My husband and I really had to pat ourselves on the back. Our adult children actually wanted to go away with us. We must have done something right if they were willing to tolerate us longer than the ten minutes it takes to wolf down a family dinner.
By Janice Llanes Fabry
My husband and I really had to pat ourselves on the back. Our adult children actually wanted to go away with us. We must have done something right if they were willing to tolerate us longer than the ten minutes it takes to wolf down a family dinner. Maybe we made an indelible impression the time we all ‘chilled’ at the trendy Standard Grill in Manhattan’s meatpacking district. Could it have been those Dave Matthews Band concerts we took them to that won them over?
It didn’t take long before I snapped out of my delusional reverie and realized we raised practical, sensible kids. Of course, they wanted to join us. How else would they secure an all-expense paid trip to the west coast? Our daughters have promising careers, one in digital marketing as a professional SEO and one in the hospitality business, but like most of today’s twenty-somethings, their paychecks only go so far. As long as they were enthusiastic about the trip, our college-age son, fresh from the squalor of his freshman dorm room, was on board.
Their motivation notwithstanding, I was thrilled we’d spend ten glorious days together in California in May. I devised a foolproof itinerary that provided us with a variety of the flavors, terrains, and climates of the Golden State. Months before, I began emailing the kids tidbits under the subject, “California Dreamin.” (The fact that they might not know the Mamas and the Papas’ 1960s hit by that very moniker didn’t deter me.) I also made gentle suggestions about reading up on the history of California’s Spanish missions or brushing up on John Steinbeck before getting to Monterey. (I couldn’t help myself.) And, if that weren’t enough, I also bought the travel version of “Apples to Apples,” so we could play between sightseeing. (I just couldn’t help myself.)
First stop: San Francisco. It was the kids’ initial visit, and they were struck by the city’s microclimate, chilly, windy and foggy in late spring. Its steep streets slope even more than I remembered, and its sweeping Golden Gate Bridge looms more majestic as it celebrated its 75th anniversary. Like typical tourists, we embraced the small city’s diversity by hopping on board the clanging cable cars. We spent time in the elegant Nob Hill, the bustling Union Square and the Haight-Ashbury intersection, where remnants of the 1960s’ hippies are immortalized by makeshift memorials to Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison. Lombard Street, the “crookedest street in the world,” never gets old either.
Rebuilt after the devastating 1903 earthquake, the city’s Chinatown seems more vital than ever a century later. In addition to taking in its pagodas and teas shop, we shared the most authentic and flavorful fried rice and chow fun we’ve ever had at a Cantonese restaurant called the R & G Lounge. Of course, no visit to San Francisco is complete without strolling along the waterfront. Notorious for being excessively touristy, the Fisherman’s Wharf and its adjoining piers are quite pleasant if one stays away from the schlocky souvenir stores. While the lively Pier 39 has a myriad of eateries and colorful shops, the Hyde Street Pier is a veritable marina for historic ships. Also home to fresh Dungeness crab, sourdough, the original Irish coffee and Ghiradelli chocolate, the waterfront has something for everyone, all with fabulous views.
After a couple of days, we picked up our rental car and drove over the Golden Gate through the colorful bougainvillea-filled hillsides and picturesque marina of charming Sausalito before heading to Napa Valley. After the cold and foggy streets of San Fran, we all embraced the balmy days and breathtaking landscape of Napa. We also took full advantage of its bountiful gastric offerings, which the kids, like their parents, enjoy with great abandon. Fortuitously, we happened to be in town for
the lively Downtown Napa Chefs’ Market Festival, lined with cooking demonstrations, wine tastings, and steel drum bands.
Napa’s central Highway 29 is lined with winery after winery. The kids enjoyed the gondola ride and panoramic views that Sterling Vineyards’ self-guided tours offered. Farther north in the valley, the towns of Yountville, and St. Helena are culinary meccas. We covered all ends of the spectrum, from Thomas Keller’s exquisite Bouchon to Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen, where we met a waiter from Rye. Let’s not forget the best fish tacos ever at Gott’s Roadside, which our family recognized from the Food Channel’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives”.
Our next venture took us south to 17-Mile Drive and the breathtaking Pacific coastline. Along the seascape, we took in the sights: the iconic Lone Cypress that has survived 250 years on a cliff; the Bird Rock landmark that attracts hundreds of birds and seals daily; Pebble Beach, arguably the most beautiful golf course in the world, where bagpipers play at sunset in the Scottish tradition every evening.
Just when we thought it couldn’t get any better, my husband and son played inspired rounds of golf at the legendary course. The girls and I did a little inspired shopping of our own in Carmel, a magical seaside town of storybook cottages, galleries, and great restaurants. One evening, we dined al fresco at Casanova, a festive European-style restaurant with vibrant garden patios, twinkling lights, and great food. We visited the 1771 Carmel mission, still an active parish, and the Monterey waterfront. (Judging from my family’s lack of enthusiasm for Cannery Row, they didn’t take me up on my Steinbeck suggestion.) Although my traveling companions bowed out of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, I enjoyed its leafy sea dragons immensely.
We continued our trip south on Highway 1. Although the ominous fog engulfed us, there were many memorable views on the way to Los Angeles. Big Sur’s rugged coastline of cliffs and beaches are breathtaking. In San Simeon, on a beach a few miles from Hearst Castle, we discovered another sight to behold, hundreds of elephant seals lions basking in the sun. We learned that every year at the same time, these mammals undergo a ‘catastrophic molt’, losing an entire layer of skin and all their hair as they rest on Piedras Blancas Beach for six weeks.
Our final destination, the Santa Monica, coast boasts, not sea lions, but plenty of people watching opportunities. We rode our rented bicycles through the carnival atmosphere at the Santa Monica pier, the performance artists at the Third Street Promenade and the proud bodybuilders at Muscle Beach. Where else but in Venice Beach would one stumble upon tattoo parlors, Botox shops like this Botox in Chicago, IL or Botox in Virginia Beach, VA, and medical marijuana walk-in clinics all on one boardwalk?
True to its reputation, L.A.’s traffic is horrendous, but we did explore Beverly Hills, the Sunset Strip, and Hollywood, where we took a Warner Bros Studio tour. Who knew “The Perfect Storm” was actually filmed in an indoor wave pool in a soundstage?
As for my family vacation, I couldn’t have written a better script. We even got to play “Apples to Apples” around an outdoor fire pit one night overlooking the Pacific.