Our mission: To do Los Angeles with the kids - and in style - without succumbing to the usual suspects. You really don't have to do Disneyland to have fun with little ones. But you do need a car.
If you're heading to LA with the offspring, avoid staying downtown or on the famous Sunset strip (concrete jungle) and get yourself to the beach. Santa Monica is the place.
With a relaxed local vibe, the beach precinct is literally a playground - there's the famous pier with amusement park rides, rollerblading along the promenade and sand as far as the eye can see. What you don't actually do is swim - in the peak of summer the ocean in California is only 17 degrees.
For a family-friendly stay that's across the road from the beach, check in to the Fairmont Miramar Hotel and Bungalows (fairmont.com/santa-monica), which has an upmarket feel combined with a casual vibe that's geared towards kids (they get a stuffed toy on arrival). Beyond the iron gates, the grounds are expansive and it's all about hanging around the pool and adjoining lobby bar, which has a waterfall and koi pond (there are turtles in there, too).
Mums can escape at Exhale Spa, work out in the fully kitted-out gym where kids are welcome, and get a retail fix of luxe resort wear at the hotel shop near the lobby. The children will also enjoy the toys, souvenirs and trinkets.
Don't miss having a meal at FIG Restaurant, a seasonal bistro with a cool Californian atmosphere - and little-people pleasers of fries and spaghetti. Another relaxed-luxe accommodation option popular with families is Shutters on the Beach at Santa Monica. Enjoy a beach-house vibe, first-level pool with ocean view, live music in the lobby and bikes for hire. 1 Pico Boulevard, Santa Monica, shuttersbeachstyle.com.
Back in town, and if budget isn't a consideration, the five-star Beverly Hills Hotel, while posh, doesn't ignore ankle-biters. They get milk and cookies on arrival (you can stick to Veuve) and a fake pink charge card (so A-list). There are 4.8 hectares of grounds to run around in, a large pool and tennis courts. 99641 Sunset Boulevard, Beverly Hills, beverlyhillshotel.com.
Considering the water is freezing in California, hit the park for playtime.
A 10-minute drive from Santa Monica is Pacific Palisades, where many a celebrity has a mansion overlooking the Pacific Ocean. There you'll find Will Rogers State Historic Park (parks.ca.gov), named after the prominent 1930s actor, who built a ranch and bought up much of the land in the area back in the day. Definitely something you want to make a day out of, there are walking and hiking trails, horse riding, large fields for kicking a ball or throwing a frisbee, tours of the ranch and polo on the weekends in summer. Don't forget the picnic lunch.
Ocean Park is a cute little space right opposite Santa Monica beach. The playground comes complete with bucket swings, steering wheels and lots of fun things to climb on. Cycling is quite the thing to do in the California sunshine and the tracks pretty much run all the way along the coastline. If heading south, the path from Mission Beach and Pacific Beach (about two hours from Santa Monica) all the way to La Jolla is a highlight. Once at La Jolla beach, watch seals basking in the sunshine, explore the rocks, snorkel and kick the footy in the parkland opposite.
South to San Diego
There's plenty of kiddy adventure to be had at Legoland (california.legoland.com) in San Diego (a two-hour drive from LA, depending on the nightmare that is LA traffic). Expect to be greeted by a 2.7-metre red Lego dinosaur, while inside there are rides for very young ones, a water park, a lost kingdom where you can hunt for treasure, and a shop where you can stock up on a dizzying assortment of bright blocks.
The San Diego Zoo (sandiegozoo.org) is also sure to be a hit. The kids will love the exotic assortment of animals, especially the flamingoes (yes, you all have to watch while standing on one leg), and the pandas and the gorilla exhibit.
If you're travelling with really little ones, take a trip on the miniature train and then let them go crazy on the Discovery Playground, which is full of twisty climbing and play equipment.
North to San Jose
If you plan to drive the famous Californian coast from LA to San Francisco via Big Sur (which is recommended, especially for the scenery and spotting of elephant seals, but be warned: it's slow and windy and takes eight to 10 hours), stop off at the Monterrey Aquarium (montereybayaquarium.org).
Perched on the ocean in the area's historic Cannery Row, it is two levels of every imaginable form of sea life, some of which you are able to touch. Don't miss the penguin feeding and the wonders of the Open Sea section - you feel like you're actually swimming with sharks thanks to the whopping 27.5-metre windows.
Looking for a little thrill-seeking? Drop into the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk Theme Park (beachboardwalk.com). Scene of the iconic flick The Lost Boys, it's old-school with classic rides such as the 1924 Giant Dipper and a 1911 carousel. Entry is free, although tickets are needed for rides.
If you are keen for some beach action, Malibu beach is a must (if only to see celebrity mansions). From Santa Monica, head north to Malibu, which, depending on traffic, is about 20 minutes' drive, and stop at Paradise Cove.
South of LA are the famous surfing spots - Laguna, Huntington, Long Beach - but bypass them in favour of the charming beach towns of Del Mar, Solana, Encinitas, Cardiff and La Jolla. Scenic with good surfing breaks (but not too big for kids keen to try their luck or have a lesson; lajollasurfshop.com), La Jolla also features a wide variety of great shops and restaurants.
Spot of shopping
First stop on Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade should be trendy department store Kitson (shopkitson.com), where you'll be bombarded with bright, colourful and quirky gifts, toys and books.
This is before you even make it up to the next level, where the kids' clothing and toys await - snap up designer threads or a hand-picked selection of cool Cali clothes.
Stroll down the pedestrian-only streets and hit shops such as Old Navy, Santa Monica Surf Shop and Downtown Bicycles.
Also a must is the Abbot Kinney strip in Venice Beach (skip touristy and slightly seedy Venice beach itself, unless you're absolutely desperate to see the skateboard bowl; veniceskatepark.com). Along Abbot Kinney (abbotkinneyonline.com) you'll find trendy restaurant after trendy restaurant, punctuated by quirky little fashion, design, book and kids' stores, and art galleries.
If you are keen on a shopping centre hit, try Malibu Country Mart (malibucountrymart.com). Expect all the usual high-end and chain stores, casual places to eat, as well as gardens, a picnic area and outdoor playground. The kids will love it and you may even spot a celebrity.
M Street Kitchen (mstreetkitchen.com) and Stella Rossa Pizza Bar (stellarossapizzabar.com) are two popular spots to eat with kids, or two blocks from Santa Monica Pier is True Food Kitchen, which has an organic menu and healthy kids' meals such as corn and ricotta cheese ravioli and vegetables with parmesan broth.
Healthy food can be a bit of a rarity (this is the US, after all), so find your local Whole Foods Market (there are a couple on Wilshire in Santa Monica; wholefoodsmarket.com) to grab a takeaway lunch or easy dinner, or just enjoy searching the aisles for some of the great organic goodies.
Another local must is Dogtown Coffee (facebook.com/DTCproject), on Main Street, which has local organic coffee, an all-day breakfast and make-your-own sliders. Its signature decor is surf and skate accessories and memorabilia, including a board from the movie The Lords of Dogtown.
- Sydney Morning Herald