How the West was won

Issue 1 · Winter 2014/15

Thanks to the movies, there’s a bit of California in all of us – so Tony Turnbull took his family on a blockbuster road trip

Issue 1 · Winter 2014/15

Thanks to the movies, there’s a bit of California in all of us – so Tony Turnbull took his family on a blockbuster road trip

The Carmel Valley Ranch Hotel

Tony Turnbull's daughter enjoying a chocolate milkshake

The mileage is almost irrelevant, so let’s focus on the clock. When we pulled up at Los Angeles airport after our 14-day trip around California, the car computer told us we had spent 51 hours on the road. Fifty-one hours and 47 minutes to be precise. That’s nearly four hours a day, cooped up inside a metal box with three children. If that isn’t a recipe for family strife, I don’t know what is. Normally we can’t travel to the end of the street without an argument breaking out, yet for all of us, this had been the trip of a lifetime. 

It can be hard, in those post-bucket and spade teenage years, to find the perfect trip, especially as, in our case, there’s an eight-year-old to keep happy too. Ruthlessly judgmental, pre-wired to indolence, bored by imposed bouts of culture and permanently embarrassed by their parents, the teen travel tribe can be a tough crowd. So how had we managed to drive from Las Vegas, up to Yosemite National Park, across to San Francisco and down the coast to LA, with barely a cross word? 

There’s the hardware, of course. American cars are big, ruthlessly air conditioned and with plenty of space for everyone. And the roads are mainly empty, meaning plenty of cruise control and less cursing from the driver’s seat. Mainly, though, it’s down to the unfailing allure of America, and California in particular. The scenery itself is just so massive, so awe-inspiring, that even the most sulky of teenagers would be shocked out of their self-centredness. You cannot help but be moved when you see the heat shimmering off the frying-pan floor of Death Valley with the snow-capped peaks of Mount Whitney and the Sierra Nevada in the distance. Who doesn’t look down on the natural beauty of thickly wooded Yosemite valley, with its huge granite cliff-faces and tumbling waterfalls and understand why the first settlers thought they had found Eden? 

Then there is the film-set familiarity which casts a particular spell on the children. It’s not just the obvious places like the switchback hills of San Francisco or the first sighting of the Hollywood sign. Even the most mundane things resonate. For eight-year-old Georgia-Rose, every food shop was like a visit to Apu’s Kwik-E-Mart; for 15-year-old Oliver the seedy motels we passed were either out of Psycho or Breaking Bad. And every diner we went into for our maple syrup pancakes and eggs over easy was like every Hollywood movie she’d ever seen for 13-year-old Isabella. The waitress, filter  “korfee” in hand, really did greet us with a cheery “How y’all doin’?” (And the traffic policeman really did say “Sir, would you step out of the car”, but that’s another story.)

Our trip had begun in Las Vegas (in Nevada, true, but an obvious add-on to the California experience). It’s like Disneyland for adults, and makes a fun place to recover from the flight for a couple of days, but the main draw for us was a helicopter ride to the Grand Canyon, which meant we could cut a long day’s excursion down to a few hours and were able to land right inside the canyon and picnic by the Colorado River. By anyone’s standards, teenage or otherwise, that’s an incredible curtain-raiser to a holiday.

The next day we drove through Death Valley, the lowest, driest, hottest, baddest place in America (the 57°C recorded in 1913 is a world record). The five-minute walk from the car park to Zabriskie viewing point, which looks out over the salt flats, is the hottest walk you’ll ever take, like walking through the world’s largest hairdryer.

In Yosemite you understand why the first settlers thought they had found eden

Although summer is peak visiting time, the 1,200 square miles of Yosemite National Park easily absorb the numbers, and we spent three idyllic days swimming in rivers and climbing waterfalls. We even summoned the energy for the Four Mile Trail , which climbs 3,200m from the valley floor to Glacier Point.

From there, it was a three-and-a-half- hour drive to San Francisco, for the start of our trip down Highway 1, which clings to the cliff’s edge for much of the 450 miles to Los Angeles. If the views of the largely unobtainable Pacific Ocean become too much, you can dive off into national parks for cooling dips in rivers and waterfalls.

The standout parts for us were: Carmel, a quaint and colourful artist colony just outside Monterey with a beautiful stretch of beach; Big Sur, the 90-mile stretch of impressive scenery down to San Simeon; the gargantuan rich man’s folly of Hearst Castle, built by the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst; watching grey whales in Morro Bay; horse riding among the dunes of Pismo Beach; clam chowder and crab cakes at the Santa Barbara Shellfish Company at the end of Stearns Wharf; and the final Technicolor thrill of the drive down into Malibu with Burt Bacharach on the radio.

