This Christmas holiday, my kids and I made a family road trip to visit my mom up in woodsy Northern California, in a quaint little town called Grass Valley. It was our first time visiting my biological mom and family since we found each other through DNA testing over a year ago. Last June, my mom and I met for the first time in 49 years. I had asked if we were going to spend the holidays together, which was more of a rhetorical question. But would we fly or drive? Then I remembered how much I loved the drive along the Pacific Coast Highway. Both Santa Cruz and Big Sur have all the beautiful trees along the ocean to admire. There’s Ragged Point, San Simeon, and Hearst Castle. Soon I was excited to make the drive up to my mom’s house, with the idea that on the way back we’d drive down Highway 1 for a scenic view of some of the best places to visit in California.
My mom, stepdad, and two brothers had all moved up to Northern California from Los Angeles quite awhile ago. One brother lives in Lodi, just 90 miles east of San Francisco, an area becoming known for its wine. He and his wife are newly empty nesters, as my two nieces are both in college. My other brother lives on a lavender farm in Grass Valley with his wife and four kids. Yes, it’s as Hallmark cute as it gets. Same goes for all of my nieces and nephews, as cute as it gets.
Although I’ve visited San Francisco many times, Gold Rush towns like Grass Valley on the outskirts of Sacramento are entirely new territory for me. I had initially planned to drive up on Sunday before Christmas but made a last minute decision to leave Saturday and surprise my mom.
I called up the hotel to make sure we had our room available a night earlier. Once I had our accommodations sorted out, we woke early Saturday and drove straight up the 5 freeway until sundown. There’s not a lot to be said about taking the quicker route up from Los Angeles to Sacramento and beyond.
The scenery is mainly farms, rest stops with fast food offerings, chain restaurants, and gas stations. My teenage son and I traded driving duties until we reached Grass Valley. We were well prepared with coats, scarves, and hats, but this trip we often found ourselves driving narrow two-lane roads in the complete darkness where iPhone navigation loses service. The satellite navigation in my Prius was able to help us out in those cases. Also, we learned to drive carefully at night with high beams on so we didn’t accidentally hit any roaming deer.
Once we checked into the hotel, I texted mom hello and asked her what she was doing for dinner. She replied that she had just eaten leftovers and was already in her pajamas. Given that it was only 6 o’clock, I gave her a call, just in case she decided to go to bed early.
Mom was still completely unaware that we were already in her area. The surprise was going to work! I was smiling to myself as she gave me all the details about driving up, what the hotel would be like, and such. My daughters and I scrambled into the car, ready to drive over for the big surprise. But I needed to use the navigation in the car to find her home, so I gave an excuse— Oh, can I call you back, I have to run to the market… That ended the call as we hurried over. In just a few minutes, my car lights gave away our arrival in mom’s driveway. My stepdad peeked out the window and opened the front door, laughing, so surprised. He said, Hey, are you kidding me? Are you kidding me? The girls bounced into the house to hug their grandma. My mom was right there in her cozy pajamas, tears of joy streaming down her face and a big beaming smile. We definitely surprised her in the best way.
It was a refreshing change being in a small town. My kids and I are used to the city, where the light pollution obscures the view of the stars. We saw a family of deer on the side of the road. Later, we looked up into the night sky full of constellations. We might have a white Christmas in this little town, as the weather forecast was looking like snow. It rained heavily for a few days, not quite snowing. The day after Christmas was our snow day, and my daughter’s 15th birthday. My mom and stepdad thought the kids would love to go sledding, so we drove as far as we could from Grass Valley toward Lake Tahoe to find the best spot. Just a bit of a drive up and we found plenty of snow.
SLEEP, EAT AND DRINK IN GRASS VALLEY
The Grass Valley Courtyard Suites is a lovely little place to stay. Our suite with full kitchen had plenty of room for me and my three older kids. My son, Benjamin, 19 years old, preferred the couch bed by the fireplace, where he binge-watched many episodes of The Office while lounging around. In the large bedroom, two queen beds were plush with pillows and new mattresses. My daughters, Hannah Rose, 14, and Sayuri, 11, shared one bed, while I luxuriated in my very own.
We also noticed the nearby Holbrooke Hotel, a historic California landmark built in 1862 in mid-19th century Mother Lode masonry architectural style. The original building was The Golden Gate Saloon and has been in business since 1852 before the hotel was added on. Many famous people throughout the years have stayed at The Holbrooke, including writer Mark Twain, writer Jack London, and the courtesan Lola Montez, who had lived in Grass Valley for a short time. The Holbrooke is under renovation, so perhaps during another visit, we’ll wander the lobby to see if we encounter any Gold Rush period ghosts in this old-time haunt.
