From beaches to the big city, SoCal is a one-stop vacation fantasy.
California is a land of dreamers, built on dreams. The iconic evidence of visionaries past is everywhere, from the Hollywood sign in Los Angeles recalling a young Broadway actor named D.W. Griffith who rolled into town circa 1913 to try his hand at a newfangled medium called movies, to the sprawling sandy beaches along the Pacific Coast that inspired pretty much every Beach Boys song. The vibes differ from breezy Orange County to bustling Los Angeles County, but the unifying undercurrent is living the dream, whether that’s a grandiose notion of being an A-list actor, or a wish as simple as watching waves crash on the shore.
Orange County shores up against 42 miles of coastline, but the 8.5-mile stretch of Huntington Beach – O.C.’s most populous beach city – sets itself apart with a designated Dog Beach, bonfire parties, and giant waves facilitating some of the best surfing along the California coast, hence the official nickname “Surf City, USA.” Everybody from road cycling retirees to dreadlocked nouveau hippies has a home here under breeze-fondled palm trees.
More than two decades ago, Canadian transplant Natalie Kotsch came to Huntington Beach and had a dream. Though she’d never surfed in her life, she fell in love with the city’s surf culture and decided to distill it indoors. See Kotsch’s dream realized at the Huntington Beach International Surfing Museum (411 Olive Ave., 714-960-3483, surfingmuseum.org). The modest building harbors a small wave of surfing memorabilia, including six-strings played by surf guitarist Dick Dale (maestro of “Miserlou,” aka the Pulp Fiction movie theme), Endless Summer movie posters signed by the cast, a life-size Silver Surfer statue, and a gold record from music duo Jan & Dean, whose ditty “Surf City” is the theme song of Huntington Beach.
If you’ve ever fancied “getting stoked” on a wave but don’t know which foot to put forward on a board, get the skinny at Toes on the Nose (21500 Pacific Coast Hwy., at the Hyatt Regency, 714-969-7265, toesonthenose.com), where instructors offer individual and group surf lessons in two-hour sessions. Surfing’s a surprisingly accessible sport, even touted as therapy for people with conditions like autism and post-traumatic stress disorder at places like Amazing Surf Adventures in Central California and Ocean Therapy in Los Angeles. If carving a wave awakens a craving for sesame hibachi, pier-placed Duke’s Huntington Beach (317 Pacific Coast Hwy., 714-374-6446, dukeshuntington.com) pairs traditional Hawaiian dishes with lovely ocean views.
Catch a wave of people-watching on Main Street, Huntington Beach’s major artery piping pedestrian traffic to and from the pier. There are a slew of shopping spots, from Billabong and Quiksilver depots to boutiques like Gloss and Cat Walk, along with more than 40 restaurants. An eclectic mass packs the strip, from surfers in shorts with boards slung over one shoulder to elderly couples sharing gelato. On Tuesdays, the first several blocks of Main Street are closed to vehicles for “Surf City Nights,” when restaurants and retailers offer specials, and a festival atmosphere is driven by a farmers’ market and live music.
Eco-conscious exercisers, aspiring artists and anyone who dreams of spa-genies can manifest some zen in the quieter side of Huntington Beach. Surfing and water themes permeate much of the art at Huntington Beach Art Center (538 Main St., 714-374-1650, huntingtonbeachartcenter.org). Opened in 1995 to give local artists a venue for their works, HBAC’s non-juried, salon-style group exhibitions feature more than 150 artists, with aesthetics running a gamut from fiberglass-and-polyester wave sculptures to portraits of Bob Marley. The center is particularly lively during the city’s monthly third Thursday art walks.
