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The California Bucket List is your daily guide to essential California adventures, from easy to edgy. Check in every day for a new must-do adventure, each tried and tested by one of the Travel section's staffers and contributors. Or use the filters in blue below to seek out great spots in each of 12 California regions: North Coast, Shasta Cascade, Gold Country, S.F. Bay Area, High Sierra, Central Valley, Central Coast, Deserts, Inland Empire and the counties of L.A., Orange and San Diego.

Tell us what's on your California bucket list. Email travel@latimes.com and put California Bucket List in the subject line.

Family-friendlyS.F. Bay Area

Seek safe harbor, stay overnight at Pigeon Point lighthouse and hostel in Pescadero

 (Los Angeles Times)
(Los Angeles Times)

Why: Though technology has overtaken them, there is something romantic and reassuring about lighthouses. About 20 still dot the California coast. One of the most fetching is Pigeon Point's, a 115-foot tower that includes a hostel, on a thumb of land halfway between Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay.

What: Pigeon Point Light Station has been protecting ships since the 1870s. Though mostly for show in an era of satellite-guided navigation, it provides back-up beacons on dishwater-dark days and murky nights along this stretch of skyscraper seas and rocky coastline.

Hostel rooms to the right. (Los Angeles Times)
Hostel rooms to the right. (Los Angeles Times)

The hostel here makes it a terrific weekend escape that could include whale-watching or exploring and hiking along Highway 1. Accommodations include separate-sex or coed bunkrooms and private rooms for individuals, couples or families.

Or plan a long daytime stop on your road trip to the Bay Area. Gray, blue and humpback whales are all visible from the viewing area on the point (bring binoculars) and 50 species of migratory and native birds use this as their hostel too.

Tide pools are a short walk north from the complex, located on a series of jagged bluffs on this photogenic stretch of coastal highway.

Though the lighthouse itself is closed to tours, its original lens is on display at ground level. The Fresnel lens is like a giant piece of jewelry, with 1,008 brass-framed lenses and prisms that once beamed out the light to ships 24 miles away.

Where: 210 Pigeon Point Road, off Highway 1, in Pescadero, Calif., in San Mateo County, about 390 miles northwest of downtown L.A.

How much: The grounds are free and open to the public from 8 a.m. to sunset. The hostel, run by Hostelling International, charges from $28 for bunks and $82 for double rooms, not including  membership fees ($28 annually and $3 daily). Reservations: (650) 879-0633

Info: Pigeon Point Light Station

Central CoastFamily-friendly

Hitch your horse at Jocko's in Nipomo for a juicy slab of beef seared over red oak

 (Chuck Trudeau / For The Times)
(Chuck Trudeau / For The Times)

Why: You want history? There used to be a caged monkey behind the bar. But forget history. Concentrate on that insanely large slab of beef they just snow-shoveled off the grill and rushed to your table at the famed Jocko’s, in no-frills Nipomo, Calif.  

What: Jocko’s is a Central Coast institution with cinderblock walls and local ranch brands burned into the paneling. Yep, this is farm country all right, a little dusty and proudly working class.

“Come in an monkey ’round,” the sign outside says, a nod to its former mascot.

The restaurant is named for Ralph “Jocko” Knotts, one of the original owner’s sons.

“Jocko was the second licensed driver in Nipomo, he was also ‘Justice of the Peace,’” a history of the restaurant states.

Now you understand Nipomo.

A brand in restaurant's paneling. (Chris Erskine / Los Angeles Times)
A brand in restaurant's paneling. (Chris Erskine / Los Angeles Times)

Over the years, the restaurant has changed locations and names, but for decades has drawn substantial crowds to its Santa Maria-style steakhouse, particularly on weekends.

Still colorful, and with customers lining up early – expect a short wait, even with a reservation – Jocko’s is renowned for its top-line beef charred over red oak.

Lunches and dinners come with salad and sides, on plates dominated by your steak, with just the right amount of fire applied to the outside, as if branded. For an additional $10, you can have your steak cut extra thick.

Request a table by the window if you can, overlooking the fire pits, and order the Spencer, a specialty rib-eye on the bone ($32). On Wednesday, don’t discount the roast turkey special, a local favorite.

Whatever you order, be prepared for a first-rate meal served at country prices, by a waitress who actually fusses over you a bit.

Where: 125 N. Thompson Ave., Nipomo, in San Luis Obispo County, 177 miles northwest of downtown L.A. on the 101.

How much: Complete dinners range from $20 to $33

Info: Jocko’s 

Family-friendlyL.A. County

Watch some strings being pulled at L.A.'s Bob Baker Marionette Theater

 (Elisa Parhad)
(Elisa Parhad)

Why: The Bob Baker Marionette Theater is an icon of family entertainment in Los Angeles, beloved for its charming retro performances. As the longest-running puppet theater of its kind in the U.S., the venue has stood the test of time.  

