Travel Diary: Southern California
California Dreaming, The Ultimate SoCal Coastal Adventure
A Week-long Vacation that is Perfect for Everyone in Southern California
Everyone who has a close relationship with me knows that I can spend all day at the beach. Since I grew up spending every summer at my family’s beach house at the Jersey Shore, it is one of the main reasons why the coast always brings a warm and welcoming feeling to me.
Throughout my life, I visited all of the east coast’s popular beach spots in New Jersey, Long Island, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, South Carolina and Florida, but I had never been to the west coast – otherwise known as “best coast” by locals. I knew I would love California. I made sure to take advantage of any opportunity to go there, if it came my way.
Fortunately, my mom had gotten a new job in fall 2015 and was heading out to Irvine, CA for a few days for training. I had vacation days to use at work so I hopped on the opportunity to go with her by purchasing my own plane ticket. During those short few days, I fell in love with all that Southern California had to offer and knew I had to go back soon.
This past August, my mom and I convinced my dad and brothers to do our family vacation in Southern California. We spent six full days relaxing at gorgeous cliffside beaches; touring two great cities; venturing off to a beautiful local Pacific island; playing with seals and eating delicious food.
Day 1: Beach Day at Crystal Cove State Park and Sunset Dinner in Laguna Beach
The first time I visited California, I was on my own and wanted to find a beach that wasn’t going to be a tourist trap. I looked on sites like Yelp and Pinterest to find must-see beautiful beaches in Orange County and found Crystal Cove State Park, situated right off of the famous Pacific Coast Highway (Route 1), between Corona del Mar, Newport Beach and Laguna Beach.
Crystal Cove is one of Orange County’s largest remaining open space and natural seashore. It features 3.2 miles of gorgeous cliffside beach, 2,400 acres of backcountry wilderness and an offshore underwater area. When I first visited this gorgeous place, I immediately connected with the coastal nature and had never felt more at peace. I couldn’t wait to bring my family here and of course, make it the first place to see on our vacation.
When you first enter the park and walk towards the ocean, it is everything you picture a California beach to look like: breathtaking cliffs overlooking the blue Pacific Ocean, accessible ramps that take you down to the beach with wonderful views, beautiful seagulls and sandpipers flying out to the horizon and adorable rustic coastal cottages that were originally built as a seaside colony in the 1930’s and 40’s.Crystal Cove is a great place to take a nice walk and take in all of the natural beauty. When my family and I entered the beach, we took some awesome pictures and enjoyed a nice walk. After walking approximately a mile, we found a cute beachside restaurant called The Beachcomber. It was the perfect spot after our “long” walk on the beach and we enjoyed delicious frozen margaritas and healthy Hawaiian-inspired food.
After our lunch, we all swam in the ocean and then headed back to our hotel to take a nap and get ready for our fancy sunset dinner in Laguna Beach.
The first time my mom and I visited SoCal, we were recommended a delicious Mexican seafood restaurant on the cliffs of Laguna Beach called Las Brisas. When you go to Las Brisas for dinner, it is a MUST to catch the sunset. (You can always find out what time the sun is setting on your mobile weather apps.) Las Brisas features a warm west coast ambiance with beautiful palm trees, calming music that makes you feel like you are on vacation and fresh local and Mexican ingredients that will make you feel like you are living a dream.
Having a sunset dinner at Las Brisas is the best way to end your first day as you watch the beautiful sky turn to a dark pink and the palm trees sway in the wind. After our lovely dinner, we headed into beautiful downtown Laguna Beach to enjoy a delicious authentic Italian gelato at Gelato Paradiso, located in a beautiful courtyard off of the Pacific Coast Highway.
Day 2: A Day in San Diego
On our second day of vacation, we woke up; ate a delicious breakfast at our hotel’s restaurant and then headed south to my favorite US city – beautiful and sunny San Diego!
The city of San Diego is best known for its breathtaking beaches, parks, zoo, art galleries, breweries, food and sunny climate. In addition, San Diego’s harbor is home to a large naval fleet with the USS Midway.
