Author Archives: melanie

Driving the Pacific Coast Highway

Well, we’re back home in the snow and cold, the car’s rear view mirror reflecting frost rather than the sun and sand, but we left some great adventures in our wake. I’m still working on compiling these posts, these little snapshots of our trip that I jotted down in notes here and there and am reliving now with all the photos I couldn’t help taking!

After we left our easy, peaceful existence in Santa Barbara, we took a few days to drive up the coast towards San Francisco. The Pacific Coast Highway is kind of similar to the Apache Trail drive we did last year, although the PCH is paved the whole way, has the ocean to the left side, and our starting point was quite far away from our ending point. The twisty turns and breathtaking scenery though make it a must-do on a trip to California, so I put it on our list early on in the planning process and then mapped out a few potential stop right before we left from Santa Barbara.

hitting the road

First thing in the morning, we drove into Solvang, a little town with cute buildings once you passed an ostrich farm and winery. I had read about a raved-over pancake place, but being a Saturday morning it was a complete zoo, so we went next door and picked up pastries to go at Olsens – I got a bear claw with almond paste and J thoroughly enjoyed a sticky sweet lemon boat. We walked around a bit and enjoyed the Danish inspired buildings, the fun window displays, and the flowers.

windmill Solvang

Solvang sunglasses

Solvang

We drove on, seeing rolling hills streaked with yellow wildflowers, the dazzling blue ocean to the left so close I imagined I could smell the salty air. Our second top of the day was Pismo Beach, and we drove right through the tiny downtown area to park, get out and walk awhile until we got to…the Butterfly Grove!

butterflies

I’d recently read and enjoyed Flight Behavior and so I felt intrigued to see a real life version of an area where thousands of butterflies clung and climbed the tree branches. There was a small area to walk around, and gaze at the estimated 20,000 butterflies nestled in the trees.A volunteer with greying hair and a gentle smile gave Baby J a couple of butterfly stickers, and we took another look at the butterflies, their delicate little shapes glowing orange in the sunshine. It was an amazing sight to see.

drawings

butterflies

We went a bit farther along the coast, talking about everything and nothing, singing songs and making up stories to keep our little fella awake until a late lunchtime. We stopped in Morro Bay, home to a large rock, which sounds boring but was actually quite scenic as it sat calmly looking out over the boats lined up in the harbour area.

Rock Morro Bay

Morro Bay was a really great little town and one that I could have spent longer in. There wasn’t a massive crush of tourists, the midday weather was perfect, and we got a seat at a local eatery quickly. I’m still thinking about the incredible lobster bisque in a bread bowl that I had. Best soup I’ve ever had, I think.

lobster bisque

soup

We walked a bit more, checking out the tiny art galleries, shops, listened to some live music, watched the boats, climbed on tree roots, and let Baby J drum away on this two pronged structure that was sitting outside. He would still be there now, banging away on it and laughing, if we hadn’t made him leave – that’s how much he enjoyed himself.

art

morro bay

houses morro bay

We drove farther this time, to our final destination of the day – Cambria. Because of the long weekend/ Valentine’s day madness, I’d search far and wide but hadn’t had any luck booking a night at a hotel. Either you had to stay the entire weekend, or the price was just way out of our budget. I wanted to take our time driving up the coast, making stops and seeing as much as we could, and in the end I found a historic house through AirBNB once again, called the Music House. A singer/ songwriter lives there now, but rented her house to us while she was out of town.

We ventured in and checked it out – clow footed bathtubs, black and white images from years past, capturing childhoods passing in large, ornate frames on every wall. There was a former little girls room upstairs and I lingered over the books, recognizing many of my own favourites from my childhood like A Little Princess. There was a treehouse outside, covered in dust and cobwebs, with broken china and sea shells littering the wood floor and a chalkboard written on in messy, child-like scrawl. There was also, to Baby J’s utter delight, a small piano that dinged when the keys were pressed, much like his very own at home. His Dad was pretty happy to spend some time at the living room version, too.

piano

Nearby is a gorgeous little beach called Moonstone beach, featuring a boardwalk with a great view. We headed over, walked around a bit, went down the crumbling dirt steps to the beach itself and made our way across the pebbly sand. The sun was getting into it’s golden hour before settings and the landscape and rushing waves all seemed too perfect a place to hang out and play until the sunset.

moonstone beach

pebbles

moonstone beach

moonstone beach

It was all lovely, Lord of the Rings-ish beautiful, and I could go on it about more, but in reality? The day had caught up with Baby J and he was not in a good mood. He did like running on the boardwalk, and climbing onto a giant log, but he was determined to go in the water and just melting down when we wouldn’t let him. That’s sometimes how it goes though, Valentine’s day or not: the real romance is one of you scooping up and consoling your crying little kid, brushing the sand off his small feet to jam on his shoes, while the other gathers all the bags and clothes and toys and things, just getting him home and settled, happily sandwiched between us on a futon, for an early night’s sleep.