What: Founded by Bob Baker and Alton Wood in 1963, the theater is housed in an unassuming building on the edge of downtown L.A. Not much has changed in the last 50 years. Coffee-can stage lights illuminate handmade puppets that dance and sing to a vintage soundtrack on a carpeted stage. Catch a seasonal production — “Halloween Spooktacular" is playing through Nov. 5 — to witness the company's unique brand of whimsy, complete with vampire lovebirds, dancing skeletons and a glow-in-the-dark alien takeover. After the show, join the cast in the adjoining salon for complimentary ice cream.

Baker served as a puppeteer and animator for hundreds of Hollywood movies and TV productions. He also made puppets for clients around the globe and was a rare mentor in a fading profession.

In 2009, the theater was designated a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Landmark. Though the troupe and building faced uncertainty after Baker's death in 2014 at 90, the puppeteers have reorganized as a nonprofit venture, and a capital campaign is underway to renovate the theater. After remodeling begins, probably in late December, the company plans to perform throughout 2018 at other venues around Los Angeles.

Where: 1345 W. 1st St. in downtown Los Angeles.

How much: Show tickets are $15. Children under 2 are free. 

Info: Bob Baker Marionette Theater

 

 (Elisa Parhad)
(Elisa Parhad)
Family-friendlyS.F. Bay Area

Spoon a piece of pie, and other country classics, at the landmark Duarte's Tavern in Pescadero

Rhubarb-strawberry pie (Chris Erskine / Los Angeles Times)
Rhubarb-strawberry pie (Chris Erskine / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Admit it. Sometimes you don’t want to be around other people. All you crave is a country road and an epic piece of pie. For all that, come to Duarte’s Tavern in tiny Pescadero, near Half Moon Bay, for a simple yet memorable dinner and a frosty drink. Make this rustic jewel your hamlet, your hideout, your Walden Pond.

What: Duarte’s (pronounced Doo-arts) has been serving up generous plates of no-nonsense, straight-from-the-garden food for almost 125 years. Since 1894, when the founder tapped a keg of cheap whisky to today, when it serves up to 10,000 customers a month, this farm country landmark has delivered memorable meals at affordable prices.

 (Chris Erskine / Los Angeles Times)
(Chris Erskine / Los Angeles Times)

The glow-stick exterior dominates the little town of Pescadero, in rolling, sparsely populated farm country two miles from the coast. Inside, you’ll realize that the Duarte family was ahead of their time, with a reliance on locally sourced vegetables, beef and fish.

There’s no ego to the dishes: Pork chops and fresh applesauce is a headliner, as is the snapper and chips. The soups arrive robust and steamy, hours from the restaurant’s own garden out back.

The tavern/restaurant is still run by the fourth generation of the Portuguese family that founded it. In 2003, it won a James Beard Award for its faithfulness to classic country cooking and a body of work that spans three centuries.

Oh, and there’s pie. Good Lord, is there pie. The olallieberry is the best known, but I’m a sucker for the difficult-to-find rhubarb-strawberry. Best piece of pie I’ve ever had.

In fact, I’d recommend you and your date order the cream of artichoke soup, split a steak or crab melt and then treat yourself  to one of these decadent desserts, ala mode, and spilling off the plate.

Where: 202 Stage Road, Pescadero, Calif., in San Mateo County,  375 miles from Los Angeles.  

How much: Burgers and sandwiches start at $8; entrees are around $20. 

Info: Duarte’s Tavern   

Inland Empire

Plot your Palm Springs high jinks under the coolest roof in California

By night. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
By night. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Why: It's sleek. It's vintage. And if you're arriving via the San Gorgonio Pass like most Angelenos, it's the beginning of Palm Springs.

What: When architects Albert Frey and  Robson Chambers designed this building in 1965, the streamlined mid-century look was so big that even gas stations were doing it. Indeed, the Tramway Gas Station sat under this great tilting zooming top for decades, until (like a lot of Palm Springs) the building fell into idleness and blight in the 1970s and 1980s.

Then a few mavens of Desert Modernism effected a rescue — a story repeated on properties all over the Coachella Valley over the last 25 years. Now this hyperbolic paraboloid roof (apparently that's the technical term) looks sharp enough to poke a hole in the Jolly Green Giant, and this corner is site of the Palm Springs Visitors Center. It's a fine spot to stop, collect brochures, learn more about Modernism Week, cadge restaurant recommendations and plot details of your weekend.

Where: 2901 N. Palm Canyon Drive (a.k.a. Highway 111), Palm Springs, 109 miles east of downtown L.A.

How much: Free.

