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!
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!
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)
Home Swaps are always portrayed as a great idea in blogs, on TV and in films – have you not seen The Holiday? – but it’s not something that the average person ever seems to do and it’s never really caught on, despite the promise of a snog with Cameron Diaz or Jude Law as part of every deal. That could be about to change.
“I don’t really want strangers staying in my house? No-one will want to swap with our small place? Will the house we’re swapping with even exist when we land? What if our TV and furniture ends up on eBay after featuring in a news report about an illegal rave that happened in the living room?”
Many people don’t want to do a House Swap in case their home looks like this when they return
These are some of the fears that we had about House Swapping and we put the idea aside for many trips, that was until this year. You see, we had worked out a way to take six weeks of leave from our jobs so we could have a special summer with my wife’s family in California before our four-year-old started ‘big boy’ school.
Now, we’ve got friends and family that we could stay with in the States, but a month-and-a-half is too long for a family of four to impose on anyone – especially one with a know-it-all toddler with a penchant for danger and a baby heading into her terrible twos, early. That’s before you even factor in the annoying parents!! Finding our own place – even for a few weeks of the trip – was a priority, so that we would still have natives that would speak to us at the end of the trip.
Our initial plan was to spend as little money as we could on the swap, so we posted our request onto Facebook in the hope that some friends-of-friends might want to visit England and let us take over their house for the summer. That would make the swap free and we’d also feel safer because we would “know” the homeowners who would stay at our house.
We had a couple of bites but no firm interest, which was disappointing because I’m really tight, but it made moving to a real House Swap site easier.
Swapping our home swap provider
After admitting defeat in trying to find an exchange independently, we decided to cough up some money for a proper service.
This meant hiding the mountains of toys in the garage, de-cluttering the house and taking snaps to show off our home as best we could. Now we felt confident that we would quickly snag an 18-bedroom Californian mansion with its own swimming pool and bowling alley that you see in the movies.
We found four solid options when looking at Home Swap sites:
Home Link is the original House Swapping organisation. It’s been around for more than 60 years, which means that it was able to make holiday exchanges happen years before the internet was even invented (they did it via a booklet, just so you know). It costs £115 per year in the UK. For some reason, it’s half that ($95) for Americans – why are they so special? I didn’t want to take this further because you couldn’t look at any of the homes until you’ve paid your money. What if they didn’t have many options for us in San Diego and I’ve paid up front? And, we didn’t have the money, or time, to throw away to leave it to chance.
Jude Law and Cameron Diaz in The Holiday. Columbia Pictures/Nancy Meyers
Home Exchange is one of the best-known sites – it’s the one you see Cameron Diaz find Kate Winslet’s house in The Holiday. (Speaking of which, I got chucked off the set by Cameron Diaz when I went to make a TV report on the film being made – I might blog about that in the future, or at least upload the package to YouTube). It’s £100 for the year, which is competitive. It has a great catalogue of homes but there was no free trial, and I wanted to see if I could get the swap done for free!
Knokwas my curve-ball. They didn’t come up on many search engines but they were featured in several travel articles, as being family friendly – and also one of the cheapest sites to find a swap. You can join for free and you only pay (£99) when you find your first home exchange. It sounded fool-proof so we signed up and created our profile. We found a handful of people whose profiles said they wanted a USA to UK swap and messaged them. We sat and waited for a flurry of requests but they never came. The statistics of our house being viewed by members was also very low. I wanted to get the swap arranged as soon as we could so, after two weeks, I decided to go to the other home exchange site that offered a shorter free trial.
Love Home Swapoffered a chance to try their service for free for two weeks. The site was easy to use and it seemed like a premium service, especially with its offer of free Airport Lounge passesas part of the membership. There are three tiers, which range from £124 a year to £240, but the extra deals within each level make it worth looking at all three options. It offered a two-week trial, which I wanted, I but I was also impressed with the amount of stylish homes on offer and how user-friendly the site was.
Representative in your country to discuss swap
Second year free if you don't find a swap
Only pay when you find your home exchange
Love Home Swap
£124 to £240/$240 to $408
Making the swap happen
First off, Home Swapping is not as fast as Cameron and Kate make it look in The Holiday (clip below). You need to work pretty hard at it.
I’m not afraid to spend a bit of time researching deals, if it saves me a good amount of money, so I was prepared and ready to do what was needed to make it happen.
The free trial went pretty well. Our house was viewed by double the number on the previous site within a couple of days. I searched for houses in San Diego that were available for our dates and then messaged a few (with huge swimming pools, rock pools and water slides, of course) to show our interest.
A few emailed back straight away, saying that their pool area wasn’t secure for young children, others politely declined because they had no interest in travelling to the UK that summer – or maybe more likely, swapping and staying in our house. Another five or six requests went unanswered – many without being read (a great feature to let you quickly avoid the time-wasters on the site).
This is something you need to get used to because you’ll find this a lot. Some members are probably no longer active, others may not like your home when they see the email sent to them (it’s only considered ‘read’ when you login to the website’s messenger portal), while many others aren’t actively looking for a swap that year so ignore requests until they need somewhere.
Always make sure you’re searching efficiently. Image: lovehomeswap.com
There are some nice search filters on Love Home Swap. I started by widening my desired location to include the whole of San Diego County, which is 50 miles from North to South, rather than 15 miles for San Diego City. I then made sure I had checked the “Bring the kids” and “People who want to visit my location” options.
