Merry Christmas! Rocco and Violet opened their carefully wrapped Christmas boxes on Christmas morning to find a magazine and map from California. Their faces showed some apprehension and some excitement at the same time…what was this for? What kind of a gift is this? And then they found the tickets! Yes, we were going on a family vacation to Lala Land for Spring Break 2021!
MIA to LAX 3/18 to 3/24/2021.
Let me fill you in on all the details in between those two dates! We know we have some curious readers and many who want to start planning their West Coast trip too!
American Airlines, direct flight to LAX, 5 hours and change…packed with travelers all masked up and full of hope. Baggage claim at LAX, full. Rental Car Shuttle, just a short walk outside the terminal but boy did that brisk air hit us! It was chilly for us South Floridians!
Here is your first tip: When renting a car near LAX, you probably want to go with one of the providers that have just 1 shuttle to the rental area, not 2! Yes, there are a few less expensive options that require taking two different shuttles to arrive to the rental area and some of these options also close earlier than you would expect (like 8 p.m.!) We opted for a deal with FOX Rental Car for our usual preferred method of transportation for our road trips…. a Mini Van! You just cannot go wrong with these when traveling long distances and with kids!
By the time we got our car, we were starving (there was no food available on American Airlines, another tip when traveling with American, BRING FOOD! We had some snacks but by the time we had landed it was about 11:30 p.m. eastern time and we wanted some dinner!) The gentlemen at the car rental was from Jalisco, Mexico and was super friendly. He recommended a local Mexican place that was nearby called Maria’s Rico’s Tacos located at 613 W Manchester Blvd, Inglewood, CA 90301. It is inside a mini strip mall and all their tables were blocked off due to COVID, so we had to eat in our car. The moment we walked in though, we knew we had hit the jackpot. Delicious, traditional Mexican food with “tortas de cabeza,” “burritos de lengua” and then the stuff we ordered like the Tortilla Bowl, Carne Asada Plate, Tacos al pastor and Burrito de Pollo. We had so much food and it hit the spot
Our hotel for the next three nights was near Manhattan Beach, the Springhill Suites LAX/ Manhattan Beach. We find these type of limited service hotels works well when traveling with kids because they usually have larger rooms, breakfast included and a lower room rate! This one also had a great location in terms of getting around all the places we wanted to see in LA. There was nothing really within walking distance, but we knew that, and we had our rental car so that we could maximize seeing as much as we could in a short amount of time.
On Friday morning we woke early and headed out for the day. Manhattan Beach was a quick 8-minute drive down the street and was a very cute little beach town with boutiques, coffee stores, restaurants and cafes and of course surf shops! Parking was easy and we walked down to the pier and beach. Rocco had heard that its good to take off your socks & shoes and connect your bare feet with the grass or sand when arriving in a new time zone so that your body can connect to the new time zone! LOL. So, the kids and my wife did just that while I walked on the pier to take some video of the surfers. There were lots of them out there! The kids also wanted to test the Pacific Ocean from California! It’s a big deal for these teenagers but it was freezing! They were in and out with barely a toe getting wet!
Venice Beach is a quick drive north from Manhattan Beach and was stop #2. Although I had heard some rumors about the homeless and lots of drugs near this beach, it is still iconic and one of those tourist places that we wanted to check off for the kids, especially the skate park. We were there in mid-morning, so the scene was not too alarming. The skate park is a must see- what great talent! The beach is also quite beautiful for some nice pics.
We did not spend too much time in Venice because we had booked a two-hour horseback riding tour and it started across town and would take us nearly an hour to get there. Yes, traffic is bad in LA. We felt lucky that due to COVID, there certainly was less traffic but thanks to google maps and waze, we were always able to stay on top of it and maximize time! Sunset Ranch offers one, two hour and evening horseback riding tours around Hollywood Hills and near the famous Hollywood sign.