A stop in Santa Barbara

To break up our journey from San Diego to San Francisco a bit, I decided we would spend a few days in sunny Santa Barbara, recommended by a few folks, and just an idyllic, pleasant town to hang around in. We did AirBNB again and were happy that the place was just as nice as it looked in the photos, with a backyard full of kids toys, a sandbox and slide which Baby J was super excited to get out and play with FIRST thing in the morning. We also met our host, Ty, and his two kids.

playing

Our first stop of the day was Alameda Park, a huge park that occupies 2 city blocks in the heart of Santa Barbara. We found a nice little area called the Alice Keck Park Memorial Gardens filled with plants, and there were paths to stroll along, ducks to look at, little steps here and there, trees with long gnarled roots, plus, a pretty pond that was filled with turtles! I noticed a couple of turtles on a rock and thought, isn’t that neat? and snapped a photo.

ducks

turtles

Then I looked up and realized there were tons of them on the other side of the pond! We made our way over for a closer look, being careful not to get too close (and I’m happy to report that Baby J was very ‘gentle’ and quiet, and looked, and didn’t cause any little wizened turtle heads to pop back into their shells. Not even a slow scuffle towards the water was initiated) although I’m sure they must be used to people gawkers like us.

gazebo

turtles

turtles

We took our time strolling the walkways, poking sticks into the streams, before taking Baby J across the street to show him Kid’s World – a huge castle shaped play structure with lots of climbing platforms and slides. He also liked climbing on the big whale and shark sculptures on the sand.

park

shark at the park

We made it home for a snooze and then ventured out to the harbour to watch the golden sunset along the boats. It was beautiful, and we spent some time walking the ledge around the boats, and watching older kids play in the sand.

boats

harbour

sunset SB harbour

We decided to try out the Santa Barbara public market for dinner after seeing a brochure advertising the Empty Bowl Noodle Bar. We grabbed a few dishes – the duck buns and dumplings, and while delicious, were not super filling. So we split an order of amazing Pad Thai as well, Baby J happily slurping up the sauce sweet noodles, I took the tofu pieces and Tyler had most of the chicken. The market has lots of little places to eat, with sort of a small food court style seating. We also eyeballed some treats on the way out, like ice cream and cookie dough bites, that looked pretty good.

Tyler’s been on a bit of a BeeGees kick lately, and one thing I’ll remember about Santa Barbara was the dance party Julian had on the fireplace, grooving, nodding, and arm-swinging to Stayin’ Alive. That kid is just getting into dancing and he was so smiley and happy, just doing his own thing and busting a move without a care in the world in the comfort of his little family bubble.

We decided our second day in Santa Barbara would be a Beach Day. I read about a few options and chose East Beach, with the idea that we might walk down the to wharf if we had time. The beach itself was glorious, deep blue sky setting off the tall palm trees, first a grassy area filled with little yellow flowers we had to stop and sniff, then sand dunes and ocean as far as the eye could see.

flowers east beach

east beach

I took J with me for a splash and a walk down the ocean, him running away as the tide came in but squealing with delight if the cool water reached his toes. We found a pile of rocks to squeeze through and carefully climb, and slide down on the sand ridges formed at the ocean’s edge for a few good laughs. We drove his little yellow truck around in the wet sand, and scooped and patted little hills.

east beach

After we rejoined Tyler, we played in the sand for a bit and sat and enjoyed the weather and just being there. More running and splashing as a little boy got bolder with the incoming rush of bubbly water, but we kept a good firm grip on him the whole time. After he’d ran and chased birds some more, we had lunch – sandwiches of any kind are a new favorite thing – and relaxed on our beach towels for a bit. I’d half hoped J would fall asleep, but after a bit of resting he was raring to go again. So we spent a bit more time racing around on the sand, and headed home for a short nap instead, following by more playing in the backyard.

sand

playing in the sand

beach

For dinner we thought we’d head out to California Pizza Kitchen but it (and every restaurant around it was just jam packed and lined up out the door). I was puzzled but then spotted a few families dressed in fancy pink and red outfits, and realized it was the day before Valentine’s day and a Friday night. So we just got 2 pizzas to go and ate them at home, before packing up for another day of driving up the coast!

Moving along to Santa Monica

We were pretty sad to say goodbye to our cosy home in San Diego after being there for over a week. As a first AirBNB experience, I couldn’t have been more thrilled at the value of staying in a house with a lovely yard over a hotel. I was so happy with it all that I started having visions of coming down for longer next year (who knows?) and really getting to know the neighbourhood. But on this trip our plan was to have more adventures and so off we set to start our trip up the coast. First stop: Santa Monica!

