California Dreamin’

More than a million Aussies head for the United States each year. We jump onboard and follow Tracey Spicer all the way from La-La-Land to San Fran, as she discovers there’s more to Cali than Disneyland.

Someone once said that shopping is cheaper than going to a psychiatrist. If so, there’s a lot of group therapy going on in the United States right now, and the patients are Australian.Walking into a Billabong shop in an outlet mall near Las Vegas, we’re confronted by a bunch of blokes behaving like middle-aged matrons at a red-light special. Everything is about a quarter of the price you’d pay back home. A combination of supply-and-demand, a strong Aussie dollar and cheap imports from China make this the perfect time for an overseas shopping spree.

LA Woman
Every journey has a soundtrack. In the birthplace of pop culture, it’s easy to find songs to suit every moment. Wandering the streets of Santa Monica, a chic beachside suburb of Los Angeles, The Doors’ classic LA Woman springs to mind. The women all look the same – thin and slightly creepy, like Stepford Wives. My suspicion is confirmed when we go to lunch at Spago in Beverly Hills. At the next table, former Entertainment Tonight host Leeza Gibbons is sitting with a group of friends. No one is eating. Instead, they take flattering photographs of each other then admire them. It’s all very LA.

The epicentre of plastic surgery has to be Rodeo Drive, where conga lines of plump-lipped ladies peruse the phenomenally priced clothing. I naively thought I’d be able to buy a nice white shirt for a couple of hundred dollars.

Life’s a beach
The Beach Boys wished they all could be California girls. Now I know why. Santa Monica and Venice Beach are decorated with roller-blading, bike-riding, sunbathing beauties. Venice is a freak show with street performers, tattoo parlours and the ubiquitous Botox on the Beach. Frankly, the beaches are pretty shabby. But it’s beautiful to sit at one of the cafés and watch the sun set over the water.Unlike most American cities, LA is a gourmet paradise. Because of the immigration from down south, the Mexican food is outstanding. In Santa Monica, go to Le Pain Quotidien, a cheap and healthy Belgian bakery serving quinoa porridge, artisan bread, and coffee in a mug the size of your head. We stay at the superb, but surprisingly cheap Le Méridien Delfina Santa Monica Hotel, walking distance to the world- famous pier with its iconic amusement park.

“All I wanna do…”
After throwing the kids in the pool to tire them out before the long journey, we begin the drive up the Pacific Coast Highway to San Francisco. (I defy anyone to drive up Santa Monica Boulevard without singing the Sheryl Crow song. I couldn’t get it out of my head!) Highway 1 is renowned as one of the best drives in the world.

The section from LA to Santa Barbara traverses rolling hills dotted with grape vines. The road goes inland before thrusting you out onto the Big Sur Coast. Hugging the highway in our tiny hire car, we wind our way from sea level to the 1571-metre heights of Cone Peak.My heart is in my mouth as I realise the vertiginous drop a couple of metres to our left, but the view is breathtaking. Seals congregate on rocky outcrops as the sun sets over a wild and foamy sea. Emerging from a forest of redwood we stumble upon Carmel, a gorgeous historic town where Clint Eastwood was once mayor. Our overnight stop is on the other side of the bay at Monterey. You could probably drive from LA to San Fran in about nine hours, but this pretty port town is a great place to take a break.

Are you going to San Francisco?
The road is shrouded in fog as we arrive in San Francisco, the top of the Golden Gate Bridge is all that is visible. I love the architecture in this city, with its colourful Victorian row houses and Art Deco hotels. We decide to stay at the Handlery Union Square Hotel, a family-friendly Deco delight. The two-bedroom apartment is big enough for a family of four, and the restaurant comes with a healthy kids’ menu, colouring books and pencils.We thought the shopping in LA was good, but San Fran takes the (gluten-free) cake. Saks, Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom are within walking distance of the hotel, plus the sensational Sephora where you can get makeup half price.

Dragging ourselves away, we catch a cable car down the steepest street (“Hold on tight kids!”) on our way to Fisherman’s Wharf. Sitting inside the colourful car, gripping the handrail tightly, we really feel like we’re in San Francisco – this is one of those iconic city experiences that you just can’t miss, and the kids love the open doors and jump-on jump-off fluidity. If you have time, take a tram to the end of one of the lines so you can experience the turn-table – my kids

love it, and I secretly think it is worth the trip, too. Tickets can be purchased from the conductor on-board and under-fours ride free. It’s an inexpensive way to really absorb the soul of this eclectic, retro city.

When we make it to Fisherman’s Wharf, we admire the (smelly) seals and then hire bikes to ride over the bridge to the sweet town of Sausalito for a lovely seafood lunch overlooking the water. Somehow, my hubby ends up with the bike towing the kids for the two-hour ride, while I’m blessedly childfree. It’s an awesome sense of achievement, especially when you realise you can take the ferry back!

The other must-do is Alcatraz. The audio tour brings history to life as you wander through the cells of this infamous jail. The kids still talk about the notorious escape, when prisoners moulded heads out of papier mâché, popped them on their pillows, and dug their way out. To this day, no one knows whether they survived the swim through the freezing waters to freedom. Then there is the macabre fascination of the cell said to have housed Al Capone.

Shop ‘til you drop
You can’t come to Cali without shopping up a storm. Our favourite outlet mall is at Camarillo, 45-minutes north of LA, where you find Saks Fifth Avenue OFF 5TH, Banana Republic, Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren and more.If you’re looking for some shopping while in northern California, only one hour from San Francisco in San Jose, Gilroy Premium Outlets boasts a whopping 145 outlet stores under one roof. Thirteen of these are dedicated entirely to children’s clothing, and include Polo Ralph Lauren Children’s Factory Store, Tommy Hilfiger Kids, Disney Store Outlet and Nautica Kids. We arrive at the airport with twice the number of bags we came with. Next time, I’ll simply bring empty bags.