My wife thought that the tour would take us closer to the actual sign than it did, but overall it was still a cool experience. We got lost going there, so make sure you put the name of the company, Sunset Ranch, instead of the actual address into google maps because it will take you to two different areas! The good thing is that on our lost route, we were able to get sneak peaks into some of those amazing Hollywood Hills neighborhoods and get our own cool picture of the sign! The one-hour tour costs $65 a person plus gratuity and is probably more than enough for anyone just wanting to get a taste of this fun experience. We did the two-hour experience for $100 a person plus gratuity and it went all the way to the top of Mount Hollywood, and it did offer fantastic views of the city, but it was a long tour! The horses were all quite friendly and easy to ride! We got to ride on Jasmine, Fiona, Harry and Wind Chime.
You can also hike up to the Hollywood sign, but note, the horses have right of way! There were lots of people on the trails hiking up and they all loved Violet’s horse, Jasmine. She was white, with a lovely braid in her tail and with a unicorn resemblance!
After cleaning up from the horse back riding, we drove down the hills to “Fat Sal’s” for some grub! Rocco and Caitlan had seen this place on one of Guy Fieri’s shows on the food network and wrote it down for a possible visit! It was near by and the time was perfect because there was no line! (We read that their lines can be crazy long!) The Fat Jerry Sandwich was surprisingly good. We ate everything but probably need to go back to try their Shakes!
Next up on our list was a visit to Santa Monica Pier! It was starting to get really cool outside and a sweater and jacket was needed! The pier was packed with people and so was the surrounding area, full of restaurants, stores and happy people!
A lot was closed on the pier due to covid, but the kids were still able to get their ice cream, churros and little trinkets. The Mexican street vendors were plentiful and added to the landscape. Although the kids could not go on the rides at Pacific Park, the Ferris wheel was still lit and made for a great backdrop for pictures!
Hard to believe it is just day two after our super full day of activities on day one!
On Saturday we woke up to go start our day at the Grand Central Market in downtown LA. There is a famous Egg Slut here that had lines of people wrapped around the entrance and even though we were there for breakfast, we decided to walk around and see what else was around. Violet dove right in and opted for some freshly baked bread at one of the first kiosks. We discovered a downstairs flea market style market with a DJ blasting some fun music. Donuts were in abundance at “Donut Man” and there were countless Asian stands. Caitlan said she had the best grilled cheese sandwich that she has ever eaten, and the kids discovered a delicious fried rice. We could not leave without getting a half dozen donuts!
Just a few blocks away from Grand Central Market is a bookstore called “The Last Bookstore.” We checked our donuts and bags and walked into this giant 22,000 square foot space. It is housed in a 100-year old bank building and is not really the “last bookstore” but it is the largest new and used bookstore in all of California. It also has records, comics, art studios, and super cool “instagramable” photo opss! Oh, and some couches and lounging area where I sat while Caitlan, Rocco and Violet shopped around.
There were a few more things to see and do in this area, but Caitlan had a list of a few more things to do first! Well, really, they were the things on the kid’s list!
-UCLA, Abby Lee Dance Studio, Hollywood Walk of Fame, etc.
We had driven by the Abby Lee Dance Studio on Friday, but it was closed. This studio has become very well known in the dance word due to the popularity of the reality show, “Dance Moms.” Much to Violet’s surprise, the young woman who opened the door was one of the stars on the show, Gianna Martello. We shopped around their merchandise area and secured an appointment for a private class on Tuesday! Violet was beyond excited.
From there we drove up to UCLA so Rocco could scout it out. Most of the campus was closed due to COVID, but we were able to see a bit of the sprawling campus (and drive by Bel Air, remember that show?) Of course, the campus merchandise stores were open, so we spent some time in the stores in the cute little village right by UCLA.
Next up was the Hollywood Walk of Fame! We walked up and down snapping up pictures of the names we recognized, entering some of the fun stores and visiting the Chinese Theater and Dolby Theater. The Chinese Theater was closed for regular tours and roped off but there was a small sign that said if you purchased $10 from the gift store, you could go in. We were very surprised that no one was doing it! We got to go behind the ropes and have a VIP tour just for ourselves. We marveled at the names, hand prints and foot prints that have given this theater such history and of course Violet did some acrobatic tricks and tic toks! El Capitan Theater is a movie theater right across the street from the Chinese Theater. They had just reopened and were showing the new movie, “Raya and the Last Dragon.” We were too late to get tickets for that night, but we got them for Tuesday night, when we would be back in LA. Another tip: there are some people around the stars that will put your name on them so you can take a picture! A fun little memory
“Urban Light” was the next place to visit on Caitlan’s list. This is a large-scale assemblage sculpture by Chris Burden and is located right outside of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. There are so many videos, photos, movies, magazine shoots, etc. that have been done here, so it is quite known worldwide and it has become sort of a pop-temple.