Info: Palm Springs Visitors Center

 

By day. (Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times)
By day. (Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times)

Step out to the Battery Point Lighthouse in northernmost California -- if the tide is right

Battery Point Lighthouse in 1996. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Battery Point Lighthouse in 1996. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Why: No matter which way you travel, California begins and ends with a Cape Cod-style lighthouse from the 1850s. One is the Old Point Loma Lighthouse in San Diego. The other, about 900 miles to the north, is the Battery Point Lighthouse in Crescent City. And because the building stands 200 feet offshore on a tiny island, you can only get there at low tide.

What: The Battery Point Lighthouse (now also a museum) turned its light on in 1856, two years after California's first lighthouse opened at Alcatraz. It was automated in 1953 and survived the 1964 tsunami that devastated Crescent City. It's now managed by the Del Norte County Historical Society.

When the tide is low (consult the web or call [707] 464-3089 to check), you can walk to the lighthouse across the sand, rocks and a cement driveway. The building is open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. daily from April through September, weekends only the rest of the year. Inside, don't miss the banjo-shaped clock. "It's still working and it's original," said volunteer lighthouse keeper Harvey Lee. "We have to wind it once a week."

(By the way, there is another lonely old lighthouse built on a rock six miles offshore, a few miles north of Crescent City -- the St. George Reef Light. For a while there were helicopter tours, but state officials banned those trips.)

Where: About 200 feet south of the corner of Battery Street and Lighthouse Way, Crescent City, 777 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles, 373 miles north of San Francisco, 21 miles south of the Oregon border.

How much: Recommended donation $5.

Info: Battery Point Lighthouse

 

 (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Family-friendlyL.A. County

Inspect art, 'Irises' and the skyline from the Getty Center's commanding Brentwood hilltop

 (Robbin Goddard / Los Angeles Times)
(Robbin Goddard / Los Angeles Times)

Why: This is the world's wealthiest art institution, with a 110-acre campus overlooking the Pacific and a $6.3-billion endowment. Because it's young as museums go, it doesn't have the world's greatest collection yet. But every year the curators spend tens of millions more, adding European paintings, sculptures, photographs and other marvels to this hilltop haven of shiny white buildings. 

What: The Getty Center, backed by billions from late oil man J. Paul Getty, was born as a museum in 1954, but didn't move to this location until 1997. Once you've parked or been dropped off, take the monorail up the hill and head for the West Pavilion, which houses photography below and Impressionists above.

Many visitors head straight for the center's Impressionist standout, Van Gogh's "Irises," and you should get there eventually. But don't miss newer works — especially the vast Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA project (which explores Latin American and Latino art with local connections, through January 2018) and the David Hockney show (up through Nov. 26, 2017). The photography holdings are remarkable too.

Also, be sure to check out the cactus garden that seems to float in the sky with the coast of Santa Monica in the distance. Kids will love rolling around on the sloping lawns. Eventually, you'll want to eat. Unpack a picnic lunch on the lawn near the Central Garden, buy a bite at one of the center's two cafes or splurge on lunch, dinner or Sunday brunch upstairs at The Restaurant.

(If antiquities are what speeds your pulse, set aside another day to head north to the other Getty location, the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, which specializes in Greek, Roman and Etruscan art from 6500 BC to A.D. 400.)

Where: Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Dr., Los Angeles, 16 miles west of downtown L.A.

How much: Admission is free. Parking is $15, or $10 after 3 p.m. Museum closed Mondays.

Info: Getty Center

 

Van Gogh's "Irises" draws a crowd. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Van Gogh's "Irises" draws a crowd. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
L.A. County

Tiptoe through downtown L.A.'s Bradbury Building like Harrison Ford in the first 'Blade Runner'

 (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Some buildings have gravitas. This one has that, plus magic. Maybe it's the filigree of the ironwork, the skylight over the five-story atrium, the terra cotta walls. Maybe it's the supposed occult influences on the designer.

Or maybe it's that movie. For several fraught moments in the first "Blade Runner" film (1982), Harrison Ford ducks and scuttles through this building as spotlights rake the atrium. In an enduring cinematic vision of L.A. as dystopia, this was some of the spookiest stuff.

What: The Bradbury Building, completed in 1893 and dramatically restored about 100 years later, seems to be the oldest remaining commercial building in downtown L.A. The Bradbury rents out office space (several private investigators are tenants), and film shoots and other events have been frequent through the years. Last December, the Da Camera Society brought in the Boston Camerata for two chamber music performances.

Some people credit architect Sumner Hunt for the building's glories; others say it's because construction supervisor George H. Wyman was inspired by an 1888 science fiction novel. Either way, if you're walking on Broadway near Grand Central Market, you'd be a fool not to step into the Bradbury lobby. The guard won't let you walk more than a few steps up the stairs or ride the cage elevators, but it's still a thrill.

