California Dreaming: Paso Robles to Santa Barbara

When we started researching our trip, I was intrigued by the town of Solvang, which was settled by Danish immigrants who travelled west trying to escape the midwestern winters.  I didn't quite know what to expect but as we pulled into town it felt like a part of Denmark had been plunked down in central California.  

We walked around town, stopping in at some of the shops and a great used books store, The Book Loft, with a museum dedicated to Hans Christian Andersen on the second floor.  There is a nice history of his life and work and some beautiful cutouts that he created.  

A good tip we use often is to stop into used book stores and let the kids pick out some new (to them) books to read in the car.  We usually can get several book for less than $20 and at least a couple of hours of quiet during the car ride.  That was the case here but we also picked up some new books of Andersen's fairy tales that Ava really enjoyed.

There are Danish bakeries throughout the town so we just picked one and stopped in.  We all had a little   treat while we checked out the history of the Danish monarchy on the wall outside.

As we headed out of Solvang, we spied Ostrichland, an ostrich farm/zoo and the kids begged us to stop. While Alan waited in the car, I took the kids through it and bought a tray of food and we spent about 15 minutes with the ostriches and emus.  This place is the definition of a tourist trap but sometimes you have to just give in and go with it.

This area has lots of wineries and we drove by The Hitching Post restaurant, prominently featured in the film Sideways.  We would have stopped for lunch but unfortunately we passed by too early for that.  

Once in Santa Barbara, we toured the Presidio.  It was built by the Spanish in the late 18th-century and contains the second oldest building in California, El Cuartel, a two-room soldiers quarters.  After the tour, we spotted Handlebar Coffee across the street.  The iced coffee was delicious and we grabbed some of their in-house roasted beans to take home.  

The kids needed to burn off some energy and Alan found the most amazing playground in a local park.  It is called Kid's World, located in Alameda Park and it was one of the best playgrounds we have ever seen.  It has a two-story wooden castle to climb through and explore, cable slider, tire bridge, a large whale to climb on and lots of seating on the periphery for adults to sit and enjoy an iced coffee.

For dinner that night we went to Brophy Bros. located at the head of Santa Barbara Harbour.  Serving all manner of seafood, the restaurant was packed and lively, i.e., perfect for a family.  The fish and chips and fried calamari were big hits at our table.

After dinner we went for ice cream at Rori's.  Made with all organic ingredients, every flavor sounded better than the next, from salted caramel to root beer float to my favorite, peanut butter chocolate candy swirl.  

California Dreaming: Big Sur to Paso Robles

When you google "Big Sur Lodging" there are plenty of options but when you look closer they are usually a.) very romantic and, b.) very expensive.  This would be fine if Alan and I were traveling alone but since that was not the case, it took a little more digging.  Luckily, I stumbled upon the Big Sur Lodge and it was perfect.  Located in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, the lodge is a great base for exploring the area.  Accommodations are a series of cabins nestled among the trees and several options are available:  rooms with fireplaces, kitchenettes or both, as well as family rooms (which we had) that sleep 4-6 people.  Our room had a separate bedroom for added privacy and all rooms are without telephones, televisions and alarm clocks!  We dropped our bags and took two hikes that are located right on the lodge's property, one to a waterfall and the other to a lookout over the surrounding hills.  

If you plan on being in Big Sur overnight, make a dinner reservation.  We did not and we were scrambling to find a place to eat.  We decided to just try the restaurant at the lodge and it was (unexpectedly) very good.  The menu emphasizes organic ingredients and sustainable agriculture and has a wide variety of offerings.  There is a kids menu and a really nice beer and wine list, with many of the wines from nearby Carmel and Paso Robles.  They also serve breakfast and lunch as well as having an espresso bar.

The next morning we stopped for breakfast at Big Sur Bakery and Restaurant (where I had really wanted to have dinner the night before).  Don't be fooled when you see the gas pumps.  Look up the hill and you will see what all the parked care are really there for.  Delicious pastries and breads, freshly made lattes, and a fabulous view are more than enough reason to sit and savor your morning meal here.  And yes, she did eat that whole cinnamon roll!  

