Here in Southern California adventure is aplenty — and so close by! If summertime wanderlust has hit you hard, here are some ideas for nearby adventure, including a trip 26 miles across the sea, a mile-high journey, and jaunts across the border to Mexico’s Valle de Guadalupe and up the road to Temecula and its traces of the Wild West.
To reach Santa Catalina Island, just drive an hour north to Dana Point and hop on the Catalina Express to the tiny town of Avalon, full of restaurants, inns and shops and nearly all of the island’s 4,000 residents. ($75 round trip; catalinaexpress.com).
Once you’ve ditched your sea legs, the best way to get around is to walk and enjoy the laid-back lifestyle. You can also rent a bike or golf cart (catalinabiking.com; catalinagolfcart.com).
In the heart of Avalon is a small cove beach where towels, chairs, snorkels and beach toys are available to rent and you can watch people coming and going from their boats moored in the harbor.
But for a day of beachfront luxury, head just south of Avalon’s iconic landmark, the Casino, to Descanso Beach Club. Here you’ll find a full service bar and restaurant with chairs, tables and rows of lounge chairs right on the beach There’s a $2 per person beach access fee (well worth it) and no outside food or drink is allowed. Put your toes in the sand and sip on a piña colada as you drink in the sparkling ocean view. The club also just introduced a zipline tour.
If you enjoy Bluewater Boathouse in Coronado, you’ll feel right at home at its sister property, Bluewater Grill, on Avalon Bay, over the water in the historical waterfront terminal building. The Lobster Trap, also in the center of town, is a casual, fun restaurant and bar with a dive-y vibe for dishes like coconut shrimp tacos, oysters Rockefeller, clam chowder, monkey balls (tempura mushrooms stuffed with ahi), and bacon-wrapped scallops. Or, have a cocktail at the Marlin Club, the oldest continually operating bar on the island, with fun, live bands (Marlinclub.com).
In 1924, a herd of bison was brought to the island for filming a movie and were left behind; about 150 still freely roam the island. The Catalina Island Conservancy’s Jeep Eco Tour is a great way to get a good look at them, along with foxes and bald and golden eagles (catalinaconservancy.org).
A 30-minute walk up Avalon Canyon (or a brief trolley ride) will bring you to the Wrigley Memorial & Botanical Garden — its namesake is William Wrigley, the chewing-gum heir who bought most of Catalina in 1919 and turned the island into spring training camp for his Chicago Cubs. This 37-acre hillside garden preserve features plants endemic to California’s eight coastal islands and is an excellent place to hike and take in views of Avalon and the ocean.
The Catalina Casino isn’t a gambling hall at all. Casino in Italian means gathering place, and Wrigley commissioned it in 1929 to celebrate his 10 years on the island. In its heyday, the Casino attracted Hollywood’s elite including such stars as Cary Grant and Errol Flynn to the world’s largest ballroom, accommodating as many as 6,000 dancers. Today, the ballroom and theater are well maintained with tours offered daily.
If you go: For a guide to inns and more island adventures, contact Catalina Visitors Bureau at visitcatalinaisland.com or (310) 510-1520
The mountains are calling, and you must go — in the summer. Just three hours northeast of San Diego, Big Bear Lake offers an invigorating change of scenery and plenty of summertime fun.
In 1845, a group of men pursuing horse and cattle thieves came across the region and found it rife with grizzly bears, naming it Big Bear Valley. The shallow marshy area was named Big Bear Lake; the dam built in 1912 would make it truer to its name. In 1859, the region became a popular settlement for gold prospectors. Because of unregulated hunting, grizzly bears were soon all killed off. Today, because of its mountains and glistening lake, it’s a vacation haven in all four seasons.
In the summer, Snow Summit ski resort becomes a playground for hikers and bikers — ride a ski lift up to 8,200 feet and at the top enjoy barbecue and craft beers at the View Haus Restaurant. Descend by hiking or biking down the terrain or simply catch the lift back down. (You can rent bikes at Goldsmith’s Sports, 42071 Big Bear Blvd. or (909) 866-2728).
