Why: The Mission Inn, which dates to the 1870s, stands in the middle of Riverside the way Bruce Springsteen stands in the middle of the E Street band. It fills a city block. And since the early 1990s, the hotel has been putting together an ever-more-lavish Festival of Lights. At last count, about 5 million lights.
What: For six weeks at Christmastime, the landmark hotel switches on all those lights and invites visitors to stroll through the property, including a tunnel where faux snow falls. (This year’s festival runs Nov. 24 through Jan. 6.)
The line to walk the property can get very long — and the traffic and parking situation in the blocks around the hotel can seem downright devilish. But most folks are in a good mood, and the festival includes live music, horse-drawn carriages, funnel cakes, Santa Claus photo ops and more. To see more lights and skip the line, book a dinner reservation at the Mission Inn Restaurant (one of several on the property) and you may land at a courtyard table, surrounded by Spanish Revival architecture that’s more ornate (and with more Tuscan influence) than you’ll see at any of California’s 21 actual missions.
Why: John Steinbeck was born in Salinas, Calif., a farming community that lacks the cachet of neighboring Carmel and Monterey. But, then, neither of those towns produced a man who went on to win a Pulitzer, a Nobel and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. To be in in Steinbeck’s hometown is to be reminded that, as fellow author F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “genius is the ability to put into effect what is in your mind.”
What: Steinbeck’s birthplace home and the National Steinbeck Center tell the tale of the man whose “Grapes of Wrath” is often thought to be the Great American Novel. The community of his youth — he was born here in 1902 — was this rich, rural farming area in the Salinas Valley, and his labors alongside migrant workers in the sugar beet fields of nearby Spreckels informed many of his works, including “Of Mice and Men.”
He attended Stanford but never graduated, and he struggled to establish himself, but in 1935, his book “Tortilla Flat” finally put him in the public eye. His subsequent books included “Cannery Row,” “Sea of Cortez” and “East of Eden” and, of course, “Grapes of Wrath,” about which he wrote, “It isn’t the great book I hoped it would be.” The story of the Joads, fleeing the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma and arriving in not-quite-as-billed California, won the Pulitzer in 1940.
Why: Because two Bali Hais are better than one. Brush up on your Rodgers and Hammerstein (“Bali Hai may call you / Any night, any day”), then come away to this San Diego tiki icon, the Bali Hai restaurant.
What: Tiki bars have been a Southern California phenomenon for generations, and San Diego — with its sunny days, palm trees, ocean views and strong Navy heritage — is a perfect fit for the kitschy fad, tiny umbrellas and all. Starting in the 1930s, faux-Polynesian themed bars and restaurants sprang up in the cross-border region from Tijuana to San Diego. The tiki scene started to dwindle in the 1960s, and despite a resurgence of sorts, most of the old cheeky palaces have faded away.
But not Bali Hai. At age 63, it’s still proudly shaking its hula skirt, aided by a waterfront location, fun ambiance and, yes, seriously powerful mai tais.
Why: Since 1938, Lawry’s the Prime Rib has been the place for indulgence and celebration. It’s where people spend their birthdays, anniversaries, congrats-on-your-promotion dinners and holiday parties. And where football players competing in the Rose Bowl go for the Beef Bowl.
What: Walking through the heavy gold doors is like walking into a time machine. Through the other side is a magical place where people still dress up, spotless glasses sparkle on crisp white tablecloths and the plush booths make you feel like the most important person in the world.
The idea was to create a version of the English restaurant Simpson’s in the Strand, where cuts of meat fit for a giant are served from trolleys. But Lawry’s founders Lawrence Frank and brother-in-law Walter Van de Kamp (of the Van de Kamp bakery empire and Tam O’Shanter Inn) had grander plans for their restaurant, starting with the meat carts.
Why: About 20 minutes ago, it seems, this was a derelict industrial zone with a few brave bohemians squatting in old factories along the railroad tracks — the kind of place where Quentin Tarantino would film a squalid murder. Then more artists and architects arrived. Then the entrepreneurs and developers. In another 20 minutes, it’ll be Soho West.
What: The Arts District, a big chunk of downtown between the Los Angeles River and South Alameda Street, has actually been gaining momentum for about three decades. Now is the time to swoop in and enjoy how bright, shiny and tasty it has become. (And spare a minute to mourn the long-ago passing of Al’s Bar, once the life of the neighborhood.)
On East Third Street now, you can confront edgy and expensive contemporary art; browse a bookshop or boutique; settle into a leisurely lunch at Manuela; or bring a brown bag and have a seat in the courtyard next to the kitchen garden and chicken coop. And that’s just inside the Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles gallery complex that opened in 2016.
