A family trip around the World – Los Angeles

I was on the last leg of a Round-the-World trip with my family. Having spent the last 2 weeks touring Australia, visiting Melbourne, Port Douglas and Sydney with my parents, brother and sister-in-law, we were now catching a very long flight to the USA where, with the time difference, we were all amused to be landing at LAX two hours before we had taken off in Sydney!

An evening stroll by the beach

Exhausted and jet-lagged, we could have done without the usual long queues at LAX. Once through passport control and customs, we caught a taxi to our Santa Monica motel where we’d be staying the next 4 nights. Trying hard to stay awake that afternoon, we took at walk down to the beach then along Third Street Promenade where we called into a sports bar to grab some food. Back by the beach, the pier now lit up, we struggled to keep our eyes open so decided to head back to our rooms to relax and have an early night.

The next day, feeling refreshed and a bit more awake, we walked to a local cafe to grab bagels for breakfast.

Passing a Beverly Hills shield on the hop on/off tour bus

With the new Santa Monica metro line yet to be opened at the time and LA’s transport system appearing a bit too complicated for my parents at least to manage, we decided to use the hop on/off bus to get us around the city. Buying a 48-hour ticket, we boarded the yellow route open air bus across the road from Santa Monica Pier and sat back to enjoy the commentary as we headed towards Beverly Hills.

In Beverly Hills!

Disembarking at the Rodeo Drive stop, we wandered across the road to Beverly Hills Park, taking pictures with the large Beverly Hills sign and buying lemonade to cool us down from a stand set up by some local girl scouts. We then took a stroll down Rodeo Drive itself, window shopping but not being brave enough to actually enter any of the designer stores lining the road.

After grabbing ice cream from a local parlour, we returned to the bus stop to await the red route bus which would take us to Hollywood.

Above, passing an art installation outside LACMA, and below, spending the day in Hollywood

As we neared Hollywood and the famous Hollywood sign came into view, my family were very excited but that excitement faded slightly when we jumped off the bus at the Pantages Theatre, at the slightly run down end of Hollywood Boulevard! Despite Hollywood Boulevard’s first impression not living up to the idea they had in their head, their enthusiasm soon returned as we walked towards the Hollywood Highland Centre and they soon got into the swing of things shouting out names of celebrities as they passed their Hollywood Stars!

Back in Santa Monica

Lunch was at Mel’s Drive In, a 50s style diner where everyone was impressed by the portion sizes and then it was back to sightseeing as we took the obligatory photos on the “Oscars’ steps” at the Dolby Theatre and compared the size of our hands and feet to Hollywood stars outside the Chinese Theatre. To get back to Santa Monica, we had to catch the red route bus back to Beverly Hills then transfer back to the yellow route bus to complete the journey.

It took almost 2 hours to get back with the rush hour traffic but at least we had the commentary to keep us amused along the way.

Back in Santa Monica, we spent the evening down on the pier. Still full from our late lunch, we grabbed fast food from the pier then shared a funnel cake drowned in chocolate sauce for dessert. We ended our day taking a ride on the ferris wheel.

With nothing really planned for our second day in LA, we decided to make the most of our still valid hop on/off bus tickets and head back to Hollywood.

Back on Hollywood Boulevard

When we reached Beverly Hills, my brother and sister-in-law decided to stick around a bit to explore more while my parents and I hopped straight on to the next Hollywood bound bus. Having to listen to the bus commentary again was a bit tedious but at least it was a hassle free way to get to Hollywood Boulevard. Once there, we hopped off at the Hollywood Highland centre grabbing a mid-morning cupcake snack from one of the stands there.

Eating a huge cupcake!

Our hop on/off bus tickets came with free tickets for Madame Tussauds Wax Museum and with temperatures soaring that day, we decided to take advantage of these purely to get out of the sun and into some aircon for a bit! While I’d never pay full price to go to Madame Tussauds, it did turn out to be a fun way to spend and hour as we posed with wax statues of various celebrities.