For an eyeful of HB’s natural art, stop at the running-path-rich Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve (17851 Pacific Coast Hwy., 714-846-1114, bolsachica.org), which encompasses more than 1,200 acres of wetlands home to wildlife such as shovelnose guitarfish, kingsnakes, and peregrine falcons. Barren islands provide nesting grounds for several species of birds, including the endangered California Least Tern and Western Snowy Plover. Coyote-traversed sand dunes explode with flora like lilac-colored Sea Rocket (which blooms year-round) and yellow Beach Primrose (blooms in late winter and spring), while an intertidal salt marsh is dominated by pickleweed, cordgrass, and birds like snowy egrets and black-necked stilts.
About those spa-genies: Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort and Spa (21500 Pacific Coast Hwy., 714-698-1234, huntingtonbeach.hyatt.com), offers a plethora of ways to pamper yourself. The property resembles an opulent coastal villa, with more than 517 guest rooms across 16 acres adorned with blooming flowers, sculpted shrubbery, and fountains depicting dolphins and Greek gods. The resort’s Pacific Waters Spa resembles a Spanish estate on the Mediterranean, and is staffed by aestheticians with accents, so you can close your eyes and pretend you’re in Europe while the sounds of soft bells and running water tinkle through a speaker and your shoulders are massaged with locally-made ginger-vanilla oil. The menu of spa services revolves around thalassotherapy (the healing powers of seawater) and includes a “Pacific Seawater Soak,” which puts you in a giant, private hot tub full of purified seawater, surrounded by dishes of bath salts, wash cloths, and artfully arranged fruit trays. The spa also offers the cutting-edge HydraFacial, wherein a machine with a small hose (not unlike a dental rinse suction hose) applies exfoliating agents to your pores while simultaneously squirting them with hydrating serums, and vacuuming them clean. It gives a whole new meaning to “sucking face,” and it leaves the skin soft and smooth – and so clean you can actually feel your epidermis breathing.
To actually feel your taste buds dancing, dine at The Californian at the Hyatt, the only AAA Four Diamond restaurant in Huntington Beach. The menu changes with the seasons, so everything is fresh and mostly local, and a multi-course dinner unfolds like a film. Appetizers star such steamy couples as beet and bacon salad, whose “meaty-meets-juicy” plot line on a bed of chewy figs and whipped ricotta can only end in utter delightful destruction for them all. Executive Chef Chris Savage has cooked in kitchens from Australia to Guam to London, and his nightly specials – such as eight-hour roasted lamb in a homemade pastry with white asparagus and carrot puree – provide palate-pyrotechnics so big he should be walking away from them in slow motion. Menu mainstays like filet mignon (with organic mushroom and rutabaga hash, pumpkin-seed butter and red wine jus) are the culinary equivalent of Charles Bronson in an action film – it may be quiet and unassuming, but you can count on it to kick ass. Wine and cheese flights are masterfully paired (or masterfully mixed-and-matched by encyclopedic oenophile servers). Among the super selection of cheeses, the creamy, dreamy Humboldt Fog takes your taste buds and chevres them into nirvana. And there’s something sweet about hearing the surf across the street while you eat grilled rainbow trout.
It’s been 50 years since Jan & Dean had a No. 1 hit with “Surf City.” Even if there aren’t “two girls for every boy” or people hitching rides from broken down Ford woodie wagons anymore, other sentiments of the song still fit Huntington Beach like a Body Glove, especially lines like “gonna have some fun.” Because that works for everyone, whether you dream of hanging ten or just taking five.
From Huntington Beach, a 45-minute hop on Interstate 405 ferries travelers into the urban embrace of Los Angeles. Culture vultures will relish Los Angeles’ 100-plus manicured museums, which display some of the most famous art in the world, from Thomas Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy at the stunning Huntington Library to Paul Cézanne’s Boy Resting at the Armand Hammer Museum of Art. A few art epicenters illuminate the city, including Museum Row. The headliner there is the massive Los Angeles County Museum of Art (5905 Wilshire Blvd., 323-857-6000, lacma.org), housing more than 150,000 works from five continents, spanning the prehistoric to the present. In addition to the famous pieces in LACMA’s permanent collection, which include Diego Rivera’s Flower Day and Magritte’s Treachery of Images (This is not a pipe), the museum’s special exhibits allow visitors to walk from early Ming dynasty court masterpieces into a lens’-eye view of Robert Mapplethorpe into a multimedia nod to film auteur Stanley Kubrick (on view through June 30). Next door at Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits (5801 Wilshire Blvd., 323-857-6300, tarpits.org), visitors can see artifacts like bison bones and 400 extinct dire wolf skulls, and survive encounters with saber-toothed cats (as life-size marionettes). Outside, get a whiff of oozy asphalt at the tar pits, which burp methane bubbles like an oily beast while mammoth sculptures are forever frozen in panic near the edges.