I was smitten with South Pine Café across the street from the hotel and indulged in almond milk lattes and tofu scrambles for breakfast as often as I could. The hotel had a very generous continental breakfast, but I’m a picky vegan who requires things like dairy alternatives. Fable Coffee was a great find as well— the matcha latte was made with authentic matcha powder, either almond or oat milk, no sweetener, and that’s exactly how I like it.
DRIVING DOWN THE COAST
On the way back home, we drove down to Santa Cruz and enjoyed a rustic two-day stay in an Airbnb log cabin among the Redwoods in Scotts Valley, just 15 minutes north of Santa Cruz. Among the tall redwoods, we had real family time, far away from sirens, billboards, freeways, and bright lights. That didn’t keep the kids from watching Netflix and chilling out, although the potbelly stove was roaring with its gas fireplace flame at a steady heat. No chilling, just cozying.
That morning, I had booked a massage for myself and my older daughter at Spa Santangelo in nearby Felton. After our spa zen out, we stopped for a nourishing smoothie at Wild Roots Market. My brother, sister-in-law, and niece joined up with us that afternoon and took us on a drive along scenic Empire Grade through an enchanted forest of redwood trees. The beauty and magnificence of the Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park put me in absolute awe. I was so amazed by the magical forest of trees. The serene energy one feels as you drive within the canopy of green is remarkable. As Empire Grade ends at the ocean, we parked at Natural Bridges State Beach for the sunset view.
My brother’s favorite restaurant in Santa Cruz is Laili, a Mediterranean restaurant with some fantastic vegan options on their menu. We all enjoyed a leisurely dinner — I ordered the roasted cauliflower with chickpeas, tomato ginger sauce, saffron basmati rice and salad. We also ordered two Mediterranean plates for the table: hummus, tabbouleh, baba ghanoush, and cucumber yogurt served with puffed naan-like flatbread. My kids got to bond a little more with one of their cousins, and all of us lingered over the dinner table until well sated. We also had tea at Verve Coffee before dinner, just because my brother loves it there.
The next day, we packed up and said goodbye to the cute little log cabin and headed south through Big Sur to San Luis Obispo. Our car at this point was packed full and the trunk was a game of Jenga. We were hauling around our stuffed suitcases, extra snow boots, a basket of fruit, a grocery bag full of snacks and granola bars, two king size comforters, and four pillows. Oh, also, a head of purple cabbage I didn’t get to make proper use of in a salad. We had to stop for something to eat and stretch our legs. I had heard that San Luis Obispo had many vegan dining options. Since we were all hangry, I didn’t take much time to find the right dining spot. We wolfed down tofu buddha bowls and vegan quesadillas at a local café. I wish I’d done better research on the vegan dining scene in San Luis Obispo because it’s definitely worth a second visit. After our hanger-induced dinner, we took a stroll around the downtown area before driving to our hotel in Avila Beach. I was certainly glad that we ate in San Luis Obispo because Avila Beach shuts down early.
While the wintery chill kept us off the beach, we scoped out Avila for a potential summertime family destination. For now, it was just an overnight at a beach hotel, which was slow due to the winter. In the morning, I took a walk in search of good coffee and found Kraken Coffee Company on the empty boardwalk. I was a little bummed that my hotel selection was the place for summer travelers, offering us little else in winter but a windy beach, closed shops, and a basic breakfast of sugary muffins, cereal, a chafing dish of scrambled eggs and bacon, and standard coffee.
We checked out of Avila Beach early in search of some real food. Thankfully we had plans to meet my dad and stepmom for a delicious Mexican lunch at Rudy’s in Santa Barbara. I ordered some tasty portobello tacos and plenty of guacamole to satisfy my avocado-loving heart’s content. After lunch, frothy oat milk matcha lattes at Handlebar Coffee.
Our last night stay on the road was at the Ojai Valley Inn. We enjoyed dinner at The Oak, and of course, I had the vegan enchiladas. After a soak in the big bathtub complete with verbena scented bath salts, I was ready for a great night’s sleep in my big comfy bed. It was everything I had hoped it would be, and we all slept well.
The next morning I woke bright and early to grab a green juice at the Spa Cafe before yoga class. I also made a quick stop for a chai latte at Hip Vegan to sip while driving, wishing I had enough of an appetite for their lunch menu.
Yet on the way back home to Los Angeles, I became feverish and caught the flu while sitting in a traffic jam on the 101 freeway. Spending New Year’s Eve in bed with high fever, body aches, and chills was not quite how I had imagined welcoming in the new year. I’d been off Instagram, except for sharing my vacation videos in stories, sipping lemon water and tea, contemplating my new year’s goals.
Our road trip was better than I had hoped it would be for my kids and brought us all closer as a family, and a bigger family with lots of coastal drives ahead of us.