This brought up some nice, family friendly houses. I sent another ten messages to the homes I was interested in. Of those that emailed back, most said they were looking for a place in London, rather than Hampshire. The others weren’t planning on a trip that year and hadn’t updated their calendars. This took out quite a few potential targets.
Ticking the “Vacation Homes” filter helped because lots of people didn’t want to give up their main home to young families. The houses might be a bit smaller (certainly the opposite in some cases) but I got some near-misses by engaging with people with holiday homes.
However, I wanted to get the deal done before my free trial was up, so I looked around the site and realised there was another option, which I hadn’t considered, that could counter-act one of the biggest reasons for rejection on the site.
You can swap for Points on Love Home Swap so the home-owners don’t have to stay at your house. Image: lovehomeswap.
Swapping for Points
Up until now, we’d been searching for a straight swap (we stay at their house, they stay at ours) but Love Home Swap had another really good option: ‘Swap for Points.’This meant that we could stay at someone’s house but they didn’t necessarily have to stay at ours.
For example, David and Victoria want to swap their London home with Brad and Angelina in Beverly Hills, however Brad and Angelina don’t want to travel to the UK this summer. So, they swap for Points with David & Victoria instead. To gain the points needed, David and Victoria have Barack and Michelle stay at their pad instead – for Points, of course.
It essentially means that members can receive a Points swap request from anyone in the world which could make your dream swap a reality.
How can you get Points to begin the trade, I hear you ask? Well, you are given a certain amount of Points for free depending on the level of membership you pay for. Silver Members get 100 Points (One night) when they sign up; Gold receive 300 (Three nights); and Platinum get 700 (One week).
The whole concept seemed like a no-brainer and I was certain that I would be able to organise a swap with this method. So, I finished my trial early and became a Platinum member, knowing that I would also get: four free Airport Lounge passes, our house pushed harder with a ‘featured listing’ and a concierge service who could do some of the hard work for me. Here are the current prices for each level of membership – there’s usually a good deal for new members so wait, if you don’t see any offers on the page.
Securing a swap
The ‘fire pit’ and BBQ area of our House Swap in San Diego, California
My “smarter” searching, combined with being enabled for Points swapping, brought lots of new houses in San Diego up into my searches. I went for one house, about 25 miles from Downtown, which had recently been added to the site.
Looking at the pictures, there was a play house and swings, plus a Star Wars bedroom – so we knew it would be perfect for our young kids. It was for an amazing property, one mile from the beach in Encinitas, and it had a huge kitchen, outside bar and a hot tub!! Yes, a HOT TUB?!!!
Instead of getting the usual polite decline message, Emily casually said: “Sure, the dates work for us – let’s swap for Points!” Suddenly, all of my hard work had paid off – we had a deal.
That swap was for one week, and we wanted a minimum of two, so I made sure that my future searches were sorted by “Most Recent” so that I could get the home we wanted as soon as it came onto the market (Love Home Swap is starting a new ‘Hotlist’ feature which will make this simpler in the future).
At the same time, I wanted to make our house stand-out and sort our house out more efficiently, so I added more photos and included a summary of what we were looking for, the year of our intended swap and sell the fact that our house was available for six weeks. I was also pro-active and messaged people that wanted a swap in Hampshire/Berkshire or anywhere outside of London. This all really helped, and we received solid offers from members in Sweden and Spain.
With the pressure off, I was more relaxed looking for our second week in California. I made sure I used my Smart Searches (I need to patent that term) to find the most recent properties, but new homes in one city don’t come onto the site every day.
I waited a couple of weeks but then got impatient and wondered if I could super-charge my Pro-active Smart Searching.
The outside kitchen/bar area at our House Swap in La Jolla, California
I thought laterally about the whole system. As my “Most Recent” Points swap search seemed to work, but there weren’t many coming on, I took a step back and realised that when most people sign up, they start on the “Standard Swap” before moving to “Points.”
So, I went back to looking for a “Most Recent” Standard swap and began emailing new members with homes in San Diego. I told them about the beauty of a Points swap.
One house came up in the perfect location for us: the posh, central location of La Jolla. The dates were for the week that we had already agreed the Encinitas swap but I thought I’d message them both questions anyway.
Two days later, we had another deal! Again, the house had a play structure, so they were obviously less worried about having two toddlers in the house than most, which definitely worked in our favour. The house was a ten minute walk from the seals at La Jolla Cove in one direction, ten minutes to Windansea Beach in the other and it had an amazing outside eating area/bar/kitchen for entertaining.
San Diego House Swap sorted…time to have some fun!!
We may have made this sound like a lot of work, but it was worth the effort and when you’re doing it yourself – and dreaming of the amazing house you might get – it’s actually quite an exciting process.
Thanks to Love Home Swap, we had two amazing beach-town properties that we could stay in for two weeks in California. And, all for the £240 membership fee – the same price as two nights at hotels during our Route One Road Trip!!
We looked up how much it would cost to rent similar homes in the same parts of San Diego in high season and it was £3,500/$5000 per WEEK!! An amazing saving that made our trip of a lifetime, a reality.
Maybe, now is the time for Holiday Home Swapping to enter the mainstream.