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Whether you're a die hard theme park fanatic, or a real cynic, it's hard to resist a trip to a theme park when you're visiting California. With the right attitude and a sense of fun, even the most reluctant visitors can have an enjoyable day out. Prepare for hot sun, high prices and long queues and leave your cynicism at the door and we guarantee you will end the day with a smile on your face. Here is our low down of the best of the theme parks on offer.
The original Disney theme park has been drawing crowds since it first opened it's doors in 1955. Now officially known as the Disneyland Resort, it has expanded into two parks; Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure. Famous for fireworks, parades and rides, it has confidently dubbed itself 'the happiest place on earth.' And it's hard to resist the sense of fun and over the top cheeriness. There are rides for all of the family, so thrill seekers of all ages can enjoy themselves. Various ticket options are on offer, from 1 day visits to 5 day Disney extravaganzas. Many hotels in the area offer a shuttle service, so you don't have to worry about bringing the cart along.
Just down the road from Disneyland, this theme park has an Old West theme and is targeted especially at the roller-coaster loving teens and older families. The famous Silver Bullet is a suspended 'coaster with a drop of 109 feet, whilst the Ghost Rider claims to be one of the longest and tallest wooden roller coasters in the world. Cheaper than Disneyland and also smaller, this is a fun option and, like Disneyland, many Anaheim hotels can arrange a shuttle service. No fireworks, but the Western theme is fun, especially the daily Cowboy show
Movie lovers and film aficionados will not want to miss Hollywood Universal Studios. The legendary studio tour still features an encounter with Jaws, as well as some more modern films that your children will have heard of and an earthquake simulation. You can also visit the special effects stage, where you can learn all abut CGI and 3D technology. In the theme park, there are rides a plenty, including a Despicable Me ride and a 3D Transformers ride.
In terms of location, you can't get much better than the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, with stunning views of the Pacific. This traditional amusement park is home to the Big Dipper, which has thrilled over 60,000,000 riders since 1924 and Undertow, which claims to be Northern California's only spinning coaster. For younger guests, there are family rides and a good sized pirate-themed crazy golf course, complete with neon under-water section. The best time to visit the Boardwalk is in the late afternoon, early evening when the lights go on and the atmosphere is buzzing.
For many, a holiday is simply not complete without some serious beach time. With more than 1,100 miles of stunning coastline and a fantastic climate, California has plenty to offer beach lovers, from wild and secluded surf spots to sunbathing amongst celebrities near LA. As a general rule, the further north you go along the coast, the beaches become quieter and wilder, with some stunning landscape to complement the shore. (Of course beach towns and cities form an exception to this rule.) In a complete generalisation, it would be fair to say that people watchers & sun-bathers should aim for the southern coast, whilst nature lovers and beach combers should go north. Surfers can take their pick all along the coast. The beautiful, sandy beaches aren't just a draw from overseas visitors, however. Domestic tourism pulls in the majority of visitors, from both California and the rest of the US, meaning that accommodation can book out months in advance, especially during the summer holidays, so our advice is to plan ahead. Here is a summary of our favourite beaches in California.
1) Huntington Beach, Orange CountyThe self-proclaimed surf city, Huntington Beach is one of Southern California's gems, with 10 miles miles of long, sandy beaches. It is a popular spot, so can get very busy at weekends, but is a fantastic place to come and sun-bathe or try out the surf, with some of the most consistent waves along the coast. If surfing isn't your thing, then you can splash in the waves and watch the numerous games of beach volleyball along the beach. In the evenings, there are fire pits on the beach, where you can light a fire and indulge in s'mores, a traditional American camp fire treat! Huntington Beach is an easy drive from Anaheim, so is especially convenient for those basing themselves in the area for the theme parks.
2) Santa CruzJust an hour south of San Francisco, Santa Cruz is a laid back town, with a slightly alternative vibe. The spiritual home of surfing, Santa Cruz has some excellent beaches and also the famous Boardwalk, which features amusements and the famous Big Dipper roller coaster. On the beach, there are body boards and surf boards for hire and it's easy to arrange lessons. Beaches in the town are busy, so if you wnat to avoid the crowds, you may want to get in the car and drive to one of the nearby options with fewer people. Santa Cruz is a great choice if you want to spend a few days on the beach and exploring the Pacific Highway. Away from the beach, you can go and see some Giant Redwood trees up at Henry Cowell State Park, or drive to Monterery to the aquarium. In the summer months, you may well see the fog that the region is known for; usually worst in the mornings and evenings.
3) MalibuBaywatch eat your heart out, if people watching and celebrity spotting floats your boat, then the beaches of Malibu are where you need to be. These are places where you go to see and be seen, so get your skimpiest bikini and your in-line skates and get ready to strut your stuff.
