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Exploring California - Our first time to the West Coast!

Updated: Mar 29


We were a family who loved to do road trips. We had definitely perfected the art of getting in the car to go. And then one day I decided to fly across the Country and go to California!


The backstory:

We were invited. Our cousins who lived in the San Francisco area have been trying to get us to come for years. I had actually gone when my oldest was a year and a half, and truly had a great visit! I was introduced to the trolly and Fisherman’s wharf, as well as the Haight Ashbury. We’d been to Alcatraz. My son took his first baby art class at the Golden Gate Park. I was broke. Everything we did was free or close to it. But just having that memory was perfect in my brain. Until my children got older and they saw the pictures in the photo albums of Baby Westley living his best baby life and wondered why we never went back.


Our cousin Nollie came to visit us every year whether we were living in New York or Florida. She has two children and so the cousins always got to play together and make some memories. Although she invited us out every year I knew five airline tickets was out of the budget. Until two of those kids had jobs and could afford to buy their own tickets, and I had completed my Masters degree and gotten a raise. And just then I decided to do something crazy. Take her up on her offer. She just caught me on the right day, "Melis, bring these kids to California they are going to love it" and I thought, "why not?"


The good thing here is Nollie has been a part of some of our day adventures and knows how we roll. Theme park? We are the first ones in the last ones out and we bring all our own food (when possible). City day? We are seeing it all. Beach day? Committed to our cooler and the fun at hand completely.


So here we go - to California. For one week in The Summer of 2017.




** Anything blue bold and underlined will link to that accompanying page. Click if you'd like more info on that specific place ***


Just the excitement of parking the car at the extended off site parking at the Orlando Airport and shuttling was exciting. Walking through the airport, each kid responsible for their own belongings was exciting. Boarding the flight was, you guessed it - exciting. We didn’t sit together because I was budgeting. Cheapest tickets don’t let you pick your seats. I did end up sitting next to a boy who was also traveling separate from his family and he had just come from Universal so we talked all about Harry Potter and his trip the whole flight (I was very impressed with his wand). That is until he fell asleep on my shoulder LOL. Good thing I am not a weirdo!!


When we landed our cousins were waiting outside and we met them at the curb.


Our first stop was an Italian restaurant family favorite: Giorgio’s Pizza. We had gained three hours in traveling and we were so excited to land at 2:30 in the afternoon with time to see the area. We were two carloads. We took up two huge tables in the middle of the place and just laughed and talked about everything making up for lost time. And the food was delicious too! We were starving.


Giogio's Pizza, San Francisco

Our next stop was Pier 39. We walked through the shopping area and boardwalk, strolling and enjoying the best of everything. Taking in the sights. There were some pretty framed gardens lining the walkways with great big sunflowers and lots of vegetables growing. I loved the sights and smells. I followed where they led us and the next thing I knew we were overlooking the water and a mountain of seals below who were all talking to each other while they played in the water! They were jumping on and off these huge docks and some were sunning. Prior to this I have never seen sea lions in the wild. It was truly impressive! I was super happy and of course I did not want to leave. Eventually the kids wanted ice cream and insisted so we keep walking. We looked across the bay at Alcatraz and the mountains. We knew we were fortunate to explore a new place, and so grateful to be there!

Pics from Pier 39:


We drove down the famous steepest street in America: Lombard Street. Actually the kids got out and walked down! Traffic is moving slowly enough that you have no problem walking as fast as you’re driving! The Crookedest Street in the World does not disappoint with its hair pin back and fourth switch turns.


Although I wanted to stay in the San Francisco area longer and explore more, our younger cousin had to go to work so we needed to get back home where we only needed one car. The drive to El Sobrino was a little more than an hour and we drove over the Golden Gate Bridge happy to see our living quarters for the week!


The next day we were off to Muir Woods! This National Monument is actually a Redwoods Forest you can wander through for miles. On our way we were joined by more cousins! Camie and her family drove behind us to make 3 cars full of people excited to see each other. We have never seen anything like the huge trees towering overhead. But that’s not all. Some of the trees have cave like entrances making you feel like you are at home. Others are roots up knocked down and the natural process becomes alive while you are a part of their world. To say the least: we were tree huggers that day! Trying to hug trees we could barely fit our arms around even as an entire family and laughing our way through the peacefulness of the forest while catching up was priceless. They were not many people there that day which was probably a good thing. We had seven kids between our three families and they were not quiet!



