee at cafes/diners.
Big Gulps really exist and you can buy one which looks more like a bucket than a cup!
The Double Gulp holds 64oz (1.9L) of your favourite type of soft drink/soda. This isn’t even the biggest size you can get! Photo: Russell Bernice
It’s bad manners to blow your nose in public, more-so in a restaurant. (Mrs Life of Reilly is still on at me about this!)
Mexican food is a staple. It’s more popular than curry out here. (Oh, and it’s tough to find a good curry in the States).
Americans cut up their food with a knife. Then, put it down and eat everything with a fork in their right hand. There’s no dual knife and fork action, something which is considered good manners in the UK.
Most fridges have double doors AND an ice and water dispenser plumbed into the mains.
Garbage disposal units are commonplace. Why have they not caught on as much over here? They’re a great way to get rid of leftovers.
There are still some really old cars on the road still, mainly because the Smog Test doesn’t check many things that would make a car fail an MOT, here.
You’re likely to see some pretty old cars out on the roads still.
The majority of people are very proud of their political allegiance and will speak about it openly.
It’s a very British tradition to be offered a cup of tea – or other drink – as soon as you walk into someone’s house. Don’t expect this in America. In fact, providing guests with a drink is not at the top of the list of priorities when you arrive at most peoples’ houses, unless it’s a party.
When you first land, it can feel like you’re being sold something everywhere you look: on TV, radio, big billboards, park benches, man on the corner spinning a sign, even the stats on a sports report are sponsored.
Ironically, NO sports teams wear a sponsor on their shirts while they play!!!
There are no sponsors on any professional sports teams in the USA. Photo by Keith Allison.
People aren’t afraid to go out to the shops not looking their best. Lots of women go out in their running clothes (activewear) or ‘sweats.’ I’ve seen lots of men go to the shops or walk their dog in what was definitely their pyjamas. Why are us Brits so vain?!
It’s actually illegal to cross the road anywhere but at traffic lights, even if there are no cars around. It’s called J-walking. New Yorkers are the only members of a city who really laugh in the face of this law.
“Ped X-ing” written on the road means Pedestrian Crossing. Maybe I’m just thick, but I still say “Ped X” in my head when I see the sign!
Weirdly, road markings are the other way around. In the UK, you’d see KEEP CLEAR on the road but in the States it would be CLEAR KEEP – depending on how you’re used to reading the markings, of course. Yoda would love it!
Top: UK road markings. Bottom: Typical sequence of road markings in the USA
The famous American LIGHT beers really do taste of water.
But American CRAFT Beer is very strong!! It’s full of flavour and rising in popularity every year. I think it’s better than most European beers, now!
Americans don’t mind mixing sweet and savoury, especially at breakfast. You’ll get sausage, egg and pancakes on thesame plate, and many people will drizzle maple syrup all over the sausages and bacon, too!!
People actually LIKE to make small talk and get to know strangers, even if they’ll never meet again. Can you think of anything more un-British?!
What random observations have we missed? Did you think there were THIS MANY small differences? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
It’s the Road Trip which is on everybody’s bucket list and – after driving 500 miles down California’s ever-changing coastline – we now know why the Pacific Coast Highway is so special.
The funny part about this world-famous drive is that not many Californians, including Mrs Life of Reilly, have actually experienced it.
Most natives opt for a quick flight from Nor Cal or So Cal (slang terms for Northern and Southern California, if you hadn’t guessed?!) or get the job done in an eight-hour drive on the freeway.
After “doing” Route One, I don’t think we’ll ever drive the main motorway (Interstate 5) ever again!
Sure, it might take a few hours longer but we’d rather be smiling and enjoying every minute, rather than being stuck in traffic or trying not to fall asleep on a dead-straight road, while listening to a boring audiobook your other half put on before she fell asleep.
We were really excited about doing Highway One but when we were researching it, there didn’t actually seem to be any websites which offered exact timings so that we could properly plan our trip (to the hour) and work out a realistic itinerary. This is why we’ve written THIS article!!
Our timings are real and accurate, because we noted them down as we went along.
On the left you’ll see our real timings, but we’ve put our suggested times in brackets (plus a full itinerary at the end of Day 3), which will help you avoid the problems we had each day. If only we’d read our blog before we travelled!!!!
So, here’s how we did Route One, with two kids, over three days!
Get a convertible, if you can
The convertible was amazing – but remember to keep those kids warm in the back!! Oops!
Ok, before you get to the Golden Gate Bridge, make sure you try to rent a convertible for your Road Trip.
Having the top down makes it feel as though you’re really travelling and connecting with the towns and cities that you drive through, rather than watching it all through a rectangular piece of glass.
It’s great to feel the temperature change with the landscape, as it often captures the mood of the place you’re driving through.
A convertible also looks really cool in photos! 😉
We found that choosing a convertible over a standard car was only $50 extra for five days, when we booked through Dollar. I’m not sure if we were just lucky with a promotion, but give it a try – it might not be as much as you expect!
Dylan still talks about having a convertible in America! He’s going to be disappointed on our next trip!!
Was it worth getting a convertible when you have small children? Yes and no.
Yes: it’s something different and fun; they liked it when we drove under 10mph.
No: With a roof in the boot (trunk), there’s less room for luggage and a travel cot (pack and play) so it’s quite tight; they didn’t like it when we drove faster than a child on a bike; the back gets really cold, even in the Californian sun (we found this out the hard way and only realised that they needed jackets and blankets on when we got past Monterey – oops!); you need to put sunscreen on the kids before you leave; it’s frustrating to drive Route 1 with the roof on when you have a convertible, so you kind of wish you didn’t have one!
Overall: Would we choose a convertible again despite the big list of negatives? Hell yeah! It was fun to drive around with the top down, even if it was just for an hour each day. Just remember to snuggle up those little ones in the back.
Plan your trip along the Pacific Coast before you go so you don’t get stranded in the middle of nowhere
There are a few things that you should book before you jump into your car and leave modern life for three days (it really will feel as though you’ve gone back in time, especially during the first 48 hours).
Yes, Big Sur is located just a few hundred miles from the global headquarters of Facebook and Apple, in one of the most advanced countries in the world, but it really is in the middle of nowhere – with no mobile phone reception, let alone internet – so there’s no way you can reliably book stuff.
The other thing about fewer hotels – and people knowing that you should book ahead – means that there isn’t much scope for turning up and expecting a room somewhere. We saw people, who hadn’t booked ahead, running in and out of every hotel reception looking for a room – even at our hotel!
They said they were going to sleep in the car! You wouldn’t want to do that with kids in the back!
There are some special views from Hearst Castle and lots to see on the “ranch” as he used to call it!
The other place you should book before you leave is Hearst Castle.
Yes, they recommend that people should book ahead of time on their website but we weren’t certain which tour we should go on – and, we didn’t think that every good tour would get booked up for the times that we wanted to go.
We also thought that we’d be able to book it at the hotel the night before…but with no 3G, and no working hotel wifi – it was impossible!
When we arrived at the castle, all of the tours were booked up and we had to go for a later tour – and not the one that we really wanted to do, either.
So, avoid this by simply booking ahead – you’ll thank us if you do!
10am – Golden Gate Bridge (you should get there for 8am)
Aim to get to the Golden Gate Bridge as early as you can.
We went for 10am to avoid rush hour traffic going out of the city but we could have probably left San Francisco at 9am and been ok.
We ended up getting there just after 10am and then didn’t actually start the drive until 11.30am, which meant that we we had lost a good amount of valuable driving time, straight away.
Aim to arrive at the bridge around 8am so that you can hit the road by 9am.