Right next to the restaurant is the Big Sur Charter School, which we all found incredibly charming...

When we planned the trip we didn't want to be in the car for hours on end, and lucky for us, there is plenty to see and do as you make your way down the coast.  Just a few minutes down the road from the Big Sur Bakery is Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.  An easy 15-minute walk on the aptly named Overlook Trail brings you to the site of the McWay Waterfall House, of which now only a terrace remains, but the view is what is really captivating.  To your left is the waterfall for which the house is named, which drops 80-feet down directly into the Pacific.  

We needed to get to San Simeon for a 1:00 tour but about 7 miles north of there, we had to stop at Piedras Blancas, a rookery, or breeding ground, for the Northern Elephant Seal.  The animals are here throughout the year and the website claims that it is home to about 17,000 sea lions.  There is a boardwalk along the beach that provides a great view of all the activity, from mothers nursing their pups to adult males fighting for prime space on the sand.  

San Simeon is William Randolph Hearst's home, designed by Julia Morgan, coincidentally the same architect who designed Asilomar, the lodge we stayed at near Monterey.  The only way to tour the house is by timed guided tour and there are many different tours on offer.  Based on some online research, we decided the best one for the kids was the Grand Rooms Tour, which is recommended for first time visitors and covers most of the common rooms in the main house, Casa Grande.  Our tour guide was wonderful with the kids and they were in awe that someone actually lived in a place like this.  Among the highlights of our tour was the movie theater, where we enjoyed a short silent film just like the guests of Hearst would have.  Once the tour is over, you are free to roam the grounds and explore.  The setting is as beautiful as the house and it would almost be worth it to just wander around outside and skip the tour.

On the way out, we were lucky to catch a glimpse of a herd of zebras that are descendants of ones that used to part of a zoo Hearst kept at San Simeon.  

Hungry for lunch, we continued on Hwy. 1 to Morro Bay and Taco Temple.  Home to an all-you-can-eat chip station with the most delicious tortilla chips and salsas and specializing in seafood tacos, this was just what we needed after a long day on the road.  A few things to keep in mind:  they only accept cash or local checks and they are closed on Tuesdays.  But if at all possible, stop at an ATM and pass though here on the other six days of the week as you will be missing out if you don't.  


California Dreaming: Monterey to Big Sur

Alan and I started talking last weekend about our plans for spring break and it brought to mind the trip we took last year to California.  We had been to San Francisco and places north a few times and this time we wanted to head south.  Our itinerary was to explore the coast from Monterey down to Los Angeles so when we landed in San Fran we headed south straightaway.  We had planed to go to the Monterey Aquarium our first afternoon but after being delayed here in NJ and driving down to Monterey, we modified our plan and stayed close to our hotel, Asilomar.  This was only the first of many times on this trip where we looked at each other and wished we could spend a week right where we were.  Located not in Monterey, but in nearby Pacific Grove, this is a wonderful, quiet place to recover from jet lag and explore the outdoors.  The lodge, built in 1913, is rustic but has been updated with all modern conveniences and there is a great Social Hall with pool tables, a fireplace, gift shop and a small cafe open for breakfast, lunch or a quick late-afternoon snack or coffee.  After grabbing a bite, we headed across the street to check out the tidal pools and look out for seals and otters (we saw both).

This was the building we stayed in.  There are two types of rooms available here:  historic, which are part of the original buildings from 1913 and the Asilomar rooms, which are more modern but in the same style of the historic rooms.  We were in the latter and found them very comfortable.  Our room had 4 beds which was great as everybody could be comfortable and there was no fighting over who had to sleep on the pull-out.  

For dinner, there was a multitude of options.  We chose the Fishwifewhich we could walk to from Asilomar and were so happy we did.  The menu is predominately seafood with a Caribbean accent and everything we had was very good.  They have a great kids' menu with a choice of grilled or fried sole, tilapia and shrimp (there are chicken tenders too).  The staff was super nice and great with the kids.  It was the perfect meal to end a long day of traveling made even better by the quick 5-minute walk home to our waiting beds.  