Our first stop in San Diego was to the famous Balboa Park located a little north of the downtown area. The park is known to be a place where culture, science and nature collide. It features various art venues, beautiful gardens that you won’t see anywhere else, hiking and bike trails and many other extraordinary attractions that will make you feel like you’re in another world! Even though we didn’t get a chance to go, the world-famous San Diego Zoo is also located in the park.
I have been told that when I am in San Diego, it is a MUST to visit a brewery. If you know me well, then you can definitely say I love enjoying a refreshing craft beer! Since my family and I wanted to visit Mission Beach, I “Yelped” a few breweries in the area and found Barrel Republic that features over 40 different beers on tap. We also enjoyed a light lunch there before hitting the beach area.
Mission Beach is a lively beach town that features a great amusement park, Belmont Park, awesome bars and restaurants along with great shops. We walked over to the Harbor Channel where you can watch boats and jet skies take off on beautiful aqua water.
Whenever I go to the beach, I always crave a cold scoop of ice cream. After doing some research on Pinterest, I found a homemade ice cream spot in the Point Loma area (outside of Mission Beach) called Hammond’s Gourmet Ice Cream. Hammond’s is known for the original ice cream flights and features over 300 flavors imported from Hawaii. If you go to San Diego with friends, I definitely recommend heading to Hammond’s and treating yourselves with a flight of different delicious ice cream cones.
After our fun time exploring Balboa Park and relaxing at Mission Beach, we headed into downtown San Diego to explore the Gaslamp Quarter. Since I was with my family, I unfortunately couldn’t fully experience the Gaslamp Quarter scene, but it is definitely recommended if you are looking to have a good night out. Luckily, when I visited San Diego with my mom the previous year, I was able to meet up with college friends and grab drinks at a local sports bar. In addition to the night scene, the Gaslamp Quarter is known for its rich Victorian architecture and history, world-renowned restaurants, shops, museums and more!
In San Diego, there is something for everyone: if you are a sports lover, catch a game at the famous Petco Park stadium; for all of my fellow fashion lovers, head over to Seaport Village and last but not least, if you love Italian food like my family and I, head over to the Little Italy area of San Diego and enjoy an authentic meal.
After our day exploring San Diego, we could not wait to eat! I am usually a little wary about eating Italian cuisines outside of the tri-state area, but I have to say that after having some great homemade “Italy to the Table” styled meals, California Italian food fits right up in New Jersey/New York standards. I’m serious! (Yes, I’m 100% Italian too.) We found a great five-star Italian restaurant in Little Italy called Rovino. The owner of Rovino is originally from Italy and wanted to bring homemade Northern Italian and Sicilian cuisines to the San Diego area. I had a delicious pasta meal that hit the spot after a long day exploring.
Day 3: Hollywood, Malibu and Santa Monica
I was unable to adventure to the Los Angeles area when I first came to Southern California, so I made sure it was on our must-see list while we were on our family vacation.
While I was in the Los Angeles area, I wanted to make sure I saw the Hollywood sign since I had only ever saw it in the movies. (I know, I’m such a tourist!) We headed to Griffith Observatory and did a small hike up to where you can catch the best view of the Hollywood Sign.
Please keep in mind that the hike up to the Hollywood Sign is like walking in a desert. The air is very dry and since we went at the end of August, the weather was boiling hot, so make sure to bring large bottles of water to keep you hydrated during the hike. It is a lot of fun and you want to make sure you enjoy the hike and beautiful views of LA. When we reached the top, we took a family photo and had fun playing with our Boomerang apps.
If I were to go back to the Hollywood Sign, I would have liked to enjoy a horseback riding tour. (Unfortunately, my brothers didn’t want to do it.) Sunset Ranch offers several great daytime and evening packages along with kids’ parties and they even arrange engagement proposals for all of the lovebirds out there!
After our fun hike up to the Hollywood Sign, we were ready to explore beautiful Malibu. Our drive to Malibu was breathtaking as we drove through beautiful mountains and canyons. When we reached the coast, we stopped at Malibu Seafood – a fresh fish market and patio café located right off of the Pacific Coast Highway, across from the beach. We were all starving from our hike so a fresh seafood meal was definitely the bomb! At Malibu Seafood, you can sit outside on their patio and enjoy gorgeous views of the oceanside along with the mountainside. We all thoroughly enjoyed our seafood lunches and definitely recommend going there if you are in Malibu!
