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369 posts
  • Family-friendly
  • L.A. County
(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.

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  • Family-friendly
  • L.A. County
(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.
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.

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(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.

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

  • Family-friendly
  • S.F. Bay Area
(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.
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.

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  • Family-friendly
  • L.A. County
The New Revolution VR roller coaster in 2016.
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.

  • Family-friendly
  • San Diego County
Rookie surfer, age 56.
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.

  • Family-friendly
  • San Diego County
(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)

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.

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  • Family-friendly
  • San Diego County
(Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times)

Why:  This is the place to see grown men and women  jump off a perfectly good cliff, then rise on the updraft.

What: The Torrey Pines Gliderport sits between the UCSD campus and the sea, sending skyward a steady stream of paraglider pilots and the occasional model airplane. And just down the road you find another set of planes -- the stark, symmetrical, concrete surfaces of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, designed by Louis I. Kahn in 1965 and hailed in a 2017 survey of architects as one of California's 25 must-see buildings. (There are weekday tours.)

Of course the Pacific view is great from around here. (That's Black's Beach below.) Grab lunch at the Cliffhanger Cafe, settle in at a picnic table and watch the action.

  • San Diego County
(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.