After grabbing a sandwich from a nearby cafe, we decided to do a Star Homes Tour. With so many companies offering these tours, it’s difficult to know which one to go with and as we started to look along the boulevard, we began to be approached by the various companies each trying to get us to book with them. Playing them off against each other we managed to haggle some money off a tour leaving soon.

While I’m sceptical of whether the houses pointed out along the way on this kind of tour actually do belong to the said celebrities, it’s a great way to see the Hollywood and Beverly Hills and some of the huge mansions.

Most of the tours also make a stop along Mullholland Drive at a Hollywood overlook too and this tour was no exception.

Back on Hollywood Boulevard

Back on Hollywood Boulevard, we grabbed ice cream and met up with my brother and sister-in-law who had now also made it into Hollywood. As we sat back on the open top bus heading back to Santa Monica, they filled us in on their adventures that day – walking from Rodeo Drive up into the Hollywood Hills to see some of the mansions and the hiking from Hollywood Boulevard up towards the Hollywood sign to get a closer view!

That evening we all went for a stroll along Third Street Promenade then for dinner at the California Pizza Kitchen, planning how to spend out final full day in LA and the last full day of our entire 3-week trip.

On Santa Monica beach

Deciding to stay local for the last day of our trip, we headed to the beach the next morning. We soon found we were ill-prepared for the scorching sun on a beach with little to no shade, the sand too hot to walk on, never mind sit on for long, even with a beach towel beneath us.

We took to the ocean to cool down having fun in the waves on a body board gifted to us from some departing holiday makers no longer in need of it but after lunch, decided we couldn’t take sitting in the sun anymore and made other plans for the afternoon.

Venice Beach

My brother, sister-in-law and I decided to hire bikes and take a leisurely cycle to Venice Beach and back while my parents decided to walk there, asking me how they’d know once they’d reached their. “Oh, you’ll know!” I replied. Having been to Venice Beach on a previous trip to LA, I knew the eclectic beach city couldn’t be more different from Santa Monica.

We enjoyed our bike ride along the cycle path, stopping drinks at a beach bar half way then for ice cream at Cold Stone Creamery in Venice before cycling back again. My brother and sister-in-law both liked Venice, comparing it to the London borough of Camden “but by the sea”, and analogy also used by my parents once they’d arrived back from their stroll.

For the first time all week, we were back in Santa Monica in time to watch the sun go down so after returning to our motel for a bit to cool down and freshen up, we walked to the pier to find a spot to watch the sun set over the Santa Monica hills.

That evening, we took one final stroll along Third Street Promenade, everyone more subdued than usual as we contemplated our amazing three-week adventure coming to an end. We enjoyed one final holiday meal out together at Barney’s Beanery before strolling back to our motel.

The next day, after a pancake breakfast at Denny’s, we just about had time for a final stroll along the pier before catching a taxi back to LAX ready to fly back to the UK.

It had been an epic trip, making memories we all knew we’d be talking about for many years to come.

Orange County, CA: Spending the Fourth of July in the USA

As American Independence Day approaches, I thought it a good time to look back at my own experience of spending the 4th of July in the USA.

After booking a coast to coast tour of the USA finishing in Los Angeles at the very end of June, it seemed like the perfect excuse to stay a few extra days in order to experience the 4th of July celebrations in the USA. Seeing as I would be travelling alone, I wanted somewhere that would have plenty going on, preferably including a parade and fireworks.

I couldn’t find much information about things going on in Los Angeles itself other than an event at Hollywood Bowl, so I started to look elsewhere, researching the best places to spend the American holiday.

Eventually, I settled on the city of Huntington Beach, Orange County, just a couple of hours south of LA which seemed to have plenty going on over the holiday weekend.

Having decided where I wanted to spend the holiday, there were still a few hurdles to overcome. First of all, how to reach my destination without a car and secondly, where to stay seeing as even early on, hotels were either pretty booked out or had hiked prices to way out of my budget.

Walking towards the party.

