370 posts
  • S.F. Bay Area
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: You don't find a great swimming pool or a good hotel value on every block in downtown Berkeley.

What: The Berkeley City Club is more than it seems. When star architect and UC Berkeley graduate Julia Morgan designed the 1930 club building, she gave it an indoor pool of startling beauty. (Already, she was working down the coast on media mogul William Randolph Hearst's castle at San Simeon.)

The best news for us is that over time, the City Club started operating its six-story building as a hotel -- one that stands a few blocks from the UC campus. Its restrained mien and 35 rooms are not for party animals, but if you're looking for someplace stately to practice your Australian crawl under Moorish arches, your search is over.

Upstairs Cafe, Chez Panisse.
Upstairs Cafe, Chez Panisse. (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: In the kitchen of this converted arts-and-crafts home, owner-chef Alice Waters and her gang more or less launched the idea of California cuisine in 1971.

What: All these years later, Chez Panisse is still popular. If the downstairs fixed-price, dinner-only restaurant is too pricey (or already booked), try the more affordable upstairs cafe, which does lunch and dinner. The menu, seasonally tuned, changes nightly. Closed on Sundays, reservations are accepted up to a month ahead.

Where: 1517 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, 375 miles northwest of downtown L.A.

  • Family-friendly
  • L.A. County
Noel Dickson plays a guitar at McCabe's Guitar Shop.
Noel Dickson plays a guitar at McCabe's Guitar Shop. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Why: McCabe's is a guitar shop in the same way that the Seine is a river and Picasso was a painter.

What: By day, McCabe's has been selling stringed instruments since 1958. By night, McCabe's is one of California's most-loved, most intimate performance spaces, a garage-sized haven where performers face about 150 listeners in a room with walls full of strung and fretted inventory. The concerts have been happening since 1969. You can't beat the vibe.

Many acoustic and folk-influenced performers play here, including fiddler Peter Rowan, banjo player Noam Pikelny and singer-songwriters Greg Brown and Tom Paxton and children's performer Justin Roberts (to pluck five acts from the March schedule).

  • Family-friendly
  • S.F. Bay Area
Mission San Francisco Solano de Sonoma.
Mission San Francisco Solano de Sonoma. (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Sonoma, just 45 miles north of San Francisco, has a bustling central plaza, the last Franciscan missions and a unique revolutionary history. 

What: Sonoma and its mission were born just as Mexico was wrestling control of the Californias away from Spain in the 1820s. But in June 1846, about 20 English-speaking men staged the Bear Flag Revolt, arrested Mexican general Mariano Vallejo and declared Sonoma to be part of a new California republic -- all without firing a shot.

This attempt at independence lasted less than a month, but it showed Mexico's vulnerability. And it was time enough for somebody to design a flag featuring a grizzly bear that, unfortunately, looked a lot like a pig. By 1848, the U.S. had taken control of Alta California, including Sonoma, by prevailing in the Mexican War.

  • Family-friendly
  • Orange County
Black Friday 2016, South Coast Plaza
Black Friday 2016, South Coast Plaza (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Why: South Coast Plaza, the first California megamall, opened its doors in 1967 in Costa Mesa, 10 miles south of Disneyland.

What: As might befit a fashion icon turning 50, the mall has had a lot of work done. The current count is about 250 stores and 30 restaurants. In the mall's early decades, tourists regularly flew in from Asia just to shop here, then an unheard-of idea. After decades of expansion and evolution, its annual sales still are said to be as much as $1.7 billion, putting it among the highest-grossing malls in the U.S.

Its first iteration was designed by mall pioneer Victor Gruen. If you're a visiting space alien seeking a quick primer on American consumer culture, this is a fine place to start. If you're a traveler seeking a souvenir that's uniquely local, you may be barking up the wrong tree — for all their opulence, most of these stores are chain brands. But there's plenty to buy and eat, and virtually next door you'll find the South Coast Repertory performance space and the Segerstrom Center for the Arts (formerly the Orange County Performing Arts Center), named to honor donor and South Coast Plaza developer Henry T. Segerstrom. 