4) Big SurLocated at the half way point between Los Angeles & San Francisco, Big Sur is a rugged and wild part of the Pacific Coast; the complete antithesis of the people packed beaches around LA. One of the most well-known of the beaches is Pfeiffer Beach, famed for its huge rock formation and crashing waves. These beaches are generally not for swimming - currents and rip tides and no life guards see to that - but they are for hiking, beach combing and feeling the sea spray in your hair! There are a couple of luxurious accommodation options, but these fill up months and months in advance and have a vast price tag. The most economical way to visit Big Sur is to base yourself in one of the nearby coastal towns, pack a picnic and go for the day.
5) Lake TahoeYes we know this isn't a coastal beach, but Lake Tahoe measures a massive 191 square miles and is in an enviable location, surrounded by mountains. The calm crystal clear waters and sandy beaches are a perfect location for sun-bathing and swimming and the lack of tides make sit a safe place for children to splash about. Many people are attracted here for the water sports and he calm waters encourage many to try their hands at stand up paddle boarding and kayaking. If you are visiting North California, then Lake Tahoe is an excellent option for some relaxing beach time.
Even when she very young, my middle daughter was always on the move. While her older sister could sit happily for hours colouring in and drawing, Milly needed action, preferably outdoors. From the moment she was mobile, she would crawl over to the front door and wait for someone to open it so she could head for the great outdoors. So when I decided to bring her with me on a recent trip to South Africa, I was intrigued (and slightly nervous) about how she would cope with sitting on game drives for hours at a time with no outlet for her energy.
In reality, the short answer to that is that she was absolutely fine. She loved the opportunity to see lions feasting on a buffalo, giraffes grazing and leopards stalking an impala (who wouldn’t) and was enthusiastic about spotting the smaller things as well (a rain spider in our bathroom remains a talking point to this day.) However, I had included a few opportunities in our itinerary so that we could experience something a bit different. This included some time at the beach, horse riding and a day in the Blyde Canyon area. The latter which remains, to this day, her absolute highlight of the trip.
Blyde Canyon is the 3rd largest canyon on earth, but with so many amazing highlights to choose from in a country like South Africa, it sometimes gets over-looked. When it is included in an itinerary, it is usually as part of a whistle-stop tour of the Panorama Route – an afternoon visit to the view points and then back in the car for the next sight. For obvious reasons, I didn’t want to that type of a stop and so we met with a local guide, born and bred in the area, who took us to completely off the beaten track for a couple of days.
The first thing we did was an afternoon hike to a hidden waterfall. With no one else around, we walked through woodland until we reached the pool with clear waters and plenty of rocks to jump off. It was too late in the afternoon for a full on swim, but we had so much fun skimming stones and paddling in the water.
The next morning we set off to get a view of the canyon, passing some stunning scenery along the way. With not another car on the road, we parked up and then had a short walk to a view point where we were free to clamber on rocks and let off some steam. And the views we were rewarded with were out of this world. I have been to the Grand Canyon and shared the viewpoints with countless other tourists, but to have this amazing landscape all to ourselves was heaven.
After being on top of the world, we then descended to a picnic spot at the base of the canyon where our guide set about cooking us an alfresco lunch. We were just by a gorgeous river with a rope swing, so had huge amounts of fun spending the afternoon messing around by the river before warming up with a hot meal.
Having two days to run, climb and swim and make lots of noise without seeing another person was heaven on earth for my both myself and my daughter. She loved the clambering on rocks and the freedom to roam and I loved being able to take in the amazing views and have some physical activity. That spelled the end of Blyde Canyon adventure, as sadly our schedule meant that we had to move on. However, had we more time, the next day we would have gone canyoning to explore some of the hidden caves in the side canyons. A reason (as if I needed one) to go back again one day.
For us, the best safari is not just about seeing the big five. Experiencing the wilderness, spending a night out fly camping under the stars, getting out of the 4WD and exploring on foot or horseback, spending some laid back time with the Masai practising with spears and making bows and arrows, these are the things that bring your safari alive. And not just that, they give you a sense of Africa that you will never get if all you ever see is the inside of a 4WD and luxurious camp. In our experience children love game drives initially, but depending on the child, their enthusiasm will start to wane after a couple of days of back to back morning and afternoon game drives. So a safari that mixes things up with some game drives, some more active time and some time exploring Africa's stunning wilderness areas always works brilliantly for families. The five once in a lifetime experiences we have picked out here are the places that have really stood out for us and consistently get fantastic feedback from families. Amongst them are some of our favourite places in the whole of Africa, places we'd happily visit again and again year in and year out with our own families.