Golden great photo opportunity
Mason Street is a great place to grab photos of the Golden Gate Bridge
Get some pictures at the bridge, but don’t go to the Vista Point on the Marin side of the Bay: it’s packed and not a great shot.
Head down to the beach off Old Mason Street. You’ll get a much better picture there and it’s far less crowded.
We found a free parking spot just before the beach and took our pictures next to the road, which you might choose to do if you already have the beach shots.
Once you’ve taken your pictures, jump in the car with your selfie stick and get some cool shots crossing the bridge.
You’ll then turn around in the Marin Vista car park – where you’ll turn around (and at the same time thank us for helping you avoid the chaos here).
You’re now ready to head south – the same direction you’ll be travelling for three days!!!
Time to drive, but be warned
Head down to the beach near Mason Street to get the perfect shot of the bridge or take some from the promenade, like this one.
It is a very real possibility that you could get a $70 fine just seconds into your epic Road Trip.
The Golden Gate Bridge is a toll road but you don’t pay with cash as you cross anymore.
It’s more like the London Congestion Charge where your number plate is photographed and a toll is attached to the car.
Take the coastal road straight off the Golden Gate Bridge, as 101 isn’t as scenic as you might think! Photo: Google Maps
Ok, we’re finally off!!
The official way to drive Route One is to stay on it (or the Historic 101) from San Francisco to San Diego BUT after you get off the Golden Gate Bridge, the Pacific Coast Highway is a four-lane road which gets snarled up with traffic.
It’s not exactly the way you’ll want to start the drive of a lifetime, so we jumped off and headed towards the Ocean as soon as we got out of Golden Gate Park.
It did feel as though the Stop Signs and traffic lights were never going to end at one point, but it was all worth it when we got our first glimpse of the water.
**You can avoid our slow drive to the ocean if you take Lincoln Blvd as soon as you get off the bridge.**
We continued along Great Highway Road and enjoyed the panoramic views of the sea along the flat road.
Every mile or two, we stopped at traffic lights to allow surfers to race into the water.
There’s no mistaking that you’re setting out on a real Californian experience with these sights and sounds.
You’ll join Route 1 just past Daly City and wind your way down to Santa Cruz.
The El Camino Real bells line the Pacific Coast Highway. Photo by Eric Chan on Flickr.
Now you’re on “The One,” you can get your kids to start looking out for the El Camino mission bells which are on ‘shepherds crook’ posts along the whole route to San Diego.
They were placed on the highway in 1906 to commemorate the old El Camino Real (The Royal Road) trail which Spanish settlers created in the late 1700s to link the 21 California missions along the entire coastline.
Over the past century, more than half of the 450 iron bells have been stolen, vandalised or fallen into disrepair.
Don’t worry though, in the 1970s and 1990s many were replaced, so you should be able to spot some and take a few photos!
2pm – Lunch in Santa Cruz (11.30pm for you)
After driving along the empty coastline for two hours, it was nice to hit a real city again.
Santa Cruz is the original surf town: three Hawaiian students shocked locals by riding waves here in 1885 and, in doing so, became the first people to surf in the USA.
It’s also the home of surfer, and inventor of the wetsuit, Jack O’Neill. Yes, that O’Neill.
As you can see from our timings, because we left San Francisco really late.
We didn’t have time to walk along the famous Boardwalk from The Lost Boys movie.
Instead, with two starving kids – and two very hungry adults – we ran into the first diner we came across and ate lunch as quickly as we could so that we could get back on the road again.
It was a shame because the boardwalk was buzzing with tourists – and locals – who were all looking to make the most of the fun that the city has to offer.
Look out for the 90-year-old Big Dipper which is still holding its own against the modern amusements.
We spent an hour in Santa Cruz, and left at 3pm.
You should leave two hours – for lunch and sightseeing – and get back in the car at 1.30pm. This will get you to your next stop for the times below.
4pm – Monterey (2.30pm for you)
Monterey Bay Aquarium. Photo by: Meij Kobayashi
We’d been to Monterey to visit family there several times before, so we didn’t stop here during this Road Trip.
Monterey is a quaint place to visit, with its’ seafood restaurants and fishing village vibe. It’s home to Cannery Row, where John Steinbeck based the novel of them same name.
It’s home to the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium but, unless you’re going to do Route One with a stopover here, you won’t have time to visit it because it takes a whole morning or afternoon to get around.
You could easily choose to stop here, rather than the fast-paced Santa Cruz, for lunch though.
If you do – and you have some time to spare – you could also visit one of the most picturesque – and famous – PGA Golf Courses in the world: Pebble Beach.
The famous links course is situated within, what’s called, “17-mile-drive” – a scenic route around the rugged peninsula which, believe it or not (!!!!), is 17 miles long!
With its rugged coastline, ocean views and varied wildlife, it’s like a mini Route 1 roundabout!
It’s set within a gated community, so you’ll either need to know someone who lives in one of the mansions, or pay the $10 fee to be allowed in.
5pm – Big Sur entrance (3.30pm)
The roads out of Monterey are straight and filled with expensive sports cars but the modern world seems to fall off the side of the cliffs, and into the ocean, with every mile that you drive south from this point.
Before you know it, it’s just you. The road. And, the ocean.
Gone are the Starbucks’ and fast-food chains. Even the gas stations and motels seem to suddenly disappear.
There’s no Las Vegas style sign that says, “Welcome to Big Sur” but as you start climbing above sea level, the roads get windier and the landscape becomes more dramatic. You’ll quickly know when you’re there.
The panoramic views open up around you. The waves crash beneath sheer cliff-drops next to the road, and the hot Californian sun begins to cool.
The land becomes rustic and wild and it really feels as though you’ve got a seat in nature’s best interactive theme park.
It got so chilly that we needed to put the roof up to stop the children from freezing in the back. We were also starting to get red faces from the sun and now the wind.
We would’ve probably kept the top down if we didn’t have the little-uns but it did mean we could turn up the stereo and find an appropriate soundtrack to the stunning scenery around us.
There are scores of small parking areas through Big Sur to allow you to stop, take in the scenery and capture a few memories with some photos but we needed to keep our pit-stops economical.
The first big landmark we stopped for was, surprisingly, a man-made one: Bixby Bridge.
There’s a smaller version of the bridge that you cross before Bixby, so we were looking for a place to turn around, but before we knew it, the real bridge was in-front of us and we were ready to pull over.
I wouldn’t say that I’m a bridge lover, but I’ve always found the Golden Gate Bridge compelling for some reason – and the pictures I had seen of Bixby Bridge looked really cool, too.
It was amazing to see something so well constructed in the middle of nowhere.
The best part…is that the bridge totally lives up to the hype. It takes your breath away when you see it in person – and it will look amazing in any photograph that you take!
5.45pm – Pfeiffer Beach (4.15pm)
Pfeiffer Beach has to be seen to be believed! Check out our Big Sur video to see more.
One of things we didn’t think about – or appreciate – when we’d heard stories or read articles about Highway One was the coastal fog that’s around.
We thought it would just be on certain days, or at certain heights, but from Bixby Bridge all the way to San Simeon (where we stayed the night), we couldn’t see that far into the distance – even though it was July!
It was a bit disappointing, at first, but then it all begins to add to the mystique of the drive.
We also think it’s Big Sur’s clever way of making you want to return again and experience a completely different trip.
Our next stop was Pfeiffer beach, with it’s purple sand and famous Keyhole Arch which invites big waves to build and crash through it.
We had also been told that it was hard to find, but we scoffed at the advice of family and friends believing that anyone can easily find anything in the USA.
We should have listened to Aunt Connie! It’s really hard to find and we drove past it twice, even after asking for directions.
There are no signs to the famous beach – and GPS doesn’t take you to the right place – so bookmark this page now so you can find it later.
