Los Angeles is a must visit destination for anyone doing a road trip through California and for our teens it was a much anticipated highlight of our holiday.
Widely referred to as the American Riviera, Santa Barbara is a Southern Californian rarity in that it is a city with a single architectural style. Following a devastating earthquake in 1952, the centre was rebuilt according to strict rules that dictated a Mediterranean style. The result is a city filled with white stucco buildings with red-tile roofs, which to a Brit abroad seem an incongruous feature on the sunny Californian coast.
The perfect stop off, Santa Barbara is an eclectic mix of just about everything. With the Santa Ynez Mountains providing a dramatic backdrop as well as housing many wineries, Santa Barbara is perfect for aficionadas and novices alike to learn about and taste wines. There is history and culture at the Museum of Fine Arts and the gallery of El Paseo and the Mission Santa Barbara perched on a hilltop, houses Franciscan friars and a museum should it take your fancy. For the green-fingered, the botanic garden is not to be sniffed at either, housing 40 acres of California's native flora.
For us though Santa Barbara also provided the perfect opportunity to ease off on the sight-seeing and indulge in a bit of shopping. State Street is the hub of Santa Barbara's shopping district and it is and certainly was for us at least, easy to spend a whole day getting lost in the plethora of shops on offer.
After the almost suburban perfection of Santa Barbara, LA was the perfect antithesis, loud, brash and glitzy.
LA is best described as a series of interconnected villages, each with its own distinctive character from the affluence of Bel Air to the urban chic of Downtown LA. The first thing that struck us on arriving was the traffic, the eight lane jams made a drive around the M25 seem like a walk in the park.
We chose not to stay in LA opting instead for the coastal community of Santa Monica. The beach and that of its neighbour Venice is awash with people if not striving for, then certainly showing off their bodies beautiful. A leisurely stroll along the boardwalk is littered with close encounters with skaters, surfers, cyclists, segways and then there are the guys pumping iron at the notorious Muscle Beach which of course fascinated our fitness obsessed eldest teenager. It is an experience unlike any other, but one that is quintessentially LA.
The main attraction for us, or more particularly the teens on this section of our trip was a visit to Universal Studios, Hollywood. Housed in Burbank, the city's media centre and home to Buena Vista, Disney and Warner Bros it is a must visit. To be honest my natural aversion to theme parks didn't put it high on my agenda but outnumbered 3 to 1, I went along for the ride.
Like everything in the US, it certainly didn't disappoint. We had booked Front of Line passes to make accessing the shows, rides and attractions easier, but that aside the park and its facilites are extremely clean and laid out on two levels are well organised, making it easy to navigate and an altogether more pleasant experience than some UK theme parks I have visited.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is particularly impressive with reconstructions of Hogwarts and the shops of Hogsmeade and houses one of the scariest rides (or so I was told anyway) in the park.
As you would expect there are a variety of film-themed rides, some of which make the most of motion simulation combined with 3D and 4D technology to bring the experience alive incuding Fast & Furious, King Kong and Transformers.
In addition there is the World Famous Studio Tour which takes in sets from past and present films and shows in the largest set construction project in studio history. These include the smouldering wreckage from Spielbergs War Of The Worlds and Jaws which was a particular highlight for us as it provided our eldest teen with the chance to come face to face with the fibreglass construction that haunted his dreams in his tweens and has kept him firmly out of the sea both home and abroad ever since for fear of sharks! What makes the tour particularly special though is that Universal is a real working movie studio and therefore there is a high likelihood of witnessing filming in progress, which we did on our trip.
Aside from this there is also a lot of live entertainment at Hollywood Studios. Our favourites were the Special Effects Show which features real Hollywood stunt actors recreating unforgettable moments from your favourite movies and WaterWorld which is a full-on explosive display of pyrotechnic effects that literally has you standing on the edge of your seat.
Aside from Universal the other must sees in LA of course are the Hollywood sign on Mount Lee and the Walk Of Fame. The former is quite frankly a massive anti-climax. You can if you wish go on a tour and get up close and personal with the sign but we felt this was a bit OTT so opted for viewing it from afar. I don't know what I expected really but the best place to view it is from a bridge in the Hollywood and Highland shopping centre, a rather tacky construction on Hollywood Boulevard that offers peerless views of the sign. Maybe we should have gone on the tour because there was a definite "is that it?" sentiment to our viewing experience from the bridge.
The Walk of Fame however didn't disappoint, although it is a battle to manoeuvre your way through the hoards of tourists to get a glimpse of the terrazzo and brass stars. Close by is Grauman's state-of-the-art Chinese Theatre where you can still check out Marilyn Monroe's impossibly tiny handprints and revel in the array of celebrity hand and footprints on display.
All in all LA rocks. A glittering city for sure, we had the best time and we left, if not with a bit of Hollywood glamour then at the very least a sense of having been there and done that to add to our memory catalogue of family holidays.
This post is the fourth in a series on our California Road Trip with Teens. If you missed the previous posts you can view them via the links below.