While many vacationers stay near the lake and town, some of the best adventures are found off the highways that parallel the lake. Beautiful hiking trails abound throughout the Big Bear Valley and are clearly marked on the highways. Or, for a bit of an adrenaline rush, check out the Big Bear Jeep Experience
(bigbearjeepexperience.com, or (909) 420-5828). Following a guide Jeep, you get to drive a fully equipped and trail-ready jeep throughout the valley’s hundreds of miles of trails. Keep in mind, they call it “rock crawling” for a reason.
The lake itself is teeming with rainbow trout, largemouth bass and blue gill. Big Bear Fishing Charters offers tours on tournament-style bass fishing boats and pontoon boats that include all the gear (everyone 16 years and older must have a fishing license, which can be purchased at Big Bear Sporting Goods). (bigbearfishingcharters.com or (909) 866-2240).
Visitors can rent everything from pontoon, speed and fishing boats to wave runners, paddleboards and kayaks at several marinas.
A number of charming inns, bed and breakfasts and full-service hotels can be found throughout Big Bear, but your best bet is to find a cabin (sometimes those cabins are quite large) on Airbnb or HomeAway. The Upper Moonridge area near Bear Mountain Ski Resort is a popular area for rentals that offer views, with many including outdoor spas.
If you do nothing else while in Big Bear, just breathe: the fresh mountain air is unbeatable.
If you go: Big Bear Lake Visitor Center, bigbear.com; A visitor center is located in the picturesque village at
630 Bartlett Road. (909) 866-7000.
Bajaís Valle de Guadalupe
About 90 minutes south of Coronado, you’ll find the Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico’s wine country that is not only burgeoning, it’s on fire, gaining worldwide fame and notoriety. And it’s about time — it’s one of the oldest growing regions in the Americas. Jesuit priests began cultivating vines among the region’s rolling, boulder-strewn hills in the 18th century.
Several wineries not to be missed include L.A. Cetto, one of the oldest and most highly respected wineries in Mexico. Producing around 1 million cases of wine each year in three facilities, it is the largest wine producer in the country. Sit indoors under a wood-beam ceiling, on the terrace, or in the picnic area overlooking the picturesque vineyards and valley below. The winery’s boutique store carries cheese, crackers and olive oil produced onsite from the olive trees that shield the vineyards from wind. Their silky smooth nebbiolo is a must-try. Visitors can take an in-depth, bilingual tour of the property, which includes an interesting behind-the-scenes look at fermentation in their production facility. If you’re a bit of a wine snob, Lechuza will satisfy; their wines were picked up by The French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley last year.
For a winery that encompasses the eclectic vibe of the valley, check out Vena Cava. Be prepared to drive along what barely passes as a dirt road and question several times if you’re going the right way. But a bit of Baja magic rewards the driving adventure.
The winery and tasting room are constructed out of discarded and salvaged boats (the ceiling is an upside-down hull), a cultural nod to the fishermen of nearby Ensenada. Old glass bottles line the walls for a colorful and whimsical feel. There’s a large outdoor patio area in front, shaded by fishing nets. The permanent Troika taco and tostada truck (Russian only in name; another cultural nod to the families who emigrated here during the Russian Revolution) serves up casual but yummy eats for patrons as they sip, as well as a hefty craft beer selection.
If you’re looking for a truly memorable dining experience to pair with your Baja wines, look no further than the adjacent bed & breakfast and restaurant, Corazon del Tierra. The restaurant is small and picturesque, surrounded by gardens that provide the fruits, vegetables and herbs in the dishes served. (This proximity of ingredients is true for many of the region’s restaurants.) There is no menu, but patrons are always thrilled with each wildly creative, almost-too-beautiful-to-eat, five-course meal, accompanied by local wine pairings. The cost is around $50 per person; a steal for the incredible food, wines and experience.
