Love is optional

LOVE IT or hate it, here it comes, right on schedule. Valentine's Day is either the day that personifies romance for you or the holiday that makes you want to drive a stake through the consumer heart of America. But whether you're a sap or a cynic, a happy loner, a bitter singleton, or half of a couple, there is something for you on Feb. 14.

WORK UP A SWEAT

Literally drive each other up the wall at indoor rock climbing venue Rockreation ([310] 207-7199) in West L.A. First-timers can take the Fight Gravity 1 class ($40 per person), which teaches the basics and includes gear rental. Afterward, stretch sore muscles -- plus learn new positions -- at Yoga Works Santa Monica ([310] 664-6470), which is hosting a Valentine's Day partner yoga class.

Strange fact: L.A.'s cupcake bakeries are situated in a sort of "cupcake corridor," and easily biked in an afternoon (go to latimes.com/cupcakes for a customized map). Sweeten up your sweetie by renting a bicycle built for two in Venice and begin pedaling: Start with Yummy Cupcakes, Vanilla Bake Shop and Le Cupcake in Santa Monica, head over to SusieCakes, Dainties and Buttercake Bakery in West L.A., then Sprinkles and Crumbs in Beverly Hills, followed by Cake and Art, Sweet Lady Jane and Joan's on Third in WeHo before doubling back. Scientific fact: The calories burned are exactly equal to the calories consumed. (Note: concept can be applied to any food -- gelato, pizza, escargot, etc.)

Searching for a romantic evening a little off the beaten path? Saddle up at Griffith Park Horse Rentals in Burbank ([818] 840-8401) and take a private, guided ride to Viva Fresh Cantina for dinner. Looking to start the festivities earlier? Try the two-person day ride to a secluded picnic area at Paramount Ranch with Malibu Riders in Agoura Hills ([818] 510-2245).

RUN AWAY

Only 75 scenic miles from L.A., Santa Barbara is the perfect day-trip. Pick up snacks at Lazy Acres Market ([805] 564-4410) for a picnic at dog-friendly Arroyo Burro Beach. Head over to the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden to wander five miles of trails, then finish the day with a photo on the old-fashioned wooden bridge over the Mission Dam.

Twenty minutes north of San Luis Obispo, Cayucos waits for anyone looking for a novel coastal getaway. Quaint and seemingly preserved in amber, this wee speck of a town may not offer much in the way of scintillating night life beyond a remarkable tavern, but the beach is across the street from most of the very affordable and often pet-friendly inns. How much more stimulation does a couple need ( www.cayucosbythesea.com)?

Roughing it isn't everyone's idea of romance, but, to our minds, a view like that at Leo Carrillo State Park ([818] 880-0363) is a sure-fire aphrodisiac. On one side of PCH jagged rocks frame the beach that never gets too crowded; on the other, the Santa Monica Mountains provide lush backcountry hiking. Pitch a tent at a campsite for $20 then escape for dinner at seductive Mediterranean spot Beau Rivage ([310] 456-5733).

LOCAL LOVE NESTS

The Inn at Playa del Rey (www.innat playadelrey.com) -- a 21-room gray-and-white New England-style beach house -- has rooms with fireplaces, Jacuzzis and lovely decks that overlook the bird-cluttered marshes of the marina. Tea is served in the afternoon, wine and cheese in the evening and a homemade buffet breakfast awaits you after your busy night.

For the painterly amour, try the Artists Inn and Cottage Bed & Breakfast (www .artistsinns.com). A short walk from the Metro Gold Line in South Pasadena, this cheerful yellow Victorian-style farmhouse and rose garden offers rooms decorated in honor of Van Gogh, Grandma Moses and Gauguin. The back cottage contains suites with fireplaces, canopy beds and Jacuzzis. Get in the mood with an afternoon visit to the nearby Huntington Library or Norton Simon Museum.