It is funny too because it is made up of 202 street lamps arranged in a near grid. Most of the lights were taken locally in Southern California and some up in Oregon. We had to wait in line to “go in” even though it is free, and it is located outside. They control it quite tightly on how many people are inside of the set up and if you are wearing masks or not. We stayed for about an hour just taking pictures.
It was about 9:30 p.m. by now and we were hungry. The kids had their hearts set on visiting this restaurant called “Saddle Ranch” but the line to get in wrapped around two whole blocks on Sunset Strip! It was a Saturday night though and they are super trendy. So, we ate right next door at this dive place called “Carneys.” It is literally right next door and it is an old train caboose. They sell burgers and hot dogs. After we ate, we were exhausted from another long day of exploring! Our hotel was just about 30 minutes away, but the kids arrived asleep!
We woke up early to head up the coast a bit before we headed up north to the mountains! Since we were already staying on the coast, we decided to drive up to Malibu for breakfast. It is such a pretty drive! We even considered re-routing our drive to Sequoia to go up the coast more, but it would have added several more hours. Although it would have been beautiful, it was still a lot more driving and with little amount of time. So, we drove up to Malibu and had breakfast right on the water at “Duke’s Malibu.”
It was Sunday and they get very crowded for Sunday Brunch but since we were there early, we got a great table right on the water. The food, service and ambiance were great. We really kind of felt like we were in Hawaii!
Onwards to our 4.5-hour drive towards Sequoia National Park! Why did we choose to go there? Well, the trees that’s why! This was really on Rocco’s “to-do” list. The drive through the central valley area of California was beautiful. We drove through many different style farms from olive trees to wineries to oranges and more. We also saw the other end of the spectrum and saw lots of active oil drilling.
We arrived at the small town of Three Rivers, which is by the entrance to the National Park. We fueled up on some hot dogs, snacks and wine to bring to the hotel (just in case!) Caitlan was nervous about needing some chains on the tires. Apparently, you are required by law to have them in your car during certain months (including March) but we had checked the online reports for the parks about the driving conditions and if the chains were needed, and they were NOT. There are a few places in Three Rivers that rent chains (but fyi, many rental car companies do not allow you to put them on.)
We arrived into Sequoia National Park and immediately felt the change in weather. It was COLD and cloudy! The drive up to the lodge that we were staying at was windy and uphill! We stopped a few times to check out the views and take some pictures! We even made it to the famous, “General Sherman Tree.” There was snow everywhere. It was quite the site to see, quite magical really. The importance of this tree is that it by volume, it is the largest known living single-stem tree on Earth, and it is estimated to be around 2,300 to 2,700 years old.
We had reserved a room in advance at the Wuksachi Lodge, which is located at 7,200 feet in elevation! Check in was a mess. We had to wait nearly 3 hours to get our room and we arrived passed official check in time. The good part is that we had fun while waiting (physically in line!) The kids played outside in the snow and when they got tired, they sat by the fireplace and waited. We had some glasses of wine and chatted with our neighbors. There was a restaurant inside the building where check in was and we were able to get some delicious meals once we got our keys! We were told that the lodge was having staffing issues (like many places) and they just couldn’t get all the rooms cleaned on time.
The building where our room was had posters to beware of bears, which gave us all a chuckle. The room was cozy and comfortable, and we slept well.
We awoke early to marvel at the glistening snow on all the trees. It really was magical. The snow was just perfect. We didn’t spend too much time in the area because we needed to drive (again) to our next stop…Yosemite National Park and that would be another 4.5 hours or so!
The drive down from Sequoia National Park was beautiful and we, of course, stopped several times for photos. The view was different and so was the time of day, so it was like a new experience!
As we drove into the next national park, Yosemite, we witnessed extreme devastation from recent wildfires. There were many places closed due to the fires and the amount of forest that had been completely stripped was quite impacting.