The beach in Malibu is absolutely stunning, but since we all felt that we can sit on a beach anytime, we wanted to explore Malibu’s other great offerings. I was told Malibu Wine Safari was a must-do when visiting, so we drove 15 minutes up the mountain to beautiful Malibu Wine Country. At Malibu Wine Safari you can “Get Your Wine On. In the Wild.”. A guide will lead your adventure on open-air Safari vehicles. You will make stops to take in the beautiful vineyard scenery and taste delicious local wines. In addition, the Safari vehicle will get close to the animals. They have zebras, camels, alpacas, bison and even a giraffe! Malibu Wine Safari is known to attract celebrities such as the Kardashians. Unfortunately the safari was closed when we went due to a celebrity visit, but we still enjoyed the winery!
While we were at the winery, we were recommended to also check out Malibu Café at Calamigos Ranch. Malibu Café is a beautiful family-friendly place that offers something for everyone. The café has a full bar and offers a delicious BBQ cuisine. Since we had already eaten, we enjoyed the drinks and the atmosphere. If I lived in Malibu, I would definitely come to Malibu Café fairly often, as it offers nothing but a happy ambiance. There are chandeliers hanging from the trees, beautiful wooden bridges that overlook a stream leading to a waterfall, various pool tables and cornhole boards. It is also a great place to watch a professional game with friends and they also play country music throughout the entire café area.
After spending a beautiful day in Malibu, we headed south to Santa Monica to meet up with my cousin Alexie Picariello – Luxury Vision Planner and daughter to Owner and CEO of Crawford Concierge, Lisa Crawford. Before we headed to dinner to meet up with Alexie and her boyfriend Mikey, we stopped at the world-famous Santa Monica Pier. We then met at Milo and Olive, a delicious homemade pizza place on Wilshire Boulevard. We had a great time laughing and sharing some great family stories. It is always awesome meeting up with cousins or any familiar face when you are far from home!
Day 4: Huntington Beach, Newport Beach and Sunset Dinner at Crystal Cove
The next day, we wanted to stay local to our hotel and relax at some of the nearby beaches – Huntington Beach and Newport Beach.
Our first stop was at Huntington Beach, also known as Surf City USA. When visiting this great beach, you can watch surfers ride the waves and maybe even catch a show while you are there! The beach attracts a 20-something crowd, so you will never be bored.
Walk along the pier and stop at local Huntington Beach shops or even grab a bite to eat at the 50’s diner located at the edge of the pier that overlooks the Pacific Ocean.
After spending a few hours at Huntington Beach, we headed over to Balboa Island in Newport Beach. I love Newport Beach as it is very charming, peaceful and definitely more family-oriented. The promenade, located across from the beach, has unique nautical shops that offer great fashion, art and jewelry. It also features many great beach cafes and nice restaurants. If you decide to go, it is recommended to get the island’s famous dessert – the Frozen Banana! It is definitely a refreshing treat to enjoy while you relax on the beach or walk along Newport Pier and enjoy the beautiful views.
The first time I was in the Newport Beach area with my mom, we grabbed a delicious Vietnamese dinner at Anqi by House of An in Costa Mesa. Anqi features a healthy and modern Gourmet Bistro and Noodle Bar concept. When you are in Orange County, make sure to visit Anqi on a Tuesday and get their famous Garlic Noodles and Roasted Crab. Make sure you get there early though because they sell out of this dish fairly quick.
After our relaxing beach day, we went back to our hotel and got ready for our wonderful Mexican dinner and sunset at Crystal Cove State Park. Across from Crystal Cove, there is a beautiful and elegant Mexican restaurant called Javier’s where you can enjoy crafted, hand-shaken margaritas made with rare tequilas. In addition, their authentic Mexican food is made with high-quality ingredients, offering the best tasting cuisine. Inside of Javier’s features a beautiful southwestern and romantic ambiance.