I would be staying at an AirBnB in Hollywood at the end of my tour, the first time I had used the service so I was unsure of how it would go but with hotel prices in Huntington Beach being so high, I decided that maybe this would be the best option, the only other affordable one really being a room at a Best Western a few miles out. In Hollywood, I would have my own private bedsit just off Hollywood Boulevard but I was struggling again to find anything similar in my price range for those dates in Huntington Beach so instead, I decided to look at people offering private rooms within their homes. After narrowing my search down, I eventually settled on staying with a retired teacher who lived in a gated community on the south edge of town, from where it was a 5-10 minute walk to the beach and a half hour walk along the board walk to the main part of the city. Having mentioned in my email that I had chosen Huntington Beach because I was looking for a traditional Fourth of July experience and had heard they had a parade and fireworks, my host told me that all the residences in the gated community held a party around the pool in the afternoon which I was welcome to attend while staying with her. An American pool party and BBQ?! – this completely sold it to me that this was the right choice of places to stay!

Families set up on the beach

So with my accommodation sorted, I continued to look into transport options. While it would be less than an hour’s drive there, public transport wise, there were very few options available. Or at least, no straight forward ones as they all involved taking multiple subways and buses, not ideal when lugging a huge suitcase and bag along!

I eventually decided to get the FlyAway bus from Hollywood to LAX then a shared shuttle service straight to the door of my AirBnB accommodation, a bit pricier but worth it to save a lot of time and effort.

Star-spangled bicycles

Everything ran according to plan and after leaving Hollywood, I arrived in Huntington Beach early afternoon on July 3rd. After meeting my AirBnB host and settling into my room, I took a walk down to the beach and into town. It was already busy and buzzing with an atmosphere of excitement.

Bikes on the boardwalk

Bikes decked out with American flags raced past along the boardwalk all honking their horns, ringing their bells and trailing red, white and blue ribbons. Crowds on the beach regularly broke out into chants of U-S-A, U-S-A, getting louder and louder as more and more people across the beach heard and joined in with them before they petered out again.

A walk along the pier

As I neared the Huntington Beach Pier, the beach got more crowded. From the Pier, I could see that a surfing competition was being held. Surfers rode the huge waves, scoreboards awarded them points, crowds cheered, TV cameras rolled. Surfing is a huge deal here, even earning Huntington Beach the nickname ‘Surf City’.

Flags decorating the pier

I stood and watched for a while before making my way along the pier through the crowds, taking in the atmosphere, browsing in the gift stores and stopping to take in the beautiful views along the coast.

At the market
A stroll along Main Street

Carrying on into town, I came across an outdoor market also set up for the Fourth of July weekend. I weaved my way around stopping to buy a corn on the cob from one of the stalls before walking away the from the beachfront to find Main Street. This is the liveliest street in Huntington Beach with its restaurants, bars and shops and it would also be the site of tomorrow’s parade.

Having checked out where I would need to head to in the morning, and after grabbing an ice cream!, I returned to the beach and began a slow walk back to my accommodation continuing to drink in the atmosphere around me.

Home decorations

The next day, I was greeted by my host with a ‘Happy Fourth’, the house decorated with red, white and blue decorations. After grabbing some breakfast, I headed back into town ready to watch the big parade.

Crowds find a spot to watch the parade

Main Street was already extremely busy as everyone tried to grab a spot along the pavement. It was possible to book spaces on the bleachers for a price but as I was by myself, I figured it would be easy enough to squeeze in somewhere and sure enough, I soon found a spot right by a stone bollard to perch on when my feet became tired!

While the main parade wasn’t due to start for another 40 minutes, many of the decorated bikes I had witnessed riding back and forth along the boardwalk yesterday were now parading up and down Main Street in a pre-parade ritual. Eventually, they were cleared to make way for the main event.

Walking down Main St after the parade

As the parade began, so did the hollering and the flag waving, the patriotic cheers barely letting up as a seemingly never-ending line of marching bands, highly decorated floats and well-trained horses drifted past and getting noticeably louder at the sight of heroic firefighters and members of the armed forces. It was hard not to get caught up in the excitement and goodwill.

Brunch!
A 4th of July paddle in the ocean

As the parade began to come to an end, I ducked out early to beat the crowds and go and grab brunch at the IHOP then I made my way back along the boardwalk and to my accommodation. The earlier cloud had now cleared to be replaced with glorious sunshine – perfect weather for a pool party.