Make sure you save this page to make sure you can find Pfeiffer Beach when you’re doing your road trip!
Here’s how you’ll find Pfeiffer Beach:
**North to South: You’ll see a sign which welcomes you to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. After that, on the right, you’ll see a sharp turning off Route One (Sycamore Canyon Road). There’s no sign from the road, just some mailboxes, but as you turn you’ll see a yellow sign says “Narrow Road, no RVs – Trailers.”**
If you miss it, like we did, then you’ll know you’ve gone too far because you’ll end up getting to “Big Sur Center.” You can turn here and try again!
Be warned, the drive down to the beach is for confident drivers only. Alicia was yelping as we drove down and saw other cars heading our way!
When you get down to the beach you’ll be asked to pay $10 to park, so make sure you have some cash with you. It’s well worth the money as it felt like being on another world. It was really peaceful and the rock formations and waves are stunning.
We spent 45 minutes there, which felt a little rushed when we got our kids out of the car and back in again.
So, again, leave San Francisco on time and you should be fine!
6.30pm – Other Big Sur landmarks (5pm)
Nepenthe Cafe, Big Sur. Photo by: Traveling Otter
This was the point that we started panicking about how late we’d left everything.
It was dinner time, the kids were doing well, but would be getting hungry very soon. The sun was beginning to go down…and we were still two hours away from our hotel…so we raced through the rest of Big Sur to get them fed and watered.
If we weren’t in such a rush, we would have definitely stopped at McWay Falls and some of the other turnouts along the route. If you stick to our recommended timings though, you should still have time to see these sights.
Big Sur Bakery is just next to the “Big Sur Center” which you might have turned around in to find Pfeiffer Beach. It would be a great place to pick up some freshly baked food to keep you going until dinner.
If you’re running late, like we were, they also serve “normal food” for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Expect to pay top dollar for the privilege of eating in the middle of nowhere though: Soups start at around $10 and wood-fired pizzas start at more than $20.
A mile south is Nepenthe, which has a cafe and restaurant with a view, on the right hand side. We didn’t quite know where this place was when we drove past, but we really wish stopped here for dinner as it would have been perfect with our super-late timings!
A little further south, on the left, is the Henry Miller Memorial Library.
Yes, it’s a library, but in Bug Sur, you know it’s going to be different.
Stop in for a cultural, quiet break to browse some books or walk around the gardens with a tea or coffee, which you have to make yourself (of course).
McWay Falls, Big Sur. Photo: King of Hearts / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0
If you don’t need to stop for food, McWay Falls is next.
Unlike Pfeiffer Beach, there is a sign to McWay Canyon from Route 1, but it’s hidden on a sign for Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park (Confusing, huh? Two State Parks with similar names) and it’s a left turn, which feels wrong when the ocean is on the right.
We couldn’t afford to go wrong so late in the day so kept on driving.
You might get lucky and find a spot to park just before your turn off Route One, but if you don’t have the time to look for a free spot, follow the signs and you can pay to park in the official spaces.
It’s just a short walk, then, to see the 80 foot hight falls.
Your photos will be stunning at any time of the year – even with a drought – because the water constantly flows from underground springs.
Fact of the day: the water used to fall straight into the ocean until a fire, and then a landslide in the early 1980s, created the sandy beach that you see today.
The beach is too dangerous to get down to, due to cliff-falls and erratic tides, so stick to the path.
8.15pm – San Simeon for the night (6.45pm with no other landmarks)
An example of the hotels in San Simeon. The old school hotels should be embraced – you can go to a Hilton anywhere in the world!
The coastal fog was around all day but it was when the sun began to set that it felt more desolate and overbearing.
The drive seemed like a real effort through the southern end of Big Sur.
The road seemed windier than ever, a queue of cars was building-up and getting closer together – almost like a train convoy – and we were all feeling very tired and wanting food, some rest and a bed for the night!
I even started to get worried that we might miss checking in to our hotel because the reception probably wasn’t 24/7 (I was right, it wasn’t) but we did make it to San Simeon in the end!
On Day Two, we did the least amount of driving during the whole trip, which was great because we’d spent 12 hours driving the previous day (we drove from Palo Alto to San Francisco before we officially started the Road Trip, which was one of the reasons we started late) and we wanted to give the kids – and us – an easier day.
That was the plan but, as you’ll see below, we made a few mistakes!
So, again, our timings are on the left but you should use the timings in brackets (full easy-to-read itinerary on the next page).
Live music at breakfast in San Simeon
Only on a road trip like this would you find a songwriter using Big Sur as inspiration! Watch Marcos Lopez-Iglesias’ scenic soundtrack for us.
Ok, so our hotel in San Simeon was “rustic,” but that was part of its charm and it was this kind of experience that we travelled from England to enjoy.
The room was basic, but it was clean and safe. Breakfast was included but don’t expect a huge hotel spread of sausages, eggs and pancakes.
There was unlimited cereal and toast, plus packaged English muffins and filter coffee.
It was a forgettable breakfast, food-wise, but having a local retired guy welcoming everyone with warm and genuine conversations – plus watching the different types of guests around the room – it was actually a very fun meal.
After some food, we wanted to see how close to the ocean we’d been sleeping.
Sure enough, we crossed one small road and were looking out to the Pacific. It was a special place, but it felt even more special with the soundtrack from the man on the bench next to us.
A tall, tanned middle-aged man was strumming a very cool melody on his guitar.
The lyrics were also really catchy – and he had the look of a famous musician – so I asked him why he was playing his guitar at 9am on a bench in Big Sur.
It turned out that we’d stumbled across a fellow Brit who’d moved to LA after touring Europe for many years with his own band.
Marcos Lopez-Iglasias was a drummer for ex-Kajagoogoo star, Limahl, and even Duran Duran!
He told us that he loved coming to Big Sur to write music and that he was working on a new album!
I asked him if he could play us a bit more of his new song. We all shared a special few minutes listening to a brand new song coming into the world, next to the ocean in Big Sur.
It’s these moments that you would only have on a Road Trip. AMAZING!!
Watch his impromptu gig for us, above!
11.30am – Hearst Castle (10am for you)
Hearst Castle is a beautiful hill-top hideaway that was the home of William Randolph Hearst, the famous newspaper publisher of the late 1800s.
You may not have heard of him but you’ll definitely know the brands which bear his name today: ESPN, Cosmopolitan, Esquire and Elle are just a few of the major media outlets that he would own today, if he was still alive.
Living in England, surrounded by lots of medieval castles, I wasn’t sure if I would really want to visit a “new-money” mansion that was only completed in 1947.
After browsing online, the pictures of the outside swimming pool won me over, plus the fact that it looked like an interesting attraction in the middle of nowhere.
It was 9.30am and jumped into the car to go to the castle. This was mistake number one for the day!
I saw all of the warnings about booking Hearst Castle ahead of time on their website but I didn’t think it would really get booked up!
We were also going to book it the night before but there wasn’t any wifi or 3G near our hotel in San Simeon.
We turned up at the castle at 10am only to find all of the early tours had gone. The earliest of the general tours that we could get was at midday – we couldn’t wait around to do that!
So, we went for an 11.30am tour of the cottages, which didn’t sound great but it gave us access to the grounds and it would be fun to go there, still.
There are some special views from Hearst Castle and lots to see on the “ranch” as he used to call it!
As soon as the tour started though, we were hooked!
The excitement builds as you sit on the coach up to the castle and you hear the history – and the many and varied famous guests that visited Hearst, here – while you wind your way up to the property.
When you arrive at the top, the hot Californian sun returns and you can immediately see the detail – and money – that went into this public show of wealth and opulence (even the tiles on the stairs tell their own stories).