On your way out, don't miss the towering Anthony Quinn mural across 3rd Street. See the floor tiles beneath Quinn's feet? They match those inside the Bradbury Building.

Where: 304 S. Broadway, downtown L.A.

How much: Free to stroll through. For a cup of fancy joe in the building's Blue Bottle Coffee shop, it's $3.75 and up.

Info: Bradbury Building

The Bradbury, as seen in the film "The Artist" (2011). (The Weinstein Co.)
The Bradbury, as seen in the film "The Artist" (2011). (The Weinstein Co.)
Family-friendlyL.A. County

Succumb to the magic of Descanso Gardens' Enchanted: Forest of Light in La Cañada-Flintridge

Why: If the light has faded from your holidays, Descanso Gardens' Enchanted: Forest of Light, an emerging annual tradition, may flip the switch back on.

What: In the evenings from Nov. 19-Jan. 7, you can take a mile-long stroll through the gardens in La Cañada-Flintridge, where different kinds of lighting bring a new dimension to the 160-acre grounds.

The event debuted in 2016. It’s easy to call Enchanted a holiday light display, but that’s not quite right. There are no symbols of the season, no elves, no jolly St. Nicks. It’s more the suggestion of the ethereal that charms.

As you walk the pathways (wear comfortable shoes, please), you may begin to wonder: Do the giant redwoods shimmer blue and green because they’re illuminated that way or because they’ve been drenched with a kind of liquid fairy dust? Do the maples in the Japanese garden glow red because their natural charm has been enhanced by electrical means or because they’ve perpetually donned their autumnal best for the occasion?

You can fortify yourself before with an on-site dinner of American fare at Maple restaurant. (You’ll need Enchanted tickets to eat at Maple during the run of the show.) Then spend at least an hour wandering, letting yourself succumb to the illusion--and remembering the pleasure of those days when you believed that “magic” was always a plausible answer.

Where: 1418 Descanso Drive, La Cañada Flintridge, 13 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles

How much: Tickets, which are timed and go on sale to the public Oct. 16 at 10 a.m., cost $28-$30. (Descanso members, for whom tickets were available beginning Oct. 2, pay $23-25.) Children younger than 2 are admitted free but must have a ticket.

Info: Enchanted: Forest of Light

 (Catharine Hamm / Los Angeles Times)
(Catharine Hamm / Los Angeles Times)
L.A. County

Pretend you live on a Hollywood hilltop in Frank Lloyd Wright's Hollyhock House

 (Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times)
(Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Frank Lloyd Wright, the cantankerous genius architect best known for his buildings in Illinois, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Tokyo and beyond, did some interesting things in California, too. This hilltop home -- officially, the Aline Barnsdall Hollyhock House -- is one of them. And unlike many Wright homes, it's open for tours.

What: The house, Wright's first Los Angeles commission, was completed in 1921 for an artsy oil heiress named Aline Barnsdall. Wright called the style "California Romanza," but it looks a lot like a Mayan mansion with a prime view of the Hollywood Hills and Griffith Park. Inspect that view closely, and you'll notice, 1.4 miles due north, the patterned concrete blocks of another Wright project, the Ennis House, now privately owned.

In any event, Wright's client didn't care for it much. In 1927 she donated 11 acres, including the home and some neighboring structures, to the City of Los Angeles. Today the compound serves as Barnsdall Art Park, busy with classes for youths and adults (and Friday-night wine-tasting in summer months). Hollyhock House, reopened in 2015 after years of fundraising and restoration, is neighbored by an art gallery, studio and theater space, the slopes planted with olive trees. The home's former garage now serves a visitor center and gift shop.

The home is open for self-guided tours on Thursdays through Sundays, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Last ticket sold at 3:30 p.m.) It is wheelchair-accessible, but there's no air-conditioning, so when interior temperatures reach 90 degrees, they close. 

Where: Barnsdall Art Park, 4800 Hollywood Blvd., five miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles.

How much: Tickets are $7 for adults, $3 for seniors and students, free for children under 12 with a paying adult at the visitor center (Visa and Mastercard only). No advance reservations and no photography inside. For $70, you can get a private, docent-led tour on certain mornings.

Info: Barnsdall Art Park

 (Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times)
(Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times)
L.A. County

Raise your gaze inside the Wayfarers' Chapel, a glass-walled wonder on the Palos Verdes Peninsula

 (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: This building merges church and nature in a rare way.

What: Designed by Lloyd Wright for the Swedenborgian Church and opened in 1951, this chapel's glass walls and ceiling effect make the surrounding redwoods a part of its architecture. The result is a "tree chapel" that blurs distinctions between inside and outside, spirituality and nature.  Many architects call this style Modern Organic. Whatever language you prefer, it's nice to see the sky from inside the sanctuary. The locally quarried stone adds an earthy touch. And the road you ride in on across the lush slopes of the Palos Verdes Peninsula — that isn't bad either.  

