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Family Holidays in California

The fun begins the moment you board a cable car in San Francisco, whirring and clanking its way up and down the city’s slow-motion roller coaster of streets; the two-man teams working the brakes, traffic weaving around you as skyscrapers frame tantalizing views of the Bay. ‘Frisco is a great place to spend a few days with kids, but sooner or later you’ll feel the need for some good old California cruisin’. Two of the most exciting options are the Pacific Coast Highway – an ocean odyssey that will transform your kids into beach connoisseurs – and the inland Sierra Nevada route, which reaches its peak, both spiritually and physically, at Yosemite National Park.

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Half Dome is one of the most celebrated icons of America’s Great Outdoors. A glacier-scalped mountain in the Sierra Nevada of Yosemite National Park it can be climbed by anyone prepared to hike for 27km and use cables to haul themselves up the final very steep section. Needless to say, most families will set their sights lower. Sentinel Bridge, a short stroll from Valley Visitor Centre, offers a classic view of Half Dome, while paved trails to Mirror Lake, Lower Yosemite Falls and Bridalveil Falls are also easy – although remember that waterfalls in Yosemite usually run dry by August. Keep your eyes and ears open for mule deer, squirrels and blue jays and try to visit one of the park’s giant redwood groves.

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Long road journeys and family travel are not always easy partners, but if there’s one drive guaranteed to banish boredom, this is it. It doesn’t matter which direction you drive California State Route 1, you will have a spectacular ocean view most of the way. Hugging the Pacific coastline from Leggett in the north to San Juan Capistrano in the south, the entire route covers nearly 900 km. However, unless you plan to tack on visits to Legoland in Carlsbad and Disneyland in Anaheim, you would be wise to skip the southernmost part of the drive, avoiding LA’s congestion, and start or finish at Santa Monica (which has the added incentive of a glorious beach). Allow at least three days to complete the drive, stopping wherever a beach or viewpoint takes your fancy. Don’t pass Monterey without visiting the mesmerizing Monterey Bay Aquarium with its towering three-storey kelp forest display, sea otter habitat, jellyfish exhibit and gargantuan 3.8-million-litre Outer Bay tank – home to sharks, turtles, giant tuna and barracuda. Another must-do, Monterey Bay Whale Watch offers three- to five-hour boat trips in search of the region’s outstanding marine life. Orcas, sea lions, sea otters, harbour seals and no less than six species of dolphins are seen year-round; grey whales are present from mid-December through April, while humpback and blue whales arrive to feed during the summer and autumn.

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A ride on a cable car is an essential San Francisco experience. The best route is Powell-Hyde, which begins at the Powell/Market turntable and ends near Fisherman’s Wharf. On the way you can hop off at Union Square (where you’ll find shops ranging from Macy’s to Disney) and Lombard Street – America’s most bendy, with no less than eight hairpin turns.

Try to allow a full day at Fisherman’s Wharf. Fortunately, the Powell-Hyde cable car stops at the opposite end to Pier 39 so you’ll be able to enjoy the waterfront’s many and varied attractions before your kids are lured like zombies into the vast Riptide Arcade. The first must-see is the San Francisco Maritime Historic Park where you can stand at the helm of the 1886 three-masted square-rigger, Balclutha, and board a variety of other old-timer boats ranging from schooners to tugboats. Servicing a 300-strong fishing fleet, Pier 45 is dominated by seafood-processing plants, but it’s also the mooring for two Second World War vessels – the SS Jeremiah O’Brien Liberty ship and the USS Pampanito submarine.

Have a quick peep at the busy bakers in Boudin Sourdough Bakery, grab a lunchtime snack of freshly steamed Dungeness crab from a kerbside stand, then book a sightseeing cruise with Blue & Gold Fleet at the kiosk near Pier 39. The one-hour trip features both of San Francisco Bay’s classic landmarks. First you’ll cruise right under Golden Gate Bridge (with onboard commentary from Captain Nemo recounting yarns about everything from bolt riveters and humpback whales to the devastating earthquake and firestorm of 1906). Then you’ll circle Alcatraz Island. If you want to go ashore and tour the infamous federal penitentiary, you need to book with Alcatraz Cruises. The Walk-in Prison Experience, suitable for ages eight and above, takes you behind bars to where prisoners ate, slept, exercised, or did solitary time in the notorious Hole. Alcatraz Kidz Tourz offers family programmes.

Back at Fisherman’s Wharf, the Californian sea lions at Pier 39 are free to come and go as they please – however, numbers reach a winter high of around 900. In addition to 110 shops and 13 restaurants, Pier 39 is home to the excellent Aquarium of the Bay where you can see medium-sized sharks in a 92m-long walk-through tunnel, stroke small ones in a touch pool and see what a very large one (a great white) can do to a surfboard.

On the subject of marine hazards, do not be tempted to swim or wade at Ocean Beach on the west side of San Francisco – the surf and currents are too dangerous. You’re far safer at Crissy Field, a recreational park on the Bay side of Golden Gate Bridge with a sheltered beach and great views. The nearby Exploratorium invites hands-on science investigation.

Family-friendly places to stay in California


Accommodation in Yosemite ranges from the upmarket Ahwahnee Hotel to the more basic High Sierra Camps (accessible only by foot or on horseback). Yosemite Lodge at the Falls is a good mid-range option, with 249 rooms. Numerous activities are available, from cycling, rafting and horse riding to cross-country skiing.

California-Yosemite lodge


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William Gray, the editor of Family Travel Expert, has written a series of award-winning family travel guidebooks. Find out more about family holidays in USA by ordering your copy of Travel with Kids here.