It feels like a real-life Great Gatsby. The Neptune and Roman Pools are something to behold.
I kept on thinking about what it must have been like here, in its heyday: Clark Gable and Greta Garbo partying with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.
The “cottages” on our tour were more like mansions: decorated in gold leaf, with sea views and . It was here that Hearst’s “wife” lived, away from his mistresses.
Winston Churchill and George Bernard Shaw also stayed in the cottages when they visited.
This is classed as a “cottage” at Hearst Castle. Winston Churchill stayed in one when he visited!
Anyway, I could write an article just about Hearst Castle. Add it to your itinerary!
Three hours was just about enough time to take a tour, stroll around the estate and have some lunch at the Visitors’ Centre (the Mac and Cheese was awesome!)
The kids were pretty good but didn’t appreciate any of the tour, plus away from the coastal fog it gets pretty hot up on the hill.
Dylan had a couple of melt-downs due to the heat, lack of water and boredom. He enjoyed walking around the grounds, though.
On your way down in the bus, make sure you check out the empty zoo cages that Hearst had filled with animals, and as your drive south to Cambria, look left and see if you can spot any of the zebra that were released. There are more than you think!
11am – Elephant Seals (1.15pm for you)
Elephant seals at Piedras Blancas near San Simeon.
As we had an hour to wait for our tour, we swapped things around and went to see the Elephant Seals before heading up to Hearst Castle.
They’re just ten minutes north of San Simeon at Piedras Blancas so, whatever direction you’re travelling, it’s just a minor detour.
Turn right out of the castle onto Route One and you’ll see the Elephant Seal car park on the left hand side.
It’s a very busy car park, and attraction, but people only stay for 10-15 minutes so it’s constantly moving so you should find a spot.
You may have seen the odd seal during your trip already – on a rock or in the ocean – but you won’t have seen this many and certainly not this many so close up.
You can see…and smell…everything!!
They’re a great way to see some unusual wildlife close-up – and they’re a great final memory of rural Big Sur because every mile south from here, is another mile closer to reality.
3.45pm – San Luis Obispo (2.45pm for you)
The ruggedness of Northern California begins to make way for the hot, desert climate of Southern California with every mile.
We tried to take in the pretty little towns that we passed (Harmony, Cayucos and Morro Bay) but we were in a bit of a rush (again!!), so didn’t stop.
When you hit San Luis Obispo (SLO to locals) it feels as though you’re firmly back in reality, which is good and bad, of course.
We hit rush hour for the first time in a what felt like a week. Traffic picks up again as you’re forced onto Highway 101.
A waitress told us to stop off at a place called the Madonna Inn with the promise of a very special toilet break.
We pulled up to, what looked like, a 1950s Vegas motel.
Go left when you walk through the main entrance and go down the stairs into the men’s toilet, which looks like a cave!!
When you step in to take a pee, water cascades down the rock-face and washes everything below, away.
We were one of “those” people that stopped just to experience the bathroom but we wished we knew about it earlier as it could’ve been a great place to stay overnight.
The uber-kitsch Madonna Inn and a taste of some of its furnishings!
The dining room was more kitsch than the Eurovision Song Contest and all of the 109 rooms are uniquely decorated: yes, the cave room is just like the Flintstones where you’ll literally shower in a waterfall; sleep in a room decorated as though you’re staying in the Alps; or maybe you’ve always wanted to stay in a bed with wagon wheels?
When you leave San Luis Opismo, you’ll have the choice of staying on the 101 or rejoining Route 1 at Pismo Beach.
We jumped back on the Pacific Coast Highway until just before Lompoc to make our way to Solvang on the 246.
We were glad we did – it was a beautiful drive through Guadalupe with its’ mix of flat, lush strawberry fields, then a steep climb, before descending down to another huge sea of green, on both sides of the car.
It’s another reminder of how varied the climate and landscape is on this special road: today, the harsh mountain-sides have transformed into lush agriculture and tomorrow we’ll head further south into the arid desert.
Why did we decide to come off Route 1 for Solvang? Well, this Road Trip is all about finding new places and experiences and we loved the idea of visiting a mini-Denmark that’s been built in the middle of California.
The city was founded in 1911 by Danish immigrants (surprise, surprise) who wanted to create their own colony.
A Danish speaking school was built three years later and their idea of creating a mini-Denmark went a step further in the 1940s when one of the town’s developers built his home in the style of his homeland.
The Danish Village concept grew and, now, much of the city looks as though it’s been picked up from cold Copenhagen and dropped into sunny California.
In fact, Solvang has the most windmills (five) within two square miles, outside of Denmark!
Solvang is a place like no other in California. It’s the complete opposite of what you would expect to see on the Pacific Coast Highway!
It’s a great atmosphere as you drive through Solvang.
The architecture makes the city feel different immediately. It does feel like you’re in a Danish Disneyland with the cartoon-like facades but all of the shops sell real Danish goods and are owned by people of Danish heritage.
It was great fun wandering past the windmills and taking photos on the ‘olde world’ street corners but the best part was picking out a delicious Danish pastry – from the hundreds on display – and enjoying a very unique Californian/Danish pit-stop.
If Solvang doesn’t appeal to you, you are also in one of California’s famous wine regions.
This is the region where Sideways was filmed (I still haven’t seen it, but heard so much about it. One day!) so why not do some wine-tasting instead?
7.15pm – El Capitan Canyon, Santa Barbara (6.15pm for you)
We stayed in Solvang for just under an hour and left at 6.35pm. If you did the same, with the timings above, you’d be leaving Solvang an hour earlier which is much better.
Head towards the 101 and you’ll soon be back on Route One, flying down to Santa Barbara.
We wanted to make the trip extra special and chose not to stay in a regular Best Western or “normal” hotel in the city.
One place, which was recommended by my boss at ITV (thanks Robin), was a glamping site with its own private beach just outside of Santa Barbara in a place called Goleta.
Now, I’ve had some bad experiences of camping in the UK. I hate it! Sure, I like nature but do we have to sleep rough to experience it?!
So, El Capitan Canyon is my perfect camping ground, with its own swimming pool, spa and every home comfort!
You can choose to have a yurt or a log cabin – both have real beds and electricity!!
The site also has: movie nights, at its own open-air cinema; stargazing talks with a local astronomer; wine tasting with samples from the wine region you’ve just driven through; plus loads of other activities including yoga, hikes and fun, runs.
Our cabin at the El Capitan Canyon camping resort and spa! All of the fun of camping with all of your home comforts!
It was a fab experience. We arrived and un-packed just in time to get dinner in the Canyon Market, which closes at 8pm so be warned!
It was there I was able to get wifi for the first time since San Francisco and was able to pay the Golden Gate Bridge toll!
Every pitch has its own fire pit which you can cook on. They sell wood and fire-starters, plus over-priced barbecue kits which start at $65 for burgers and $77 for steak (they do include enough meat for four though, plus salad, garlic bread, drinks and s’mores – and firewood, cutlery and plates).
Cooking marshmallows on the fire pit outside our cabin at El Capitan Canyon!
We were cheap (Really? Us?!) and bought some firewood, marshmallows and beer.
We sat out watching deer run past us, while talking about all of the animals that might be near the site.
It would be great to have spent a couple of nights here to explore the canyon properly but we had to get back on the road the quite early the next day.
The boys went up into the loft to sleep (we didn’t trust Dylan up there by himself quite yet – and the ladder was really steep), while the girls took the California King bed!!
Now onto the third and final day of our trip along the Pacific Coast Highway: Santa Barbara to San Diego!!
10.30am – Leave El Capitan Canyon (You should leave at 9.30am)
We left late every morning. Don’t do that. Leave on time or leave early!!!
