The smells are what get me. Smoke from an open-air oakwood grill. The sweet earthiness of sagebrush fields. They take me back to a childhood spent in the mountains of Utah and Wyoming, but in fact I'm less than 40 miles from downtown Los Angeles in the tiny 1890s canyon town of Cornell. Sandwiched between Agoura Hills and Malibu, this hidden haven smells of the Old West in all the best ways and makes you feel as if you've left L.A. in your dust. The tab: My boyfriend and I spent two days here for less than $300.
The Caboose in Cornell (www.airbnb.com/rooms/1668703; $228 a night) is not only the best bed in Cornell, but it also may be one of the best beds in Southern California. It's set on a gorgeous 21/2-acre estate in the Santa Monica Mountains. Owners Doug and Diana Tharalson have refitted this old train caboose as a rustic-chic love nest. As we watched the sunset from the roof of the caboose with glasses of local wine in hand, we were cursing the fact that we couldn't stay more than one night.
A five-minute walk from the ranch is my favorite restaurant in the L.A. area: Old Place Cornell (29983 Mulholland Highway;  706-9001, oldplacecornell.com. Entrees from $14). You hear and smell it before you see it, the intoxicating scent of red oak-grilled steaks floating through the canyon along with the strains of live banjo. Arriving at the little restaurant's front steps, you'll feel as though you're walking into a 19th century saloon. And in essence you are. It was built in 1884 to serve as Cornell's post office, but for the last half-century it's been a restaurant serving just six or seven entrees. But each is the best darn version of an American classic that you've probably ever had.
Although you feel as though you're a thousand miles from L.A. in tiny Cornell, in truth you aren't. The beautiful surroundings have served as the backdrop for countless films and TV shows, including "MASH" and "Planet of the Apes." Malibu Rock Pool was one of the prime filming sites. A 3 1/2-mile round-trip hike (bit.ly/1jXNChb) through forests of live oak and fields of sagebrush will land you at one of SoCal's loveliest swimming holes. If you have the nerve, jump from the cliffs into the crystal-clear water, as Tarzan once did.
The lesson learned
If there's a wait for dinner at the Old Place (there are only five booths and a 30-foot wooden bar), take a seat at the elegant Cornell Winery & Tasting Room next door (29975 Mulholland Highway;  735-3542, cornellwinery.com. Open Thursdays-Sundays; call for hours). Have Djata Grant walk you through a tasting of some of the more than 50 independent vineyards in the Santa Monica Mountains or just buy a bottle. When your table is ready at the Old Place, you can walk over with whatever is left, giving you one last chance to stop and smell the sagebrush.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times