The next morning we were up early and had time to kill before the aquarium opened.  We did a quick drive-by of the Point Pinos Lighthouse, the oldest continuing-operating lighthouse on the west coast. Unfortunately it was closed so we had to settle for a glimpse from the road.

February is one of the months that Monarch butterflies overwinter in the area and there is a special park in Pacific Grove to spot these beauties, the Monarch Grove Sanctuary.  We spied a few here and there, enough to enchant Ava as we walked though the early morning fog.  Many of them were high in the trees trying to warm up in the sunshine, so if you go, bring binoculars.  


The Monterey Aquarium is consistently on the list of best aquariums in the country so we knew we couldn't miss it.  Located in a former canning factory on the edge of Monterey Bay,  it is a great place to visit.  Plan to spend much of the day here and there are many nice options for lunch: a sit-down restaurant overlooking the bay (be sure to make reservations beforehand), a more casual cafe offering burgers and brick-oven pizzas and a coffee bar if you just want a quick snack.  We spent our time watching otters and penguins frolic and play, touching starfish and horseshoe crabs, and watching green sea turtles and hammerhead sharks swim by in the Open Sea exhibit.  Our favorite thing was "The Jellies Experience," populated with the most amazing and fantastic jellyfish imaginable.  

After we finished up at the aquarium, we drove down to Carmel for lunch.  Unfortunately, everybody else seemed to have the same idea so we had to settle for a forgettable lunch and just a quick look around before heading to our next stop for the night, Big Sur.  

Winter Car Trip Part I

We decided to take a quick trip down South over the Christmas break and check out some of the places we had been wanting to see while enjoying warmer temperatures than New Jersey was offering.  We were only gone six days and one of those was a full day of driving so it felt like we only scratched the surface in many ways.  

We reached our first stop of Charlottesville late in the afternoon and squeezed in a visit to Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello.  We had just enough time to tour the house, explore the grounds and walk back down to the visitors center just as the sun was setting.  There is a family friendly tour that is about 15 minutes shorter than the regular tour but we just missed the last one.  

The shuttle bus takes you up the mountain and drops you at the back of the house.  We had time before our tour started to walk around and look at the outbuildings such as the kitchen, wine cellar and storage areas and take some pictures of the grounds.  

The kids and I (mostly me) were impressed at the "stove-top" in the kitchen and all the beautiful copper pots.

Seeing some of the slave's rooms generated a fair amount of discussion from the kids about slavery and how they were treated.  Sally Hemmings is mentioned during the tour as it is the belief of The Thomas Jefferson Foundation (which oversees the house) that Thomas Jefferson is the father of her children.  This necessitated a brief explanation for Jack but went right over Ava's head.  

The house tours are on a timed basis and last approximately 45 minutes.  They are informative but move quick enough to keep everyone's interest.  Pictures are not allowed inside the house so all photos are courtesy of The Jefferson Foundation.

                                                         Entrance Hall

                                                         Entrance Hall



                           North Octagonal Room

                           North Octagonal Room

As the tour ended, the sun began to set over the surrounding hills and we headed down the hill to our car.


Later that night we had a delicious dinner at Shebeen Pub and Braai, a South African restaurant in downtown Charlottesville.  The kids and I all had fish and chips which were fantastic and Alan had a tasty west african ground nut stew which is similar to a ratatouille.  I would also highly recommend the "hammies" appetizer which are small square-shaped yeast biscuits with harpers county ham and brown sugar butter.  

The next morning we looked around the UVA campus before setting off for Raleigh.  There are walking tours available when school is in session but we settled for poking around on our own.  The symbol of the university, the Rotunda, is undergoing restoration work and will not be open until next summer, but it was still nice to wander around the grounds.  All of the early university buildings were also designed by Jefferson and then, later, by Stanford White.  Everything was eerily quiet as it was holiday break but it was easy to imagine it bustling with student activity on a brisk winter morning.  There are shops and restaurants across the street if you are looking for a quick bite or to pick up some Cavaliers paraphernalia (we escaped with just a T-shirt for Jack).