Discover one of the hottest places on the planet
WHAT a difference a day makes. A cool and breezy boat trip to see dolphins, sea lions and seals playing just feet away was followed just hours later by a stay in a desert that, at 50C (121F), is one of the hottest places in the world.
Add to that giant dinosaurs, a bottle garden, Elvis impersonators, killer whales, the Jedi Academy, dinner at Forrest Gump's Shrimp Company, a stay in a wigwam motel on Route 66 and a ride on an awesome aerial tramway, and you have all the ingredients for an amazing road trip around Southern California.
Following a direct flight from London Heathrow to LAX, and an overnight stay at the Radisson at the airport, we collected a hire car the next morning and enjoyed a short drive down the famous Pacific Coast Highway to our first proper stop at Newport Beach.
On our way, we stopped at Huntington Beach, aka Surf City USA, where miles and miles of white sandy beaches and impressive waves attract surfers old and young from all around the world. It's a relaxed, chilled kind of place where modern day Beach Boys hang out.
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From Newport Beach, home to luxury holiday homes owned by America's super-rich, we headed out on a whale and dolphin spotting boat trip. Unfortunately, the whales remained elusive but there were plenty of dolphins and California sea lions to be seen.
Next on the agenda was a drive further down the Pacific Coast Highway to San Diego, home to a huge navy base and, of course, Sea World.
Ignore the 'Free Willy' brigade, Sea World is worth a visit, especially if you have children with you. The emphasis is on education, education, education with huge bundles of fun thrown in. It's not very often you spend a day with killer whales, the strange beluga whales, sea lions, sharks, dolphins and polar bears.
The city is also home to the USS Midway, an aircraft carrier turned floating museum, which is packed full of historic aircraft, including many which Oscar was able to climb into the cockpit for the full 'Top Gun' experience. Scenes from the movie were filmed locally – movie buffs may want to check out the Kansas Bar and Grill in town.
From San Diego, we headed out into the desert. It was noticeably hotter as we left the coast and headed in land towards the Joshua Tree National Park and then on to the desert playground that is Palm Springs.
It was here that Hollywood celebs would holiday. Frank Sinatra, Elvis, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., George Hamilton, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Kirk Douglas, Cary Grant, Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, they all enjoyed holidays in Palm Springs. And so did we.
It's a welcoming place offering wall-to-wall sunshine, immaculate streets and great shopping as well as the famous Aerial Tramway which takes visitors from a base station up to the summit of an 8,000ft-high mountain range in a revolving cable car.
At the top, there are various treks walkers can enjoy. There's also a cafe for a pit stop with an amazing view.
Palm Springs is also home to Soak City, an extensive water park on a welcomingly compact site, with rides and slides for the unadventurous, brave and foolhardy. Hubby headed for the latter.
The park is well worth a day trip for anyone visiting town, and is great value for money.
Just remember to bring flip-flops — the combination of desert sun and concrete paths can provide quite an experience otherwise.
Our road trip continued back into Los Angeles, via a lunch stop at the Big Wheel cafe at Cabazon.
To attract motorists off the interstate, the owner has built huge, concrete dinosaurs outside his cafe. It works. Anyone with a young child just has to pull over and explore the massive creatures. They are so big you can go inside one to buy souvenirs!
Back through the San Bernardino mountains, we arrived in Rialto, a suburb of LA, and home to the Wigwam Motel on the original Route 66.
We stayed two nights in the most unusual accommodation. The motel is stuck in a pleasant timewarp and offers basic but comfy rooms with ensuite facilities.
Our trip back into LA was a special treat for our little man — we celebrated his fifth birthday at Disneyland in Anaheim.
It wasn't any of the Disney characters Oscar was interested in. He was there for one reason, and one reason only — Jedi Academy. And it was a dream that came true as he was selected by the Jedi Master to train at the academy.
After an amazing one-to-one light sabre battle with Darth Vader, we came away with a fully fledged Padawan complete with certificate to prove it!
Disneyland is much less 'Anglicised' than it's Florida counterpart and caters more for the home-grown tourist market.
The next morning, we bid farewell to the Wigwam Motel and headed into the Mojave Desert — our destination, Las Vegas.
We split the drive with stops at Calico ghost town, Peggy Sue's Diner near Barstow and a detour along Route 66 again to see the hanging bottle garden 'grown' in a backyard in the middle of nowhere! We first saw the bottle garden on Billy Connolly's Route 66 TV show.
The desert goes on and on, and then, suddenly, there it is… Las Vegas, and all its neon lights.
