California: Surfing and Star-Spotting in Surf City

Joanna Symons, The Daily Telegraph, March 23, 2012


When your children are young, it seems as though family holidays will carry on for ever, stretching away through endless summers into a happy, sandy sunset. Then, all of a sudden, as your squeaky little offspring grow into lanky teenagers with opinions of their own, the holiday video judders to a halt. Without any consultation they start making their own travel plans – for trips that now involve their friends, and very clearly do not involve you.

Unless, of course, you come up with a holiday that's so desirable they manage to overcome their squeamishness and tag along. Skiing always works. So did the trip to California we took last summer, when suddenly our two sons, aged 18 and 20, became very keen on a bit of family bonding.

We started in Huntington Beach, aka Surf City USA, about an hour south of Los Angeles. Our hotel, the Shorebreak, was an instant hit with the boys – a cool spot with wooden floors, young staff, big sofas, surf videos projected on to the white walls, and views from our room (across the Pacific Highway) of the black heads of dolphins and surfers in the frothing water. It's right in the centre of this good-natured, unpretentious, Orange County resort – a magnet for surfers and teenagers (the popular teen television drama, The OC, is set just a few miles away in Newport Beach).

The town itself is not the stuff of picture-postcards – most of the buildings are unadorned and modern – nor is it as groomed as wealthier Newport Beach. It's more like a Californian version of Newquay, but infinitely nicer for parents. Pavements – sorry, sidewalks – are lined with palm trees, café umbrellas and shops selling surf gear. Old Harley-Davidsons, Corvettes and VW vans putter up and down the streets and the largely American holidaymakers and locals are a mixture of young surfers, middle-aged hippies and rich kids from Newport Beach in swanky cars. "How does that happen?" said one of my sons as a spotty adolescent pulled up in a shiny new Bentley sports car.

Each Tuesday is Surf City night, when the streets are closed to traffic, a large farmers' market sells local "heirloom" fruit and growers, jugglers, chiropractors and jewellery-makers ply their trade and the Dogs' Protection League wheels out some beleaguered-looking mutts to promote its cause. As dusk falls, groups and families gather to light bonfires in the firepits that stretch down the beach. Setting up camp, they picnic or party as darkness falls, strumming guitars among the wood smoke, the flickering flames illuminating the surf. It's all very Woodstock-by-Sea.

The beach is the centre of life here – a wide, deep stretch of blond sand, edged with a cycle path, pounded by surf and bathed in that wonderful breezy, heart-lifting California light. It's swept and groomed every night – and by day bronzed lifeguards stare out, square-jawed, from their huts on stilts. All life is here, especially on the busy beaches around the pier: cyclists, volleyballers, joggers, surfers and, of course, dogs. The beach is backed by the palm-tree-lined Pacific Highway, and each time the lights change at the crossing for Dog Beach – the stretch reserved for canine beachcombing – a posse of poodles, Labradors and pugs on leads storms noisily across. It's not unusual to see dogs skimming the waves on surfboards – and I have to say they managed it rather better than we did.

If you think you have cracked Cornish surf, the waves at Huntington Beach are something else. "The conditions are a little testing today," said our cool-dude instructor, who arrived for our lesson on the crest of a wave.

"Really, these waves are not easy," he repeated kindly some half an hour later as I emerged from yet another cold wash fast-spin and called it a day. Even my husband and sons – who rather fancied themselves on a surfboard – kept rolling in like upturned beetles.

We did better at paddle boarding – a cross between surfing and punting – but only because we were on the canal-like backwaters of nearby Huntington Harbour. And we had a lot of fun riding across the beach and along the water's edge on a Segway, which is rather like travelling on a pogo stick with wheels. But best of all was our bike ride down the beachside cycle path to Newport Beach, picking our favourite millionaire bolt-holes as we went, breeze in our hair, the sun sparkling on the water.

The cycle paths are one of the great joys of this stretch of southern California – as we found when we moved up the coast to Santa Monica, our base in Los Angeles. LA is really a series of villages, and Santa Monica is one of the most attractive and approachable. Its wide, peaceful roads, lined with pretty houses and soaring palms, lead down to cliff-top gardens and, below them, more of that dazzling golden sand. It all feels very safe – in fact, the greatest threat is being mown down by a zealous jogger. Borrowing bikes from our hotel, the stylish and civilised Oceana, we pedalled past the trapeze school and carousels on Santa Monica pier, past the prophets and bodybuilders, to Venice Beach, where stalls were selling all sorts of hippie gear, from feather headdresses to tarot cards and peace-slogan T-shirts.

