50 @ 500
Plan a vacation with these 50-plus hot spots within 500 miles of OC.
Whether it's a road trip, a quick flight or even a boat ride away, these 50-plus hot spots are all within a long drive or a quick flight from Orange County, and all are beyond our county line. Because otherwise, who could compete with what we have here at home? So whether you're seeking adventure, luxury, scenic beauty, or just summer fun with the family, you'll find ideas to inspire your next great getaway.
Draw a circle on a map with a 500-mile radius around Orange County and you'll surround some of the most scenic country in the world: Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, Sequoia, Death Valley, Napa, Lake Tahoe, Zion, and Bryce. But everyone knows about those places. There are less visited vistas as well, where rustic inns, country roads, mountain meadows, and empty beaches are waiting.
With the California State Park system suffering economic ills (a number of smaller parks are threatened with closing), now is a fine time to include your parks in an outdoor itinerary. The oldest state park is 110 years old this year, and Big Basin Redwoods State Park in Santa Cruz County is among the most beautiful, with 80 miles of trails, tent cabins and camping sites.
If you love a curvy mountain road, take Highway 9 out of Santa Cruz or San Jose to get to the park. And if you're in the mood, discover Red Pearl, a surprisingly good Chinese restaurant in the cool little town of Boulder Creek - because who doesn't love hot and sour soup after a hike? And on the coast, Natural Bridges State Beach is a favorite in winter when Monarch Butterflies fill the trees.
Other stunning state parks in the central and northern parts of California include Point Lobos State Reserve near Carmel (great hiking and diving from beautiful protected coves); Montana de Oro State Park near San Luis Obispo (especially in spring for the wildflowers that give the park its name); and near the town of Guadalupe, there's Oso Flaco Lake and Oceano Dunes, where a wooden bridge and boardwalk take you across a lake and through the dunes to one of the wildest stretches of California coast anywhere.
And when you're done, don't miss trying the Santa Maria-style steak the area is known for. Our vote is for the ribeye at Far Western Tavern (which is changing locations in August, so go soon if you love the funky original), but Jocko's, F. McLintock's and the Hitching Post have their fans as well.
If Andrew Molera, either of the Pfeiffers or any other state park in Big Sur is on the agenda, Deetjen's Big Sur Inn is a must for a meal, or rough it in style in one of the inn's rustic rooms. There's no radio, TV, phone, or Wi-Fi, and the wooden walls are thin, so no kids under 12 unless you book two rooms of one of the cottages. Light the wood burning stove, read diary entries from past guests in your room and let go of modernity and all its marvels - this National Historic Site has a bit of magic about it.
For those who like more creature comforts to go with their scenery, Nick's Cove includes 12 restored cottages set on beautiful Tomales Bay near the Point Reyes National Seashore. Lovely and luxurious, with just the right touch of rustic chic, it's what OC's Crystal Cove Beach Cottages would be if they were turned into a luxury resort (which we're happy they're not). Splurge for one of the waterfront cottages that become over-water bungalows when the tide comes in, and don't miss dinner at the roadhouse restaurant for some of the finest dining on Highway 1.
Cool For Kids
For education, adventure and just plain fun, these are a few favorite family excursions.
We wouldn't walk up to the edge of the ocean in OC, spend a few minutes looking at it from various vantage points and think, "Been there, done that." So don't make the mistake 90% of Grand Canyon National Park visitors do by treating the wonder of the world as a drive-by.
Younger kids often don't really care about or comprehend the majesty of the vistas anyway, so get them involved by becoming Junior Rangers, hiking a mile or two down the rugged South Kaibab Trail or the more accessible Bright Angel Trail (don't try to make the river unless you have bunks or camping spots reserved at Phantom Ranch) or remote Hermit Trail. And make sure they look up at night. Beach and city kids can find it hard to believe there are so many stars in the night sky.
