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Hidden Gems in Southern California

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 something different that’s a little off the radar, check out the incredible destinations below:

The Channel Islands

My husband and I have lived in California most of our lives, but somehow we missed these spectacular islands that have been designated as one of the US National Parks. After seeing some amazing pictures online, we took a short boat ride to Anacapa Island from Oxnard as part of an anniversary weekend trip.

If you decide to go, be prepared and bring supplies. This trip is for adventurous people in good physical condition. You will need to climb 157 steps to the top of this rough little island where there is no food, services, water or flush toilets. Now, I HATE the houses, but I’m telling you – the view of the rocky coastline, huge cliffs and jagged peaks was worth it. You can easily hike around the rim of the island in just a few hours with Inspiration Point a great reward for your efforts.

We visited in June when bursts of bright wildflowers covered the small island and thousands of adorable baby seagulls were around every corner. Just watch out for their protective mums, who will shake their heads at you if you get too close.

We returned a few years later and visited the larger island of Santa Cruz 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 in some places but the caves were amazing. This was a once in a lifetime experience.

Some people consider these islands deserted, but if you have an adventurous spirit and love nature, the Channel Islands are considered the Galapagos of North America.

The Huntington Botanic Gardens

This is yet another amazing place we hadn’t visited in decades. Located in Pasadena, the magnificent estate is home to more than a dozen spectacular gardens spanning 120 acres. It’s hard to say which garden is the most dazzling, but the Japanese Garden, Rose Garden, and California Garden are some of my favorites.

We didn’t even get a chance to see the art galleries. The Huntington Gallery houses British paintings, sculptures and decorative arts of 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.

Next time.

Ventura County Wine Trail

Napa may get all the attention as California’s wine country, but my husband and I enjoyed our drive 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 on offer. However, we decided to grab a map and explore on our own. Starting in Ventura at the intersection of Highway 1 and Highway 101, we took Highway 33 to Ojai.

Surprises await on this somewhat lonely but charming street – from the “Smallest Post Office in the US” to the last place James Dean was seen alive. Our favorite find was Old Creek Winery, which felt like stepping back into a simpler place and time where we were greeted by friendly people and dogs. We enjoyed the bottle of wine we bought and a picnic outside on tables enjoying the view of Americana.

By the way, both Ojai and Ventura are worthwhile stops with charming inns, luxury spas and bed & breakfasts along with a wide variety of outdoor activities. In the summer, Ventura Harbor Village is a hub of activity with festivals and live music on the weekends.

Laguna Beach

This charming beach town is located halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego. With over 20 different scenic coves, this beach offers everything from surfing, paddle boarding, snorkeling, kayaking and whale watching tours.

Just be careful, the surf can be rough in places. As a teenager, I decided to body surf despite the churning waters and disappeared into a huge wave (think Beach Boys song: Heheheheheheee wipe oooout!). Actually, I blame the Beach Boys for all of this bad luck, since they went and romanticized this whole surfer chick thing with songs I grew up on like Surfer Girl. SO it’s their fault.

However, the scenery can’t be beat. Add in super stylish restaurants and shops and unique art galleries and you get the picture. There is even a Baby Boomer Club with Saturday night dances. Every summer, they host Laguna Woodstock, where baby boomers party like it’s 1969.

Heisler Park is a good place to start, located just north of Main Beach, an easy half-mile stroll along a paved path with stunning views of the coastline and the relaxing 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 view. Hubby and I had a picnic on one of the grassy areas and it was perfect!

Treasure Island Park is another great spot, located in the area of ​​the five-star Montage Laguna Beach, where the really rich live. Exquisitely landscaped, several lookout 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 on the sand for sunbathing and a large tide pool. Additionally, there are plenty of grassy areas for picnicking. I would suggest bringing some wine and cheese to enjoy a romantic sunset.

Big Bear Lake

I live in the desert so nearby Big Bear is a great mountain getaway 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 biked around the lake, enjoyed a picnic, zipped down an alpine slide, went go-karts at speeds up to 30 miles per hour, and took a ride on the scenic sky chair for amazing views. After watching people take the lifts to mountain bike down the trails, we’re putting it 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 white sand coastline, towering cliffs, crashing waves and sheer 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 to the small parking lot at the trailhead, so watch carefully between Broad Beach and Decker Canyon Roads. Once you find it, prepare to descend a 150-foot bluff with the help of some steep steps.

Not for small children or the physically challenged, but if you can make it down the steps, you’ll be treated to breathtaking views. Locals know about this beach and you might see some photo ops being taken – we did!

There is very little to do on this small but glorious beach, so bring a picnic lunch or some wine and find a hidden corner to enjoy an incredibly romantic setting.

Redondo Beach

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 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, kayaking, paddle boarding and paddle boats. We didn’t actually try any of them, but we loved the view 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, which is on display in a large tank at Shark Attack on the Pier. If you have grandkids with you or are young at heart, you can enjoy the semi-submersible yellow submarine (damn, now I have the Beatles song stuck in my head) for underwater viewing of the local marine life.

Staying at an airport hotel definitely stands out if you’re flying to or from Los Angeles.

Catalina Island

This island is better known than some of my previous recommendations, but a sentimental favorite. My husband and I honeymooned there 40 years ago and have been back several times. This is a small, picturesque island, with no traffic lights or fast food restaurants. A typical traffic jam includes two golf carts and a bicycle built for two.

On our honeymoon, we biked 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, skydiving, fishing, glass-bottom boat rides, rowing, Segway tours, golf, and hiking are other popular activities.

Decades later, we took our boat to the island from Long Beach – which turned out to be a wild ride. My husband and grown children returned again for our open water dives to become certified to dive among the famous kelp forests surrounded by the bright orange Garibaldi fish. Next time we visit I want to try the new zip-line which is 600 feet above sea level with a 1,100 foot long run with speeds up to 30 mph Wheee!

As you can tell, Southern California has so many great places to visit, it’s impossible to list them all. But I hope I gave you some ideas to get you started!

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