BEATS OF THE HEART

Long a local favorite, sad-sack (in a good way) singer-songwriter Mark Oliver Everett has a cracked vision of guitar pop that boasts a more upbeat palette since his 10-year-old masterpiece "Electro-Shock Blues" addressed such toe-tapping topics as suicide and cancer. Better known as Eels, he has a skewed view of life and love that's sure to warm the hearts of listeners with Valentines and without. (The Galaxy Theatre, Santa Ana. $20; www.galaxytheatre.com)

A fixture at Largo, the Fairfax district comedy and songwriter haven, Nickel Creek's Sara and Sean Watkins lead a reliably free-wheeling evening of acoustic and roots music, highlighted by the now customary special guests. At one recent show Fiona Apple sat in and sang Patsy Cline covers. Who knows what's in the air for (music) lovers at this year's Watkins Valentine Hour? ($15; www.largo-la.com)

The great Mose Allison will be playing at Culver City's Jazz Bakery ([310] 271-9039). Start the festivities next door with sushi and sake at Beacon ([310] 838-7500).

BREAK THE BANK

As anyone who gets the Turner Classic Movies channel knows, there's nothing sexier than a train going through a tunnel. Add a little "whoo-whoo" to your life by chartering the Overland Trail, a restored 1949 streamliner lounge railway car available for private excursions to San Diego, San Luis Obispo, Santa Fe and other destinations. You and your honey can be wined and dined by the train's private chef as you savor the scenery through picture windows -- for a price: $4,700. The car holds 32 people, so invite 30 of your closest friends and make it a more economical orgy. ( www.overlandtrail.com)

With the success of Comme Ca among the deadly fashionable, David Myers is currently enjoying the spotlight as L.A.'s chef du jour. Comme Ca might be an impossible reservation on Feb. 14, but snagging a seat at Myers' equally satisfying first endeavor, Sona ([310] 659-7708), should prove easier. Two four-course tasting menus cost $125 per person.

Clubs all over town will be V-Daying, but if we had to pick one it would be downtown's Elevate Lounge ([213] 236-9600), where the 21st-floor view will take her (or his) breath away -- particularly as dusk deepens into night. Bottle service runs between $120 and $200, with chocolate-covered strawberries on the house.

Enjoy the perks that come with recent renovation at Native Cafe in old-town Calabasas ([818] 223-9600). The owners' focus is now organic Italian comfort food, and their renewed enthusiasm comes across in scrumptious dishes like charcoal shrimp with mint and feta cheese ($12.75) and lobster pappardelle ($32) -- both on the a la carte Valentine's Day menu.

It might cost you and yours $899 to be strangers in the night, exchanging glances, but your heart and skin will be much softer after "Let's Fall in Love" and a seaweed wrap. The Wyndham Orange County's V-Day package includes tickets to Frank Sinatra Jr. at the Orange County Performing Artscenter, suite accommodations, sparkling wine, four-course dinner, a caviar ampoule facial and breakfast in bed ([714] 751-5100).

LOW (TO NO)-BUDGET LOVE

Pick up submarine sandwiches and Moxies at Galco's in Highland Park ([323] 255-7115), then cruise over to the South Pasadena library (1100 Oxley St.) for a picnic on the gnarled roots of one of the towering trees. The sleepy small town vibe is a seductive antidote to urban L.A. The library has a superb Friends of the Library bookstore, which makes for a stimulating post-picnic browse.

For those seeking debauchery on a budget without resorting to a lap dance at Plan B (could there be a more sadly apt name for a strip club?), LACE celebrates its 30th anniversary by resurrecting the art center's infamous Valentine's-themed parties of the 1980s. LUST4LACE's program of videos curated by David Burns and Margie Schnibbe (a.k.a. Vena Virago) offers the tantalizing promise of artsy weirdness dosed with prurient appeal. How much wickedness should you expect? "I'm hoping the level will be high," says executive director Carol Stakenas.

Located in a down-at-the-heels strip mall near L. Ron Hubbard Way, Marouch ([323] 662-9325) is one of the best Middle Eastern restaurants we've stumbled across. A call to the manager revealed they "aren't yet sure" if they "have special plans for that day," but no matter. Taking your desired to a cozy hole-in-the-wall like this will score you major cool points -- and the average entree will run you just $15.99.

Nothing like a glimpse of civilization crumbling into the sea to remind you of those you care about most. A stroll by San Pedro's "Sunken City" (South Gaffey Street at 807 Paseo del Mar), the site of a 1920s landslide that snatched a big chunk of San Pedro, will warm the hearts of couples touched (as we were) by the ashes-strewing scene in "The Big Lebowski." Toast your love with a White Russian at your pick of salty local dives -- we like punk den La Zona Rosa (1331 S. Pacific Ave.).

