For a kid’s vacation, the Shore is traditional, the Poconos worthwhile.
But to become well-rounded, a 13-year-old must light out for the territory and take a real adult journey — with jet planes, a crowded itinerary, and a new geography to behold.
For my daughter’s maiden voyage, we chose California, shining and glorious out on the American edge, glowing with what Jack Kerouac described as “fields the color of love and Spanish mysteries.”
My wife, Andrea, and I envisioned rolling with Mariela from Los Angeles to San Francisco, a grand but admittedly cliched sojourn. Our car would go ho-humming along with so many like-minded others on the Pacific Coast Highway, my girl’s father and stepmother breathlessly pointing out dolphins in the Pacific Ocean blue-blurring on the left.
The trip might not have been original, but I never said I was Magellan. I’m just a dad laying a foundation for a young woman’s travel education.
If she wants Marrakesh, she’ll have to get there in her own time.
The hard-bounce jolt of a plane touching down on a destination runway is among life’s sweeter sensations. Once in L.A., we bounded excitedly down the Jetway only to discover our big, blue suitcase torn, stained, and looking burnt as this morning’s toast, with its plastic handle melted.
Had the plane caught fire while we dozed over Kansas?
No, an American Airlines employee at LAX said. The bag had likely cooked on top of heated machinery on a conveyor belt either in Philly or L.A. Our clothes were unscathed.
I was ready to launch into an epic rant about the ever-degrading passenger experience when the employee mysteriously motioned for me to follow her into some back-of-a-supply-closet Narnia, where — insert angelic heralding here — cabinets filled with red, hard-shell rolling suitcases still with price tags lined the walls. “Pick one,” she whispered conspiratorially, and, like a hotel guest with a room upgrade, I cackled and complied.
Bad omen overcome! Vacation on track!
A short drive got us to the Hancock Park neighborhood, where our two-bedroom Airbnb was perfumed with a smell that was neither pleasant nor totally repugnant. We decided not to complain, though, riding the red-case karma a little longer.
The next day, we hit Universal Studios for the tour. Oh, don’t be a snob about it — the place is fun, but expensive ($105 each). We had Ed Sheeran singing over the sound system while Wolfgang Puck and IT’SUGAR vied for our disposable income.
If jazz is the true American art form, can disaster and chase movies be far behind? Here is an amalgam of U.S. ingenuity, engineering know-how, and testosteronic filmmaking prowess. The studio tour exposes visitors to, among other things, a rollicking earthquake and a kinetic shootout with The Fast and the Furious actors. Big fun, man! Hey, if movies don’t rule, why do you have a Netflix account?
With a nod to my daughter’s nascent bucket list, we also hit the “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey” ride. Thrills and chills for sure, but constant motion flying through the London night sky got me ill and irritated. I was already peeved at author J.K. Rowling for squeezing a bit more money than I have done out of the writing business. I may never speak to her after this.
We spent the next morning on a star tour, originating on Hollywood Boulevard. A colleague had warned that the place is nothing more than East Market Street studded with sidewalk stars. To me, that’s an insult to East Market Street.
Luckily, we headed for the cooler Hollywood Hills. I can report that Robert De Niro, Katy Perry, and Sylvester Stallone are all doing pretty well, judging by the high walls they’ve built to keep out the lower castes.
Bel Air has no sidewalks, to prevent the unwashed and the gloriously pristine from ever meeting.
I was puzzled by all the food trucks there until the tour-bus guy said they feed landscapers and paparazzi, all plying their trades in milk-and-honey land.
That evening, we tried one of the famous Roscoe’s Chicken & Waffles soul-food chain restaurants. Though Mariela was pleased that former President Barack Obama had eaten there, the slightly-better-than-Acme fried chicken wasn’t worth the $81 we dropped.
