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  • Family-friendly
  • L.A. County
The tunnel in the Labyrinth, upstairs.
The tunnel in the Labyrinth, upstairs. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Why: This bookseller has taken a dead bank building on an iffy downtown block and turned it into a bold retreat for readers and bohemians.

What: The Last Bookstore opened elsewhere downtown in 2005, as booksellers were faltering across the land. And then-owner Josh Spencer defied conventional wisdom a second time by moving his business to this far larger space in 2011. It beckons readers with a ground floor full of new and used books, including graphic novels and an annex for art and rare books.

The store also buys, sells and trades used vinyl, CDs and DVDs. The 25-foot white columns, circa 1915, suggest you may be sifting through the ruins of a lost civilization. The suspended artworks hint at acts of magic in progress. The stage gets used often for readings and live music.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
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  • San Diego County
Tiger Woods at Torrey Pines in early 2017.
Tiger Woods at Torrey Pines in early 2017. (K.C. Alfred / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Why: It’s an opportunity to play a seaside complex where Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Tom Watson, Phil Mickelson (three times) and Tiger Woods (seven times) have been professional champions. That includes Woods’ dramatic playoff victory in the 2008 U.S. Open despite two stress fractures in his left leg and an ailing left knee that required surgery shortly after his win.

What: The North and South courses at Torrey Pines live by the same mantra that guides real estate: Location, location, location. High on the bluffs overlooking the Pacific, the courses offer distractingly beautiful views of the ocean and beaches below, accented above by ever-present hang gliders soaring over the cliffs and the frequent fly-bys of military jets from the nearby Marine Corps Air Station Miramar.

(Lodge at Torrey Pines)
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The Improvised Shakespeare Company, Largo, 2016.
The Improvised Shakespeare Company, Largo, 2016. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Largo (formally, Largo at the Coronet) is a rare venue where music and comedy rub elbows, where performers take chances, where big names turn up on stage and in the crowd, where audiences really concentrate. So don't show up late; once the show starts (usually 8:30 p.m.), the doors close and that's that.

What: Largo began in 1989 as Cafe Largo on Fairfax Avenue. Over time it changed owners, shortened its name and changed addresses (in 2008), but held its reputation. The main performance space is the 280-seat Coronet Theater, but just off the entry courtyard you'll find the 65-seat Little Room (Guinness on tap).

(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Recent performers include Jon Brion, the Watkins Family Hour, Grant Lee Phillips, Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer, Sarah Silverman, Patton Oswalt, Zach Galifianakis, Tig Notaro, Harry Shearer and Judith Owen. On Sept, 19, I caught Sammy Miller and the Congregation, a young, six-man lineup that specializes in joyful jazz with lots of laughs and theatricality.

Bixby Bridge, Big Sur.
Bixby Bridge, Big Sur. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Why: North and south, as far as the eye can see, you have perhaps the most dramatic meeting of land and sea on the 840 miles of California's coastline. In between you have Highway 1 and this graceful span, a man-made respite between coastal wonders. But the highway is highly vulnerable to landslides, which is why, through mid-2018, Southern Californians need to approach Bixby Bridge by way of a big detour.

What: Highway 1 through Big Sur covers about 90 miles, beginning above San Simeon and continuing north to just below Carmel. The stormy winter of 2016-2017 damaged the road in multiple spots, now reduced to one closed zone at Mud Creek, about 20 miles northwest of San Simeon. (Those landslide damage repairs are due to conclude in June 2018). Still, most of Big Sur's scenery and businesses are open and accessible. Bixby Bridge is a highlight of the northern portion.

To reach the Bixby Bridge, the Rocky Point Restaurant, Point Lobos, Carmel and other points north, drive north on the 101 from Southern California. Then double back through Monterey via Highway 68. Soon you'll be hugging that amazing Big Sur coastline. Bear in mind that some trails are open in Andrew Molera and Garrapata state parks but much territory is closed or tightly restricted as repairs continue. 

  • Family-friendly
  • Central Coast
On the terrace, Nepenthe
On the terrace, Nepenthe (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Why: These are some of the most epic miles of California's coast, and this cliff-clinging bohemian throwback restaurant has been a part of it since 1949.

What: Sometime in the second half of 2018, when all damage from the storms of early 2017 is mended, we'll again be able to drive all the way from San Simeon through Big Sur to Carmel on Highway 1. Until then, a 6-mile stretch of the highway (site of the Mud Creek slide) is closed just north of Ragged Point, forcing Southern Californians into big detours to reach Big Sur's most beloved landmarks, including Nepenthe. To reach those spots from the south, we can drive up 101 and double back on Highway 1 near Carmel, or we can exit at Jolon Road (north of Paso Robles) and continue via Nacimiento-Fergusson Road to rejoin the Highway 1 above its closure point.

It's along that northern portion of Highway 1 that you find Nepenthe, about 800 feet above the Pacific, about 31 miles south of Carmel.

