This hilly, northern San Diego County city, a must for plant lovers, has at least 123 nurseries.
Many sell only to the trade, but others invite visitors to roam their gardens and greenhouses. More importantly, the plant prices are often much less than at a neighborhood nursery.
Passion fruit and wine grapes were early cash crops for century-old Vista, followed by avocados in the 1930s and strawberries today. However, specialty plants, including bonsai, herbs and rare fruits, also lure visitors.
During a daylong outing, visitors here can tour the open nurseries, as well as a bird farm and an agricultural machinery museum.
For those who get hungry during the day or evening, Vista also has several good restaurants.
Start from Los Angeles by driving south on Interstate 5 to the California 76/Mission Avenue exit just beyond Camp Pendleton. Head east toward Bonsall. After about six miles, turn right on San Diego County S14/North Santa Fe Avenue to Vista.
Now that the population has more than doubled in the last decade to about 70,000, the city seems to be sprouting more homes than plants and the nurseries are now surrounded by suburban sprawl.
About a mile along Santa Fe Avenue, turn right on Darwin Drive to the third set of buildings on the left--the Iwaisako Nursery. Inside the first plastic-covered greenhouse are dozens of bonsai--artistic miniature trees in pottery trays.
Keiko Iwaisako and her family grow the tiny trees and shrubs, which include juniper, black pine, ginko, maple, azalea, olive and elm varieties.
Prices begin at $25-$30, and go as high as $495 for bonsai that are 20 years old. Flowers, house plants and full-size shrubs and trees also are sold at the nursery, which is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
On North Santa Fe Avenue, look left for a round, outdoor aviary and turn left at No. 2511 into the California Bird Farm. While walking around the enclosure, visitors will see raucous laughing thrush, peacocks and ring-necked doves. Chukars are in another cage.
Lupe and Louis Quesada have more than 300 birds at their farm, which specializes in cockateels, including albino and pied varieties, and multicolored love birds.
Visitors also will see zebra finches and American singing canaries and parrots, such as a double yellow-headed Amazon and a green-winged macaw. Daily business hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; closed Sunday and Monday.
Continue driving south on North Santa Fe Avenue to No. 2040 and a vintage tractor that marks the entrance to the Antique Gas and Steam Engine Museum, Vista's best-known attraction.
You'll pass a field of wheat shoots before reaching the office, where you can get self-guiding tour maps of the 40-acres that display vintage tractors and other farm machinery.
Hundreds of implements used in California agriculture between 1900 and 1930 are on exhibit. Every June and October the museum comes to life during Threshing Bee and Antique Engine shows, when demonstrations include steam-powered harvesters mowing the newly grown wheat. Admission free to this outdoor museum, which is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Continue south to Bobier Drive and turn left to East Vista Way, where the Cambridge Inn is in a shopping center just before the junction.
The inn is a local favorite for home-style cooking. Or cross Vista Way to the shopping center on the opposite side for two other popular restaurants--Siciliano's and the Peking Wok.
Drive north on Vista Way and, just beyond Osborne Street, look left for the entrance sign to Exotica, a nursery featuring rare fruit trees and other plants from around the world.
Eight years ago, owners Jessica Leaf and Steven Spangler relocated their small Garden of Eden from Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles to Vista.
Signs identify the trees and describe their flowers. Many varieties can be used for landscaping as well for fruit. Among the 500 species are guava, lychee, cherimoya, mango, sapote and passion, plus 30 varieties of banana.
Look for rare golden-striped timber bamboo and thorny silk floss that produce orchid-like flowers. Ripe fruit is often displayed on a tray at this unusual nursery, which is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Return south on Vista Way to Santa Fe Avenue and turn left to Escondido Avenue. Turn right and cross over the freeway, where the street becomes Sunset Drive and winds to No. 1408.
Turn left up the drive to Kartuz Greenhouses, a small nursery that sends miniature subtropicals and other plants to collectors across the country. Some are multicolored hybrids of cape primrose developed by owner Michael Kartuz.
Also being grown are rare begonias, African violets, passion flowers and plants for terrariums. Prices start at $2.50. The nursery is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.
Return to Santa Fe Avenue and turn right, continuing south through town. Soon after crossing the railroad tracks, turn left onto Buena Creek Road. Go about three-quarters of a mile and turn right onto Lone Oak Road for Taylor's Herb Gardens, marked only by the name on a mailbox at No. 1535.
Opposite the parking area are thousands of small plastic containers with more than 130 varieties of herbs. Taylor's is the West Coast's largest herb grower.
Visitors are welcome at the nursery weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturdays from 8 a.m. until noon; closed Sundays. Pick up a catalogue that describes the herbs, then take your pick of the 2 1/2-inch pots that are $1.35 each.
To learn more about the plants from owner Kent Taylor and other herbalists, join a free tour of the 25-acre garden that begins at 11 a.m. on the first Saturday of every month.
Drive back to Santa Fe Avenue and turn right, then go left almost immediately at the freeway sign and follow Robelini Drive and Sycamore Avenue to the California 78 freeway. Head toward Oceanside to rejoin Interstate 5 back to Los Angeles.
Round trip from Los Angeles to Vista is 210 miles.
For a detailed street map ($2) and list of restaurants, visit the red turn-of-the-century Santa Fe Railroad depot that is now home to the Vista Chamber of Commerce.
It's at Washington Street and Indiana Avenue, near the junction of Santa Fe Avenue and Vista Way. Office hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays. Call (619) 726-1122 for more information.