For summer vacation memories that last a lifetime, nothing beats the classic family roadtrip.  Mine was California Dreaming straight out of a song – a fabulous drive from San Francisco to Hermosa Beach in Southern California, with my husband and three kids.  The fun, the bonding, exploring new things, being together morning, noon and night, and loving it – is true family enrichment.

Our Orlando family roadtrip began with a flight to San Francisco, where we spent two terrific nights at the Omni (see sidebar) and took in some great sightseeing too.  In fact my kids, ages eleven, nine and seven, insisted we spent an entire day riding the city’s famous cable cars up and down amazingly steep hills – it’s a great way to get an overview of the “City by the Bay” and so easy to hop on and off whenever something interesting, or hunger pangs, strikes your family’s fancy.  

Some of the city’s most popular haunts, like Ghiradelli Chocolate Factory, Fisherman’s Wharf, Lombard Street, Haight-Ashbury, and Exploratorium are easy to reach by mass transportation and the getting there is half the fun!  America’s most notorious former prison, the rocky island of Alcatraz, lies just offshore in the bay and is one of the very busiest tourism draws in San Francisco.  A word of advice – purchase your family’s ferry tickets at least a week in advance.  All tours were sold out the day we went.

One of the highlights of our entire vacation was a family bicycle ride over the Golden Gate Bridge. Despite assurances from the bike rental shop that kids cycle in San Francisco all the time, the steep hills approaching the bridge were a real challenge for my nine-year old, who required quite a lot of extra encouragement along the way.  When we reached the massive bridge, half shrouded in dense fog, my husband and I had serious reservations – the wind was ferocious and the traffic alarmingly close and loud.  The roiling waters of the bay beneath our wheels, cross currents making fierce eddies and waves, were a menacing sight when we looked down, too.  The only way was ahead.

We rode carefully, single file along the designated path, and even stopped to take a few pictures to record the family adventure. Adrenaline pumping, we made it over the landmark bridge, exhausted but exhilarated at our group accomplishment.  

Since safety always comes first, we all walked our bikes across the busiest roads after making it to the other side of the Golden Gate, and pedaled onward to Sausalito for a snack and a well-earned break.  Despite our Alcatraz debacle, we got our ferry ride in anyway on the way home.  We joined the crazy confetti of hundreds of bikes parked onboard the ferry and were treated to an unexpected bird’s eye tour of waterfront sites, stopping at Tiburon, and cruising past ”The Rock,” Alcatraz, and on into San Francisco’s scenic harbor.

Our roadtrip plan was to meander our way down the coast to our home exchange in Hermosa Beach, a beautiful town on the Pacific Ocean straight out of a Beach Boys song.  I recommend taking the Pacific Coast Highway rather than the quick and direct, if joyless, freeway route.  If you want to see the real California, the surf and sunsets that postcards are made of, PCH is the only way to go.  

I make my 11-year-old my co-pilot, putting together all the electronic gear for his younger siblings.  With I-Pods, movies and Nintendo queued up in our minivan, along with some toys, books and puzzles, the kids had plenty to occupy themselves as the miles rolled by.  But best of all were the time we spent in conversation, unplugging from our regular schedules.

Being flexible is a big part of a family roadtrip’s success:  if an attraction is closed, a backup plan should be easily put in place.  Case in point – San  Francisco’s Exploratorium was on our to-do list, but is closed Monday, so we packed up and headed to Monterey instead for our next adventure.  

We chose to see the Monterey Bay Aquarium, named #1 aquarium in the U.S. by both Parents Magazine and Zagat Survey.  After paying a small fortune, we entered a sea odyssey.  An eye-popping million-gallon tank Outer Bay exhibit offers an up-close look at giant turtles and fish, and there is an entire floor dedicated to very young children, with tide pools and touch tanks.  It is a beautiful facility to be sure, but there really was not enough there to hold the attention of my two oldest kids for long.  It’s probably best for preschool or elementary school age kids.

Moving southward, breaks to stretch our legs were an important part of the journey.  We stopped at Ragged Point, a stunning setting out on a bluff at the tip of Big Sur, and also at the little town of Carmel.

Our next stop, Carpinteria, boats a beach that has been rated by Dr. Beach For Kids as one of the top 10 beaches for children.  The quality of the sand and the shallow water that extends far out into the ocean makes playtime lots of fun for little ones.  Our hotel in Carpinteria, the Holiday Inn Express, fit the bill perfectly.  Two queen beds and a pull-out sofa bed meant a comfortable sleep for all five of us, and the pool and continental breakfast refreshed and sent us on our way.  The manager knew the area well and has kids of his own so he was able to give us useful tips on where to go and what to see.

From Carpinteria we continued straight to Hermosa Beach to begin the house swap portion of our vacation, a bit bittersweet since the roadtrip portion had ended.  Looking back on our family roadtrip, the journey was so enriching, it was as much a part of the whole vacation experience as the destinations.  The chance to decompress from everyday life and see and do things together as a family was priceless.  

Before this adventure, I was resolutely roadtrip-phobic.  I thought that mothers who would undertake such a thing were crazy, gluttons for hours of punishment, whiny kids and frustrated husbands.  I thought any enjoyment to be derived was just some strange quaint Leave It To Beaver fantasy in a wood-paneled station wagon.  

What an eye-opener our roadtrip was.  I went from wanting no part of a roadtrip to taking three of them within two months:  our California trip, Kentucky to Chicago (and back), and Kentucky to Connecticut.  Some things are family classics for a reason.  I highly recommend roadtrips to all traveling moms and look forward to more in the future.