Exposition Park is another cultural campus flush with popular places, including the African-American Museum, Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, and the Exposition Rose Garden. But the most universal draw is at the California Science Center (700 State Dr., 213-744-7400, californiasciencecenter.org). After 25 missions, the space shuttle Endeavour has retired here. If you think parallel parking a Cadillac Escalade is difficult in downtown L.A., imagine towing a 122-foot-long, 172,000-pound space shuttle through the streets. If you never wanted to be an astronaut before, 10 seconds in the presence of this vessel could change your mind. If your scientific aspirations run more ancient than futuristic, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (900 Exposition Blvd., 213-763-3466, nhm.org) is the oldest cultural institution in L.A., with a new Dinosaur Hall populated by more than 300 fossils and 20 complete dinosaur and sea creature skeletons, a bird hall featuring more than 400 species, and a gem and mineral hall with the largest public display of gold in the world.
Want to see what kind of art a billionaire can amass on a jaw-droppingly gorgeous 110-acre site 900 feet up the Santa Monica Mountains? Park at the bottom of the hill and take the cable-pulled tram up to the public art palace of J. Paul Getty’s dreams, the incomparable Getty Center (1200 Getty Center Dr., 310-440-7300, getty.edu). Designed by architect Richard Meier (builder of the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art), the campus has a very modernist look blended with classic European touches like 1.2 million square feet of Roman Classic travertine and Baroque-ish circular entrance halls. The 134,000-square-foot Central Garden teems with ravines, streams, and more than 500 varieties of plants. Inside the center’s five pavilions, visitors can see everything from pre-1700 manuscripts to surrealist pieces. Famous works housed here include Rembrandt’s St. Bartholomew and Van Gogh’s Irises.
Consistently voted the place with the best view of Los Angeles, Griffith Observatory (2800 E. Observatory Rd., 213-473-0890, griffithobservatory.org) has entertained astronomy enthusiasts since 1935. The observatory started as mining magnate Griffith J. Griffith’s vision for inspiring people through the stars, and has grown into an L.A. icon. A long scene in the 1955 film Rebel without a Cause was shot here, and a bronze bust of James Dean commemorates this celluloid immortality against backdrops of blazing red-orange sunsets drifting down over the Hollywood Hills. The observatory includes a state-of-the-art planetarium, a Tesla coil, meteorite displays, and pieces of Mars and the moon. But the main draw is the makeout-worthy, reach-out-and-touch-a-cloud view of the city. (For lodging options, visit discoverla.com.)
If you’re hungry for more than an eyeful, don’t worry: You can’t walk more than a mile in L.A. without running into a food truck or a celebrity chef’s latest venture. Nearly a hundred food trucks sling eats on the streets (findlafoodtrucks.com), and the city’s roster of gourmand gurus includes Wolfgang Puck, Top Chef Masters TV show star Susan Feniger, and multiple James Beard Award-winner Nancy Silverton.