Also, once you're inside, there's more than one way to look up. In 2017, yoga (gentle and Kundalini) was offered on Tuesday and Wednesday nights from May through September; check the chapel website to see if that continues in 2018. 

The chapel is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; the visitor center, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Because the site is heavily booked with weddings, baptisms and memorials at 10 a.m., 12 p.m., 2 p.m. and so on (especially on weekends), the best time to get a look inside is to show up at 9 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m. or 3 p.m.  — the odd hours. You'll have up to 30 minutes. Drones are banned. 

Where: 5575 Palos Verdes Drive South, Rancho Palos Verdes, 31 miles south of downtown L.A.

How much: No set fee to visit. Donations encouraged. Want to book a Saturday afternoon wedding in 2018? That'll be $3,900,  if there's a day still open.

Info: Wayfarers Chapel

Family-friendlyL.A. County

Pace the decks of the Queen Mary, Long Beach's most storied retiree

 (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Since her launch in England by the Cunard Line in 1936, the Queen Mary has seen war, peace, Europe, New York, Clark Gable, Winston Churchill and, more recently, Ships & Giggles Comedy Night in Long Beach. In early December, it will be 50 years since the grand old lady arrived to begin her retirement years in Long Beach Harbor as a floating hotel, restaurant and special-events venue. Since she needs as much as $289 million in work, there's no telling how much longer this retirement will last.

What: The ship is more than 1,000 feet long, with 12 decks and three smokestacks. Converted into a troop ship and painted gray during World War II, the Queen Mary could carry up to 16,683 soldiers and sailors. She resumed civilian service after the war, but before long the rise of air travel largely destroyed demand for transatlantic passenger ships. In late 1967, the ship made her 1,001st (and final) transatlantic voyage and settled into her current location. The City of Long Beach's plan was to boost tourism.

The years since have been bumpy. The Queen Mary has had  success with seasonal attractions like the  Dark Harbor program that runs through Nov. 1. But beneath those spooky trappings, the ship is genuinely suffering from extensive structural corrosion. Without dramatic repairs, experts have warned, an internal collapse could come within 10 years.

But there's no place quite like it on the West Coast, and the ship's operators have been talking up some ambitious plans.  If you're not ready to spend the night or brave Dark Harbor, the hour-long Glory Days Historical Tour is offered eight times per day, every day. 

Where: 1126 Queens Highway, Long Beach, 25 miles south of downtown L.A.

How much: A one-day Passport (which includes self-guided exploration, access to the model ship gallery, a "4-D" theater presentation and the Glory Days Historical Tour or an alternative called Haunted Encounters) costs $27 and up (plus service fees) per adult, $17.50 and up (plus service fees) per child aged 4-11. Parking is $18 a day.

Info: Queen Mary

 

 (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
Family-friendlyL.A. County

Don a yang mori head towel at Wi Spa in L.A.'s Koreatown

 (Bethany Mollenkof)
(Bethany Mollenkof)

Why: Los Angeles is famous for body-care regimens ranging from the questionable to the overindulgent. The dozens of practical and affordable Korean spas are less known, tucked away in office buildings throughout Koreatown and beyond. Wi Spa is the granddaddy of them all. 

What: Wi Spa is a modern bathhouse with roots in the ancient Korean tradition of communal bathing and sweating. For a modest admission price, you have access to a megaplex of relaxation with saunas and baths, hair and nail salons, a gym, a full-service restaurant, TV and lounge areas, sleeping rooms, a manga library, a skin-care boutique, open-air terrace, computer room, kids zone and a coed communal heated room known as jimjilbang (or sometimes jjimjilbang). Stay for an hour or lounge all day — you'll leave renewed. And you may learn how to fold a towel into a yang mori (lamb's head) hat. 

Yang mori (lamb's head) towel hat, worn by  Elisa Parhad and son Marsais Parhad, then 1, in 2010. (Jordan Parhad)
Yang mori (lamb's head) towel hat, worn by Elisa Parhad and son Marsais Parhad, then 1, in 2010. (Jordan Parhad)

Spa etiquette can be intimidating, but you won’t have any trouble if you follow two basic rules: Take your shoes off before entering the spa area and wash yourself in a shower before entering a tub or sauna, which includes rinsing after every sweat session. Nudity is required in the gender-segregated floors, but everyone receives a T-shirt and shorts for the jimjilbang. This is the living room of the spa, where patrons of all ages relax together on the heated floors. Here, specialty saunas —  including the 231-degree bulgama and the clay ball room — line the walls.

After you sweat it out, try the signature Korean body scrub, called the buff, to experience a no-frills whole body exfoliation well worth the gruff handling. Top off your stay with the shareable patbingsu — a swell of shaved ice covered in condensed milk, sweet red beans, fruit and mochi.  