Why: If Big Sur is a temple to the beauty of the California coast, then the Henry Miller Memorial Library is one of its most endearing altars, a respite from the rigors of navigating the twists and turns of Highway 1 and rubber-necking the vertiginous coastline. Beneath stately redwoods is a quiet repository of wisdom, irreverence and charm. Its proprietors say that it is the place “where nothing happens,” and yet it is where everything seems to converge.
What: Henry Valentine Miller came to Big Sur in the 1940s after nearly a decade in Paris. He was, by then, author of “Tropic of Cancer” and “Tropic of Capricorn,” which were banned as obscene in America until 1961. Naturally they sold well, and Miller soon became a hero of renegade literature, a model for William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. After Miller’s death in Pacific Palisades in 1980, a friend, Emil White, opened a memorial library that bore Miller’s name. With the help of the Big Sur Land Trust, the library has become a nonprofit cultural space, art gallery, performance space, bookshop and destination for artists, writers, musicians and students.
The Henry Miller Memorial Library is a reminder of the pleasures afforded by a curated bookstore. It is a place to celebrate the macho and feminist, the consensual and the iconoclastic through the pages of its eclectic collection of books. Psychedelic cumbias from Peru or the twanging guitar of the Del Tones might be your accompaniment as you browse the tables set with Edward Abbey, Joseph Heller, William Faulkner, John Fante, David Foster Wallace, Jon Stewart, Robert Pirsig and William Least Heat Moon.
Why: Architects usually keep their daydreams to themselves. But among these hills on the back side of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, some students have allowed their boldest notions to romp free. And horses romp with them.
What: Cal Poly is routinely ranked among the nation’s top schools of architecture, and its students and professors started testing ideas in this canyon as early as the 1960s. Lately, there’s a spring Design Village event (April 20-22 in 2018) that brings students out to test temporary structures and sometimes sleep in them. Luckily for the rest of us, those nine acres and the rest of the canyon are generally open to the public, including dogs and mountain bikes (on the dirt road). It’s a hike of about 2.5 miles from campus to the farthest structure, but your mileage (and elevation gain) will depend on how tempted your are to probe the structures and stalk the horses.
I wandered around on a December day when the hills were the color of straw, and at first I wasn’t so happy about all the horse turds. But once the horses themselves showed up, that changed everything. They sidled up to a water tower, then struck heroic poses on the ridge line while I prowled around assorted unconventional houses and bridges, including a geodesic dome. Yes, there was some graffiti and vandalism, but many structures have been reconditioned in more recent years. (The university calls it an “experimental construction laboratory.”)
Why: You’ll never see another holiday display quite like it. And it sits on 4 acres in the middle of an upscale Palm Springs neighborhood.
What: The Coachella Valley, with its 80-degree December days, is a quirky place to celebrate winter holidays to begin with. And the quirks multiply once you enter Palm Springs’ Movie Colony neighborhood and approach the Irwin house, about two blocks from the old Frank Sinatra Estate. Since at least 32 years ago, when he was 12, Kenny Irwin has been driven to create epic displays from cast-off items — dreamscapes that suggest robots, space aliens and more obscure spectacles that defy description. With his father’s support (and a corps of seasonal workers to handle logistics and crowd control), Irwin’s compulsion has grown into Robolights, a seasonal landmark that combines Santa Clauses, reindeer, sleighs and gingerbread houses with little green men, skulls, dolls, hybrid creatures, reclaimed consumer electronics, half-melted toys and at least one coffin. At Robolights there are no clear lines between Halloween, Christmas and science fiction.
From Nov. 22 through Jan. 8, the scene is lighted by thousands of bulbs and visitors are ushered along a path that leads from the front yard through a forest of fantasy in the back, then out again. A thousand visitors in a night is not uncommon. On my visit in early December, Irwin was out and about, a soft-spoken man with a skullcap, caftan, long beard and gentle smile. (Did I mention that the artist converted to Islam many years ago?)
Why: Beach yoga is good for the bod, and the spirit, in ways that no cramped, sweaty studio can match.
What: All sorts of beach yoga classes are held up and down the California coast, but few are as affordable and easy as Beach Yoga With Brad and Friends in Santa Monica. No reservations required. Just drop in with $15 and a beach towel (or a yoga mat if you prefer).
Instructor/owner Brad Keimach is a Juilliard-trained classical music conductor who moonlights – or sunlights – with these yoga classes every Saturday and Sunday from 10:30 till noon. He also holds Wednesday sunset classes starting at 3:45 p.m. and lasting an hour. When the days are longer and the clocks change, he adds more weekday sunset classes.