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368 posts
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Because the Pechanga casino, by some measures the largest Indian gambling resort in California, will give you that Vegas sensation without requiring a drive into Nevada. Or because the Pechanga resort is a milestone in the long, dysfunctional relationship between California's native peoples and its colonizers.

What: You name a game, they offer it. They bring in performers such as Smokey Robinson, Ali Wong and the Brian Setzer Orchestra. They call bingo in a vast upstairs room full of blue and green fiber optic lights. It's Vegas -- except that you're in Riverside County, among the rock-studded hills, wine country and Temecula suburbs. And in the display windows along the casino walls, you see baskets, pots, bows, arrows, arrowheads and harsh old photos -- reminders that this is a reservation where life was hard.

You probably won't quintuple your money (as I did in 20 seconds at the slots). But you will be reminded just how much the world has changed since 1884, when Helen Hunt Jackson decried Indian suffering in her novel "Ramona;" and since 1987, when the nearby Cabazon and Morongo bands of Mission Indians won the U.S. Supreme Court decision that effectively launched casino gaming on California tribal lands.

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

Why: Because who says pie isn’t a meal? Apparently many of us can eat pie all day long, especially  when visiting the apple-centric and scenic hamlet of Julian.

What: This might be a small spot in the mountains of San Diego County, but there’s a lot going on. You could explore mining history (gold was found here in the 1870s and Eagle Mining Co. offers tours); take an apple or pear orchard tour; hike and picnic amid the pines and manzanitas; or shop collectibles and crafts as you stroll past historic homes and old-time stores. But for some of us, Julian is fundamentally a chance for a dessert tour.

In the early 1900s, growers found Julian a fine place for apple trees. Today, it’s all about the products made with apples – especially the pie.

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  • S.F. Bay Area
(Margo Moritz / Tassajara Zen Mountain Center)

Why: Mindfulness is hard, monkey-mind the bane of modern life. Constant interruptions from work, families and phones keep us from our true selves, or so the mystics say. But what about – wait, hold on a second, oh yeah – just completing a thought without distraction? Some getaways promise peace and quiet. Tassajara, the famed Zen center located deep inside the Santa Lucia Mountains, delivers. Its zendo, cottages, baths and trails are a tonic for what ails us.

What: From late April or May through September, visitors join students and monks who live year-round at the end of a 14-mile dirt road that rises out of the Carmel Valley, snakes along a precipitous ridge line and drops into a beautiful sycamore- and oak-clad canyon. It’s Shangri-La with a California twist. Reservations are made through the San Francisco Zen Center, and while the atmosphere may seem a little forbidding (no cell coverage, limited electricity, a modest dress code, no pets), the staff is friendly and hospitable. The 2018 season will be April 26-Sept. 9.

Accommodations range from cottages of river stone to clapboard cabins, from a yurt to a dormitory with communal dining. (Tassajara is famed for its breads and lavish vegetarian fare.)

(Margo Mortiz / Tassajara Zen Mountain Center)
  • L.A. County
Case Study House No. 22 , Los Angeles, 1960. Pierre Koenig architect, Photo by Julius Shulman © J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles
Case Study House No. 22 , Los Angeles, 1960. Pierre Koenig architect, Photo by Julius Shulman © J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (Julius Shulman)

Why: Now you can immerse yourself in the Midcentury Modern house that famed photographer Julius Shulman vaulted to icon status, a symbol of 1960s sophistication. His alluring black-and-white photo shows two well-dressed young women lounging in a glass-walled living room while the house appears to precariously perch on the edge of a mountain.

What: Pass through the front door of architect Pierre Koenig's Stahl House — also known as Case Study House No. 22 — and prepare to gasp. Before you is a dazzling view that sweeps uninterrupted across the Los Angeles basin, from downtown L.A. to Santa Monica Bay and, on a clear day, beyond to Catalina Island. Laid out immediately at your feet is a courtyard consisting of a sleek, angular pool surrounded by smooth concrete. This is the first “room" you enter.

Wandering around the rest of the site doesn’t take long. It’s a small two-bedroom/two-bathroom. What does take time is absorbing the visuals of the place. The structure is post-and-beam but built with steel (instead of wood), glass and concrete. Because most of the walls are windows, it makes for jaw-dropping panoramic views and light-filled rooms. My suggestion is as soon as you finish exploring the place, take a seat somewhere and just gaze for as long as you possibly can. Then exhale. It’s tranquil up there.

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

Why: It’s amazing how few L.A.-area restaurants celebrate the outdoors. Geoffrey’s in Malibu does. There’s hardly a bad table in this special occasion venue, where the ocean is almost as close as your wine glass.

What: A little fancy, yet hardly stuffy, Geoffrey’s has long been a go-to Malibu restaurant for anniversaries, proposals, birthdays and wedding showers.

