How much holiday fun can you crowbar into one half-term getaway? Actually, bucketsful – if your boarding pass lands you on America’s sun-drenched West Coast. Ten hours in the sky from the UK to Los Angeles promises cool beach towns, major movie studios, thrilling theme parks and some world-beating wildlife. And whichever term school break you plump for – February, June or October – the sky will almost certainly be blue.
Our multi-generational gang of six (comprising one granny, one uncle, two kids – Belle, eight, and Cleo, six – and my partner and me) are wooed way out west by flights on the right side of £300 each.
LA is often cheaper to get to than the Canaries in school holidays, and any jet-lag we fear melts away quickly, ushered out by Los Angeles’s immediate, dazzling sunshine, towering palms and endless honey sands. We forgo the wham-bam of Hollywood’s headline tourist sights (they can wait a while) and make for those cool beach towns instead. Pitching up at Newport Beach, a well-heeled harbour enclave that’s 40 minutes’ drive south of the airport, proves just the ticket.
Exhilarating: Joanna Tweedy visited Dana Point, aka the Dolphin and Whale Watching Capital of the World, during her holiday to America’s West Coast
Delicious: Joanna’s kids loved the famous frozen bananas served at Sugar N’ Spice in Newport Beach (pictured)
A local recommends hiring a ‘duffy’, a plush little electric boat that costs about £25pp for a day and moves at a blissfully glacial five knots. It’s sage advice, and we spend an afternoon in Newport Bay weaving around paddle-boarders, dodging buffleheads (cute sea ducks that bob along next to us) and lusting after palatial waterfront houses. So eclectic in style are these homes, planning officials clearly follow the ‘anything but boring’ mantra.
The girls love the £3.5 million ‘Jaws House’, a futuristic pad that looks like the gaping mouth of a great white shark; and we seek out the lavish former homes of Hollywood royalty including Cyndi Lauper, John Wayne and Shirley Temple.
Back on terra firma, a stroll down chintzy Marine Drive on Balboa Island sees us join a queue to sample Newport Beach’s snack of choice: the chocolate-dipped frozen banana. The shop with the longest line is the delightfully retro Sugar N’ Spice, which lays claim to inventing the £4.50 treat back in 1945. The kids’ eyes widen at the prospect of ‘Oreo crumbles’ or ‘pecan crunch’ toppings cemented into the melted chocolate. Cleo plumps for the ‘everything’ topping and emerges with a dizzying layer of sprinkles, which she scoffs before ditching the actual banana.
We want to keep the driving to a minimum, but freedom and freeways go hand-in-hand in California, so we eventually take our place on the ever-so-slightly-terrifying ten-lane I-5 South for the half-hour hop to our next stop – Dana Point, aka the Dolphin and Whale Watching Capital of the World.
This low-key Orange County town sits exactly halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego on southern California’s gloriously craggy coastline. It was anointed a Whale Heritage Site in 2021, thanks to the grey, blue, humpback, minke and finbacks that frequently glide into this warm bay, plus the 450,000 common dolphins that call these waters home.
Based in the town’s harbour since 1971, the Dana Wharf Whale Watching Company takes out tourist boats (£40 for adults, £30 for children and half price on Tuesdays) three times a day with marine naturalists on board for quizzing.
‘LA is often cheaper to get to than the Canaries in school holidays,’ writes Joanna. Pictured is the family on bikes at Venice Beach
Pretty bufflehead ducks (pictured) bobbed alongside Joanna as she cruised down Newport Bay on a ‘duffy’ boat
There’s no sign of any humpback immediately, so we just look, breathing in the salty air and watching light ricochet off the water. And that, of course, is when the magic happens. First come the dolphins. Like a jaunty circus troupe, they dip and dive around our tourist boat. Then, just beyond them, the kids spy a more sizeable monochrome mass. Stretching 40ft, it gently breaks the waters and we suddenly have the best seats in the house as a humpback launches itself skywards again and again.
When we pootle back to shore exhilarated, an hour later, the marine life theatricals don’t abate. A gang of tubby sea lions flop and bark on sun-bleached boardwalks as we anchor up.
Eventually, Tinseltown’s cinematic heritage lures us inland to LA. The Tangerine, a 1960s motel in an electric shade of orange on Burbank’s West Riverside Drive, offers a change from the beachy vibes. In the shadow of movie-making goliaths such as Warner Brothers, Universal and Disney, this bolthole serves up free Cuban pastries for breakfast and lets tourists who’ve spent long days delving into Hollywood’s movie vault cool off in its tiny butter-bean-shaped pool.
Our trip coincides with Belle’s peak Harry Potter adoration, so the prospect of a day at Universal Studios, where the young wizard has a quarter of a theme park dedicated to him, is joyous.
What tours of Universal – and nearby Warner Brothers – offer is permission to peel back the curtain on Hollywood’s film alchemy.
Joanna and her brood spent a day at Universal Studios Hollywood, where a quarter of the theme park is dedicated to Harry Potter. Pictured is the Hogwarts Castle
At Warner Brothers, our guide, Joshua, is a man whose movie trivia cup runneth over. Want to know how tall Aquaman is? (6ft 4in.) Or what inspired the Batmobile in the Dark Knight Trilogy? (It’s essentially the lovechild of a Lamborghini and a tank.) He’s your guy.
We even squeeze in some culture – spending the hours before our flight home perusing the mind-bending exhibits at the Getty Museum in glitzy Bel Air.
‘This is wonderful’, says Granny. ‘This is boring,’ say the kids.
Joanna and family stayed at the Newport Beach Marriott (doubles from £169, marriott.com), DoubleTree Suites by Hilton Hotel at Doheny Beach (suites from £207, hilton.com) and The Tangerine in Burbank (doubles from £167, thetangerine.com). One-day Universal Studios Hollywood tickets cost £88 (universalstudioshollywood.com). Warner Brothers Studio tours cost £55 for adults and £47 for children, wbstudiotour.com. Find more information on California holidays at visitcalifornia.com.