Over three decades, video artist Wendy Clarke accumulated 800 or so short videos in which people share their personal experiences with, and definitions of, love. The Silent Movie Theatre (www.silentmovie theatre.com) will be screening "Love Tapes," a selection of Clarke's favorites from years past as well as new ones recorded in the weeks leading up to V-Day. Stick around for the most romantic movie of all time, "Casablanca" (both flicks will run you $10 per person), then camouflage your tears by scarfing a spicy chili-and-onion dog ($2.85) from Pink's on La Brea ([323] 931-4223).

Cash-impaired Romeos can save romantic face thanks to Santa Monica's Violet ([310] 453-9113), where 29-year-old tattooed super-chef Jared Simons -- who surely once shared your broke-as-a-joke woes -- will serve up a three-course, $30-per-person tasting menu, including stuffed pork loin with spinach and apple cider sauce and chocolate bread pudding with gelato and creme anglaise.

SINGLE AND LOVING IT

If you fall into the category of anti-romantic, there's an abundance of high-culture options for the cynically inclined. "Otello" and "Tristan and Isolde," both at L.A. Opera ([213] 972-8001), feature lovers who experience big, dramatic deaths. The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble's "Edge" ([310] 477-2055) portrays a neurotic Sylvia Plath on the day she commits suicide. And in the delectable "Orson's Shadow" at the Pasadena Playhouse ([626] 356-7529), Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh go through a bad but highly articulate break-up.

Scorn stupid Cupid and make a date with the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre for "Worst Laid Plans." After witnessing four men and four women relive the trauma of their most humiliating sexual experiences, solitude will never seem more appealing. ($5; www.ucbtheatre.com)

Being single isn't celebrated enough. Why not make your Valentine you? Get yourself blissfully trashed at Singles Awareness Day at the Boulevard Lounge ([323] 654-6686). Those who come alone (i.e. as half a couple) receive half-priced cocktails as well as half-priced burgers. Dress the part in designer Chad Silver's " Is Lame" T-shirts, $18 at www.loveis lame .com. "You know it's what your heart would say if it could talk," says Silver.

Simon L.A. ([310] 358-3979) is offering an anti-Valentine's Day package: three seatings for singles -- 6, 8 and 10 p.m. -- and a tasty three-course menu for half the price that those with their ball-and-chain would pay ($31). If you insist on being a lovelorn sissy, "Love Doctor" Lauren Francis will be on hand to dole out relationship advice.

SINGLE AND HATING IT

Quit moping. Dust off the Doc Martens and head to the Shortstop ([213] 482-4942), where brand new website Rockandroll dating.com is having a coming out party. Think you're the only Chameleons U.K. fan in L.A.? Not a chance. Your musical soul mate awaits at Shorty Thursday. Free drinks and door prizes for early arrivals.

HAVE A HEART

Use the occasion of Feb. 14 to show some love to your fellow human. Debbie Tenzer, founder of the altruistic organization Do One Nice Thing, will be taking valentines made by Do One Nice Thing members to sick kids at UCLA Mattel Children's Hospital. To find out how you can participate, log onto www.doonenicething.com. Valentines are also being collected by the Veterans Administration for injured and disabled servicemen and -women. Address cards to: Dear Veteran, VA-GOA, 11301 Wilshire Blvd., L.A., CA 90073.

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Let us marry you

If you are a loving, committed couple in possession of a valid wedding license looking for a unique way to tie the knot that doesn't include an Elvis impersonator, this is your lucky day. In honor of Valentine's Day, our Action Man columnist received his ordination online through the Universal Life Church Monastery. Now certified as a nondenominational minister overseeing the exchange of vows in California, the Rev. Liam Gowing is prepared to unite two lovebirds in holy matrimony Feb. 14 in the wrestling ring (metaphor alert) at Lucha VaVOOM's annual V-Day event at the Mayan Theatre in down- town L.A. (www.lucha vavoom.com). The Guide will provide participants with a video (which will be subsequently posted on our site, theguide.latimes .com) and photographs of the big event. Note: This is not a contest, so more than one couple may be married, depending on response. Contact theguide@latimes.com no later than midnight Monday. Eligible couple(s) will be supplied with all the details.

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