Day 5: Day at Catalina Island
Before visiting California, I was recommended by my friends to visit Catalina Island. I did some research prior to our trip and we all agreed we wanted to visit the island.
We hopped on the Catalina Express ferry from San Pedro, right outside of Los Angeles, and within an hour, we were sailing up to the beautiful European-looking island. I definitely recommend visiting Catalina Island if you are in the Southern California area. It is a picture-perfect paradise and is a world apart from the hustle and bustle of the Greater Los Angeles area.
The day we visited Catalina Island was definitely one to remember! As the ferry docked at the port of Avalon Harbor, we hopped off and couldn’t wait to take pictures and just explore everything that was surrounding us. The water was a beautiful blue color, the city is rustic and old-world and the atmosphere definitely made me feel like I was on island time!
There are a ton of adventure activities such as zip lining, canoeing, kayaking jet skiing, paddle boarding, biking, hiking and more! Since I was with my family, we wanted to do something that everyone would enjoy and did the Avalon Scenic Tour.
During the tour, you take a journey throughout beautiful Avalon and learn about the island’s history. The island is pretty big, however, Avalon is the only habited part of Catalina Island. It is so nice because there is barely any traffic on the island. The locals have to be put on a waiting list to get their car there. (It can take up to 30 years!) They also have to rely on a hospital that only has 12 rooms; one school system and other limited services. Another cool fact I learned through the tour is that Catalina Island has wildlife like bison that were taken from the Rocky Mountain areas and placed on the island years ago for a movie shoot and were never taken off as an experiment to see if they would survive. The movie producers came back a year later and saw that they did! The bison were then kept there and the population of them has been expanding since.
William Wrigley Jr., founder of the chewing gum, invested millions of dollars into the island – building infrastructure and attractions. He then attracted tourists and even made the island the spring training home of the Chicago Cubs. Other celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe lived on the island for a little while as well.
After our tour riding on the beautiful cliffs of Catalina Island, we sat on the beach at beautiful Lovers Cove. We then grabbed dinner at one of the best Italian restaurants I ever ate at called Ristorante Villa Portofino. It was the perfect restaurant to enjoy an authentic Italian seafood dinner as it complemented the surrounding atmosphere! We then ended our day enjoying gelato and shopping in Avalon’s boutiques.
Day 6: Playing with the Seals in La Jolla
Since it was our last full day in California, we woke up extra early to head down to the San Diego area again. Our first stop was in La Jolla. Out of all of the areas in San Diego, La Jolla has to be my favorite. It is a beautiful beach town surrounded by crystal-clear blue water, cute seals and great restaurants and shops.
We stopped to get breakfast at Brockton Villa Restaurant overlooking the cove. After we got ourselves fueled up, we walked around the beach area that offers breathtaking seaside cliffs and then went down to the harbor to go play with the seals. We had such an awesome time and the seals were friendly and adorable! For lunch, we went to a great brick-oven pizza place called Catania – located in the heart of downtown La Jolla.
After our great day in La Jolla, we headed 20 minutes south to Coronado and ended the night grabbing a drink at the world-famous Hotel del Coronado, sat on the beach and watched a majestic San Diego sunset and then went to dinner at my favorite Asian fusion and sushi restaurant, Bistro D’Asia.
When visiting Southern California, I recommend staying in Orange County as it is in the middle of the San Diego and Los Angeles areas. You want to make sure you get to all of the great spots I wrote about above to get the ultimate SoCal experience!
Looking to Experience the best of California? We have the perfect package for you!
Live my trip and check out our 10-Nights Best of California. Enjoy what is truly the best of what California has to offer on this 11-day journey. Start off in the bay area of San Francisco where you will visit the giant redwoods at the Muir Woods National Monument as well as a stop off in the Mediterranean-style village of Sausalito. You will also visit Monterey Bay as well as the art gallery and restaurant area of Carmel-by-the-Sea. From there you will head south along the scenic California coast and into Los Angeles. While in Los Angeles you will explore the city on a hop-on, hop-off tour of the city that will stop by the Hollywood Sign, Rodeo Drive, and the Chinese Theatre. Following Los Angeles, continue on to Anaheim and cap off your California journey in San Diego!
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