After Muir Woods, Camie suggested to head into San Francisco and get some Chinese food for dinner. We drove into Chinatown and Camie took us to a beautiful gourmet Chinese restaurant. Well the food was absolutely delicious - the portions were small and the bill was high! The people who live there were quite alright with that. I was a little shocked! But went with the flow. Appreciative and still wide eyed and looking at everything with magnificence.


So we were planning this trip for a couple of months and trying to think of some awesome things we could do together as a family.


Way back when I was in fifth grade at Theodore Roosevelt elementary school we did a research project to describe our perfect place to live. What would the climate be like? How would it look? What kinds of things could you do there? It was extensive. Part two of that project was to find the place in America that most closely resembled your preferences. Mine was San Diego.


There is a 7 hour drive from The Richmond area down to San Diego. But it is known for being a congested drive. At that time the Pacific Coast Highway was closed due to fires and reconstruction in the area... So we knew this would be a highway ride. And rather than just get there, we opted to stop in LA and stay there. Nollie has some life long friends living in that area and we could have some fun with them. She was happy to fulfill my dream to travel down the coast to SoCal but had her own recommendations - Mind you at this point I was going with the plan and not the one making the arrangements :-) I was just happy to be there and see everything California had to offer.

We did have to rent a car because of the number of people traveling so we grabbed a car from the Oakland Airport Fox rental for a reasonable price and got on the road. On our way down we stopped at the Tejon Outlets, really just to use the restroom but ultimately my cousin is a shopaholic and wants to see what kind of deals they have everywhere we go LOL. But... My philosophy is - if you stop there - Enjoy being there.




We checked into the Comfort Inn where we had a nice suite for all of us to stay for a few nights. It was literally 100 degrees at this point and feeling the heat wave was slowing some of us down! For the rest of the day the big kids went to Magic Mountain for some roller coaster riding and thrill park type of fun while we took the littler kids to Lake Balboa Park in LA. This was awesome. At Balboa Park we rented a buggy and drove around exploring and having a great time. There may have been some ducks that got chased but it was all harmless fun :-).



I had a list of places I wanted to see... and we were able to see them all!


San Diego

Friday

We headed out to the San Diego Zoo. Nollie had decided to go to the beach last minute and not to join us for the day. I think they did not want to leave the hotel as early as we had to and face the two hours of traffic down to San Diego. But we were determined to stick to this part of our plan and made it happen. Up and out early we enjoyed the free breakfast offered and then got on the road. Yes there was traffic! But we had planned to arrive at 10 o’clock and that is exactly when we were pulling into the parking lot. The San Diego Zoo is hard to get discounted passes for and it cost me $250 to walk in there with five people. I was just praying that amount of money would be worth it. And I can honestly say that it was. Our cousins had a great time at the beach, and they enjoyed the slower paced day. We missed them and one of the things about traveling as a big family is making sure everyone gets what they need. Sometimes that means an alternate plan!



Meanwhile, we enjoyed the polar bears, the panda bears, the big black bears, we even got to see baby koalas awake (they sleep 22 hours a day). We loved watching the sea otters play and enjoyed the landscape of the zoo as well as all of the environments set up for the animals. Up until that point our favorite zoo was the National Zoo in Washington DC. Because the animals are so easy to view and their habitats are so well done. I have to say San Diego claimed that number one spot in that day because the animals were active and happy and we were walking up and down mountains to see them which really made you feel like you were somewhere else. I knew we were not in Florida!



We left the zoo at 4 PM just before closing time and stopped at In-N-Out Burger for dinner. This is my kids favorite spot to eat now. We had gotten some when we stopped for the rental car, and now this was our second time with this place. Yummy burgers!