Ok, we really couldn’t leave on time, whatever day it was!
We were aiming for 10am but still left half an hour late. It was Alicia’s birthday though, so we treated ourselves to a relaxing breakfast at the Canyon Market!
We had a great night’s sleep. It was lovely to wake up in the middle of nowhere but still be able to charge our phones and have a shower without leaving our lodge.
The lodge is quite basic but it has everything you need, including an alarm clock, microwave and those little toiletries that you usually get in a hotel.
You could probably leave at 10am and make it to San Diego in good time but we’d suggest leaving at 9.30am (or earlier) so that you don’t feel rushed.
Santa Barbara is a beautiful city – and there’s lots to do, including its famous zoo – but we didn’t stop there as wanted to get some miles under our belts before we stopped again.
As it was our last day with the car, we wrapped the kids up in the back, slapped on some sun-screen and got the top down on the convertible straight away!
Santa Barbara is the first point where you feel you’re really back in the modern world again! Photo by Jw4nvc/Wikimedia
Route One out of Santa Barbara is also Highway 101 which, by this point, we’d learned meant it was a normal three-lane road and not the road that was winding its way through Big Sur a few days ago!
The Pacific returns into view within half an hour. Here you get a widescreen ocean view, with no mountains or sharp corners to get in the way.
Once you pass Oxnard, you can leave the 101 and get back onto the road we all want to be on again! Almost immediately, Highway One gets straight back to business!
As you hit Point Magu, you get to see the rugged side of Southern California: what it’s lacking in lush vegetation and crashing waves, it makes up with the dusty, cliff-faces, that will be on your left, and the glistening blue water on your right.
12.45pm – Malibu (11.45am for you)
The beach houses are worth millions and are where many of the biggest stars live. Photo by BriYYZ on Flickr.
You probably know this already, but you won’t see any famous film stars wandering the streets or buying milk in Hollywood or LA because most of them actually live in Malibu.
The small-ish houses – and garages – that you’ll see on your right as you drive through Malibu, are actually worth millions and owned by some very famous people.
The general rule is, the more solid the gate, the more famous the person will be (you’ll see more of these before you hit the busy part of Malibu).
We were hoping to stop for lunch at one of the beaches in Malibu but the kids were still asleep.
By the time we thought we’d wake them up, we saw a sign for a beach called Paradise Cove, which we now know is the place they filmed Lethal Weapon, American Pie and this Britney Spears video, to name a few.
They wanted $40 to park there, so I did a U’y and we carried on.
In researching this article, I’ve found out that if you spend over $30 in the cafe, you get a rebate and only have to pay $6 for parking.
So, it could could be a pretty cool place for you to stop and have lunch!
Paramount Ranch is still used as a film set but not as much as in its’ heyday. It’s free to visit. Photo by edward stojakovic on Flickr. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
If you want to stop without spending any money, it would’ve been best to pull into one of the lay-bys before you get to downtown Malibu.
The side of the road gets busy when there’s access to a beach, so if you spot a space and can pull in safely, go for it! (FYI – The beach scene in Grease – and loads of other movies – were filmed at Leo Carrillo State Park, where you should be able to pull this trick).
Want to feel like you’re in a movie and don’t mind a 25min detour? Paramount Ranch is in the hills above Malibu (turn left after Point Dume beach) which is where some of the biggest films of the 1920s were filmed.
Today, you can visit the Old Western Town, which was used in Dr Quinn Medicine Woman but the ranch has recently been used as a location, more recently, in American Sniper, Van Helsing, The X-Files, Scream and…Norbit (somehow, not that I’ve seen it but it does seem strange).
It has free parking and picnic tables, so this could work for you.
The Getty Villa is a great place to stop for a bit of culture (and lunch) in Malibu.
You’ve already seen what one rich American tycoon can build – up at Hearst Castle – why not visit the property which Jean-Paul Getty made, to house his Greek and Roman collections?!
It’s been built in the style of a Roman villa and it’s simply stunning. I found the Roman architecture and history more interesting and beautiful than most of the antiquities inside it.
We went there a few years ago, so it wasn’t on our itinerary for this trip.
It’s free to visit but parking is $15. I think we got round it in a couple of hours and you can have lunch there, too.
2pm – Los Angeles (1pm for you)
Santa Monica is a great place to stop for lunch or have a wander along the pier.
Ok, you will probably have lunch in Malibu but we didn’t so we’ll keep the itinerary going as it happened for us so it doesn’t get too confusing!
This is definitely the most urban part of the whole drive. It is Los Angeles, after all, so what did you expect?!
You don’t get great views of the ocean for most of this section but you’re only a couple of minutes away from a beach at every moment.
As you’re choosing to do Route One, this probably isn’t your first trip to California and you’ve probably already “done” LA so I’m not going to go into all of the things you could do in the city, here. I’ll mention a few places on Route One though, just in case though.
Santa Monica is the first place you’ll drive through, after Malibu.
If you’ve only been to Venice Beach on previous trips, it’s definitely worth stopping and – at least – having a walk along the pier, which feels a lot like being on Brighton Pier with all of the rides and attractions! That might be because it’s the oldest pleasure pier on the West Coast.
It’s also home to the world’s first solar-powered Ferris Wheel.
Venice Beach promenade is an experience like no other! Look out for Muscle Beach, too! Photo by Sidvic/Wikimedia
Next up is Venice Beach, which is famous for its lively atmosphere and “interesting” mix of people. You’ve probably already been there, as most people go there on their first trip to LA, but if you haven’t, this is home to Muscle Beach and worth a wander around.
Route One moves inland for a while. You’re on normal roads with the rest of LA.
Yes, it’s just like being in any city but it’s a good point to stop and think about how the Pacific Coast Highway has changed over the past three days – the places you’ve been, the buildings and people you’ve seen – it’s quite a ride!
You soon end up at the airport! And not just driving past LAX, you go under the famous bridge which jumbo jets are casually driving across!
After the airport, you’re back on the coastal route and the beach cities of Hermosa and Redondo. This is where we ended up eating our lunch, in the end!
2.15pm – Lunch and onwards (1.15pm for you)
LA driving is always very slow so make sure you try just go with the flow…of the traffic, otherwise you might crash!
We left it late. Very late to stop off for food. Please don’t report us to children’s services!
The kids woke up near LAX and we knew we had to pull over straight away. We stopped at Hermosa Beach and grabbed a deli sandwich from a supermarket and ate it on the beach. It was nice but not what we’d planned at all!
We got back into the car an hour later (3.15pm) and we were faced with a dilemma. It was Alicia’s birthday and we promised to meet all of her family and friends in San Diego for a special dinner. We had to be on time or we’d be really late!
We had two options: a) continue along Route One and hope we made it; or b) get onto the motorway and definitely make it back.
Option B was the sensible route, which we took, but it might’ve been a mistake!!
Rush hour was on its way, and there was an accident, so we crawled for an hour on the freeway before hitting San Diego County and finally picking up some speed.
If we’d stayed on Route One, we’d have got to Long Beach half an hour later. We’d then have the beautiful ocean for company, as we made our way through Orange County and on to Dana Point – the official end of Route One – about an hour-and-a-half after that.
4.45pm – Dana Point (4.15pm for you)
Dana Point is the official start of Highway One! Photo by Dr Warner on Flickr.
**If we’ve confused you with timings now, the time for you (above) assumes you had a one hour stopover in Hermosa beach with us, but you got there an hour earlier at 1.15pm, so you get back driving again at 2.15pm. In reality, you’d have stopped in Malibu but this is the one hour break we needed to put into your itinerary!**
So, Route One officially finishes at Dana Point but the Historic 101 continues down to San Diego.