Santa Monica is about 2 hours or so north of San Diego and is also not too far from LA. The drive is pleasant and since I’d taken a week’s vacation I really felt free and just wanted to stick my head out the window to bask in the sun like a happy dog (good thing I wasn’t driving). It seemed to take no time until we arrived at the Bayside Hotel, a cheap find amongst the steep prices of Santa Monica hotels, but it was clean and had a place to sleep, so it would do. Plus it had a grassy park area directly behind it: simple but oh so fun for people watching, and jumping. There were a few small dogs to pet as well and J made sure we all took a turn.

Once we unpacked our stuff, we walked down onto the beach in time for the last rays of the evening and a pretty great sunset.

We kept going until we got to the Santa Monica Pier and grabbed a bite at Bubba Gump Shrimp. It’s maybe not the kind of place I’d choose, but it was there and we were hungry and the food was better than I expected!

bubba

Baby J had mac n cheese (with blue jello for dessert) and while we were eating I glanced over and noticed how intent he was on using his fork, just eating quietly like such a big boy, and I caught Tyler’s eye too. He’ll never be this small again, we said. We’re so lucky to be on this trip with him and enjoy him as much as we can, soaking up these little moments as he gets taller and more words start to tumble out of his mouth. He’s just on the verge of boyhood and it’s so special and cute and we are just so lucky to have him.

As we were walking back to our hotel, Baby J wanted to be carried – his little legs had had enough – and he put each of his arms around each of our necks and pulled us in close for a sweet family hug.

We woke up early the next day and grabbed a homemade bagel and amazing coffee at Dogtown cafe, sitting outside to breathe in the mild, salt-scented air that seemed to to linger in all of the outdoor patio areas near the ocean, and started walking around to check out Santa Monica a bit more.

relax

Since we were walking, we headed towards Santa Monica Boulevard – a lyric in a Sheryl Crow song that I admitted to not understanding what she was saying the first few times I heard it (in fact, I didn’t know what she was saying there until I went into a sheet music store with my brother and took a peek at the music. How times have changed, a la smart phones and instant Google!)

Speaking of songs, on the way, we passed the Hotel California!

We played in the park for a bit and walked back towards the pier to check it out in the daylight. To get there, we had to climb a big bridge and Baby J was so proud to take him time and step down each on, holding onto the rail. People passed us, smiling at his slow progress, and when we got to the other side, he headed right for the sand and laid down, just happy to be there on solid, glorious sandy ground. We were right beside a bike lane/ pedestrian walkway and more people commented on how happy he was to be there. I can’t blame him – the sand and sun were such a nice change in February for us.

At the pier, Baby J was really taken with one of the rides – a yellow truck, and pretended to drive it over and over again. He also had a little ride on a mini carousel, and we were lucky to get there at the same time as another little girl, so we each paid for a couple rides for both kids.

Then we had to break the news to Baby J: we were leaving the pier with the rides and heading to our next stop of the day: Venice Beach! We drove out and lucked into a good parking spot and got out to walk straight out on the pier there, looking sideways to see people with fishing poles set up, texting away while waiting for the fish to bite, and Venice beach laid out behind us.

I’m not sure if Venice Beach is really a must-see, but we enjoyed walking up and down and the people watching. We got a lot of exercise! I saw everything from noble seagulls perched on the roofs standing guard, Zen style houses with buddhas in front, to a dog with pink studded collar and matching heart sunglasses jauntily walking past. There were goth teens eating huge slices of pizza, a guy with electric guitar wearing roller skates and hockey pads, and people that had put out tons of labelled bowls asking for people to put money into the one with the sign for their favourite religion.

A guy tried to sell us his CD and when we said no, he offered to trade it for Tyler’s shoes. Still no, we said. But, it’s me! He called out, like we knew him. There were artists of all kinds and vendors with work on display, neat paintings and murals from freakshow figures to a starry, starry night replica.

We walked and watched, and we ate delicious gelato while J sprawled sleeping on this stroller, arms tucked behind his head as if he had no cares in the world.

After our afternoon in Venice Beach, we drove to Malibu with the idea of seeing some fancy houses and pristine beaches, but instead just pulled off at a state park because it was convenient. We let Baby J loose to run and play for a couple of hours, enjoying the golden light and rugged beauty of the beach.

J loved throwing rocks into the water and digging with sticks. We found a toy dinosaur skeleton buried in the sand, and watched the determined surfers get up and crash and get up again, soaring along the waves. Once we felt like most of the light was gone, we headed a little ways further to Malibu Seafood for some fresh seafood (scallops for me, a squid steak sandwich for Tyler) and sat outside at a picnic table to enjoy the last few warm moments of daytime.

I wasn’t sure about starting our pacific coast drive at night, worrying that we’d miss some scenery, but we decided to make the most of the day in Santa Monica instead and that was just as well, because just as we reached the 1 highway, we were faced with a Road Closed sign. Luckily there was a diner right nearby that had a nice guy who sent us back on a detour and filled up someone’s bottle of milk for a dollar.

We drove off into the night, tired from the long day, but excited to spend a bit of time in Santa Barbara!