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A road trip to Southern California with the boys

Alex Miller
Summit Daily News
Summit Daily/Alex Miller Aviators in place, Austin and Andy Miller soaked up some rays on the San Diego Bay ferry to Coronado.
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With the girls off in another direction this summer, the boys and I had California on our minds as we set off in the mighty Toyota minivan for the Golden State earlier this month. Not on the agenda this trip was anything more than a lot of beach time, with one notable exception: With Andy turning 10 on Aug. 8, we decided to celebrate in the same way we did for older brother Austin at the same age with a trip to Medieval Times in Buena Park.

The rest of the trip was a lot of driving and a lot of hanging out at the beach. The first one we hit was our old hangout when we lived in LA a few years back: Zuma Beach, on the north end of Malibu. Not so full of surfers and Hollywood types as the main Malibu beaches, Zuma’s pretty kicked back and is a favorite for families. It also has that rare SoCal commodity: free parking! It takes some jockeying and “spot stalking” during the height of the day, but it can be done. (And if you get tired of it, you can always pay the 8 bucks.)

After a night in the cheap-but-clean (and with a good pool) Good Nite Inn in our old town of Calabasas, we hit the road for San Diego, where we set up camp in the Embassy Suites right on the bay. I’d never stayed in one of these before, but I’ll most certainly return since this is the kind of hotel that just works great for families. As the name implies, you get two rooms – one with the bed or beds and another with a small fridge, microwave, TV, couch and desk. With a door between the two rooms, those who are early to bed and early to rise (that’d be me) can get some peace while the others can do their thing. And since feeding the gang is the biggest expense after lodging and gas, having the ability to stock some breakfast and lunch items in the room makes the higher price of an Embassy Suites room worthwhile (rooms at the Embassy Suite San Diego Bay start at around $229/night).

Further justifying the cost is the fact that all Embassy Suites stays include a full breakfast, which goes far beyond the crappy muffin and thin coffee deal some places offer. They cook made-to-order omelets, fresh-made French toast and pancakes and, to the boys’ delight, all the bacon you can eat.

From here, the best, closest beach is on Coronado, the island-like body of land just off San Diego that’s half home to North Island Naval Base and half to a high-end residential community (think a beach version of Aspen). The hotel concierge told us a ferry ran to Coronado every hour, so we gave that a try as a way of giving the minivan a rest. Turns out this is a short, spendy ($8.50 round-trip) boat ride that drops you on the other side of Coronado from where the good beaches are. So other than the brief fun of being on a boat, driving turned out to be the better deal – especially since the bridge to Coronado has no toll.

With the instance of Navy jets roaring overhead markedly decreased since the last time I was on this beach in the ’80s, Coronado is a great place to while away the day. Like all SoCal beaches, the water is on the colder side and the sand a bit more coarse-grained and dark than primo tropical locales. But the surf is just the right size for frolicking in the waves while the surfers seemed to be enjoying good conditions as well.

Our next stop was a stay just a bit farther north at the La Jolla Torrey Pines Hilton. This beautiful hotel is right on the coast and overlooks the Torrey Pines golf course. We’re not golfers so some of the allure was lost on us, but there’s still something to be said for the quiet a golf course provides compared to the many other things a hotel can be adjacent to. Over the weekend, there were several weddings going on at the hotel, and we could see why: The immaculate grounds are festooned with a riotous array of flowers, flowering bushes and impeccably groomed hedges. Just walking from the room to the pool at the Torrey Pines Hilton amazed the boys, used as they are to the more rough-and-ready landscape of Summit County.

A short walk down the road brought us to the Torrey Pines Nature Reserve, a state park along the coast that features the rare and endangered Torrey pine tree. With its thick, 8-inch-long needles and softball-sized cones, the Torrey pine is an exotic-looking character compared to our rather pedestrian lodgepole, and a stately tree it is.

The reserve itself contains an extensive network of nice hiking trails that run through the pines and low brush as well as a series of curious cliffs and rock formations. There’s a beach as well, with a similar stalk-or-pay parking setup and a relatively low-key crowd of families, couples and surfers. All told, the Hilton was an excellent base camp for forays to the beach, the trails and the many shops and diversions of La Jolla.

The capstone of our road trip was the trip to Buena Park and Medieval Times. Some may recall this from the film “The Cable Guy,” and essentially it’s a dinner and a tournament featuring six knights, a king, a bunch of horses and jousting and sword play. While the tournament goes on, you get a plate full of chicken and ribs, which you eat with your hands off pewter plates.

Yep, it’s a bit cheesy and the many ways in which dollars are wrested from dad’s pocket can be rather alarming. But for a 10-year-old’s birthday, it’s tough to beat, and the Medieval Times operation is highly professional. The knights fight with steel swords and are all excellent stage fighters and horsemen. All told, it was a fine ending to our guy road trip, and one I’m sure Andy will remember for some time to come.


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