RIDING WITH THE RHINOS AT ANTS NEST
Ants Nest may not have the big five, but they do have plenty of plains game and the views are to die for. Spend your days on bush walks, horse riding amongst rhino, giraffe, zebra and wildebeest or heading out for an overnight at the bush camp. This place really comes alive for horse riders, but is great fun for beginners too. Non-riders can have lessons, or if you prefer to stay on the ground, then there are walking options and game drives instead. This the kind of place where you wish you'd booked in for a week. See here for more details on Ants Nest.
Sosian Ranch in Kenya is also a superb option for riders (need to be experienced)
WILD SWIMMING AND UNDISCOVERED CAVES AT BLYDE CANYON
The perfect antidote to a more traditional safari in the Kruger area, the Blyde Canyon is one of the largest and most spectacular canyons in the world. The Blyde Canyon River Adventure really gets under the skin of this spectacular location heading well off the beaten track with a superb local guide exploring hidden view points, undiscovered caves and swimming holes. An absolute highlight. See our Kruger, Cape Town and Blyde River Adventure.
FLY CAMPING, ROCK CLIMBING & WILD DOGS IN LAIKIPIA
In the Northern wilderness of Kenya, Laikipia with its vast area of bush, rocky kopjes and streams offers one of the finest wilderness safari experiences in Africa. Elephants, black rhino and wild dogs all thrive here and although it doesn't compare to the Masai Mara in terms of the big cat populations, there is a good chance you'll see a lion or leopard. With such a vast area and so few camps, you really have the place to yourself out here. What really marks Laikipia Wilderness Camp out though are the guides and the experience. Expect an itinerary tailored to your family, with fly camping out in the wild, messing about in the river, meals served out in the bush and sundowners atop rocky kopjes, it is quite simply, Africa at its best. See here for our Laikipia Family Holiday sample itinerary.
GETTING OVER THE HUMP ON A CAMEL SUPPORTED WALKING SAFARI IN KENYA
A true adventure. There is nothing quite like heading out on foot into the bush, without forsaking the comforts of a comfortable camp, bucket shower and cold beer at the end of the day. Walking through the bush, you quickly learn how to identify footprints and dung and stay downwind of the wildlife. Waking up in the night to the sound of hyenas sniffing around camp, you know you are in for a real adventure. What makes these walking safaris perfect for families is that the children can ride the camels.
Fantastic walking safari is also available for families in the Serengeti (albeit without the camels, but no less comfort)
GOING MAASAI AT MAGI MOTO
There are no shortage of cultural manyattas in Kenya and Tanzania, but all too often these are pretty dire, places where big lodges can ship in their guests for a couple of hours to buy trinkets. However done right, spending some time with people from a vastly different culture than our own can be fascinating, fun and rewarding, especially for families. Magi Moto is an inspiring eco camp on the approach to the Masai Mara with a warm welcome and a big heart. We camp here and head out on bush walks with the Masai learning about medicinal plants, learn how to make a bow and arrow and sit around the camp fire trading stories. Our Maasai Family Adventure includes overnight camping at Magi Moto.
I had heard of Lake Tahoe as a winter sports destination, but when a friend of mine suggested it as an idea for some summer r & r with some watersports thrown in, I was a little surprised. Home to the 1960 winter olympics, it is well-known as a mecca for skiers and snow boarders, but I was rather sceptical about the idea of spending some relaxation time on the beach of a lake. However, I have always secretly fancied giving stand up paddle boarding a go, so decided to head over and try it out for myself.
The lake itself is huge. At it's widest point it measures 19km and it is 35km long and it is one of the highest large lakes in the USA. Located at an elevation of 1,897 m, it enjoys a pleasant climate, with sunny days, but not as hot as other inland Californian destinations. The Lake itself forms the border between California and Nevada and is easily aceesible from Yosemite and San Francisco. There are plenty of accommodation options, from cheerful motels to the more upmarket resorts.
One of the things that surprised me so much about Lake Tahoe was the number of beaches. With crystal clear waters and a mountainous bnackdrop, they are a beautiful place to lie back and relax. Emerald Bay is one of the more famous ones, but there are plenty to choose from.
Each of the main beaches has a carpark with basic toilets and many have a concession renting out paddle boards, kayaks and life jackets. With no tides, the lake is a perfect place for all of the family to have a go at the watersports on offer. And the water is not as cold as you would expect either.
For those who prefer to take it easy, there is, of course, the option to stay dry and just while away the days sun bathing and reading.
When it starts to cool down and evening beckons, there are some great dining options, from old town Americana in Truckee, to beach side dining in South Lake Tahoe, where it was possible to enjoy a glass of wine in a restaurant whilst the children played on the beach.. Heaven....