From there we went to La Jolla Cove and had our first time walking down the side of the cliff to see the sea lions up close and personal. This is a place the seals come to nurse their young, and the baby seals are just the most curious fun loving creatures! You are not allowed to touch them however they will just about walked right up to you. It was so much fun! The kids walked out on the rocks where the water was exploding behind them and soaking people who were too close to the end. I of course was afraid someone was going to get washed into the water. The Pacific Ocean is chilly and powerful!! The sea lions wash back-and-forth with the waves playing and enjoying their best times right there for you to witness. We stayed a couple of hours and walked up and down the coast line exploring the jagged rocks and cave like features of the land. I took a ton of pictures. My kids were smiling and willing which made me the most satisfied mama ever.



Getting gas before the ride back up to LA we made friends with a man parked next to us driving a Lamborghini. My boys knew all about his vehicle down to how much it cost and the driver was humoring them to show off his cool ride. I was sold on the area. I was wondering how much I would make teaching at a local school and if I could afford to stay here on that salary. I looked around and realized this really is heaven. I love it here. My fifth grade research project turned out to be a success after all!


The drive back to LA was not as crazy as the ride down to San Diego. It seemed like we were there in no time but we were exhausted. We went to sleep early because we had our next day already planned out.



LA:

Saturday

1st stop: Griffith Observatory



The drive there was up a steep side of a mountain reminding us again that you we're not living on a flat planet. At the top of the mountain we took pictures of the Hollywood sign which is easiest to view from that point. My one son who is completely interested in space was in heaven all day from this encounter. The observatory is extremely hands-on and there is much to see do and explore. I was not sure how much the other kids would enjoy this. But we stayed a little longer than planned as it was so much fun. At this time there was a debate about earth being flat and my daughter was leaning toward believing we’ve been lied to our entire lives. The conversations that the kids had that day were priceless because you can just never explain gravity and physics as well without all of these visuals and displays. We made a round earth believer of her that day.



2nd stop: Hollywood Blvd.

We’ve grown up seeing the stars on the side of the street and feeling like Hollywood was the ultimate stop! I thought it would be like Time Square in my mind. But it isn’t. Aside from a bunch of movie characters dressed up trying to convince you to take pictures and tip them it is completely different.

We learned that the Scientology Church is huge out there and own much of the land. You see people at work or representing that as you walk around. It’s also not a very big area. The Hollywood strip is only a couple of blocks and we zipped through pretty quickly. We took some pictures with our favorite stars and even got a few with Spider-man proposing to my daughter LOL.



3rd Stop: Santa Monica Pier

Wow! Talk about an amazing day. Arriving here was definitely a highlight. We’ve never seen a beach like this before. Huge climbing apparatuses and lots of exercise throughout this huge beach side park alongside a boardwalk filled with rides and her variety of places to shop or eat. Santa Monica wins the best beach ever award. I secretly felt like a character in the Lost Boys movie. And was looking around for vampires LOL we weren’t planning to stop for dinner but we absolutely got caught up in the moment and decided to stop and eat. We ate at Rusty's where the wait was not as long as other establishments. Great food, and great environment. The girls rode the ferris wheel and the boys rode the roller coaster. Us moms sat for a few minutes and just talked while the kids ran around.



We walked all the way down to the end of the pier and took some pictures of the fishermen and the ocean before heading back to the car.



We were making priceless family memories. In my mind we were going to also go to Venice Beach this day. It looks close enough on the map! However I greatly underestimated the crowds, the traffic, and the a lore of wanting to stay a while. I’m glad we enjoyed where we were at and just took it a little slower at that point. *Flexibiity for the win!!


Sunday we are joined by Dee, Nollie's friend who was a resident of LA and wanted to make sure we saw the whole area correctly.

1st stop: Ventura Boulevard


Here we stopped for some gourmet ice cream freshly made right in front of us.

Dee guided us through the neighborhoods explaining the significance in history of Skid Row, Bel Air, and the Hollywood strip.