We made it through the dismal drive and the forest started to come alive again (although there were still remnants from the recent fire all the way into the park near the lodge!) We did learn that some of the fires are “prescribed fires” which help the area, but to the naked eye, the amount of damage was huge.
For day four, we also stayed inside Yosemite National Park at the Yosemite Valley Lodge. Due to covid, we were able to secure overnight accommodations but from what we read, normally you need to reserve about a year in advance! The lodge was right by Yosemite Falls and the overall feeling there was about nature, hiking, trees, rocks and just pure beauty from Mother Nature! There were signs everywhere about not leaving any food, snacks, trash, etc. in your car due to the bears! We adhered to their recommendations and hauled everything into our first-floor
room which featured a cute patio outside the room, where you could hear the thunder from Yosemite Falls!
Pricing wasn’t necessarily economical, but it was a great location and a clean, comfortable room! They had a little table to dine inside your room and a refrigerator. We had dinner at the base lodge (cafeteria style) and visited the camp store where they had a full grocery store and lots of souvenirs for browsing. The air was brisk, and on the verge of cold, but there was no snow – just lots and lots of stars.
My wife said she wanted to set the alarm to get up early and go for a walk. I told her she was crazy and so did Rocco. Well, Violet and Caitlan did end up going for a walk around 6:30 a.m. to go see the Yosemite Falls. They got some nice pictures! I was a bit mad at myself for not getting up with them, but we have had some busy days!
We couldn’t spend too much time here either because we had booked a surprise private dance class for one of Violet’s idols at the “Abbe Lee Dance Studio” in LA. In order to get there on time, after the 5-hour drive, we would have to get going early! So, we packed up the car again and got back on the road. On the way out, we took a different route than the way in, so we were able to see beautiful flowers, cute country roads and bridges vs. the devastating fire areas! We took this rode just by chance because the other was under some construction and it was going to cause us a pretty long delay. We decided to chance this change in route and it worked out!
Once we exited the National Park and National Forest area, we got on the highway and stopped just to eat quickly at another restaurant that the kids had seen on Tik Tok, Raising Cane’s. Not too much to talk about with that place except for the fact that it is Tik Tok famous. They only serve Chicken Fingers and Fries. No burgers, no salads (well, cole slaw.) but they keep it quick and cheap due to their limited menu.
We raced back into the big city and made it to the dance studio in time for Violet’s private dance lesson with Gianna Martello. Violet loved it so much that she decided to stay for an extra dance class after. She was there for about 3 hours. While Violet was at the studio, we took Rocco for a haircut near Beverly Hills at, Shave & Co, and walked around the nearby mall in Culver City. By the way, it was a pretty cool cut and from the pictures on the wall, many local Lakers Players get cut there too!
We had just a few more things on our “to-do list,” including going to a movie premiere and eating at the famous “Saddle Ranch” on Sunset Strip!
The new Disney movie, “Raya, the Last Dragon” had just come out and we got tickets at the “El Capitan Theater.” The theater was classic Hollywood; however, we do not recommend getting seats on the balcony as there is very little space to move around. It was on the point of flat out, uncomfortable, but the screen was large, and the sound was awesome. The movie was phenomenal too!
Saddle Ranch was doable on a Tuesday night…It was still busy, and we had to wait about 10 minutes, but not like the first time we tried to go on Saturday night, where the line wrapped around two blocks! Right away Violet saw a famous tik tok personality! Yeah for Hollywood!
We sat outside and enjoyed delicious steak meals! The menu is huge. We recommend going there HUNGRY and on the look out for those “famous ones” eating amongst you!
We were exhausted and made it back to our last hotel room for the vacation, which was near LAX airport, the Hilton Garden Inn LAX/ El Segundo. It had good ratings, was clean, family friendly and economical!
Our flight was around noon, so we had enough time to go to one last stop – Randy’s Donuts! Does it feel like we had a lot of donut’s in LA to you? It did to us! But they were all amazing! This was not on our official list, but Rocco saw it the first night we arrived and recognized it from the Avenger’s movie; we had to go! Once again – it was delicious. The raspberry filled donut was just delicious and my mouth waters as I write this. And that’s a wrap…California Dreaming was amazing. It was a trip we will never forget and one that left us wanting more! So much to explore in California….