Los Angeles is one of those scattergun American cities where you can drive for days and never feel you’ve really arrived, so instead we set up camp in Santa Monica for our final four days, which, to European minds, has a more definable identity. From here, we made the obligatory trip to Disneyland (for the eight-year-old) and Six Flags (the rollercoaster epicentre of the world, according to the teenagers), but mainly we were happiest lounging on the beach, gorging on more seafood at Blue Plate Oysterette overlooking Santa Monica pier, and gawping at the muscle men and assorted weirdos on neighbouring Venice Beach. It was a lot of time on the road, for sure, but as any Jack Kerouac fan will tell you, that’s where the real adventure begins.
Tony Turnbull is food and drink editor of The Times

Images: Getty Images, Gallery Stock, Corbis, National Geographic Creative

Road sign in Beverly Hills, CA

Tony Turnbull attempting to throw his son into outer space

Best of the rest: five family road trips


Tuscan Tour

Tuscany sounds like a grown-up kind of holiday, but every pit stop in these rolling hills is a medieval hill town packed with family-friendly activities. The trip begins in historic Florence at the Rocco Forte Hotel Savoy, before a drive south through the Tuscan countryside, passing impressive castles such as the fortified town of Castel Rigone. Stay at Castiglion del Bosco, a country estate made up of restored farmhouses. Here you can explore the area on horses or bikes, and enjoy pizza-making workshops, before continuing to Siena to round off the trip.

South African Cape Cruise

Fly into Cape Town and you’ll be transferred to Birkenhead House in Hermanus – a coastal home great for whale watching from July to October – where your car will be delivered. You’ll then drive down to discover Cape Town for yourselves before you carry on through to Franschhoek, stopping for a picnic in the scenic Winelands on the way. In the town, grown-ups can splash out with a meal at The Tasting Room at Le Quartier Français, one of the country’s finest restaurants. Children meanwhile can enjoy everything from a trip to the crocodile zoo or the cheetah rehabilitation centre.

Canadian ski to surf

This trip starts in Calgary and ends in Vancouver. En route you’ll turn off into Banff National Park and enjoy a stay at the stunning Moraine Lake, pass the Rocky Mountains through Glacier National Park and across Lake Revelstoke, before driving along the shores of the still Shuswap Lake in British Columbia. In cowboy country you’ll stay at the Siwash Lake Ranch, where a horse will be chosen especially for each member of the family. In the famous skiing village of Whistler, the children can let off steam with some extreme biking or zip-lining. On pretty Vancouver Island, you’ll spend a few fun days learning how to surf with lessons for all ages. Round off the trip at Hotel Georgia in the heart of Vancouver.    

Dead Sea desert drive

You’ll be allocated a driver for this incredible family adventure through the Jordanian desert, so it’s perfect for parents who want to sit back and enjoy the ride just as much as their children. It starts in Amman, where the whole family can explore the ruined Roman city of Gerasa. Then it’s on to Petra, the rose red city of stone, before taking a 4x4 out into the desert to Wadi Rum. You can arrange a family camel ride or a balloon ride before you travel to the Kempinski Hotel Ishtar on the Dead Sea. With an excellent kids’ club and nine swimming pools, it’s the perfect place to cool off.

Namibia Self-Drive Safari

Begin in the capital Windhoek, and drive north to Etosha National Park where you can choose to go it alone or use the services of an expert guide. Drive through the spectacular mountains of Damaraland to the Doro Nawas Camp, where you’ll want to look out for elephants and rhinos, and enjoy amazing views of the red sandstone cliffs of Twyfelfontein. You’ll then set off for the coastal town of Swakopmund, and the whole family can look for seals among the surrounding sand dunes. Afterwards it’s on to Sossusvlei, where you can get up early and watch the sand dunes change colour to a bright red in front of your very eyes.

Scott Dunn Suggests

Scott Dunn US expert Maudie Tomlinson gives you the lowdown on how to do it

There are a few different ways of doing this classic West Coast trip. Families usually fly into San Francisco and spend three nights there at the boutique Hotel Vitale, before driving on to the Redwoods in Yosemite, where you’ll stay in your own log cabin, nestled among the trees in the heart of the National Park. You can then head back towards the coast to the Carmel Valley Ranch, which is located between the Santa Lucia Mountains and the vineyards of Carmel, and enjoy a few days' wine tasting. Next up, spend a couple of nights at the Anderson Inn, a luxury waterfront hotel in the seaside town of Morro Bay in California, followed by a stay at the glamorous Belmond El Encanto in Santa Barbara. Built in 1915 during the golden era of Hollywood, this landmark hotel includes an infinity pool that overlooks the Pacific Ocean. Then you’ll head onwards to Santa Monica and another iconic hotel, Shutters on the Beach, before ending your trip with a bang in Las Vegas. You can drive there, or take a short flight, and a stay at the five-star Mandarin Oriental – a fittingly spectacular end to the holiday. You can even take a helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon too. If you decide to take in Death Valley – great in spring or autumn – stay at the Furnace Creek Inn, a remote hideaway open since 1927, which houses luscious palms and spring water pools. From there you can carry on to the Redwoods, and pick up the rest of the itinerary.

California Dreaming itinerary from £2,105pp for a nine-night holiday to California including flights. For more information visit 
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