But skip the Grand Canyon Skywalk in so-called Grand Canyon West; this highly hyped attraction far outside the National Park boundaries isn't worth the cost or the travel time. Vegas-based tours that take their guests there telling them they're at the real Grand Canyon should be ashamed.
For families visiting Arizona who aren't up for so much outdoor adventure, Scottsdale's Westin Kierland Resort is a relaxing water wonderland, with pools, waterslides, a lazy river for floating, and a great Kids Club - plus one of the best restaurants in town, Deseo, and an adults-only pool, spa and golf for when parents need an escape. And just a few miles away is MacDonald's Ranch that offers horseback riding for kids five and up, pony rides, a stagecoach, hayrides, and a petting zoo.
Most dedicated Disney dads and moms know to enter California Adventure via the Grand Californian Hotel entrance, but who knew that Legoland also has a private entrance through the Sheraton Carlsbad Resort & Spa? It's a civilized way to satisfy the kids' Legoland lust as you visit the park, the aquarium and the water park - and especially Pirates Reef, a new flume ride opening this summer.
Right by Legoland is the Museum of Making Music, a hidden gem of a museum for the budding rock star in the family, especially the interactive room where kids can try out guitars, drums and other instruments - though not that great for younger kids.
For the ultimate educational excursion that also offers excitement, head up the highway toward USC and hit Exposition Park. The Natural History Museum's Dinosaur Hall is totally cool for kids in their dino stage, with fossils and skeletons and tons of other stuff that will make them go "ooh!" or "eww." But you might be surprised by how much they love some of the old school exhibits and dioramas as well.
The California Science Center next door has a Space Shuttle exhibit, and kids love the kelp forest in the 188,000-gallon aquarium, especially when divers are in it feeding the fish (hint: head up to the third floor young kids area in the middle of the show for a less crowded view as the divers rise). When kids are all museum-ed out, there are playgrounds in nearby Brewer Park and L.A. Live is just three miles away.
If your kids thought the dinosaurs were cool, the La Brea Tar Pits and Page Museum are worth a visit for the mammoths and saber-toothed cats that once roamed SoCal - "They're not dinosaurs, dad," your savvy schoolkid may say - but the bubbling pit with its Ice Age-era finds can fascinate. For undersea fans, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is a must-see and the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach is pretty impressive, but for a more modest but still marvelous experience check out the Birch Aquarium at UC San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
Though not nearly as grand as some, kids will love the exhibits (especially There's Something About Seahorses), and adults will learn that entrance and donation dollars go toward some pretty impressive ocean conservation efforts by Scripps - but not their taxes. The aquarium is privately funded. And did we mention that it's in La Jolla? That alone puts it at the top of our sea life list!
Though there are many other educational trips on our 500-mile must-do list, from Alcatraz to Old Sacramento, sometimes kids just want to have fun. OK, most of the time.
With Disney Resort and Knott's nearby, it's hard to recommend leaving OC for amusement parks. But you can remind your kids that roller coasters actually used to be on the coast (Seal Beach, the Pike, etc.) with a ride on the historic Giant Dipper on the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, the only wooden seaside coaster in California (Santa Monica Pier's Pacific Park coasters are metal; try the Ferris Wheel instead). For wooden coaster fans, Colossus at Six Flags Magic Mountain is still a must. And if you generally drive by Gary Primm's Buffalo Bill's Hotel and Casino on the way to Las Vegas, consider pulling over for older kids to ride the Desperado, one of the bumpiest rides around with a first drop that's worth a stop.
When price is no object (or nearly so), these are the places we'd go to stay and play.
It's one of our favorite new resorts in the west, but the remote 250-room Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain in the Sonoran desert just this side of Tucson remains relatively unknown. Set on the edge of the arid Tortolita Mountains, Dove Mountain offers a luxurious sort of serenity with all the amenities (golf, spa, pool, etc.) that still pays homage to the rugged beauty of its Saguaro cactus-studded desert setting.
