Road Trip USA: Get that motor running

Who says only grown-ups can get their kicks on an American road trip? Alex Finer, his wife and daughter took off in a Chrysler convertible along California's Highway 1, bound for the pleasures of Monterey

'I'm getting sunburned, Dad," said my daughter Jasmine from the back seat. "It really is too blowy," said my wife, sitting next to me. "Put the roof up," they demanded in unison.

I'd rented the convertible, a silver Chrysler Sebring, at San Francisco airport. We were heading south down 280, otherwise known as the world's most beautiful freeway, rapidly leaving Silicon Valley and the Bay Area behind. Cruise control was set at 65mph, and the outside air temperature sensor read 96F (35.5C). It was a shame, but they each had a point.

With my old Beach Boys favourites and Jasmine's Green Day CD alternating in the car stereo, we continued with the hood and the air conditioning both firmly on. Our route took us over the mountain on Highway 17 towards Santa Cruz and then down the legendary Highway 1 coast road to the Monterey peninsula.

Our base for the next six days was Carmel-by-the-Sea, a town where Clint Eastwood once ruled as mayor but in which lawlessness is hardly the problem he encountered in most of his film roles. The headline on the weekly Police & Sheriff's Log in The Carmel Pine Cone read "Toddler falls on popsicle stick". Other reports concerned dogs barking, a digital camera lost on Dolores Street and a mobile phone found on the beach. The worst crimes recorded were driving and marijuana offences.

It's a pretty town. Idiosyncratic Hansel and Gretel clapboard and stone cottages, with flower-drenched gardens and picket fences, crowd tree-lined streets that lead sharply down to a broad expanse of beach made all the more magical when shrouded in mist. You'll see the locals walking it from sunrise to sunset, often with their well-behaved dogs retrieving balls from the ocean.

After eggs benedict for breakfast at La Playa Hotel, a sprawling pink dowager of a hotel, we set off at a sedate pace, roof down once more, heading for neighbouring Monterey where Jasmine had a date at the aquarium. True, temperature was still an issue, because now it was too chilly for the front-seat passenger. While the rest of the state continued to bake in temperatures topping 38C, a razor-thin local microclimate reduces the coastal temperatures around the peninsula even in summer to around 20C-23C. The car heater solved the dilemma.

Jasmine was booked on an ambitious underwater explorers' programme in which children under 14 are taught how to use scuba equipment and explore the Great Tide Pool, part of Monterey Bay, while breathing through regulators with oxygen tanks on their backs. She excitedly reported back on monkey-faced eels, bat stars, sea cucumbers and a giant green anemone. Warmed by a hot chocolate, she duly selected three "firsts" to record in her log book: touching a crab, seeing a gumboot chiton and wearing a dry suit. We all celebrated the event over dinner by eating a large quantity of fish at the Whaling Station on Wave Street.

The other whaling station we visited is to be found, a few miles south of Carmel, in Point Lobos State Reserve. It proved more sombre. Now marked only by giant bleached bones and a two-room museum in a wooden shack, this is where between 1862 and 1879 some 250 Pacific whales, suspended on pulleys were hung, drawn and quartered, their blubber melted down in huge pots.

Today the reserve nurtures nature. The land supports 250 different animals and birds and 350 plant species. You can walk for hours along the cliffs and picnic at tables while watching pelicans fly past in formation. Most extraordinary of all is the sight – and the smell – of thousands of cormorants noisily crowded on to Bird Island just metres from the headland.

Carmel itself has plenty to offer visitors. The Mission was founded in 1770. The bizarre Tor House and tower were built by the poet Robinson Jeffers with stones he dragged off the beach. So popular is the town that we needed to move hotel to the Tally Ho Inn which sported a king-size bed for us and a sofa bed for Jasmine, plasma screen TV, Jacuzzi bath and a balcony with sea view. Restaurants, too, needed booking.

But the best times – and the most family friendly – were to be had out of doors. At the Pebble Beach Equestrian Center, we embarked on a trek through woods, across sand dunes and back along the edge of a golf-course, riding western style. And whenever the weather was too cool for comfort, we headed inland, roof down, towards Carmel Valley watching the temperature sensor rise rapidly.

It was here on our final day that we visited Earthbound Farm for a harvest walk. Armed with baskets, we had 30 acres in which to pick organic vegetables. Fortunately, we had relatives to return to in the Bay Area with whom to share our rich pickings. And the car roof, since you ask, was up for the drive back.

Compact facts

HOW TO GET THERE:

Return flights to San Francisco with Virgin Atlantic (08705 747 747; virginatlantic.com) cost from £513. Alamo offers a week's car hire from £105 (0870 191 6992; alamo.co.uk).

FURTHER INFORMATION:

For more about the area contact the Monterey County Convention and Visitors Bureau (001 888 221 1010; montereyinfo.org).

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