Four Hours: Exploring Rancho Palos Verdes — and whale watching

When you’re ready to reflect and reboot, think about retreating to a place where there are no sidewalks, no freeways and spotty cellphone coverage.

Thirty-plus miles from downtown L.A. lies Rancho Palos Verdes, where you can ease along a short, curvy route that follows the contour of crumbling bluffs and rocky beaches.

(Lou Spirito For The Times)

Drive for a leisurely adventure, or park along the route and set off by bike or foot for a more athletic trek along a roughly 2½-mile stretch of rugged coastline.

In a half-day filled with great ocean views, you can find solace in a chapel without walls, discover a hidden beach where swimmers hope to conquer an extreme goal, kick back at a posh resort restaurant, and watch for whale traffic jams.

The Wayfarer Chapel in Rancho Palos Verdes.
(Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)

10 a.m. First stop is the Wayfarers Chapel at 5755 Palos Verdes Drive South, a Midcentury Modern structure with glass walls and roof panels that all but disappear. It and its stone bell tower are nestled into a hillside. Slide into one of the nine rows of simple wooden pews and gaze up to see a canopy of pines and skinny redwoods. Listen for the chimes on the quarter-hour at the chapel designed by Lloyd Wright, son of Frank Lloyd Wright, and dedicated to the influential 17th century Swedish theologian Emanuel Swedenborg.

The setting high above the Pacific makes this site a stunner, so don’t rush off. It’s a sought-after site for weddings; visitors sometimes are shooed away during short ceremonies. No matter. Tour the gardens and take in the views while you wait. (There is small parking lot adjacent to the chapel; parking is free.)

10:45-11 a.m. Next stop is Terranea, a sprawling hotel resort at 100 Terranea Way on the former site of the Marineland tourist attraction, which closed in 1987. Turn onto Terranea Way and walk through the lobby, past the pools and spa, and down to a coastal path that leads to Terranea Cove Beach, which is open to the public.

11 a.m.-noon. Experience the Pacific at its noisiest at the small, rocky beach as a thunder of rocks churns with the ebb and flow of the tide. Then try to imagine swimming into this cove from Santa Catalina Island, visible in the distance. The 20-mile swim takes on average 12 hours (depending on your abilities) and typically ends here.

Between May and October this year, 80 or so open-water swimmers, wearing only swimsuits and goggles (no wet suits allowed), will try to complete the swim overseen by the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation. It’s considered one of the gems in the Triple Crown of marathon swimming challenges, with the English Channel crossing and a circumnavigation of Manhattan. Look for pilot boats that accompany swimmers on their quest.

Nelson’s, at night.

Noon-1 p.m. Retrace your steps and swing by Nelson’s, the resort’s casual but pricey restaurant poised on a bluff with views clear down the coast. Grab a bench or chair if you’re feeling peckish, but stick to small bites, such as garlic Parmesan fries ($8) or kabocha squash and farro ($16), if you’re watching your pennies.

Whale watching at Point Vicente Interpretive Center in Rancho Palos Verdes
(Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)

1:15-2 p.m. The final stop takes you to the patio of the Point Vicente Interpretive Center, 31501 Palos Verdes Drive West, where you can learn about other swimmers making an epic ocean journey. In spring, gray whales that wintered in Mexico are completing a 10,000-mile round-trip journey home to Alaska. Nowhere else on the planet does this migration unfold, so make the most of your front-row seat.

Watch for a spout and chat with volunteer whale-spotters from the American Cetacean Society’s L.A. Chapter who keep careful count of the behemoths, and have done so since 1984. So far, from December to early April, at least 2,037 migrating gray whales have passed. Volunteers will be at their post through late May and may help point them out. Drive or trek back to your starting point.