Whether it’s accomplished via a zippy hour-long flight or a six-hour slog down Interstate 5, Southern California awaits those seeking a weekend getaway in that part of the state we love to hate but long to visit regardless.
From pretty seaside towns such as Santa Barbara and San Diego to the stark beauty of Joshua Tree and the Channel Islands, from big attractions like Hollywood Boulevard to oddities such as the Museum of Jurassic Technology, Southern California features something for everyone.
Not to gush and go all Chamber of Commerce on you, but “The American Riviera” label fits Santa Barbara with as much velvety snugness as a pair of Jimmy Choo sandals – available, naturally, at many of the scores of upscale State Street boutiques.
A temperate climate that may reach 80 during heat waves, a cohesive Spanish Colonial Revival architecture that extends not just to ranch houses and estates but to dentist offices and liquor stores, a populace that includes rock and movie stars (though no royalty, unless you count Oprah), literary figures both high and middle brow (T.C. Boyle and Sue Grafton), and enough shopping to max out Warren Buffet’s credit card. The architectural gems can best be seen from the top of a four-story climb to the old courthouse clock tower. Assuming the morning marine layer has burned off, vast swaths of red-tile roofs blaze in the afternoon sun, the white-washed adobe walls make wearing sunglasses a requirement.
But Santa Barbara has its quirks, too. To see that, try the Funk Zone, a half-mile stretch west of the train station near the waterfront, where boutique wineries and breweries rub edificial shoulders with starving (or, at least, pretty darn hungry) artists toiling in erstwhile industrial warehouses. Scuba diving and surf shops endure, catering to the salty sporting types, and dive bars serve those who prefer a different type of liquid release.
Best of all, you don’t necessarily need a car. A downtown shuttle runs continuously up and down a two-mile stretch of State Street (ground zero of retail shopping) from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, and similar service cruises along the waterfront from the epicenter at Stearn’s Wharf east to the zoo or west to the harbor and Maritime Museum.
A deep connection to the landscape is why the multitudes come to Joshua Tree, and its national park, in the high desert. They come to climb and to hike, to camp and worship at nature’s altar, to seek spirituality and artistic inspiration, to trade the claustrophobic city for a bigger piece of sky.
Among the attractions – other than, of course, the miles of hiking trails, bouldering and rock climbing and camping to be done in the park proper – is staying at the Joshua Tree Inn. Try to get Room 8, the place where country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons overdosed on alcohol and pills in 1973 and where musicians and fans still gather to pay homage. The room is a shrine to Parsons and, in fact, there’s a shrine in front of the door. You can drive beyond the galleries in town to the fringes, where “outsider” artists have assembled found-material sculpture “environments” that incorporate the land itself as both canvas and object. The most famous is five miles north, Noah Purifoy’s Outdoor Desert Art Museum. About 40 art pieces, some as small as a refrigerator, others as massive as a building, dot the landscape.
The park itself is 794,000 acres, 70 percent of it designated as wilderness. Climbers flock to Hidden Valley for big boulders; hikers and runners favor the 37-mile Riding & Hiking Trail that extends from the Black Rock Canyon entrance to the Oasis Entrance.
The most popular spot for refueling is the Crossroads Cafe, and the Joshua Tree saloon has live music most nights.
Up and down El Prado, the gorgeous Spanish Revivalist promenade bookended by fountains in the heart of Balboa Park, tourists are faced with hard choices. There are 16 museums, 14 gardens and horticultural offerings, 11 sports and fitness complexes and six performing arts centers are woven into the 1,200-acre spread built to host the 1915 Panama-California Exposition – and that’s not counting the famous San Diego Zoo.
If you only have time to visit five, these are the can’t-miss museums: Mingei International Museum (a trove of folk art, the most extensive and eclectic collection this side of the International Museum of Folk Art in Santa Fe, N.M.); San Diego Museum of Man (anthropological museum whose mission is to be “the place to go to learn about each other, reflect on our place in the world, and build a better community”); San Diego Air & Space Museum (everything from World I and II airplanes to Apollo space capsules to a tribute to erstwhile Pacific Southwest Airlines); San Diego Natural History Museum ( four-level museum covers Southern (and Baja) California’s natural world, from gnats to dinosaurs); The San Diego Museum of Art (Georgia O’Keeffe, Frank Stella, Boguereau, Diego Rivera – the list goes on).
For sustenance, you can lunch at The Prado, the only stand-alone restaurant in the park. It’s worth taking precious minutes away to have a pleasant if pricey lunch on the patio overlooking the Japanese garden.
TMZ Hollywood Tour
For a big taste of Hollywood cheesiness that actually is quite interesting, taking the TMZ bus tour of the teeming streets of Hollywood and Beverly Hills, where every aspect of celebrity bad behavior will be celebrated and mocked, sure beats staring down at the stars on the sidewalk.
TMZ, of course, is the pop-culture-besotted website and TV show that mines the depths of Tinseltown scandal and disseminates it to the slavering, slack-jawed masses. So don’t expect deep sociological musings about the role celebrity plays in our culture. You’ll see the Roosevelt Hotel, home to Teddy’s nightclub, one of Lindsay Lohan’s favorite hangouts; the El Pollo Loco where Brad Pitt worked before he found fame; the Seventh Veil, a strip club frequented by Mötley Crüe; the spot on Sunset Boulevard where Hugh Grant got busted for soliciting a prostitute; and the comedy club where “Seinfeld” alum Michael Richards went on a racist rant that derailed his career.
And when the “Docent” on the bus sees a real celebrity dining on a patio or walking down the street, the driver brakes and people are encouraged to gawk. Good times. Or, at least, a guilty pleasure.
Museum of Jurassic Technology, Culver City
The dimly lit halls of the Museum of Jurassic Technology – which, by the way, has nothing to do with dinosaurs or a certain famous movie director – is in the heart of Los Angeles’ Westside. The museum gained a cult following as something of a meta-museum – to wit, a museum about the very concept of museums –willfully ambiguous, delightfully esoteric and forever enigmatic.
It’s an elaborate staging of exhibits with meticulously thorough documentation – real or otherwise – of curious and bizarre phenomena of the natural world, paying homage (or winkingly sends up; you decide) to thinkers of the 16th century who assembled “cabinets of curiosities,” private collections of rare curios meant to amaze the viewer and elicit flights of fancy. It is as if you have traveled back to Victorian times: dimly lit alcoves, antique wooden display cases, plush walls and winding corridors, sounds of the natural world mingling with operatic arias mingling with baroque music piped in through hidden speakers.
A few examples of museum pieces: “The Fruit-Stone Carving,” upon which a Flemish landscape was said to be painted on one side and the crucifixion on the other; and a tribute to the “Deprong Mori (Myotis lucifugous) Bats of the Tripsicum Plateau,” who used radar systems to fly straight through solid matter.
It’s weird, it’s wild. It’s so L.A.