  • Family-friendly
  • North Coast
MacKerricher State Park, Fort Bragg.
MacKerricher State Park, Fort Bragg. (Paul Boorstin)

Why: Because with time, the churning Pacific turns our broken bottles, windshields and tail lights into pebbles again. How magical is that? 

What: Fort Bragg, the workaday city 11 miles north of quaint Mendocino, used three of its beaches as dumps for decades, then in the middle of the 20th century decided that wasn't such a good idea. Workers have removed the big cast-off junk, and over the decades since, the sea has been grinding down the smallest stuff. Especially bottles. The result is a shoreline sparkling with unexpected colors -- glassy pebbles of frosty white, green, blue and occasionally "ruby red" (said to come from pre-1967 automobile tail lights).

(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Show up on a mild day and you'll find kids and parents with pails, patiently picking their way through the pebbles and snapping photos. It's a lesson in how the Earth can heal.

  • Family-friendly
  • High Sierra
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Because this is a great room. And you're probably hungry from tromping around the great valley just outside.

What: For about 90 years, the Ahwahnee Hotel and its woodsy but elegant dining room were the epicenter of old-school style in Yosemite Valley, with 34-foot-high ceilings, granite pillars and pine trestles. Then came the National Park Service's great trademark dispute with jilted concessionaire Delaware North in early 2016.

Now we have to call this place the Majestic Yosemite Hotel, which just feels wrong. (The address, meanwhile, is still Ahwahnee Drive.) But the hotel and dining room are just as grand as ever, the stone fireplace just as warm, the advance reservations just as vital.

  • Family-friendly
  • Central Coast
(Richard Derk / Los Angeles Times)

Why: The waves are puny, there's plenty of sand and Linden Avenue is almost the perfect beach town main street.

What: Carpinteria (population: about 13,000) is the southernmost beach town in Santa Barbara County. It has less money or attitude than you might find in neighboring communities to the north, but plenty to keep a family happy.

(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Linden Avenue is lined with an unfussy collection of surf shops, antique stores and restaurants, including The Spot, a rustic burger stand; and The Palms, which has been inviting customers to grill their own steaks since the 1960s. The avenue ends at the beach, where Carpinteria State Beach and its campground begin. Lifeguards patrol the state beach year-round, with an added squad of city lifeguards in summer.

  • Family-friendly
  • L.A. County
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Besides laying out the history of pop music -- with plenty of sound clips, video segments, instruments and artifacts -- the Grammy Museum in downtown L.A. has an "In the Studio" exhibit that lets you record yourself.

What: As the official museum of the Recording Academy, owned and operated by entertainment behemoth AEG, this place ought to be full of musical treasures and industry insights. And it is. In early 2017, exhibition subjects included the Ramones; Sounds of Africa; John Denver; and the enduring appeal of the National Guitar.

If you're more interested in music than awards that the Grammy people have been giving out since 1959, you might not linger on the outfits and prizes. But there's plenty to see and hear, including an area where you can play an instrument, and another display that shows how recording technology has evolved since Thomas Edison came up with the first phonograph cylinders in the 1870s. 

  • Inland Empire
There's a roof over this patio now.
There's a roof over this patio now. (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: If you're in Idyllwild, you've probably just finished a hike in the San Jacinto mountains, or you're about to start one, or there's a snow-frolic or rock-climbing excursion afoot, or maybe you've got a kid going to the Idyllwild Arts Academy or one of the many camps in the woods around town. In any of those cases, this is a great place to relax before or after a pickup or drop-off.

What: This easygoing eatery sits in the heart of downtown, if loose-knit Idyllwild (population about 3,900) can be said to have one. Cafe Aroma often has live (but gentle) music, with local artists' work inside. Sometimes there's a belly dancer or an author reading her work. Since a 2016 renovation/expansion, the tables on the deck have a roof overhead, so the patio works in more kinds of weather. And if you have a kid in tow, consider a later visit to the nearby Candy Cupboard, a tiny, tasty shop that's been offering  taffy, chocolate, shaved ice and such for more than 35 years. 

Where: 54750 N Circle Dr, Idyllwild, 109 miles east of downtown L.A.