Wi Spa never closes, and makes a great choice for a spa day if you are new to the experience, bringing the kids along, or want a wide range of spa amenities. Other nearby options include Natura SpaOlympic Spa (women only); and Spa Palace, for a less crowded, smaller version of Wi Spa. 

Where: 2700 Wilshire Blvd. in downtown L.A. 

How much: $25 admission, waived with a service over $120. Children under 18 get in on Fridays for $15. 

Info: Wi Spa

L.A. County

Roll past the Santa Monica house that announced Frank Gehry's talents and annoyed his neighbors

 (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Before Frank Gehry conjured the amazing architecture of Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Walt Disney Concert Hall and dozens of other high-profile projects, he started experimenting on a standard '20s home — his own. Forty years later, that home (which he still owns) is an icon of deconstructivism, and a pilgrimage point for young architects and students of design.

You can't go closer than the sidewalk — it's a private home. But you can drive by slowly or park and walk the block.

What: Gehry (whose 89th birthday is Feb. 28, 2018) was still a largely unknown name when he and his wife bought the house at 22nd Street and Washington Avenue in the late 1970s. It was a 1920s Dutch Colonial, two stories on a corner lot, in a middle-class neighborhood that was part single-family homes, part apartment buildings.

Then Gehry went to work. Soon the place had corrugated metal walls, irregular angles, protruding glass cubes, plywood panels, chain-link rectangles — on a block of suburban style and 90-degree angles, it looked like a satellite crash. As the story goes, the neighbors were outraged. 

A few decades later, some rough edges have been softened by landscaping and another big renovation in the early 1990s. Zillow thinks just about every house on the block is worth more than $2 million. And Gehry's name is known around the world. But how long will this Gehry Residence belong to the Gehry family? It's unclear. The architect has worked for years on a pair of new homes, one in Santa Monica, one in Venice.

Where: 1002 22nd St., Santa Monica, 16 miles west of downtown L.A.

How much: Free (unless you overstay the two-hour parking limit on many of the neighborhood's streets).

Info: L.A. Conservancy

 (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
L.A. County

Take tea amid wonder and mumbo jumbo in West L.A.'s Museum of Jurassic Technology

Portrait of Strelka from the Museum of Jurassic Technology's exhibit "Lives of Perfect Creatures -- Dogs of the Soviet Space Program." (Jennifer Bastian)
Portrait of Strelka from the Museum of Jurassic Technology's exhibit "Lives of Perfect Creatures -- Dogs of the Soviet Space Program." (Jennifer Bastian)

Why: Life is full of mysteries, misunderstandings and bald-faced lies. This place too. Its dim rooms, sober tone and perplexing exhibits are designed to mess with your head while reveling in the weird things that happen when we try to explain or collect nature or culture. Confused? Don't worry. Have a cup of tea upstairs and commune with the doves in the tiny courtyard.

What: This museum is designed to test your credulity and make you gasp. Enjoy the microscopic sculptures, the mice on toast (a cure for bed-wetting?), the trailer-park dioramas, the short films that screen hourly upstairs. Also don't miss the Soviet space-dog portraits. In awarding museum curator David Wilson one of its "genius" grants in 2001, the MacArthur Foundation called the museum "a provocative commentary on how we organize and archive cultural artifacts," noting that "fact and fiction are displayed with equal precision and diligence."

And next door you'll find a sort of cousin institution — the Center for Land Use Interpretation, which examines human effects on the landscape using keen wit, deadpan tone and extensive photography. CLUI's current show, unveiled Sept. 22 with seven high-resolution monitors in a single bright room, is "Engaging Scale: The Railroad Landscape as an Analog Macroscope." It's about model railroads, real ones and the scenery they inhabit.

(And while you're investigating offbeat displays, you might also consider also the Velaslavasay Panorama, which is scheduled to reopen in spring 2018 after installation of a new exhibit.)

Where: 9341 Venice Blvd., Culver City, 10 miles west of downtown L.A. (It has a Culver City mailing address, but the museum is actually in the West L.A. neighborhood of Palms.)

How much: Adult admission is $8. For full-time students, unemployed persons and youths age 13-21, it's $5. The museum is open Thursdays 2 p.m. to 8 p.m., Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m.

Info: Museum of Jurassic Technology

 (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
Family-friendlyS.F. Bay Area

Work up a sweat seeing beautiful flowers and plants at San Francisco's Conservatory of Flowers

 (Catharine Hamm / Los Angeles Times)
(Catharine Hamm / Los Angeles Times)

Why: There’s a wonderful cognitive dissonance in feeling as though you’re in the tropics and knowing you’re in San Francisco. That's daily life in Golden Gate Park’s Conservatory of Flowers, where temperatures average 75 to 80 degrees during the day, coupled with a humidity of 70% to 80%. Plus you get a little helping of history with your heat and humidity.