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  • Family-friendly
  • L.A. County
Rice in lotus leaf and shrimp dumplings are among the varied dim sum offerings in the San Gabriel Valley.
Rice in lotus leaf and shrimp dumplings are among the varied dim sum offerings in the San Gabriel Valley. (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Dim sum is a brunch parade of Chinese tastes. There's no better place to enjoy California dim sum than Los Angeles County's San Gabriel Valley, where several cities boast populations of 40% or more Chinese Americans. And in this territory, NBC Seafood of Monterey Park is an institution.

What: NBC Seafood, a vast Cantonese banquet hall in a busy mall on Atlantic Boulevard, serves dim sum daily from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Diners pick dishes in baskets from an armada of circulating food carts, sipping tea between bites. The options are almost endless (including Jell-O and pickled chicken feet).

(Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times)

On my last visit, besides the usual shrimp-crab-pork-beef-broccoli-rice-dumpling favorites, I tried the boiled beef stomach (which was chewy, like octopus). Next time, maybe the chicken palm in abalone sauce...

  • Family-friendly
  • Central Coast
Elephant seal pup at Piedras Blancas.
Elephant seal pup at Piedras Blancas. (Armando Arorizo / European Pressphoto Agency)

Why: Because this stretch of Highway 1 is more than a jaw-dropping drive. It often features hundreds, sometimes thousands, of portly pinnipeds flopped on the sand at the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery.

What: An uncanny bellowing beckoned me off the road last winter. On that trip, I joined a crowd on a boardwalk looking down in delight and wonder as these mega-sized marine mammals jockeyed for dominance on the beach. (Males get up to 5,000 pounds and 16 feet long, and this was mating and birthing season.) In the spring, we found a second visit equally intriguing: molting season. The beach was full of tan, brown and silvery lumps that looked like driftwood, until one would yawn or another would toss cooling sand over its hot, heavy body.  

Elephant seals at Piedras Blancas.
Elephant seals at Piedras Blancas. (Sara Lessley)

It was the early 1990s when growing numbers of Northern elephant seals (so called because of the mature male's large nose) began gathering here. Since then (with support from many conservation organizations) the lumbering beasts have claimed about six miles of shoreline as a haven for birthing , breeding, molting and rest. Though the elephant seals spend most of their lives at sea, there’s something happening here most months. In September and October, for example, young ones arrive for the fall haul-out. 

  • Family-friendly
  • Central Coast
Tea on the patio.
Tea on the patio. (Jakub Mosur / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Back before anybody carried Chihuahuas in purses, in the days when comfort animals were an uncommon sight in America's planes, trains and restaurants, this place in quaint Carmel was already eager to see your dog. And Doris Day, co-owner, singer, movie star and advocate, is the reason.

(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

What: It's neither the fanciest hotel in town nor the most affordable, but the Cypress Inn stands in the middle of the village, full of Spanish Colonial flourishes.

It goes back to 1929. I've stayed there without a pet and been pleased. If you don't mind stairs, ask about the Queen Tower suite. Views on three sides.

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  • Family-friendly
  • S.F. Bay Area
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Many people don't realize this upstairs viewing space exists, nine stories above the ground. Or that it's free. Its glass walls give you a 360-degree view of Golden Gate Park, beginning with the wavy green roof of the neighboring California Academy of Sciences.

What: The museum goes back to 1895, but its modern history dates to the unveiling of its new industrial-sleek building (and tower) in 2005. The collection is American art from the 17th through the 20th centuries, with additional works from Africa, Oceania and elsewhere in the Americas.

The art is worth your attention -- Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt, Mary Cassatt, Diego Rivera, Georgia O’Keeffe, Chiura Obata, Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, Jacob Lawrence, Edward Hopper, Mark Rothko and Richard Diebenkorn are all here. Pay them respects, if you're inclined. Then catch the elevator to the 2,600-square-foot tower.

  • Family-friendly
  • Central Coast
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Why: With its twin towers, stalwart facade, pink highlights and uncrowded setting, this might be the most imposing of California's 21 missions. It's also the resting place of the woman whose story inspired the beloved Scott O'Dell novel "Island of the Blue Dolphins."

Near Juana Maria's plaque.
Near Juana Maria's plaque. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

What: The building, completed in 1820 and rebuilt after the quake of 1925, is surrounded by 12 acres of gardens. Since the 1830s, this mission has been a major center for storage of mission system records, which makes the place popular with scholars.The site includes a nine-room museum, library and archive.

But if you loved Karana, the brave hero of "Blue Dolphins," you might head straight for the cemetery. This is where mission leaders buried Juana Maria, a native woman who was found alone on San Nicolas Island in 1853, about 50 years old. She had apparently endured 18 years of solitude and weather. She lasted about seven weeks after her return to the mainland, then perished from dysentery.