There was rather smarter shopping round the corner from our hotel, in chic Montana Avenue, where we breakfasted at the quirky Marmalade Café with an eclectic crowd of locals. It didn't include any of the neighbourhood celebrities – such as Marcia Cross (Bree from Desperate Housewives), but we saw enough stardom for a lifetime on our two-hour open-top minibus tour of the movie stars' homes in Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Bel Air. "The secret of celebrity-spotting is to look for black Range Rovers," said our driver, who showed all the zeal of a safari guide tracking lion. "We had a sighting of Orlando Bloom a couple of days ago," he announced proudly. "He gave us a wave and a smile."

We were shown the spot where Hugh Grant was arrested with Divine Brown, saw the Osbournes' house (later, so our driver said, bought by Christina Aguilera) and cruised down Rodeo Drive. We drove high among the canyons and pines of the Hollywood hills for a bird's-eye view of the city and the famous Hollywood sign (rebuilt with celebrity donations after termites ate the wooden original) and lurked in the road outside the Beckhams' home and, rather morbidly, the house where Michael Jackson died.

The most exciting moment was seeing someone exercising in Johnny Depp's garage – but it was "probably just his carpenter", according to our omniscient guide. By the end, I felt bloated with celebrity – as though I'd read 50 copies of Hello magazine back to back – but it was a great way to see the most glamorous bits of the city.

Other trips from LA, for my sons at least, included a visit to the Six Flags Magic Mountain theme park. This, along with surfing and "not too many museums", had been part of the family holiday contract, and the park more than lived up to their expectations. "It just dwarfs the UK parks," was their verdict, "really good rides without all the hype."

My husband and I retreated to the blissfully cool hilltop campus of the Getty Center nearby, and wandered through the gardens and galleries, glimpsing just a fraction of the collections of American and European art and photography.

Next, we eased our way north up the coast to the lovely old mission town of Santa Barbara, where the highlights were kayaking among sea lions in the harbour and riding at Rancho Oso, in the foothills and river valleys of Los Padres National Forest. Inland California proved every bit as beautiful as the coast, as we rode among flowery meadows and groves of oak, silver willows and cottonwood trees.

From there on, I have to draw a misty veil over the rest of the trip. Our final highlight was to have been a drive along the dramatic Big Sur coast towards San Francisco, but just north of San Simeon the blue skies faded and we were plunged into thick, chilly California coastal fog. At points we could just make out a grey rocky shoreline, and the odd driftwood skeleton. But for most of its length, one of the world's most spectacular drives was more like an eerie scene from a Hitchcock film.

Getting there

The flights were the most expensive part of the trip. We bought ours (Virgin Atlantic) as a fly-drive package through Trailfinders (020 7368 1200; ), which had the cheapest direct flights at the time we travelled. Currently it has fly-drive options from £599 per person for a family or group of four, including flights to Los Angeles, returning from San Francisco, and 10 days’ car hire. Valid for travel in September 2012; book by March 27. Petrol, of course, is much cheaper in the US than in the UK.

Hotels on the California coast are not cheap in midsummer, but the Joie de Vivre group ( ), which has some great, stylish properties across California and beyond, has regular reductions of 25 per cent on selected properties on its website. We stayed at the Shorebreak in Huntington Beach (double rooms from about £142 a night) and, in San Francisco, at the Japanese-style Kabuki Hotel (double rooms from about £106).

 In Santa Monica we stayed at the Oceana ( ), a delightful, stylish and friendly boutique hotel just across the Pacific Highway from the beach; from about £248 a night for a courtyard-view room with two double beds (which can sleep a family of four), including bike hire; breakfast extra. Check the website for late offers.

Our Santa Barbara base was a two-bedroom cottage at the Cheshire Cat Inn b &  b ( ). This was a bit frillier than the other hotels, but was within walking distance of shops and museums and had free parking. From about £182 a night for a two-bedroom cottage, including breakfast in the lovely garden.


 Huntington Beach: surf lesson and bike hire (; Segway tour ( ); paddle-boarding lessons ( ).

Santa Monica:bike hire from perrys; tour of movie stars’ homes (starline; Getty Center ( ); Six Flags Magic Mountain ( ).

Santa Barbara: Rancho Oso horseback trail ( ); Santa Barbara kayak tours ( ).

More information (for Huntington Beach); ; .