In the sagebrush-quilted Malibu hills, our four-year-old, Kaifas, peers at the not-so-natural scene: a silver jungle gym that looks like it could have been built by NASA engineers. “Can we play on that?” he asks an attendant at Calamigos Ranch, a rustic inn that blends seamlessly (except for the playground) into this desert canyon east of Zuma Beach.
We’ve stopped at this spot for breakfast before we embark on a two-day journey from sea to summit. With our two- and four-year-old boys in tow, the plan is to surf, hike, kayak, even ski, in one single weekend. The reason, I suppose, is that in California you can. But also, since my wife Amy and I come here a lot for work, we secretly hope that introducing the state’s wild side first might stave off Lego-Disney-Celebrity fervor for a few years. Probably not.
“Actually,” the attendant tells Kai, “That playground is Sylvester Stallone’s set. His new workout show premieres tonight!”
“Is Sylvester a cat?” Kai asks.
“Is that a movie?”
“Can we watch Rambo, dad?”
Amy explains that we are heading to the beach instead.
“Surfing lessons, guys!” she beams at them.
Interest in watching Rambo quickly subsides. As we deposit the boys into their car seats, we’re impressed to discover that our eight-foot surfboard—and luggage that any childless person would assume is necessary for a journey around the world—fits easily into the cargo area of the Mazda CX-9.
Not that a car alone will make this quixotic adventure simple. When we arrive at Zuma, 20-miles-per-hour onshore winds have made the normally blue water look like Rambo was just here with a bucket of grenades. This means turning south along the Pacific Coast Highway, or PCH, a drive that takes us toward more sheltered, but also more populated, breaks like Latigo Point, Topanga, and Malibu Beach itself. PCH also brings us by infinite celebrity homes: Robert Redford, Bob Dylan, and Whoopi Goldberg, to name but a few.
“Pacific Coast Highway takes us toward more sheltered, but also more populated, breaks like Latigo Point, Topanga, and Malibu Beach”
“Does Rambo have a house here?” Kaifas asks. “Probably,” Amy says. “Mambo Mambo!” Eben exclaims, very loudly. The outburst is followed by screams of laughter. And guessing where Mambo and Rambo might live provides entertainment until we pull into our first wind-sheltered surf spot. Being one of the most crowded breaks in Malibu, Third Point is not exactly ideal for learning.
But squeezing and tugging the boys into their new fluorescent wetsuits takes sufficient acrobatics that we are feeling pretty accomplished as we cross the lagoon toward the beach.
That early accomplishment turns out to be a blessing. Dad forgot these waves break over small boulders and sharp barnacles—not sand. The boys get spooked and we all opt to roll in sand like seals instead of surf. Not what we’d envisioned. But on the upside, we all get wet. I get to sneak out to ride a few waves. And we avoid the ER. Surfing, check.
Better appointed than ever before, the new CX-9 really is a family road trip dream. The sleek seven-seater (Nappa leather on Signature trim) carries us, our kids and everything else we need with ease, takes curves like a premium sedan, and still handles off-road terrain like the all-wheel-drive SUV it is. The latter is thanks to Mazda’s i-ACTIV all-wheel drive that can sense and predict road conditions, then split torque between the front and rear wheels to prevent skids.
“Once at Big Bear Lake the brothers, not surprisingly, decide that kayaking is about trying their best to ram into each other”
Mazda Radar Cruise Control also lets you know if you’re getting too close to the car ahead, while the Blind Spot Monitoring system beeps if you’re changing lanes into your neighbor, which is incredibly helpful on the freeways. And because we’re determined to fit as much into our trip as we can, we decide to make the time for a sunset kayak on the famous Big Bear Lake on the way up to Bear Mountain ski resort, our ultimate destination.
As we blast sing-along train songs and feast on road-trip snacks, we’re grateful for the Mazda CX-9’s 12-speaker Bose sound system* and the many door and console compartments that keep all the boys’ toys so well organized.
Once at Big Bear Lake the brothers, not surprisingly, decide that kayaking is about trying their best to ram into each other—a game Amy and I resist getting involved in for about seven minutes before giving in, nicknaming our two kayaks “Mambo” and “Rambo,” and chasing each other around the lake until sundown.
As the sun falls behind the last snow-capped peaks, we are wet, cold, and exhausted as we drag our kayaks back to the car. And yet, and I don’t think it’s just me, we are also very content. We’ll drive away from here thinking of Rambo as a type of kayak (rather than a movie) for at least another year.
After a night spent in one of Big Bear Lake’s comfortable hostelries, we’re back in the CX-9, and ever grateful for the easy folding back seats and power rear liftgate. The boys conk out in the back, and soon we are climbing the steep switchbacks up to eight thousand feet, scenery transforming from floral and earthy to coniferous granite. It’s more gorgeous than either Amy or I expected. Too perfect.
“We climb the steep switchbacks up to eight thousand feet, scenery transforming from floral and earthy to coniferous granite”
“Well, we’ll know to call first next year,” I smile, trying to remain upbeat. Eben and Kaifas can’t mask their disappointment, but all glumness is short-lived as we park the CX-9 outside the locally recommended Teddy Bear Restaurant. With saws and skis mounted on the old cedar walls, this diner fits Big Bear Village’s 1970s John Wayne vibe to a tee, while also yielding friendly service, scrumptious burgers, and some of the best cherry pie ever.
And before we know it, it’s time to return home. The fun factor was high. And we accomplished our mission—an exceedingly comfortable road trip through California’s wilderness with nary a mention of that mouse, his magic kingdom, or a single Lego figurine.