I always dreamed of driving the coast of California and checking out all the So-Cal towns you hear about. So we decided to spend two weeks driving from LA to San Diego. I was warned not to go in June because of "June Gloom"; maybe we got lucky, but even when we woke up to the fog, it disappeared by lunchtime for bluebird days. Somewhere along the way, you must stop at In N Out Burger, a California fast food staple. My kids liked it better than their New York Fave: Shake Shack.
We started our trip in Malibu at the Malibu Beach Inn. The rooms are right on the water, and we woke up and went to sleep with dolphins and seals playing a stone's throw away. It is an easy walk to the pier and the well-known Points surf breaks. Of note: every single night, we came home and ordered the legendary skillet chocolate chip cookie from room service- trust me.
The Travelers Surf Club is just up the street, where you can get a day pass, rent a board, and access changing rooms, drying racks, and showers. They also have a fun and well-curated surf shop out front. People also love The Surfrider Hotel with its views of the Points just up the street. There do not seem to be many inexpensive options of places to stay in Malibu, but VRBO is always worth a look.
Within walking distance of both hotels, there are several excellent options (with high celeb spotting options, which my kids loved). Nobu Malibu, serving its usual Japanese fare, is very popular, so reserve early.
We all loved the vibe, food, and specialty drinks at Malibu Farm at the beginning of the pier, serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
For breakfast and lunch, the more casual counter service Malibu Farmers Market is one of my favorite spots to eat and watch the surfers on the Points.
If you are lucky enough to know somebody who is a member of The Little Beach House, which is part of the Soho House clubs, it is a total scene and a ton of fun for lunch or dinner.
Finally, the Carbon Beach Club at the Malibu Beach Inn has great drinks, food, and seaside dining and is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Up the street at Malibu Country Mart, my kids went to SunLife Organics every day for acaí bowls and smoothies. Next, John's Garden has delicious salads and sandwiches. For dinner, Lucky's Steakhouse is a popular spot and also a scene. Finally, Real Coconut serves a variety of great and healthy dishes for plant-based diners.
And even further up the street is Point Dume Village, where my kids insisted on breakfast every morning. There is another outpost of SunLife Organics here, as well as Le Cafe De La Plage with fresh baked french pastries and sandwiches (and a cute photo booth) and Lilly's delicious Mexican fare. Lilly's insanely good breakfast burrito is known to be one of the best in LA- I saw it described as "the size of a newborn," and they weren't kidding!
For shopping, you can't beat the Malibu Country Mart for hip brand outposts; too many to list. The Trancas Country Mart is much smaller, has some boutiques for all ages, and has a laid-back vibe. If you are driving between the two, stop in and see my girl, Celine, whose C. Bonz custom embroidery is the BOMB. You can bring your gear to give it a refresh or choose from sweat suits, t-shirts, jumpsuits, bags, and vintage clothing that she has on-site.
As for activities, Malibu is known for being a surf town. The best-known breaks are the points by the pier. My go-to surf instructor is Andrew Jacobson (DM us for details) when he is not charging Cloudbreak or Teahupo'o. You can also venture further up to Zuma Beach and Leo Carillo, which are both great for just having a day at the beach.
Hiking trails wind their way through the Malibu hills for every level. The walk from Point Dume down to Zuma Beach is a great easy trail for the family. The cliffs are breathtaking. My husband and kids went to Malibu Bluffs Park to play soccer and loved all the activities offered there.
Santa Monica and Venice Beach
Santa Monica and Venice Beach are a little further down the road and into Los Angeles. We always stay at Shutters On the Beach. My son learned to ride a bike while we rode from Santa Monica down through Venice every morning. Kids love to go on the rides and lose money trying to win prizes on the Santa Monica Pier.
The Ivy is an old favorite and tried and true. My favorite Italian is Giorgio Baldi (try the corn agnolotti). Lunch at Élephante (dinner reservations are pretty hard to come by) was our favorite meal of the trip. The view, the food, the vibe- it was everything a restaurant should be. Calabra atop the Proper Hotel also has a great vibe and great views with Mediterranean fare. All of LA's attractions are reasonably close by here.
We then headed further down the coast to the La Jolla area. There are so many private enclaves and cute beach towns here. There is an entire family vibe with lots of small communities and clubs. We did not stop in Huntington (the world's surf capital) or Newport, but I want to check them out on another trip. It is so worth driving down the coast wherever you can as the ocean vistas are one of a kind, and each town has its own beachy flavor.
We did stop in San Clemente to check out the marquee surf break, Trestles, with friends. It ended up being one of the highlights of our trip. We woke up early and drove through Camp Pendleton, where, depending on the day, you can see major helicopter and tank action from the highway. We stopped at Trestles eBike Company to rent some e-bikes with racks to avoid the 30-minute walk with surfboards and wetsuits. I am unsure if the ride down or the surfing was the highlight for everyone, as it made it quite the adventure. We watched the 50 or 60 surfers rip at Lowers, the "pro" wave, for a while and then opted for a less crowded wave between Lowers and Middles. The surf was great, and we worked up an appetite. We rode back to Sancho's Tacos, a trippy and tasty taco spot. The tri-tip ANYTHING was off the hook. Tri Tip, otherwise called Cardiff Crack, is (sorry for the veg-only people) a braised beef situation that tastes good in almost anything. While we did not see much more of San Clemente, we loved the parts we saw.
We surfed with Fulcrum Surf in Southern California. They were able to set up a mini-camp for us, and we went on road trips from our home base at the Alila Marea and visited several breaks up and down the coast.