If you’re going the full stretch, via the Interstate or coastal road, you HAVE to take the motorway (I-5) for 27 miles (25 minutes) at Dana Point.
We took the Interstate all the way down to San Diego and got there at exactly 6pm (yay, we weren’t late!) but, the route in our video (uploading soon!) which goes through San Diego County’s beach towns, should work if you left that hour earlier than us. We go back soon to get the exact timings for you, though!
You’ll see signs for the “Coast Highway” again as you approach Oceanside on the freeway. If you stay on the motorway, you’re about 45 minutes from Downtown San Diego but on the 101 it’ll take you twice that.
Oceanside will be your first port of call. It has the longest wooden pier (over water) on the West Coast, which has great sea views – and a lovely Ruby’s Diner at the end of it! Just make sure you plan enough time to walk the pier – it’s a half-a-mile round trip!
Just up from the pier is the famous house from Top Gun. You know, the one that Tom Cruise visits Kelly McGillis and they become silhouettes and move in slow motion to Take my Breath Away! 😉
It’s the only house at 102 Pacific Street. This is because the block has been bought by a developer and is due to be turned into a hotel.
Fear not, Top Gun fans, they’re going to move the Victorian house to another location while the hotel is built and then place is onto the exact same spot! See it in the original location while you can!
The house has been restored and painted (not sure why they didn’t go for the same colours that were in Top Gun) and there’s a fence around it to stop it from being vandalised. But, you can still get photos and pretend to be Tom Cruise, jumping off his Harley!
Oceanside wouldn’t have been a place to stop in the 1980s but it’s been regenerated over the past decade with a big new cinema, some great restaurants and bars, plus it’s home to the California Surf Museum.
Check out the Craft Beer scene here, too: Stone has an awesome shop with the coolest beer garden I’ve ever been in, and there are also microbreweries at Bagby, Breakwater, the Surfside Tap Room and, of course Oceanside Ale Works, if you want a tour of their brewery.
Carlsbad & Encinitas
You’ll drive under this sign if you take the 101 down to San Diego! Photo by Mike Fairbanks
The beautiful sandy beaches continue into Carlsbad. You might come back here for Legoland or the Outlet Village, which has some great brands…and prices.
Encinitas is a beach town which is so famous for its surfing, that the Beach Boys name-checked Swami’s Beach, in Surfin’ USA!
Away from the rugged and more hidden surf spots is Moonlight Beach which is a family friendly beach with volleyball areas and a park for kids.
There are some great places to eat and drink in along the 101, here.
The shops are as cool as the residents so it could be a great place for an evening meal without even having to leave the road.
Finish your Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip watching the sun set next to the rock pools and wildlife at La Jolla Cove. Photo by Chad McDonald/Flickr
Next, the beach towns go very upmarket. Starting with Solana Beach, you’ll then hit Del Mar, which is home to some of San Diego’s richest residents, plus the city’s famous racetrack.
It has an old, colonial feel and you can quickly tell from the boutique shops that this isn’t a cheap place to live.
When you’re sat next to the ocean, a bit like you were in Big Sur, it means that you’re heading into Torrey Pines State Park – which is, yes, the home of the famous golf course!!!
After you pass the PGA course – and check to see if you recognise anyone playing – you’ll descend into La Jolla (pronounced La Hoya, Brits – I called it La Jolly-er for a while!).
It’s Spanish for ‘The Jewel’ and it really does feel like a gem when you’re there.
This is officially where the signs for the Historic 101 end.
Drive on down to La Jolla Cove where you can watch the sunset with the seals on the rock pools.
It’s a perfect place to finish your epic trip. There are loads of restaurants in La Jolla – they’re not all crazily priced – so you can grab some food and a beer – you deserve it!
6pm – San Diego (6.30pm for you – you’re late for once!)
Ok, you’ve made it to La Jolla, which is an awesome part of San Diego to complete the Pacific Coast Highway. But, if you’ve made it in good time and the sun isn’t going to set for another hour, why not go for the big finish?
The Cabrillo Monument is one of the southern-most parts of California, with views of San Diego and nearby Mexico!
It’s the place where the first Europeans landed on the West Coast of America, back in 1542, so it’s a perfect spot to show that you have conquered California, too!
The view of San Diego from the Cabrillo National monument . A perfect place to finish your route to the very south of California and the USA. Photo by Cszmurlo/Wikimedia
To get there from La Jolla Cove, follow Prospect Street until you can join La Jolla Blvd. This turns into Mission Blvd and you’ll get a taste of Pacific Beach and Mission Beach.
Follow the signs to Ocean Beach and Point Loma. Take Catalina Drive which takes you to the monument. (It’s $10 to get into the National Park site, but the pass works for a week, so you can come back another day to explore properly).
Drink in that San Diego sunset with the 360 degree views that are available from the Cabrillo peninsula.
ROUTE ONE: DONE, IN STYLE!!!!!
Alicia at the Cabrillo National Monument at one of the most Southern tips of San Diego.
We did the Pacific Coast Highway in three days, with two kids and one red convertible. What would we do differently?
Our timings!! We left late every day. Without any children I think we’d have been more to time but if you’re taking little ones, add an extra half an hour to the start time!
We would also probably do it over four days, rather than three.
It did feel a bit rushed at times, and we only visited one tourist attraction (Hearst Castle). It would also mean that we could start Big Sur earlier in the day and not feel as though we rushed through all of those special scenic spots. (Check out our suggested four-day itinerary at the bottom of this page).
It was a trip of a lifetime, and it felt like that.
We travelled across such varied landscapes, climates and places where the weather, the atmosphere and people changed with every hour that we travelled.
Would we do it again? DEFINITELY!
We have lots of family in Northern California, so we will try flying in there and driving down Route One to San Diego again in the next few years.
We’d love to know if you drive the Pacific Coast using our itinerary – or use parts of it – for your road trip.
Add your views and suggestions in the comments below. We can’t wait to hear from you and hope it helps!
Three Day Itinerary
We’ve spread our road trip itinerary over three pages, which might not be the handiest way to plan your Route One adventure, so here’s our suggested timings for a three day, and then a four day trip.
8am – Golden Gate Bridge Photos
9am – Leave Golden Gate Bridge
11.30am – Santa Cruz (lunch/sightsee for two hours)
1.30pm – Leave Santa Cruz
2.30pm – Monterey (you could have lunch/sight-see here instead)
3.30pm – Big Sur (includes 15 minutes stop at Bixby Bridge)
4.15pm – Pfeiffer Beach (45 min stop)
5pm – Leave Pfeiffer Beach
5.15pm – Nepenthe for dinner (one hour)
6.15pm – Leave Nepenthe
6.30pm – McWay Falls (30mins or later if the sun sets at this time for you)
7pm – Leave McWay Falls
8.20pm – Arrive in San Simeon/Cambria
10am – Take your tour of Hearst Castle and have lunch (3 hours)
1pm – Leave Hearst Castle
1.15pm – Elephant Seals (15 mins)
1.30pm – Leave Elephant Seals
2.45pm – San Luis Obispo (Madonna Inn rest-stop, he he!)