With luminaries like that lining the blocks, finding a top nosh is easy. But it’s also possible to accidentally stumble upon one of the best meals of your life, epicurean equivalents of a surprise twist at the end of an M. Night Shyamalan movie, but with amuse-bouches instead of bemusing ambushes. Case in point: Little Spain (323-634-0633, littlespainla.com), a tapas bar founded by the Pages family, who owned restaurants for three generations in Spain before bringing their traditional food stateside in 2010. It hides out with about 20 other food stands in the open-air retail labyrinth at Third Street and Fairfax, where a Farmers’ Market (323-900-8080, farmersmarketla.com) has been going strong seven days a week since 1934. Barcelona-born Chef Alejandro Pages’ menu features dishes from every region of Spain, with spectacular offerings like jamón iberico de bellota, described on the menu as “specially imported ham from free-range Iberian pigs that eat only acorns and cured between 24 and 36 months,” but is pretty much indescribable on the palate. The New York Times went with “the best ham in the world.” Tapas dishes shine, too, particularly the gambas al ajillo (shrimp sauteed with garlic and paprika, topped with parsley) and empanadillas, perfectly-puffed pastries packed with cheese, chicken, veggies or ham.
While the Farmers’ Market somehow manages to be as quaint as it is cramped, eating your way around L.A. Live (800 W. Olympic Blvd., 213-763-5483, lalive.com) is like strolling the grounds of an epicurean empire. This gleaming neon and glass gastrovillage is a brand name buffet. Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill (213-748-9700, wolfgangpuck.com) has a sister spot in Las Vegas, but the famous chef’s fine-dining comfort cuisine remains an L.A. favorite, and Angelenos frequently fill the tables to eat entrées like pancetta-wrapped meatloaf with potato puree and fried onions in a port wine sauce. Locavores looking for lighter fare can find it at The Farm of Beverly Hills (213-747-4555, thefarmofbeverlyhills.com), which aims to make food “like mom would make,” if mom made things like firecracker Cajun salmon burgers cooled with coleslaw and salads loaded with crêpe-wrapped Ahi tuna tartare. But never fear, the All-American Mom Standard is here: Chicken noodle soup, based in a golden, herby broth, bobs with chunks of carrots and celery. If one never made the vaunted “soul” connection with chicken soup before, your cosmic consciousness awaits you here. Sushi seekers gorge at Katsuya (213-747-9797, lalive.com/eat/katsuya), one of master sushi chef Katsuya Uechi’s many showcases of Japanese cuisine, swimming in every variety and preparation of fish imaginable, from the sushi (all the standards, plus things like kanpachi and hokki clam) to striped bass served in Szechuan-style fillets.
Speaking of seafood, swanky Providence (5955 Melrose Ave., 323-460-4170, providencela.com) has long held a reputation for one of the best maritime menus in L.A., and from the decor (sandy brown walls, frothy fiberglass “waves” undulating on the ceiling, and sculptured sea shells affixed to the walls) to the dishes, this two-Michelin-starred fine dining destination is like a “champagne wishes and caviar dreams” cruise. If champagne’s not your style, the sommelier can help you sort through Providence’s 34-page wine menu. The daily-changing dinner menu is only a few pages long, but filled with deep sea treasure, thanks to the culinary talents of two-time James Beard Best Chef nominee Michael Cimarusti (formerly of Le Cirque in New York). Starters include Nantucket Bay scallop ceviche, scrumptiously supple scallops swimming in sweet rhubarb sauce with pistachio, tarragon and watermelon radish. Main courses hit the table like Tom Cruise on a red carpet, all flashy panache surrounded by fanfare. People literally ooh and ahh at the site of them. To wit: wild Maine lobster, fetching female crustaceans cuddled up to braised baby carrots in blood orange juice on a bed of Israeli couscous. A fleet of sharply-suited men wait on every table, each with perfectly coiffed hair, like any one of them could pull out his head shot and land a part in the next blockbuster romantic comedy.
It’s not so far-fetched. This is Hollywood, after all. One of Brad Pitt’s first roles was for El Pollo Loco, dancing around outside in a chicken suit. So go ahead, go West and dream big – take a nap on the plane if you need to – and when you awaken, your eyes and your belly will be filled with stars and surf.
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