Many tourists flock to well-known destinations in Southern California such as San Diego, Disneyland, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. These are great places to visit, but if you're looking for something different, it's a little off the radar, check out these great destinations:
My husband and I have lived in California for most of our lives, but somehow missed the grand islands that are classified as one of America's national parks. After seeing some stunning photos on the Internet, we took a short boat trip to Anacapa Island from Oxnard as part of a weekend anniversary trip.
If you decide to go, be prepared and bring deliveries. This trip is for adventurous people in good physical shape. You will need to climb 157 stairs to the top of this rugged island where there is no food, services, water or flushing toilets. Now I hate houses, but I tell you – the views of the rocky shore, the massive rocks and jagged peaks are well worth it. You can easily travel around the edge of the island in just hours, with Inspiration Point a great reward for your efforts.
We visited in June, when bursts of vivid wildflowers spanned the small island and thousands of adorable baby gulls had to be found at every corner. Just beware of their protective cheats who will throw themselves in your head if you get too close.
We returned a few years later and visited the larger Santa Cruz Island for an exciting kayak tour of the historic seaside caves. On the boat ride there we saw a whale and two large dolphin schools. The waters may be rough at certain points, but the caves were incredible. It was a one-off experience.
Some people consider these islands desolate, but if you have an adventurous spirit and love nature, the Channel Islands are considered the Galapagos of North America.
Huntington Botanical Gardens
This is another stunning place we haven't been able to visit for decades. Located in Pasadena, the magnificent mansion is home to more than a dozen grand gardens spread over 120 acres. It's hard to say which garden is the most dazzling, but the Japanese Garden, the Rose Garden and the California Garden are some of my favorites.
We didn't even get a chance to browse the art galleries. The Huntington Art Gallery holds British paintings, sculptures and decorative arts from the 18th and 19th centuries and includes the famous Blue Boy. And to my shame as a writer, we did not visit the Huntington Library itself, one of the largest and most comprehensive research libraries in the United States.
Ventura County Wine Trail
Napa may get all the attention as a wine country in California, but my husband and I enjoyed sipping on the coastal hills near the seaside town of Ventura. We visited two of the nearly 20 wine and tasting rooms.
You can book one of the many wine tours available. However, we decided to take a map and research it ourselves. Starting at Ventura at the intersection of Highway 1 and Highway 101, we went up Highway 33 to Ojai.
Surprises await this somewhat lonely but charming path – from the "smallest post office in the US" to the last place anyone saw James Dean alive. Our favorite find was Old Creek Winery, which felt like returning to a simpler place and time where kind people and dogs greeted us. We enjoyed our purchased bottle of wine and picnic outside at the tables, enjoying the view of Americana.
By the way, both Ojai and Ventura are worth the stops with charming inns, luxury spas and snacks, as well as a wide range of outdoor activities. In summer, the port city of Ventura is a hub for festivals and live music on weekends.
This charming beach town is halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego. With over 20 different scenic bays, this beach area offers everything from surfing, paddling, snorkeling, kayaking and whale watching.
Just be careful, the surf can be rough in places. As a teenager, I decided to surf, despite the winding waters, and wiped out a huge wave (think about the Beach Boys song: Heheheheheheee wipe oooout!). In fact, I blame the beach boys for all this accident, because they went and romanticized this whole surfing theme with songs I grew up on as Surfer Girl. And so it is their fault.
However, the landscape cannot be defeated. Add ultra-chic restaurants and shops and unique art galleries and you'll get the picture. There's even a Baby Boomer Club dancing on Saturday nights. Every summer, they host Laguna Woodstock, where the party of baby boomers like his since 1969.
Heisler Park is a good place to start, located just north of the main beach, with an easy half-mile walk along a paved walkway with incredible views of the coastline and the soothing sound of the crashing waves. You can take one of the paths to the beaches and pools for tides. Benches, picnic tables and barbecues abound where you can enjoy the magnificent views. Hubby and I had a picnic on one of the lawns and it was perfect!
Treasure Island Park is another great place, located on the basis of the five-star Montana Laguna Beach, where the truly wealthy stay. Elegantly landscaped, several mirror benches line the easy-to-walk winding path. Stairs and ramps lead you down to the beach, where you can stroll through a beautiful rock arch during low tide, find space in the sand for sunbathing and a large tide pool. There is also enough lawn for picnic. I would suggest bringing some wine and cheese to catch a romantic sunset.
Big Bear Lake
I live in the desert, so the Big Bear nearby is a great mountain getaway with its beautiful lake and pristine forests. Boating, fishing and tourism are just part of the activities in this small, sheltered village.
Last summer, my husband and I toured the lake, picnicked, zipped down an alpine slide, drove cards at speeds up to 30 m.p.h. and we climbed the scenic armchair in the sky for great views. After watching people get on the mountain bike lifts along the trails, we put it on our to-do list for next time.
For adventures in the heart are available parasailing and chips.
El Matador Beach
Looking for a spectacular coastline with white sands, towering rocks, catastrophic waves and rocky rock formations in a semi-hidden place?
Look no further than El Matador, located north of Malibu, along the winding Pacific Highway. It's easy to miss the small, brown sign pointing to the small parking lot on the walkway, so watch carefully between Broad Beach and Decker Canyon Roads. Once you've found it, be prepared to walk the 150-meter bluff with a few steep stairs.
Not for young children or those who are physically challenged, but if you manage to do it on the steps, you'll be treated to breathtaking views. The locals are aware of this beach and you can see some photo shoots taking place – we did it!
This small but glorious stretch of beach has a very blissful effect, so bring a picnic lunch or some wine and find a hidden spot to enjoy an incredibly romantic setting.
By now, you may have noticed that my husband and I are beachgoers. We found this beach by accident as we searched nearby for an overnight stay before leaving LAX the next morning.
The Port of Redondo is a landmark with panoramic ocean views and water activities that include port cruises, seasonal whale watching, kayaks, paddles and pedal boats. True, we didn't try any of them, but we loved the views from Tony at the marina where we enjoyed Happy Hour!
The harbor is also home to a 16-foot-tall white shark, known as Georgette, exposed in a large tank at Shark Attack on the Pier. If you have grandchildren with you or are young at heart, you can enjoy the submersible yellow submarine (hell, I now have the Beatles song stuck in my head) for an underwater tour of local marine life.
It would probably be a stay at an airport hotel if you are flying to or from Los Angeles.
This island is better known than some of my previous recommendations, but a sentimental favorite. My husband and I spent our honeymoon there 40 years ago and returned several times. This is a small, quaint island with no chairs and fast food restaurants. Typical congestion involves two golf carts and a bicycle built for two.
On our honeymoon, we blissfully rode bikes around Avalon, went horseback riding, touring the famous casino and sunbathing on the small beach. We also took a bus to the Two Ports – the only other village on Catalina Island. Snorkeling, parachuting, fishing, glass bottom boat trips, boating, Segway walks, golf and hiking are other popular activities.
Decades later, we sailed our boat to Long Beach Island – which turned out to be a wild ride. My husband and older children returned to our outdoor dives again to become certified for diving among the famous algae surrounded by the bright orange Garibaldi fish. Next time we visit, I want to try out the new zip line, which is 600 feet above sea level in one go, which is 1100 feet long at speeds of up to 30 m.p.h. Wheee!
As you can see, Southern California has so many great places to visit that it is impossible to list them all. But I hope I gave you some ideas to get you started!