3pm – Leave SLO
4.45pm – Solvang (45 min break and Danish pastry)
5.30pm – Leave Solvang
6.15pm – El Capitan Canyon (or another place in Santa Barbara)
9.30am – Leave Santa Barbara
11.45am – Malibu (lunch and walkabout for 1h 15mins)
1pm – Leave Malibu
2.15pm – LAX
(Stop for 30mins at Huntingdon Beach or wherever you fancy in Orange County)
4.45pm – Dana Point
6.30pm – San Diego (La Jolla)
7.20pm – San Diego (Cabrillo Monument – adjust timings for sunset)
Four Day Itinerary
9am – Golden Gate Bridge Photos
10am – Leave Golden Gate Bridge
12.30am – Santa Cruz (lunch/sightsee for two hours)
2.30pm – Leave Santa Cruz
3.30pm – Monterey (Aquarium or wander around, plus overnight)
10am – Leave Monterey
11.30am – Arrive at Big Sur (15mins at Bixby Bridge)
12.15pm Pfeiffer Beach (one hour stop)
1.15pm – Leave Pfeiffer Beach
1.30m – Nepenthe lunch (one hour)
2.30pm – Leave Nepenthe
2.45pm – McWay Falls (45mins)
3.30pm – Leave McWay Falls
5pm – Arrive in San Simeon/Cambria
10am – Take your tour of Hearst Castle and have lunch (3 hours)
1pm – Leave Hearst Castle
1.15pm – Elephant Seals (15 mins)
1.30pm – Leave Elephant Seals
2.45pm – San Luis Obispo (Madonna Inn rest-stop)
3pm – Leave SLO
4.45pm – Solvang (45 min break and Danish pastry)
5.30pm – Leave Solvang
6.15pm – El Capitan Canyon (or another place in Santa Barbara)
9.30am – Leave Santa Barbara
11.45am – Malibu (lunch and walkabout for 1h 15mins)
1pm – Leave Malibu
2.15pm – LAX
(Stop for 30mins at Huntingdon Beach or wherever you fancy in Orange County)
4.45pm – Dana Point
6.30pm – San Diego (La Jolla)
7.20pm – San Diego (Cabrillo Monument – adjust timings for sunset)
After spending weeks organising the swaps, flying thousands of miles to California and relying solely on the swappers for shelter when we landed, the big questions everyone asked us when we got home were: was it worth it and what was it like?
You’ve probably watched the video above, which gives you a snapshot but we can go into far more detail in an article.
It begins at home
The House Swap began before we’d even left England. We were in contact with our two swappers through our Home Exchange service (we went with Love Home Swap– you can find outwhy in this article) but it had been a few months since we’d arranged the exchange.
A few weeks before we were due to fly, an email came in from the family whose home we were going to stay in when we first landed.
The first house was owned by the Palmer family from Encinitas.
The little booklet had everything we needed to know about staying in their home in Encinitas – from how to get into the house when we arrived, what day the wheelie-bins needed to go out, contact numbers and, how to turn the Home Theatre system on – to the most important piece of info: how to get the Hot Tub going and what temperature it should be!!
This re-assured us that the people – and the house – were genuine and that we wouldn’t have to look for a hotel when we all stumble, jet-lagged, off the plane.
I mean, would criminals go as far as choosing a nice font for the booklet and leaving phone numbers (that we could check), just so they could steal our car and spending money when we arrived at the address they gave us? Don’t answer that!
Anyway, this allayed a lot of fears and we were now starting to get very excited about the trip.
Our La Jolla swappers – the Ferguson family – took a different approach and said they’d love to meet up with us in person to show us around.
It was also their first swap, so I think it was good way to reassure them that we weren’t “crazies” that were going to steal their home, identities and never let them back inside!
Time to fly
A nice babycino in the Airport Lounge before take-off – kids have it so good these days!!
One of the perks of Love Home Swapwas the promise of free Airport Lounge passes when take on their Standard and Platinum level membership levels. This wasn’t a deal breaker for us but it was that extra bit of luxury – a word that doesn’t usually mix with young children – that we could all enjoy before our long flight.
In the main Departures Lounge, the food is always really expensive and seating is cramped so it is always a treat to eat a “free” hot meal, grab some “free” snacks and magazines for the journey and prepare yourself for the storm that’s about to arrive. I’m not sure why I added free in inverted commas, as we didn’t pay for the passes, really!
Unfortunately, despite arriving at the airport three hours early to enjoy the food and facilities in the No.1 Traveller Lounge, we got stuck checking-in for an hour-and-a-half so we were close to not even bothering to go inside!! And believe me, forget having two toddlers waiting in a queue, there’s nothing worse than a delay at check-in when you know there’s sausage and bacon waiting for you on the other side of security! We did, however, manage to get 20 minutes in the Lounge and stuff a bacon sarnie down our throats before we had to board.
Arriving in California
We survived the Trans-Atlantic flights with our two kids (click here for our tips on flying with babies and toddlers) and were now hugging and greeting Alicia’s family in San Diego Airport’s arrivals lounge. The sun was setting across the bay and we now had a 30 minute drive north to Encinitas where I only had one thing on my mind: “Please let the house exist and not be a scam. We’ve been travelling for 20 hours – I don’t care if the house isn’t that good, just let it be there.”
The nerves really kicked in as we drove into the street. What if there was a family in there, unaware that someone else had put it up for a swap? There were no lights on in the house when we did arrive. The whole road was really dark. This could be good or bad. I got out of the car by myself and slowly walked up to the door which had a tiny, matchbox-style safe where we were told the key would be. I put in the code. It didn’t work. I tried it again. Nothing.
I knew it must be the right house – and why would all of the other instructions be correct, even down to the location of the key? If we did have to get a hotel for the first night, I was confident we’d be able to get in the following day. I tried the code one more time and then slid the button down instead of up, and off came the top of the safe to reveal a shiny silver key!!
I opened the door and turned on the light. This didn’t look like the house that we’d seen in the pictures…it was twice as big!! I ran excitedly back to the car to get the others.
The first swap
The house was so much bigger than we expected!
American homes are always bigger than English ones but when you’ve seen the photos of a house you think you’d know what it would look like.
Let’s just say the house was so big that I’d often get annoyed if I left something in the bedroom and I was in the kitchen because it was such a long walk back to pick it up again!
We also decided to put Samantha’s Travel Cot (Pack and Play, for Americans) in one of the walk-in wardrobes in the master bedroom because it was the same size as her room back in England – and it meant that we were less likely to wake her when we went to bed!
The ultra-modern furnishings made the house feel like a boutique hotel but it was still comfortable and very family friendly. It was super-clean and tidy but there were family photos up, which you kind of felt bad looking at, at first because it felt nosey, but it was actually really nice and – I’m not spiritual or into those weird aura things – but it did feel like we were staying in a very happy home.
The house was furnished beautifully – like a boutique hotel.
The trust in the house was amazing: clothes were still in the wardrobes, instead of being hidden somewhere else. Their expensive appliances and even their home office was all open and accessible. There was even loose change left around the house. It felt great that they trusted us so much!
We were always going to treat the house better than our own but the faith they showed in us, made us even more determined to make this happen: to minimise mess/accidents we kept the kids out of the formal lounge area. We also made sure that one of us was with them all of the time, which we wouldn’t do at our home.
What is cooler than a zip line in your garden?
Not only was the house much bigger than we thought but we’d forgotten that the website showed pictures of the garden, which had a play structure and zip line. It was awesome!
We also forgot about how important toys are for kids. We had brought Dylan and Samantha’s favourite Teddy Bears with them but that was it, really. This house had everything a four-year-old boy could dream of: infinite lego sets, Star Wars toys, dressing up clothes, full pump-action Nerf guns with fully-stocked sponge ammo. The list – and the toys – could go on, which is one reason we ended up only letting him play with certain sets to minimise things getting lost or broken.
In the end, it was Samantha who did the only damage during the swap after she decided to eat Nerf bullets for breakfast. They were quick and easy to replace from the local Walmart…it could have been a lot worse!
Living in Encinitas
Don’t worry, Encinitas isn’t just a street – there’s a beautiful beach and some great surfing spots, including one made famous by the Beach Boys! Name the beach in the Comments section!
