Many tourists flock to well-known Southern California destinations such as San Diego, Disneyland, Los Angeles, and Santa Barbara. These are all great places to visit, but if you’re looking for a different place that’s a little off the radar, check out the following amazing destinations:
The Channell Islands
My husband and I have lived in California for most of our lives, but somehow we miss these spectacular islands that are classified as one of the US National Parks. After seeing some impressive photos on the internet, we took a short trip by boat 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 have to climb 157 stairs to the top of this rugged little island where there is no food, services, water or toilets. Now, I HATE latrines, but I’m telling you: the views of the rocky shoreline, massive cliffs, and jagged peaks were worth it. You can easily walk around the edge of the island in just hours with Inspiration Point, a great reward for your efforts.
We visited in June when flurries of brilliant wildflowers covered the small island and thousands of adorable baby seagulls were on every corner. Just watch out for their protective mothers who will pounce on your head if you get too close.
We returned a couple of years later and visited the larger island of Santa Cruz for an exciting kayak tour of the historic sea caves. On the boat ride we saw a whale and two large schools of dolphins. The waters can be rough at certain points, but the caves were incredible. 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 Galapagos of North America.
Huntington Botanical Gardens
This is another impressive place that we were unable to visit for decades. Located in Pasadena, the magnificent estate is home to more than a dozen spectacular 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 see the art galleries. The Huntington Art Gallery houses 18th and 19th century British paintings, sculpture and decorative arts, including the famous Blue Boy. And to my shame as a writer, we didn’t visit the Huntington Library itself, one of the largest and most comprehensive research libraries in the United States.
Ventura County Wine Trail
Napa might get all the attention as a California wine country, but my husband and I enjoyed sipping through the coastal hills near the coastal city of Ventura. We visited two of the nearly 20 wineries and tasting rooms.
You can book one of the many wine tours on offer. However, we decided to get a map and explore on our own. Starting in Ventura at the junction of Highway 1 and Highway 101, we drove on Highway 33 towards Ojai.
Surprises await you on this somewhat lonely but charming road, from the “Smallest Post Office in America.” Until the last place where anyone saw James Dean alive. Our favorite find was Old Creek Winery, which felt like returning to a simpler place and time where friendly people and dogs welcomed us. We enjoyed our purchased bottle of wine and a picnic outside at the tables enjoying the American view.
By the way, both Ojai and Ventura are worth stopovers with charming inns, luxurious spas, and bed & breakfasts along with a wide range of outdoor activities. In summer, Ventura Harbor Village is a bustle of activity with festivals and live music on the weekends.
This charming beach town is located halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego. With more than 20 different scenic coves, this beach area offers everything from surfing, paddling, snorkeling, kayaking, and whale watching excursions.
Just be careful, the surf can be rough in places. As a teenager, I decided to surf despite rough waters and disappeared in a huge wave (think Beach Boys song: Heheheheheheee wipe oooout!). Actually, I blame the Beach Boys for this whole mishap since they went and romanticized this whole surfer girl thing with songs that I grew up on as a Surfer Girl. So your fault.
However, the scenery is unbeatable. Add ultra-chic restaurants and shops and one-of-a-kind art galleries and you’ve got the picture. There is even a Baby Boomer Club with dancing on Saturday nights. Every summer, they host the Laguna Woodstock, where the baby boomers party like in 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 path with spectacular views of the shoreline and the relaxing sound of the waves crashing. You can take one of the paths to the beaches and tidal pools. Benches, picnic tables and barbecues abound where you can enjoy the magnificent views. My husband and I had a picnic in one of the grassy areas and it was perfect.
Treasure Island Park is another great place, set on the grounds of the five-star Montage Laguna Beach, where the truly wealthy stay. Exquisitely landscaped, several observation benches line the easy-to-walk winding path. Stairs and ramps lead you down to the beach, where you can walk through a beautiful rock arch at low tide, find a spot in the sand for sunbathing, and a large tidal pool. Also, there are many grassy areas for a picnic. I would suggest bringing some wine and cheese to watch a romantic sunset.
Big Bear Lake
I live in the desert, so nearby Big Bear is a great mountain escape with its beautiful lake and pristine forests. Boating, fishing, and hiking are just a few of the activities in this quiet little town.
This past summer my husband and I cycled around the lake, enjoyed a picnic, slid down an alpine slide, drove go-karts with speeds up to 30 mph, and took a ride in the panoramic chair for some amazing views. After watching people take the ski lifts to ride mountain bikes down the trails, we put this on our to-do list for next time.
For the adventurous at heart, parasailing and zip lining are also available.
El Matador Beach
Looking for a spectacular coastline with white sands, towering cliffs, crashing waves and rugged rock formations in a semi-hidden location?
Look no further than El Matador, located north of Malibu along the winding Pacific Coast Highway. It’s easy to miss the little brown sign pointing to the small parking lot at the trailhead, so look closely between Broad Beach and Decker Canyon Roads. Once you find it, prepare to walk down a 150-foot cliff with the help of some steep stairs.
It is not for young children or those with physical disabilities, but if you can walk down the steps you will be treated to breathtaking views. The locals know this beach and you might see some photoshoots, we did it!
Happily, there is little to do on this small but glorious stretch of beach, so bring a picnic lunch or some wine and find a hidden corner for some incredibly romantic setting.
By now, you’ve probably noticed that my husband and I are beach bums. We found this beach by accident while looking for a nearby place to spend the night before flying in from LAX the next morning.
Redondo Pier is a landmark with panoramic ocean views and water activities including harbor cruises, seasonal whale watching, kayaks, paddle boards, and pedal boats. Truth be told, we didn’t try any of these, 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 known affectionately as Georgette, which is on display 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 semi-submersible yellow submarine (damn, now I have the Beatles song in my head) to see the local marine life underwater.
It sure beats staying in an airport hotel if you are flying to or from Los Angeles.
This island is better known than some of my previous recommendations, but one of my sentimental favorites. My husband and I honeymooned there 40 years ago and have been back several times. This is a quaint little island, with no traffic lights or fast food restaurants. A typical traffic jam involves two golf carts and a bicycle built for two.
On our honeymoon, we took a bike ride through 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 town on Catalina Island. Snorkeling, parasailing, fishing, glass bottom boating, rowing, 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 a wild ride. My husband and older children came back again for our open water dives to get certified scuba in the middle of the famous kelp forests surrounded by the bright orange Garibaldi fish. Next time we visit I want to try the new zip line that is 600 feet above sea level with a 1,100 foot long run with speeds up to 30 mph 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 have given you some ideas to get started!