Tag: Travel Tips

Route One – Day One: SAN FRANCISCO to SAN SIMEON

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!

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!!

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.

Book ahead

Plan your trip along the Pacific Coast before you go so you don't get stranded in the middle of nowhere

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.

First, book your accommodation for both nights. You should be able to find a normal priced hotel around Santa Barbara but, just outside of Big Sur, the hotel owners know you have fewer options and hike up the price.

We paid £92 ($142), via Expedia in the end, which was the cheapest priced room in the region. And it was a low-end hotel/motel, so it was totally not worth the money at all, but you need somewhere to sleep!

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!

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

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.

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.

There are loads of places and ways to pay the toll but doing it online (here’s the link for you) is the easiest way.

It’s also best to pay the toll a few days before – the biggest reason for this is that you only have 48 hours to pay it and there is hardly any 3G or wi-fi once you hit Big Sur!

11.30am – Time to drive, finally (9am for you)

Take the coastal road straight off the Golden Gate Bridge, as 101 isn't as scenic as you might think!

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.

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

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.

Bixby Bridge

Bixby Bridge in Big Sur

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.

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!

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

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

McWay Falls, Big Sur. Photo: King of Hearts / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0

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!

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!

The hotel was very basic and looked like the Bates Motel but we knew that’s what it would be like and, to be honest, this is what adventures are meant to be like.

It would be boring if it was a standard Hilton or Holiday Inn that you could find anywhere in the world.

There was no restaurant in our hotel so we drove to downtown San Simeon which, we’d just driven past and knew was definitely serving food, rather than going to nearby Cambria.

The main strip of hotels in San Simeon. Make sure you book ahead.

The main strip of hotels in San Simeon. Make sure you book ahead.

We should have gone to Cambria!!

The restaurants in San Simeon were all linked to the hotels. The only nice looking one had a two-hour wait.

The only one that could fit us in was a dodgy diner with incredibly over-priced food ($15 for a burger) which wasn’t very good!

We think you’d do better if you travel a little further south for food, unless you’re in one of the nice hotels.

The kids were in a weird mood. Dylan was going hyper with the lack of sleep and Samantha began to cry over anything and everything.

At around 9.30pm, we climbed into our two double beds – the lads in one and the girls in the other – and we were all asleep within minutes.

It had been a long, tiring day – and we were now sleeping in the middle of nowhere – but we’d travelled so far and done so much in a relatively short time.

I think we all fell asleep with smiles on our faces.

Click here to read about our second day of the Road Trip: from San Simeon to Santa Barbara.


					
		

House Swap review: what’s it like to do a Home Exchange?

Our holiday/vacation House Swap in California

A few weeks ago, we explained why we wanted to try a Home Swap for the first time and how we made it happen.

It’s not, usually, as simple as grabbing a coffee, jumping on your computer, choosing a house you like the look of and agreeing a deal before your drink’s even cold. It can take some time – and effort – to get seal a deal. So, we went through the process that helped us get two weeks’ “free” accommodation in San Diego.

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 out why 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.

Emily and Dan Palmer own their own mortgage planning service (check them out if you want to buy a house in California!) so it wasn’t a surprise when we received an ultra-efficient, and professional looking, attachment from them.

The first house was owned by the Palmer family from Encinitas.

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!!

A nice babycino in the Airport Lounge before take-off – kids have it so good these days!!

One of the perks of Love Home Swap was 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

Catching the plane to 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!

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 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?

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!

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!!

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.

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.

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 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!

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.

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.

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

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!”

Verdict

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!

If you haven’t read Part 1 of this blog post, click anywhere on this sentence to find our top tips for finding a swap.

 

 

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