(Chris Erskine / Los Angeles Times)

The patio restaurant is super busy in summer and over the holidays, making a warm November day an excellent time to go for a leisurely lunch – it stays open through the afternoon, with a brief pause from 3:30 to 4 p.m., as it resets for dinner. But linger at your table; this isn’t a place to rush you out.

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  • Family-friendly
  • Central Coast
The back of the house.
The back of the house. (Catharine Hamm / Los Angeles Times)

Why: If you need to be convinced that the delight is in the details, a visit to Casa del Herrero in Montecito will make a believer out of you. If you’re already a believer, you’ll be in your element.

What: Casa del Herrero (House of the Blacksmith), a 1925 home designated a National Historic Landmark in 2009, lets you peek into California, Spanish and Moorish homes and history. George and Carrie Steedman (pronounced sted-man) of St. Louis decamped to build their Spanish Colonial Revival dream house on 11 acres. If its design looks familiar, it’s because architect George Washington Smith designed nearly six dozen homes and some commercial buildings in the area. Their collaboration was like genius squared.

The side door.
The side door. (Catharine Hamm / Los Angeles Times)

The courtyard entrance, where a Spanish-tiled fountain gurgles, brings visitors to the front of a house that looks disappointingly plain. Not to worry. Open the door and you’re transported to southern Spain and its Moorish influences. The rooms reflect an Iberian shopping spree that filled the house with 13th and 17th century furnishings, tapestries and more.

  • Family-friendly
  • L.A. County
The Great Mausoleum
The Great Mausoleum (Los Angeles Times)

Why: This is one of the grand cemeteries in the world -- in setting, in scope, in star power. Step inside Forest Lawn Glendale and honor the memories of Elizabeth Taylor, Walt Disney and Jimmy Stewart, among dozens of other famous names.

What: California in spirit, with wide lanes and sunny vistas, Forest Lawn Glendale is a far cry from the grim graveyards seen in most places.

The 300-acre cemetery dates to 1917 when Hubert Eaton took it over in hopes of celebrating eternal life. It hosts funerals, art shows and weddings. Ronald Reagan married Jane Wyman in one of its chapels.

(Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times)

Why: If death is inevitable, capitalism is inexhaustible and Los Angeles is Los Angeles, it should be no surprise that the L.A. County coroner has a gift shop. And let's face it, you're curious.

What: The Skeletons in the Closet gift store opened in 1993 (at about the time homicides in the city were reaching historic highs). Nowadays the homicide rate is far lower, but the retail continues. Beach towels (with body outlines), barbecue aprons, mugs, office supplies, lanyards and more (see below) -- this shop has you covered, so to speak. The goods are gathered just off the lobby of the coroner's headquarters in Lincoln Heights, a 1909 red-brick building that once served as a hospital.

(Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times)

At least one other city has a coroner's gift shop. Still, this is a rare inventory in arguable taste. (For the weeks leading up to Halloween, body bags are offered.) For the record, the shop's management says the store exists "to promote how fragile life is and create awareness and responsibility toward one's actions." 

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  • Family-friendly
  • L.A. County
(Elisa Parhad)

Why:   Vast meadows of orange poppies were once a common sight in the California springtime, inspiring Spanish conquistadors to call the San Gabriel foothills the "Land of Fire." The Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve is one of the last remaining places in the state to experience a large-scale—and predictably magnificent—display. Wildflower season at the reserve typically begins in mid-February and lasts until May. 

What: The Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve is a beautiful showcase of the state’s beloved golden flower. In good years, bright orange covers the earth as far as the eye can see. Legends of these sunny blooms are woven into the myths of native tribes, Spanish conquistadors and 49ers.

Not surprisingly, the California poppy became a state flower in 1903. Around this time, residents cherished the springtime tradition of picnics among poppy fields, much like cherry blossom gazing in Japan. Today, the flowers have few open places to create such spectacles.  Peak bloom falls around California Poppy Day on April 6, but the timing, intensity, and duration of poppy blooms vary from season to season, depending on the season's temperatures and rainfall.

  • Family-friendly
  • L.A. County
Local pro skater Eric “Tuma” Britton on Snake Run, Venice Skate Park.
Local pro skater Eric “Tuma” Britton on Snake Run, Venice Skate Park. (Barbara Odanaka)

Why: With its oceanfront setting, gritty pedigree and a vibe like no other, this skate park rules—for shredder and spectator alike.

What: The Golden State is home to nearly 450 skateboard parks. Some are vast, like the 68,000-square foot Lake Cunningham Regional Skate Park in San Jose. Others offer monstrous terrain, like the eye-popping, stomach-dropping MegaRamp at Woodward West in Tehachapi. But for those seeking the soul of skateboarding: Venice.

This 18,000-square foot concrete playground, built on a rise of sand in the heart of Venice Beach, attracts skate-travelers from around the world. The park's compact design—including two bowls, a street area and a classic, 1970s-style snake run—offers something for every level.