Hidden Gems in Southern California
Many tourists flock to well-known destinations in Southern California like San Diego, Disneyland, Los Angeles, and Santa Barbara. These are all great places to visit, but if you’re looking for somewhere different that’s a bit off the radar, check out the following incredible destinations:
The Channell Islands
My husband and I have lived in California most our lives, but somehow missed these spectacular islands that are classified as one of the U.S. National Parks. After seeing some stunning photos on the Internet, we took a short boat ride to Anacapa Island from Oxnard as part of a weekend anniversary trip.
If you decide to go, be prepared and bring supplies. This trip is for adventurous people in good physical shape. You will need to climb 157 stairs to the top of this rugged little island where there is no food, services, water, or flushing toilets. Now, I HATE outhouses, but I’m telling you – the views of the rocky shoreline, massive cliffs, and jagged peaks were worth it. You can easily hike around the rim of the island in just hours with Inspiration Point a grand reward for your efforts.
We visited in June when bursts of bright wildflowers covered the small island and thousands of adorable baby sea gulls were to be found around every corner. Just beware of their protective mamas who will swoop at your head if you get too close.
We returned a couple of years later and visited the larger Santa Cruz Island for an exciting kayak tour of the historic sea caves. On the boat ride there we saw a whale and two large schools of dolphins. The waters can be rough at certain points, but the caves were amazing. This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Some people consider these islands desolate, but if you have an adventurous spirit and love nature, the Channell Islands are considered the Galápagos of North America.
The Huntington Botanical Gardens
This is yet another stunning place that we failed to visit for decades. Located in Pasadena, the magnificent estate is home to more than a dozen spectacular gardens spread across 120 acres. Hard to say which garden is the most dazzling, but the Japanese Garden, the Rose Garden, and the California Garden are a few of my favorites.
We didn’t even get a chance to check out the art galleries. The Huntington Art Gallery, houses 18th- and 19th-century British paintings, sculptures, and decorative arts, 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 complete research libraries in the United States.
Ventura County Wine Trail
Napa may get all the attention as wine country in California, but my husband and I enjoyed sipping our way through the coastal rolling hills near the seaside town of Ventura. We visited two of the nearly 20 wineries and tasting rooms.
You can book one of the many wine tours offered. However, we decided to get a map and explore on our own. Beginning in Ventura at the junction of Highway 1 and Highway 101, we drove up Highway 33 toward Ojai.
Surprises await on this somewhat lonely but charming road – from the “USA’s Smallest Post Office” 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 friendly folk and dogs welcomed us. We enjoyed our purchased bottle of wine and a picnic outside on tables enjoying the Americana view.
By the way, both Ojai and Ventura are worthwhile stops with charming inns, luxurious spas, and bed & breakfasts along with a wide array of outdoor activities. In the summer time, the Ventura Harbor Village is a hubbub of activity with festivals and live music on the weekends.
This charming beach town is located halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego. With over 20 different scenic coves, this beach area offers everything from surfing, paddle-boarding, snorkeling, kayaking, and whale watching excursions.
Just beware, the surf can be rough in places. As a teenager, I decided to body surf despite the churning waters and wiped out on a massive wave (think Beach Boys’ song: Heheheheheheee wipe oooout!). Actually, I blame the Beach Boys for this entire mishap since they went and romanticized this whole surfer chick thing with songs I grew up on like Surfer Girl. SO their fault.
However, the scenery can’t be beat. Add ultra-chic restaurants and shops and one-of-a-kind art galleries and you get the picture. There’s even a Baby Boomer Club with Saturday Night dances. Every summer, they host the Laguna Woodstock where baby boomers party like its 1969.
Heisler Park is a good place to start, located just north of the main beach, with an easy half-mile stroll along a paved path with spectacular views of the coastline and the soothing sound of crashing waves. You can take one of the paths to the beaches and tide pools. Benches, picnic tables, and barbecues abound where you can enjoy the magnificent views. Hubby and I had a picnic on one of the grass areas and it was perfect!
Treasure Island Park is another great spot, located on the grounds of the five-star Montage Laguna Beach, where the truly rich stay. Exquisitely landscaped, several lookout benches line the easy-to-walk winding path. Stairways and ramps lead you down to the beach, where you can walk through a beautiful rock archway during low tide, find a spot in the sand for sunbathing, and a large tide pool. In addition, there is plenty of grass areas for a picnic. I’d suggest bringing some wine and cheese to catch a romantic sunset.
Big Bear Lake
I live in the desert, so nearby Big Bear is a great mountain escape with its gorgeous lake and pristine forests. Boating, fishing, and hiking are just some of the activities in this small, laid-back village.
Last summer, my husband and I cycled around the lake, enjoyed a picnic, zipped down an alpine slide, drove go-karts with speeds up to 30 m.p.h., and took a ride on the scenic sky chair for terrific views. After watching people take the chair lifts to mountain bike down the trails, we put this on our to-do list for next time.
For the adventurous at heart, parasailing and ziplining are also available.
El Matador Beach
Looking for a spectacular shoreline with white sands, towering cliffs, crashing waves, and craggy rock formations in a semi-hidden location?
Look no further than El Matador, located north of Malibu off the winding Pacific Coast Highway. It’s easy to miss the small, brown sign pointing toward the small parking lot at the trail-head, so watch carefully between Broad Beach and Decker Canyon Roads. Once you find it, be prepared to hike down a 150-foot bluff with the help of some steep stairs.
Not for small children or those who are physically challenged, but if you can make it down the steps you’ll be treated with breathtaking views. The locals know about this beach and you may see some photo shoots taking place – we did!
There is blissfully little to do on this small but glorious stretch of beach, so bring a picnic lunch or some wine and find a hidden nook to enjoy an incredibly romantic setting.
By now, you’ve probably noticed that my husband and I are beach bums. We found this beach on accident while looking for a nearby place to stay the night before flying out of LAX the next morning.
The Redondo Pier is a landmark with panoramic ocean views and water activities that include harbor cruises, seasonal whale watching, kayaks, paddleboards, and pedal boats. Truth be known, we didn’t try any of these out, but we loved the views from Tony’s on the Pier where we enjoyed Happy Hour!
The pier is also home to a 16-foot great white shark affectionately known as Georgette, on display in a large tank at Shark Attack on the Pier. If you have grandchildren with you or are young at heart, you may enjoy the semi-submersible yellow submarine (darn, now I’ve got the Beatles song stuck in my head) for underwater viewing of the local sea life.
Sure beats staying at an airport hotel if you’re flying to or from Los Angeles.
This island is more well-known than some of my previous recommendations, but a sentimental favorite. My husband and I spent our honeymoon there 40 years ago and have returned several times. This is a small, quaint island, with no stoplights or fast food restaurants. A typical traffic jam involves two golf carts and a bicycle built for two.
On our honeymoon, we blissfully rode bikes around Avalon, went horseback riding, toured the famous casino, and sunbathed on the small beach. We also took a bus to Two Harbors, the only other village on Catalina Island. Snorkeling, parasailing, fishing, glass bottom boat rides, paddleboarding, Segway tours, golfing, and hiking are other popular activities.
Decades later, we sailed our boat to the island from Long Beach – which turned out to be one wild ride. My husband and grown children returned again for our open-water dives to become scuba-certified amid the famous kelp forests surrounded by the bright orange Garibaldi fish. Next time we visit, I want to try the new zip-line that’s 600 feet above sea level with one run that is 1,100 feet long with speeds up to 30 m.p.h. Wheee!