What: Greenhouses once were the playhouses of the rich; this glass-and-wood beauty was supposed to become part of a Santa Clara estate belonging to wealthy businessman James Lick. His death in 1876 ended the idea of a grand greenhouse, and it sat until a group of San Franciscans, including Leland Stanford and Charles Crocker, bought it and donated it to the city. It opened in 1879.

The conservatory has more than 2,000 species of plants, including this anthurium. (Catharine Hamm / Los Angeles Times)
The conservatory has more than 2,000 species of plants, including this anthurium. (Catharine Hamm / Los Angeles Times)

Its life has been no bed of roses. At least one explosion, a fire and a windstorm have damaged it, sometimes closing it for long stretches, although oddly enough, it survived the 1906 earthquake unscathed. Still, in the 1990s, it landed on the World Monuments Fund's list of endangered sites. But it was saved, once again, by a fundraising effort.

Today the conservatory is thought to be the largest such structure in the world, and on days when the sun is out, it seems like a gleaming white symbol of tenacity.

Inside, you’ll find the familiar (anthurium, orchids and hibiscus), the exotic (chenille and lipstick plants) and the odd (the Dracula orchid and the corpse flower, which bloomed in June). You can watch a time lapse of the opening of the odiferous corpse flower. Fortunately, you cannot smell it.

The conservatory also has special exhibits (Butterflies and Blooms through Jan. 8) and special events (an Oct. 19 Dracula Orchid Ball — Gala Under Glass) that keep the experience different for repeat visitors.

Where: Golden Gate Park on John F. Kennedy Drive, about 385 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles

How much: $9 for adults, $6 for seniors 65 and older and youth 12-17, $3 for children 5-11 and free for children 4 and younger. Tickets to the Dracula gala begin at $350. (It’s a fundraiser.)

Info: Conservatory of Flowers 

Dracula orchid (Catharine Hamm / Los Angeles Times)
Dracula orchid (Catharine Hamm / Los Angeles Times)
Family-friendlyL.A. County

Ride the world’s largest collection of roller coasters at Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia

The New Revolution VR roller coaster in 2016. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
The New Revolution VR roller coaster in 2016. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Magic Mountain packs in more screams per hour than all of Southern California’s other theme parks combined.

What: Six Flags Magic Mountain delivers what Disneyland can’t: thrills. It has more coasters than any other amusement park in the world.

The fourth-dimension X2 coaster with rotating seats makes your pulse quicken and palms sweat. Twisted Colossus combines the classic feel of a wooden coaster with the looping thrills of modern steel beasts. Soar like a bird with nothing between you and the ground on the gravity-defying, terrain-hugging Tatsu flying coaster.

This 260-acre amusement park is still home to the world’s first modern vertical looping coaster: Revolution. The ride, opened in 1976 during America’s bicentennial celebration, went on to play starring roles in the films “Rollercoaster” (1977) and “National Lampoon’s Vacation” (1983).

Where: 26101 Magic Mountain Parkway, Valencia, 34.8 miles northwest of downtown L.A.

How much: Daily tickets for adults cost $50.99 online and $84.99 at the park. Annual passes run $269.99 per year. The park is currently running a buy-a-day, get-a-year sale (through Oct. 31).

Info: Six Flags Magic Mountain

 

Family-friendlySan Diego County

Surf Southern California, even if you need a lesson

Rookie surfer, age 56. (Adam Weigand)
Rookie surfer, age 56. (Adam Weigand)

Why: Because it's an irreproducible thrill to balance a board on a rolling wave. Because it's an excuse to get in the water. And because surfing underpins so much of California popular culture. 

What: Blame the three Hawaiian princes who introduced surfing to California in the 1880s. Or blame the Beach Boys for deciding to sing about it in the early 1960s. Either way, the word got out about this sport, which can be fatal or, in the best of circumstances, not so hard.

I admired it from afar until the other day, when I signed on for a 90-minute, one-on-one lesson at beginner-friendly Mission Beach in San Diego. Instructor Adam Wiegand took me through the basics, launched me into a few waves, then went ashore and hollered instructions at me, the 56-year-old rookie. It wasn't pretty, but I got up a few times and spent some precious seconds gliding with the tide. This means it's not that hard.

It does help to start on a day of 1-2-foot waves, using a 10-foot-long foam board — that's about the size of an aircraft carrier. We did need to be careful of stingrays on the sandy bottom (no stings, thankfully) and we had the happy distraction of a dolphin swim-by.

Where: Classes like this are offered up and down the coast, and the citizen critics of yelp have evaluated more than a dozen in Santa Monica alone. I used Surfari Surf School, 3740 Mission Blvd, San Diego, 116 miles southeast of downtown L.A. 

