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368 posts
  • Family-friendly
  • L.A. County
(Christina House / For The Times)

Why: These urban canals are a developer’s semi-successful dream, a fraction of what was envisioned as a Venice of America. Now lined with captivating residences, the setting remains serene and alluring.

What: The Venice canals opened to huge fanfare on July 4, 1905, in the days when passenger cars were still a novelty. Costumed gondoliers, brought in from Italy, worked the canals.

Twenty years later, many of the canals were filled in to build roads.

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  • Family-friendly
  • Gold Country
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Once a booming Gold Rush town just north of Sonora, Columbia is now a 272-acre state park, staffed by rangers and others in period attire. State parks officials say it's their system's largest collection of Gold Rush era buildings, with restaurants, saloons (heavy on the sarsaparilla), various retailers, a museum, a gold-panning operation, two hotels, some cottages, stagecoach rides, plus a Thursday night farmers market from June through September. From September through June, there are plenty of school programs aimed at fourth-graders studying California history.

What: The town was born in 1850 when prospectors found gold. By 1860, its best days as a source of gold were over. By the 1930s, it was on the brink of collapse. The state stepped in to acquire land and make Columbia a park in 1945. It's just off Highway 49, the main thoroughfare of gold country. Most of Columbia's businesses are open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. year-round.

I happened to arrive around 9 a.m., which meant I got to watch the denizens of Columbia arrive by car, stash their vehicles out of sight, then emerge in their historic garb to welcome another 1850s day.

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  • Family-friendly
  • Central Valley
(Schat's)

Why: Erick Schat’s Bakkery in Bishop is California’s bread basket. About four hours from Los Angeles, the old Dutch bakery is a must-stop on the half-day ride into the Eastern Sierra. A travel touchstone for generations, Schat’s famed sheepherder bread was developed in 1938 to please Basque farmers who missed the bread of their homeland. Almost 80 years later, stopping for a loaf of the hand-shaped bread remains a California tradition. Oh, and don’t forget the chocolate macarons.

What: Schat’s big bakery is the focal point of a Main Street that features no-frills bars and fishing tackle shops. The bakery/deli offers sandwiches and pastries for the road for travelers heading to Mammoth Lakes or Yosemite. A beautiful city park across the street allows for impromptu picnics and a chance to stretch your legs.

The magic? The Sierra snowmelt that filters into the groundwater, and eventually into the famed breads. Stone-ground flour also is a key ingredient, and pecans and other nuts are provided by local growers.

  • Family-friendly
  • L.A. County
The Godmother, with the works
The Godmother, with the works (Chris Erskine / Los Angeles Times)

Why: For lunch, I give you the Godmother. Squeeze it, chomp it, then absent-mindedly swipe your mouth with your sleeve. Some sandwiches you consume. Others consume you.

What:  As with all great sandwiches, you realize you’re onto something special by the crackle the bread makes when you grab it. The Godmother fits in your hand like a football – you could probably throw a spiral with it.

Bay Cities Italian Deli & Bakery makes its own bread, which is what it's all about. On a good day, they serve 4,000 or so sandwiches.

(Chris Erskine / Los Angeles Times)
  • Family-friendly
  • L.A. County
The dome in 1986.
The dome in 1986. (Los Angeles Times)

Why: Your daily life is basically one small screen after another. This is not that. This is a screen that's 32 feet by 86 feet — not only big and wide but curved at a 126-degree angle, the better to surround you with cinematic spectacle while 44 fancy speakers roar and whisper in your ears. You're in Hollywood. Why not let a movie embrace you? 

What: At its opening in late 1963, the Cinerama Dome ws the only theater of its kind, designed to bowl over audiences under a vast, Midcentury Modern geodesic roof that comprises 316 hexagons. (IMAX movies, also reliant on curved screens, came years later.)

The first movie screened here was "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World." Nowadays management offers first-run movies and the occasional throwback, like the 40th anniversary showing of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" that I caught in early September.

Under the 316 hexagons.
Under the 316 hexagons. (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
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  • Family-friendly
  • L.A. County
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: If this were just any wealthy beach city, it would be a great place to run, bike, surf, people-watch and nurse your real estate envy. But Manhattan Beach is also the birthplace of beach volleyball as a way of life. Whenever you visit, you'll probably see seriously talented athletes at play.

What: Among the South Bay beach cities of Redondo, Hermosa and Manhattan, this is the northernmost and wealthiest. Plenty of restaurants and shops are lined up on Manhattan Beach Boulevard, the main drag. At the end of the boulevard, the concrete Manhattan Beach Pier reaches 928 feet into the sea, with a cafe and the small, kid-friendly Roundhouse Aquarium at the end.

The volleyball happens on the sand courts just north and south of the pier. Besides frequent competitions there are lots of classes for kids and adults. Be warned that the Manhattan Beach Open, a summer institution since 1960, draws tens of thousands of fans, making a demanding parking situation downright diabolical. Be comforted that no matter when you come, you can read the brass plaques along the pier's Manhattan Beach Open Volleyball Walk of Fame: Olympic gold medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings has seven plaques there. Karch Kiraly, also an Olympic gold medalist, has 10.