Also not to be missed is the culinary scene star Javier Plascencia’s Finca Altozana. The kitchen is mostly outdoors with just a thin metal roof; it’s a fun vibe when chefs are in open view and cook up their spin on New York steak and spaghetti in addition to tostadas and ceviches.
Be sure to make a breakfast stop at La Cocina de Dona Esthela, which was voted Best Breakfast in the World by international culinary guide FoodieHub. Esthela Bueno wakes up every morning at 3 a.m. to begin making her popular lamb dish Borrego tatemado in her clay oven. She milks her own cows to make the dairy products she serves and collects her chicken’s eggs to make in her critically acclaimed breakfast dishes. It opens at 8 a.m.; be prepared to fight the crowds.
A number of quaint bed and breakfasts and inns dot the valley. Adobe Guadalupe is run by American banker-turned-winemaker Don Miller and his wife Tru, who breeds beautiful Aztec horses on the estate. Breakfast is served at a communal kitchen table (huevos rancheros are muy delicioso), followed by a tour of the estate and a wine tasting of their estate-grown blends. Encuentro Guadalupe is a one-of-a-kind hotel; 20 minimalist glass and steel stand-alone lofts are nestled among boulders throughout the hillside. Rooms have no TVs, phones or room service, but are quite comfortable and feel luxurious nonetheless. There is an otherworldly serenity to the place; the full service outdoor restaurant with expansive views and the disappearing pool with bar and food service make it feel like a resort. Each loft has its own little patio where guests can stargaze and soak in the quiet…with a glass of wine, of course.
If you go: Discover Baja is run by an American mother and daughter with a wealth of information and extensive tour offerings. Discoverbaja.com or (800)727-2252.
About an hour north on Interstate 15, nestled among golden hills is the Temecula Valley. The region’s first residents, the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, named it Temecula or “sunshine through the mist.” Long before vineyards covered the hillsides, Temecula was an important hub for shipping grain and cattle. Today, Old Town Temecula is the heart of the valley, with dozens of restaurants, antique shops and wine tasting rooms, along with museums and a theater, most set in Western-style buildings. The city of Temecula (founded in 1989) built its civic center in Old Town in 2010, forever cementing the Old Town district as the city’s core. On Saturday mornings, a bustling farmers market with more than 40 certified farmers, food booths and crafts is set up at Sixth and Front on the north end of Old Town.
For good eats and a slice of Temecula history, grab a patio table at the 1909 Gastro Pub. The restaurant’s name is a nod to the Machado Building, erected in that year, and where the establishment now resides. The building has been home to a trading post, livery, auto shop, and perhaps most notably, the Longbranch Saloon. In the 1970s, the saloon was known as the roughest place in town to get a drink. Have one of their mixologists make you a cedar-smoked Old-Fashioned and enjoy this little slice of history.
Overnight at Pechanga Resort & Casino, a AAA four-diamond resort,
with 517 rooms and suites, 11 onsite restaurants, rooftop nightclub, full-service spa, championship golf course, and 24-hour gaming (more than 3,400 slots and 140 table games, plus a state-of-the-art bingo facility and 43 table, non-smoking poker room). The resort’s shuttle service makes regular trips to Old Town Temecula and the wine country. The resort also hosts A-list concerts, live comedy shows and Broadway-style entertainment.
On day two, visit Temecula’s wine country, about eight miles to the east. You might begin with an early morning hot air balloon ride (hotairtours.com or
(951) 699-9987). Balloon rides are available at sunrise only because of afternoon and evening winds; those same breezes bring cool ocean temperatures through the Rainbow Gap that create perfect growing conditions for the vineyards. Today 36 wineries have tasting rooms, most along Rancho California Road and the nearby DePortola Road where a standout is Leoness Cellars and its on-site al fresco restaurant featuring French country cuisine. At Thornton Winery, check out their summer night Champagne Jazz concerts.
If you go: Pechanga.com or (951) 693-1819; visittemeculavalley.com; temeculawines.org