How much: Surfing instruction rates vary widely. At Surfari, I paid $85 for a 90-minute one-on-one session (and an added hour of board and wet suit rental, if I'd had the energy). For a group lesson (three to five people), the rate is $55 per person.

Info: Surfari Surf School

 

Family-friendlySan Diego County

Climb the Balboa Park tower that authorities kept closed for 80 years

 (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: The California Tower, built to conjure Spanish Colonial daydreams for a world expo in 1915, was closed to visitors in 1935. But it reopened in 2015 and as you surmount its 157 steps, you'll hear how Balboa Park has grown from a temporary fairground into one of the nation's foremost urban parks. You'll also get a bird's-eye view of the signature tiled dome that's also part of the California Tower.

What: The tower and dome are both part of the Museum of Man, one of 17 cultural organizations in the park. If you sign up to climb the tower, your guide will remind you how the 1,200-acre park began as a venue for the Panama-California Exposition of 1915, San Diego's underdog effort to compete with San Francisco's Panama-Pacific International Exposition the same year. San Francisco's expo was fancier, but when those parties were over, San Diego set aside more acreage, preserved more buildings and may have reaped more long-term benefits.

 (C. Reynolds/Los Angeles Times)
(C. Reynolds/Los Angeles Times)

Anyway, the tour lasts about 40 minutes. It's fun to climb the narrow spiral staircase (and a tad disappointing to learn that the highest levels of the tower are off-limits). The observation deck, about 100 feet above the ground floor, looks out on the redwood lattice of the Botanical Building; the not-so-native trees shading the not-so-native animals of the zoo; the curlicued Spanish Colonial Revival facades of the Prado; the roofs of the Old Globe; and the Cabrillo Bridge, also built for the long-ago expo.

Within a short walk of the tower, you'll find the Fleet Science Center, the Museum of Photographic Arts, the San Diego Natural History Museum, the San Diego History Center, the San Diego Museum of Art, the Japanese Friendship Garden and more.  In fact, it you haven't given Balboa Park at least half a day, you've probably fouled up your San Diego vacation.

Where: 1350 El Prado, San Diego, 123 miles southeast of downtown L.A.

How much: Tower tour tickets (which also include museum admission) cost $22.50 per adult, $18 for students over 12, $10 for students and children age 6-12. Open to children 6 and older.  (Frugal family option: Flop down on the grass by the park lily pond and listen to the musicians that play there for tips.) 

Info: Museum of Man, Balboa Park

View from the California Tower (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
View from the California Tower (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
San Diego County

Stroll the strange beach at the Mexican border

 (Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times)
(Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times)

Why: Because the California shoreline where the U.S. and Mexico meet is like no place else. A tall fence runs into the ocean and shore birds perch on it. A second fence runs parallel. Border Patrol agents circulate in SUVs and on ATVs, making sure nobody climbs over or swims around. Antennas reach skyward. Cellphones lose bearings. Through the fence, you might glimpse Mexican families romping on the beach. 

What: Border Field State Park's 418 acres include the beach, views of a few rocky offshore islands and Monument Mesa, which has shaded picnic tables and a broad view of the wetlands, scrub and several horse stables on the U.S. side. The Mexican side features a bull ring, a lighthouse and several hillside developments. Authorities don't recommend swimming on the U.S. side (no lifeguard; low water quality after rains). But you can ride horses, which is rare on California beaches.

In dry weather between 9:30 a.m. and 6 p.m., the flood-prone road into the park is usually open, allowing you to drive almost all the way to the beach. When the road's gate is closed,  it's about a 1.5-mile walk to the beach and a few yards farther to the mesa, which includes Friendship Park.

What's Friendship Park? It might be this border's strangest feature of all: an enclosed segment of fence where Mexicans and Americans can meet and converse (no hand-offs, no filming) through openings in the metal barrier, as a U.S. Border Patrol agent looks on. The area is open 10 a.m to 2 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.

If you want to drive into Mexico via San Ysidro, stay on I-5, bring a passport and buy Mexican insurance first. Or consider taking the San Diego Trolley's Blue Line, which runs from downtown San Diego to San Ysidro, the busiest border crossing in the Western Hemisphere. Then you can cross and return on foot (which is usually faster than driving). Expect a lot of cellphone shops, money-changers and vendors of Mexican insurance.The beach is prettier.

Where: 1500 Monument Rd., San Diego, 16 miles south of downtown San Diego, 140 miles southeast of downtown L.A.

How much: If you drive into the state park, the cost is $5 per car. The San Diego Trolley fare from downtown San Diego to San Ysidro is $2.50 each way.

Info: Border Field State Park, Friendship Park

This way to Friendship Park. (Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times)
This way to Friendship Park. (Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times)
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