Volleyball Walk of Fame
Volleyball Walk of Fame (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
  • Family-friendly
  • L.A. County
Entrance to the exhibits starts with a test.
Entrance to the exhibits starts with a test. (Los Angeles Times)

Why: You can find hate almost anywhere these days. To find a cool-headed yet riveting plea for tolerance and understanding isn’t merely a relief, it’s life-affirming.

What: The Museum of Tolerance has been L.A.’s most effective classroom since 1993. Creative and sophisticated, the highly visual exhibits offer insight into civil rights, diversity, racism and human relationships.

Laid out across four levels, the contemporary building offers enough interesting information to take up most of an afternoon. Each of the three main wings takes about 90 minutes.

Museum exterior
Museum exterior (Chris Erskine / Los Angeles Times)
  • Family-friendly
  • San Diego County
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: It'll make you feel like a pirate. Or a sea lion.

What: Back in the first years of the 20th century, somebody hatched a nutty idea and hired two guys to start digging through this sandstone bluff top toward a sea cave below. And they made it. Nowadays, this neighborhood's real estate prices are enough to chase mere millionaires away, but if you enter the modest-looking Cave Store and head for the rustic-looking stairwell, the tunnel remains.

Its 145 steps will take you down to where waves crash and sea lions sometimes bellow. Chances are you'll also see kayakers through the opening as they make their own approach to the same cave. (The store also stocks jewelry, art and souvenirs.) By the way, all the digging was done with picks and shovels in 1902 and 1903 by two laborers from China, names unknown.

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  • Family-friendly
  • Central Coast
Scorpion Anchorage Beach, Santa Cruz Island.
Scorpion Anchorage Beach, Santa Cruz Island. (Elisa Parhad)

Why: Santa Cruz Island offers an undeveloped, virtually uninhabited wilderness with staggering scenery and biodiversity that might make Charles Darwin weep. The beach at Scorpion Ranch is an ideal spot to marvel at life beneath the waves (especially the shoreline kelp forests) and view sea cliffs, coves and caves by kayak.  

What: Santa Cruz is one in a chain of eight Channel Islands that lay beyond the populated shores of Southern California. Five (including Santa Cruz) are part of Channel Islands National Park. At just 11 miles from Ventura Harbor, Scorpion Anchorage on Santa Cruz Island offers the best introduction to the park. Most visitors arrive via one-hour boat ride. Ashore, there's potable water, picnic tables, some of the islands' best weather and plenty to do. You can visit for a day or camp for several. 

Often referred to as "the Galápagos of North America," the archipelago is home to 145 species of flora and fauna found nowhere else. On Santa Cruz, keep an eye out for the highly visible (and tiny) island foxes and island scrub jays. Also, though it seems so far from civilization, the island has a 10,000-plus-year history of Chumash habitation, along with half a millennium of European exploration and nearly 200 years of ranching. The visitor center at the historic Scorpion Ranch house offers information on all these topics, guided hikes and other free interpretive programs. (Also, back on the mainland, check out the park's Robert J. Lagomarsino Visitor Center at Channel Islands National Park in Ventura.)The summer and fall are ideal times to kayak, snorkel and swim at the beach at Scorpion Anchorage. Kayak transportation must be arranged before departure (use Channel Island Kayak Center for rentals). Guided tours and snorkel gear rentals are available through Channel Islands Adventure Company. Reservations are recommended, but walk-ups on the island may be available, especially for snorkel gear. If water sports aren't your thing, Santa Cruz island offers superb hiking from Scorpion Anchorage, from a two-mile loop along majestic sea cliffs to an eight-mile trek into the island interior. 

The island offers no food service (except for a few snacks on the boat), so bring your own, and pack out all of your trash. Depending on weather, boat departures may be canceled, so always check the status of your trip before you travel. Also, wind, currents and weather can make for rough boat crossings, so make sure to take some Dramamine if you are prone to seasickness.

Island fox.
Island fox. (Jabin Botsford / Los Angeles Times)
  • San Diego County
  • Central Coast
  • L.A. County
  • Orange County
The tracks through Del Mar
The tracks through Del Mar (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: These are the best Amtrak miles in California.

What: Yes, Amtrak can take you all the way from San Diego to Seattle on its Coast Starlight route. But it's between San Luis Obispo and San Diego that most of the coastline happens. The Pacific Surfliner route takes about nine hours if you stay aboard the whole way, but you might want to pick a shorter portion of the trip, focusing on, say, the rugged beaches of San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties, or the upscale shoreline in southern Orange and northern San Diego counties. (Near downtown L.A. you'll get a dose of heavy industry and a river encased in concrete.)

The stations are part of the thrill too. The mustard-hued Santa Barbara station along State Street is a handsome piece of Spanish Colonial architecture that was well-restored several years ago. L.A.'s Union Station is a marvelous collision of Spanish Colonial and Art Deco. Since 2014, Anaheim has sported a station that's all glinting metal and provocative curves. The San Juan Capistrano station is splendidly mission-adjacent. And one day, management of San Diego's Santa Fe station will realize it's time to spiff up the awkward, faded interior to match its grand old Mission Revival exterior.

Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara (Robin Rauzi / Los Angeles Times)