Afterward, we hit Santa Monica. I’d been there years before, covering the Million-Pound March, an audacious political act in which women weighing 250 pounds and more had gathered to chant, “Fat is sexy!” at a beach where the American beauty ideal — the radiant, bikini-clad California girl — was born.
I tried to create a teachable moment for my daughter about the superficiality of appearances and a person’s true worth, but I fumbled it, and we all wound up eating ice cream.
In the morning, we visited the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum for a little knowledge — Brussels sprouts for the brain after all that sugared-up fun. At the Ice Age fossil excavation site, we heard about an ancestor known as Los Angeles Man, his name conjuring images of loin-clothed Charlie Sheens clutching cellphones and cigarettes as they fled charging saber-toothed tigers. We learned a lot.
On we went to Santa Barbara, where we checked into a stylized motel that Andrea found, the Agave Inn, with Southwestern colors and funky paintings. Andrea took a walk out onto the pier at night over the inky black ocean, with nothing out there but sharks and Japan.
Santa Barbara is loaded with restaurants, boutiques, and a smug prosperity. Really, how long can you hang in a place where baristas carry themselves as though they learned to create these foam leaves in lattes at the Sorbonne? We booked north for Cambria.
There, at Moonstone Landing, we spied the wild Pacific from a stark and fancy room with a bathroom the size of Hoboken. It was cold as we munched grapes and wished for whales that never came.
In the morning, we motored up to nearby Hearst Castle, the famous house on a hill once inhabited by a newspaper titan and his mistress. The place is emblematic of two intense human preoccupations: capitalism and adultery. Standing in the home of a womanizing, megalomaniacal narcissist who disastrously inserted himself into civic affairs was a new one on me, stumped as I was to imagine a modern-day equivalent.
A rockslide prevented us from driving the whole way up Route 1. Like wildfires and earthquakes, crumbling mountains are among the penalties Californians pay for getting to live in paradise. We detoured before arriving at Pacific Grove, outside Monterey.
The homemade rigatoni at Vito’s restaurant in Pacific Grove was a revelation, and I nearly wept when it was time to go.
Wildly overcrowded, Monterey is a gorgeous but difficult destination. You’d think John Steinbeck would scold folks for the Cannery Row candy emporiums and the high-priced ($50 each!) admission to Monterey Bay Aquarium, where a monkeyface eel gave me the stink eye. Scary.
Ready for our finale, we drove up to San Francisco. Andrea booked us into a dynamite Airbnb studio on Eureka Street in the Castro District, halfway up a foggy hill.
We walked to dinner at Starbelly, a California comfort-food emporium that cooked me maybe the best burger I ever ate. To get there, we passed like immigrants beneath the giant rainbow flag that announces the Castro as a sovereign gay nation. I told Mariela as much as I could about civil rights and bigotry, but I fumbled that one, too, and we wound up eating ice cream yet again.
The cool weather and outrageous geography knocked my daughter out, as she contemplated the impossibly steep hills descending into the great blue bay. We hit typical tourist spots: Ferry Building Market Place, the Embarcadero, Nanking restaurant in Chinatown. Then it was up to Muir Woods to contemplate nature with what seemed like the entire population of Fresno.
On our last full day, we drove over to Palo Alto so Mariela could see Stanford University. It’s a school, she announced, that she’d like to attend in five years.
I didn’t take that too well, her wanting a continent between us. She’s still young to consider college, and I asked her whether she liked Stanford because the lead female character in the movie High School Musical — a Latina like my daughter, who was born in Guatemala — went there. Or was there another reason?
“I don’t know,” she said, and it brought me back to Kerouac. Spanish mysteries, indeed.
The rest of the time went quickly, and too soon we were back in the Philly airport parking lot, staring at a flat tire.
In the time between finding destroyed luggage and a slightly damaged car, we managed to pull off a decent trip. Whether it broadened my daughter, I cannot say.
But that’s parenting. You don’t know until you know; what will be will be.
That was Doris Day, right? Or was it the guys from The Fast and the Furious?