The next stop was Carlsbad, another surf town. We only drove through, but there were plenty of shops and restaurants to fill a day. We did have dinner at Campfire, whose wood-fired fare was so good. We surfed Tamarack on one of the bigger days, which was challenging but fun. Of note- the water temp seemed to change DRASTICALLY- it was June, and one day I wished I'd had a 4/3; the next, I could have worn a shorty.
We stayed in Leucadia, the next town down and borders Encinitas, at the Alila Marea, which sits on a cliff (with the rest of Leucadia). Almost all of the rooms have some sort of water view. Some have fire pits, and others have balconies. The sunset from the hotel is out of a postcard. They have a great pool scene. We watched dolphins frolic in the waves in front of the hotel every morning. You can also check the crowd and waves at Grandview or grab a board and surf out front. Our favorite part about Leucadia and Encinitas was that we could bike everywhere. There are bike rental shops every few feet, it seems! Our hotel had them. I recommend e-bikes as there are some steep hills! We surfed Grandview a few times as it was chill and fun.
Our friend who was with us stayed at Surfhouse. While it is not on the water, the rooms are well-sized and fun, with full surf decor. The staff was beyond helpful; one of them doubled as a surf instructor and took her surfing. A train runs through the middle of all these towns, which is convenient if you want to visit and don't have a car, but not so great if you don't like train whistles!
There are some great restaurants in Leucadia. Vaga, in the Alila Marea Hotel, has the best view and is a tough table to get at sunset. The food is high-end. Paris Café was my son's staple for breakfast. They serve crepes and all sorts of awesome baguette situations. Fish 101 has the best tacos (according to Ari, our Fulcrum Surf guide). Papagãyo has live music and a family vibe serving elevated bar food. You go for the music, and be sure to go off-menu and get the cotton candy for dessert!
The crowd favorite is The Taco Stand, which always seemed to have a line. Dave, our very informative hotel concierge, recommended City Taco, which was off the charts good. Our favorite stop (even the kids) was Bier Garden. Obviously, you can find a great craft brew here, but the food is divine, and the servers are friendly and fun. I ordered the Cardiff Crack Steak sandwich (not really a meat at lunch girl, but when in Rome), which was so mouth-wateringly incredible that when my son tried it, he loved it so much and had an entire second meal. We still talk about that sandwich. Death by Tequila has fun tequila drinks, as the name implies. The Elote Asado (best eaten as a dip) was insane. The higher-end restaurant that everyone recommended was Herb & Sea. We sadly did not make it, but it is a crowd pleaser. Unfortunately, we never made it to the Seaside Market to order the original Cardiff Crack, a must-do for foodies. Our other staple here was The Baked Bear for the kind of cookies and ice cream you dream about, whose oven broke for a day, and we all went into a panic.
The shopping right on the Coast Highway in Encinitas is really fun. There are tons of cute beach shops that my teenage daughter was dying over. A few to note: Flashbacks Recycled Fashion was one of the best vintage stores I have seen in ages (and I am from New York City). I want to go back and do a deep dive. Hansen Surf is the mother of all surf shops (well, one of them, as there were a few in these parts). Carlsbad Classics had at least five of my dream cars and vintage cars straight out of an old beach movie. My golfer husband wanted to go to the Scotty Cameron Golf Gallery, but it was always either closed or had a long line. Salt Culture and the surrounding shops have great, higher-end beach-style clothing. In a little studio behind Salt Culture, you can find a trove of legend Rob Machado's surfboards and gear.
Golf and hiking note: there are a ton of great golf courses (Torrey Pines among them), great hiking trails in this area, and yoga with baby goats. We did not have time to explore the courses and the hiking, so if anyone wants to contribute some intel- please email us!
We only really drove through Cardiff, Solana Beach, and Del Mar. Solana Beach's extensive design district could have provided a day's worth of shopping. There are tons of beachside walking and biking trails. Marquee surf spots Swamis, Blacks, Cardiff Reef, and Seaside reef are all along this stretch. The Del Mar Racetrack (where I went as a kid with my dad) had a huge seasonal fair going on. If I had had more time, I would have explored it all.
I did explore two legendary surf shops:
Mitch's Surf Shop is out of central casting. The guys who worked there were so friendly and fun. It is smaller and more marquee. They have two huge shacks full of foam blanks that they sell to major shapers, which were cool to check out. Right down the way was Surf Rider Surf Shop, a two-floor mecca of standard surf brands. Boards and gear galore!
We continued down the coast, through the Scripps campus, which keeps growing, and into San Diego. We had stayed in a villa at the Hotel Del Coronado years ago and loved seeing all of the military ships and helicopters. It was one of our favorite trips with the kids. The Del has grown quite a bit and now feels a little more Disney and a little less like the grand dame I had remembered. The rooms were excellent, and the staff was super friendly and helpful. On the island, it was the 4th of July, and all the houses and golf carts were decorated, which I loved. We rode our bikes around the island and checked out San Diego Harbor and its activities.
At the hotel, the Sun Deck was great for drinks and lunch, there was a cute little taco shack with live music, you could reserve beach chairs for s'mores and a bonfire, and Serea served up the high-end offering for the hotel. They seem to like to keep you "on property" at the Del, but if you venture down the street a bit, you can find great tacos at Miguel's Cocina, bistro fare at Little Frenchie, killer breakfast and lunch at Clayton's Coffee Shop, The Henry, and dessert at Mootime Creamery.
Our stay this time was brief, but last time, when our kids were younger, the long flat beaches provided ample space to run around, and several pools kept the little ones busy. The hotel has lots of activities for kids. San Diego has Legoland, the world-famous San Diego Zoo, and its Safari Park, which is almost as good as the real thing. I wanted to take a boat tour of the harbor, which is one of many reasons I want to get back to SoCal to explore even more!