Our home in Sin City was the Stratosphere Hotel at the northern end of the famous Strip. Included in our £17 per night (for all three of us) stay were unlimited free trips to the top of the Stratosphere Tower.
For the brave, there are theme park rides on the outside of the top of the tower, as well as abseiling down the tower. Not my cup of tea!
Oscar's presence restricted hubby's visits to play the slots, and we were left to plan a day's family entertainment around Vegas.
After much indecision, we settled on a walk down the strip to see the sights of Vegas, and enjoying the facilities at the Stratosphere.
We enjoyed an encounter with a large group of Elvis impersonators (what else!) before I was drawn into the huge shopping mall at Caesar's Palace, where designer shops stood side by side in Vegas's version of an Italian Piazza.
I resisted the $1,000 dresses on offer, much to Joe's relief, but did pick up an iPad at a significantly lower price than I'd pay back home.
Most casinos have a free show outside in the evening, and our brief visit meant we were restricted for time, so we chose the one that appealed most to Oscar — the pirate show at Treasure Island.
After a fantastic meal at BB King's — with free starters compliments of one of the numerous promotional coupons handed out on the Strip — we arrived just in time for the show.
The entertainment provided was Spearmint Rhino meets Jack Sparrow (but, hey, what do you expect in Vegas!), but there were enough sword fights, explosions and sinking pirate ships to keep a by now very tired Oscar happy!
From Las Vegas, we headed back out into the desert for, what was for me, the highlight of our trip — a stay in Death Valley.
At almost 300ft below sea level and with temperatures hitting 50C, it is an awesome experience.
Thankfully, amid the desert wilderness is an oasis that is Furnace Creek Ranch which offers comfy, spotless accommodation with a fabulous swimming pool fed by underground springs. The water is a constant 28C.
The ranch also features a couple of restaurants offering tasty steak dinners and ice cold local beers.
We headed out of Death Valley to start our journey back to LA.
One moment we were at sea level and then, after passing roadside signs warning motorists to switch off the air-con to avoid over heating the engine, we were climbing 8.000ft to leave the valley.
It is easy to underestimate how mountainous California is. They are everywhere, even running through LA. And where there are no mountains, there is desert.
Just outside Death Valley, hubby insisted on a short detour to the abandoned mining town of Ballarat.
While not really on the tourist map — it truly is in the middle of nowhere — its claim to fame is as a hideout for the infamous Manson 'family' in the 1960s, and more attractively for Joe, it's where the opening credits of classic film 'Easy Rider' were filmed.
After the customary photos, we followed the road ridden by Billy and Captain America back into the desert.
Next stop was Victorville, back on Route 66.
To get there we passed an airplane boneyard — a stretch of desert where aircraft are lined up, row upon row, to gather dust.
The climate prevents them deteriorating. They certainly won't go rusty stuck there in the Mojave.
We were there in time for the San Bernardino County Fair, a family friendly event which featured turkey stampedes, fairground rides, country music and an evening demolition derby. Amazing value at just $5 each!
The following morning was spent at the Route 66 Museum in Victorville, staffed by friendly volunteers all helping to keep the legendary Mother Road alive by inspiring the likes of five-year-old Oscar to be interested in its history.
On show are plenty of exhibits. An advertising board for the Los Angeles 'Herald and Express' caused particular excitement.
A short drive back over the San Bernardino mountains and across LA — despite warnings about the LA traffic, we didn't find it at all that bad — we found ourselves back at Newport Beach in time for a much-needed swim.
The next day was the time honoured tourist visit to Hollywood, complete with bus tour departing outside the Chinese Theatre on the Walk of Stars.
Our guide provided us with a thoroughly entertaining commentary and we were introduced, among other things, to the playing field from Grease, the HQ from Ghostbusters and, erm, where Lady Gaga buys her coffee.
After navigating our way out of the world's most confusing car park, we headed to the pier at Santa Monica, the end of Route 66, before stopping for a fantastic evening meal at Bubba Gump's, a Forrest Gump themed restaurant in Long Beach.
It's great value and well worth a visit even if you're not a fan of the movie.
Our final couple of days were spent properly discovering Huntington Beach, a friendly community living alongside an amazing beach.
Its one of the last few beaches that have fire pits. Just turn up early enough to claim yours and wait for sunset to enjoy a barbecue.
Huntington Beach is also home to a Tuesday market which features locally produced food and drink, including fruit and veg, at low, low prices plus souvenirs to take home. Joe treated himself to hot, hot chilli sauces.
Me? I bought a handmade sign for my beach hut… a little piece of California is now at home in Goodrington.