2nd Stop: Venice Beach

Mostly because they were happy to appease me :-) we stopped and walked the strip and down to the Ocean. Another wow! First of all the art in the area is larger than life. Huge murals on the sides of the buildings let you know this is all about creativity. Music is bumping from everywhere. Many sidewalk sellers feature different designs and creations. Similar to Santa Monica there are huge exercise equipment areas set up where you can climb, swing, balance, or pull up. The kids enjoyed the equipment. The shops in Gardens lining the strip are welcoming. There are also basketball courts, handball walls and weightlifting along with a yoga center and a dog park all back to back. We saw surfers and admired the skateboarders with their truly magnificent skate park! State of the art!! We took a few pictures and reluctantly got ready to leave.

We had a 5 hour drive back up to EL Sobrino ahead of us. And we were dropping off Dee. How sad we were to say goodbye to Southern California. When we arrived back a Nollie's house it was 2 am and we were all anxious to stretch out and get some sleep!


Monday, July 24 was my sons 23rd birthday! It was 68° and a beautiful day to stay close to the home, eat some birthday cake and have a home cooked meal. There is something to be said about downtime :-) Enjoying a slower pace and hanging at the house, just being.



Sadly we were flying out on Tuesday, July 26. Not until the evening however so we were not going to waste any time. We rode bikes around the neighborhood with our cousins loving the landscape! We explored some of the foothills of Richmond and checked out the reservoir there in town. We went by the Tilden Regional Park in Berkeley California. Cousin Camie came back for some family pictures and wanted to take us to eat tacos in Alameda before we had to fly out. We drove out and got some awesome food. she definitely knows where to feed people!


I wish we had more time for Golden Gate Park but we were cutting it close. We did drive through and we stopped to admire the Buffalo before arriving at the airport.


Our first trip to California was a success.


AND - We COULDN'T WAIT TO RETURN....


It would take us 2 years to make our way back, but in our next trip we came from the Grand Canyon, and Nollie lived in Southern Cali so we missed out on the North Area all together. It is still high on our list of places to see again and hope to visit SOON! We love our family AND we love the West Coast!


Our next Cali trip 2019: https://www.savvysinglemamatravels.com/cali


Tips: If you are planning to go to Cali, know that it is more expensive there than other areas to eat, secure a hotel, or drive as gas prices are higher than other states.

*This trip worked because we discussed with our grown children ahead of time what they could do to help make this happen. Each young adult contributed in come way, and with out their willingness we could not have made all of these excursions. Budgeting and communication wins!!

* Plan ahead and budget for the unexpected as sometimes we were hungry at times we didn't account for and things like this can throw off a plan!

* Do what works for you! Be flexible and willing to replace activities if needed.

Plan for more time than you think in traveling.

* Traffic is unpredictable. When we'd leave a place it might say 40 minutes ETA, but including a detour, and then finding parking it takes longer to actually GET THERE.

* If you do have to use hotels - find places with quality free breakfasts! This is a time saver not having to stop and eat first thing but also ensures no crankiness - hungry people are much less fun!


Meal plan as carefully as possible. I am a strong believer in packing a cooler, and then resisting the temptation of a quick stop for a drink or snack. Bring snacks and drinks - convenience stops are usually double the cost of a pre-packed snack. Find those Walmart's and get those deals - they add up and you'll be glad you did!


Wander! As beautiful as California is save a little time for wandering and exploring. When we left the Zoo I didn't want to get on the highway and drive in the traffic so we stopped at La Jolla for a few hours really to kill time, but also it was not as planned because it was just a space filler. I am SO glad we did this as it is possibly my favorite place in all of Cali and top 3 places I've ever been.

Don't travel during rush hour cycles if possible. If you must, give yourself extra time!


When the joy and wonderment are all over their faces, I know it was worth all my energy and plans!


Reflections comparing both trips:

In 2017 we saw some homeless people and some tent cities in both San Francisco and LA. But returning 2 years later in June 2019 there was many times more homelessness evident. Tents lined the streets, the homeless people changed in appearance and there were a few times in 2019 we did not feel safe. My advice is definitely watch where you park and keep your head up, stay in well lit places or go with some one who knows the area. Some of the homeless were aggressive with others, although not with us probably due to the size our our group. There is strength in numbers, but you still have to watch where you step.


I want to end with a few more Zoo pictures!




Travel safely and return soundly!

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