We’d visited Encinitas on previous trips to San Diego but we didn’t quite find its charm. We stayed at Alicia’s sister’s house just north of the town and went surfing at a quiet beach which had some steep cliffs watching over us. It didn’t feel like the usual beach towns that were lucky enough to be on Route One.
This time, we saw it through totally different eyes. We were a couple of minutes away from the main street of Encinitas, with its cool cafes and surf-themed shops. We also found the “real” beach, which had car parking, a playground, volleyball courts and lots of space to spread out and enjoy being next to the ocean.
Encinitas is around 40 minutes from Downtown San Diego but the Palmer’s house was just a few blocks from the freeway, so it didn’t hurt that much when we did a long drive.
At first we tried to get out of the house as much as possible so that we didn’t “over-use” the house and so there was less chance we could break anything. But, after a few days we realised that was silly and we were really lucky to be living in such an amazing house so we started trying to use the Hot Tub once a day and invited Alicia’s family over for a BBQ.
What’s better than a zip line? Oh yeah, a hot tub!!
We also got talking to the neighbours, who were really friendly – one had just had a baby. We really enjoyed chatting and meeting up with them every day – we did feel as though we fitted in and it began to feel like our home by the time the week was up. The neighbours said that we reminded them of the Palmers and that we would really get on with them, which was nice to hear.
We had been left instructions on how to leave the house – and how much to pay for a cleaner who would return the house to the exact state that we had left it in.
At the end of the week, we were really disappointed to be leaving but we had a fun trip to Northern California planned – and we knew that we had another swap waiting for us when we came back down to San Diego.
School report One
The Palmer family from Encinitas, San Diego.
Emily and Dan Palmer have two boys. Hudson, who’s 8, and Wyatt is 4.
They had taken their two kids and RV up to Canada for an extended trip of their own while we were in Encinitas.
We only had to contact them once while we were out there: San Diego had 100 years of July rainfall in one day when we were out there and there was the tiniest leak (an egg cup of water, at most) which we wanted to make them aware of.
I didn’t want to scare them with a phone-call, so just texted, and they were so relaxed and nice about it all. I was so glad that I told them all about it rather than leaving it until they saw a note, no matter how minor the problem was.
This next bit, I’ve left for the Palmers to write about their experience of having us stay at theirs. Fingers crossed they say nice things!
Emily said: “I felt really comfortable doing the House Swap, especially after we chatted via email.
“Our house is kind of built with an indoor/outdoor feel so it’ very tolerant with lots of people and little ones. I’m from a big family and I’ve always thought the more the merrier with friends and entertaining!
The Palmer family went to Canada with our points.
“We stayed at a beautiful home on the cliffs, right outside of Vancouver, on an island called Bowen Island. We had one of our best, most memorable trips ever – our boys still keep asking when we can go back.
“From our end, the swap was wonderful – you guys were excellent guests.
“I loved communicating with you, before and after and our home looked perfect when we arrived back. Our neighbors loved you – and you brought us thank you gifts – everything went better than expected!
“I love house swapping and we’re planning on being gone even longer than the 30 days we were gone last summer!”
Phew, I think we got away with it!
The Second Swap
As I mentioned before, the owners of the second home in La Jolla wanted to meet up and show us around their house in person.
If you’re not from the UK and don’t follow Very British Problems on Twitter, you might not know how much Brits hate awkward social situations. The idea of having a stranger show another stranger where they were going to eat, sleep and relax in their own home sounded very cringey on paper but in reality, it was really good.
We were all put at ease within seconds when we all quickly realised that everyone was nice and normal and our kids started playing together straight away.
Bob Ferguson owns a successful Building Contracting business, while his partner, Mary, is a Fitness Instructor. They have two children who were the same age as ours when we were out there, which worked really well.
This was Fergusons’ first swap, so they were – quite rightly – anxious about having strangers live in their home so they asked us to sign up to Love Home Swap Security Deposit scheme, in case of any accidents.
The outside BBQ even had a searer for perfectly cooked steak and salmon. I burnt the fish…but check out Ballast Point Sculpin beer when in San Diego!
The home exchange service recommends $100 per night, so we were happy and ready to hand over an $800 refundable deposit for our stay. What we weren’t happy about was Love Home Swap’s 10% fee for the privilege of holding our cash – you know how much I like to save money – which was a good percentage of our annual membership fee!
So, when we arranged the swap, we also agreed to hand over our deposit via cash or a cheque in person – everyone was happy with the outcome. Bob tried to give the cheque back to us that day when he realised we were normal but I insisted he kept it until we had left, for everyone’s peace of mind.
Our visit finished really well – even after Dylan whacked their daughter in the face with a light sabre just as we were about to leave – and we were given the key and told to invite family round to enjoy their amazing outdoor entertaining area.
Living in La Jolla
There’s a different place to watch an amazing sunset every night in La Jolla!
La Jolla (pronounced La Hoya, Brits) is just 20 minutes from Downtown San Diego and is home to some of the most expensive homes in the world. It all becomes obvious when you see the Rolls-Royce, Bentley and Lamborghini showrooms next to each other. This isn’t your normal beach town.
It’s also very special for its wildlife and village style living. It’s one of the rare towns in California that you can walk everywhere and you don’t need a car. From our house we could walk 15 minutes and be at Windansea beach, which has some great rock-pools to explore. If we walk 15 minutes north, we were at La Jolla Cove, famous for its seals and beautiful wildlife.
At the end of our road was La Jolla Village, which had a supermarket, plus lots of coffee houses, diners, restaurants and the famous Comedy Store (the only one outside of Hollywood).
The house was smaller than the previous one in Encinitas but there was much less to break so we felt as though we could relax a tiny bit more there. Their children were a little smaller, so the toys were also harder to break, which was also a plus! I’d definitely recommend trying to swap with people who are the same age as yours.
Outside living is where it’s at in San Diego.
The outside areas of the house were stunning. The sofa area on the decking area was perfect for reading a book, with a coffee, while the rest of the family pop to the shops.
The outside kitchen had industry-standard appliances, including a searing grill for steaks and fish. There was a Sonos system to make it feel as though you were in a beach bar. The pizza oven looked great and Bob encouraged me to use it, but it looked waaaay too complicated, even after watching a few YouTube videos. (He’s promised a demo and family pizza night with them, the next time we’re in San Diego!)
The outside kitchen in the house in La Jolla is perfect for entertaining.
It was the perfect base for visiting friends and family, who live further north and south of us, but it also gave us our own space to hang out and have “chill days” where we just hung out, grabbed a coffee and walked around La Jolla, before watching the sunset at the cove.
School report Two
The Fergusons on the rollercoaster outside their Home Swap in Colorado! Photo: Bob Ferguson
We were Bob and Mary’s first house swappers but they’ve now swapped three times in six months, including San Francisco and an upcoming trip to Mexico.
They basically won House Swapping with the Points they used from our swap. They recently travelled to Colorado where the resort they stayed at would usually cost $10,000 a night and has some very cool perks.
Mary explained: “We had a blast in Colorado. In Breckenridge, we stayed at a place called One Ski Hill Place. It’s located right on the mountain and had a private bowling alley, which we reserved for just the four of us. It also included ski valet and a private movie theatre where we watched Toy Story!
“If that wasn’t enough, it also had a rollercoaster ride, right in front of the hotel, which takes your around the mountain!”
Bob said: “I have to say, I love this house swapping gig. I just wish I didn’t have to work!”
So, there you go. It all went a bit too well. We saved so much money on our trip – and had the “living in another country” experience with all of the comforts of home.
We’re up for House Swapping again soon, and we’ll be sure to let you know how we get on in the future!