Getting the party food ready

Everyone was really welcoming and it was great to experience an authentic typically American 4th of July celebration complete with hot dogs, burgers and home made potato salad!

Relaxing by the pool

That evening, I was already planning on heading to the beach to watch the fireworks but was invited by my AirBnb host to go with her and some friends rather than watch them alone. The beach was even busier than it had been during the day with everyone continuing their parties, singing the national anthem and once again breaking out into regular chants of “U-S-A!”

When the fireworks started they were breath-taking. Probably the most spectacular- and definitely the longest – display I have ever seen and, unlike in the UK where they’re greeted with traditional ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’, they were greeted with rapturous cheers and applause.

Fireworks over, we packed away our blankets, food and drinks and returned home. I still had a few days left to spend in the OC before flying back to the UK but there was no way they were going to top today. Spending a traditional Fourth of July stateside had been an amazing experience and one I would definitely recommend!

Watch my vlog of my Fourth of July USA experience here:

Trek America Northern BLT Days 20-21: California Coast

The end of the tour

Santa Cruz Boardwalk

It was the last full day of our trip and after beginning the day with a walk across the Golden Gate Bridge, we started to make our way down the California coast towards our final destination of Los Angeles. Too far to travel in a day, we would be spending the night at a motel around the half way point in the city of San Luis Obispo and today’s drive would include plenty of stop offs along the way at various view points along the famous Pacific Coast Highway.

The Haunted House on Santa Cruz Boardwalk

Our first stop was for lunch at an In-N-Out Burger, a fast food chain which mainly exists in California and had been requested by some group members. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what all the fuss was about!

Santa Cruz Beach

After we’d all eaten, we continued on to our main stop of the day at Santa Cruz Boardwalk. This was a really fun stop off and although we didn’t have time to queue for some of the bigger rides, some of us did have lots fun trying out the spooky walk-through Haunted House before spending the rest of our time in the many souvenir stores, amusement arcades and on the beautiful, sandy beach.

View from Santa Cruz Pier

Before leaving we all indulged in some of the many unhealthy snacks on offer – huge Texas doughnuts, funnel cake and various other fried or sugar-filled treats!

From Santa Cruz, we continued our drive down PCH stopping at various breathtakingly-pretty overlooks along the rugged Big Sur coastline.

Elephant seals

Our final stop before we reached San Luis Obispo was to see the Elephant Seals at a beach in San Simeon.

Once at our motel and settled in, it was off into San Luis Obispo town for dinner at a local BBQ/diner before returning to our motel for last night drinks.

Santa Barbara

Our adventure wasn’t over just yet and we began the final day of the tour with a stop at the upmarket coastal city of Santa Barbara. Here we spent some time walking along the pier, souvenir shopping and enjoying the views.

Santa Monica Beach

Continuing on to Los Angeles, we avoided the city itself and instead stopped at the beach city of Santa Monica, one of my favourite places in LA. After taking a walk along the beach and yet another pier, a group of us headed inland to Third Street Promenade for some last minute shopping.

Santa Monica Pier
Venice Beach

Short on time with some of the group having evening flights to make, our original plan to walk from Santa Monica to Venice had to be abandoned and instead we hopped back on the bus to be driven the short distance along the coast.

Venice is always a fun place to visit with it’s quirky shops and stalls lining the boardwalk, fun to watch street performers and the always busy skate park where skateboarded impress onlookers with an array of stunts. We maybe didn’t enjoy or make the most of our visit as much as we should have as the impending goodbyes at the end of our tour loomed over us and we all sat in silence on the van as we left the beach cities behind to make our way to the gateway hotel near LAX airport.

Once there, the tears soon started as the first few group members started to drift away, some making their way to the airport for flights home, some, like myself, off to hotels or AirBnBs elsewhere in the city while others were remaining at the gateway hotel for another night before going home or starting another tour through the Southern states. It had been one of those groups that just really gelled from the outset. We’d all had the time of our lives travelling together across the country and were devastated it was now over but at the same time immensely happy that it had happened to start with and we’d all be leaving with amazing memories to last a lifetime!