With a remodel of the iconic Skybar and pool area debuting soon, the Mondrian Hotel is set to retake its preeminent position among Sunset Strip escapes. With the Mondrian and newer hot spots like The Standard, Grafton, London, and Petit Ermitage, West Hollywood is the go-to place in SoCal for boutique luxury hotels with personality.
The Beverly Hills Hotel and Bungalows turns 100 this month, holding within its century-old walls the secrets of Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, John Lennon, and other celebrity icons who have made the Pink Palace their second home. To celebrate the milestone, the iconic property is showcasing its glamorous history in a life-size lobby photo gallery, a trove of packages and dining surprises such as Pop Up 1912 pricing, where once a week in each dining venue, one table will be randomly selected to have their check amount converted to 1912 prices. The "These walls are Talking" cocktail menu at the Polo Lounge and BarNineteen12 will feature The Rebel, inspired by the pants-wearing Marlene Dietrich; The Recluse, a nod to Bungalow long-timer Howard Hughes, who left his Cadillac parked next to the hotel for two years - long enough for the tires to go flat and for plants to begin growing in and out of the car; and The Norma Jean, featuring Dom Perignon by the glass presented in loving memory of Bungalow resident Marilyn Monroe. Look for a luxurious refurbishment this year in the lobby, Polo Lounge, guestrooms, and famed pool and cabanas.
Max Jacobson used to be an Orange County restaurant critic before lighting out for Las Vegas in 2000, just in time for that city's ascension as a culinary capital. In the most recent edition of Eating Las Vegas: The 50 Essential Restaurants, Jacobson and fellow Vegas food critics John Curtas and Al Mancini list their top 10 restaurants in the city as follows: Bar Masa (Aria), Cut (Palazzo), Estiatorio Milos (Cosmopolitan), Jo‘l Robuchon (MGM Grand), Guy Savoy (Caesars Palace), L'Atelier de Jo‘l Robuchon (MGM Grand), Le Cirque (Bellagio), Michael Mina (Bellagio), Picasso (Bellagio), and Twist (Mandarin Oriental).
In Saveur magazine's recent Las Vegas issue, Jacobson says the city's best steak is "the designer-labeled Rangers Valley Angus wet- and dry-aged New York strip at Jean Georges Steakhouse, in the glittering CityCenter's Aria Resort & Casino."
Though not nearly as seasoned a Vegas diner as Jacobson, for our money (or preferably someone else's!) the most sublime meal in town is the 16-course degustation menu at Jo‘l Robuchon. At $425 per person, it's a work of art and one of the few sure things in this gambling town. For something simpler but almost as certain - and certainly less expensive - don't miss Lotus of Siam, the best Thai restaurant most of us will ever try.
They used to be known as Big Four, the tycoons responsible for the transcontinental railroad connecting California to the East Coast: Stanford, Hopkins, Huntington, and Crocker. Three of them have their names on exclusive Nob Hill hotels, as Mark Hopkins, Stanford Court, Huntington Hotel join The Ritz-Carlton San Francisco and the Fairmont for what is arguably the highest concentration of luxury hotels within a few blocks of each other in California.
For a decade or two we thought of Scottsdale as a place people traveled from to enjoy the beaches and beauty of SoCal, not necessarily a place where we wanted to spend much time. But recently we've had so much fun there that our minds have officially been changed. It's sort of like South Beach in the desert - really. And the headquarters for fun in town is definitely the W Hotel, which provides easy access to the nightlife, art, culture, and cuisine scenes in the city. The hottest spot is the hotel's rooftop pool, Wet, which is party central in summer time with velvet rope-type nightlife events poolside. With a Sushi Roku in the hotel, it's a great place to start a Scottsdale culinary tour, and there are enough new restaurants and bars to make such an endeavor worthwhile. Definitely don't miss The Mission for Nuevo Latino tastes, and for cool cocktail culture, discover the stunning creations at Citizen R+D, a contemporary speakeasy lounge hidden atop Old Town Scottsdale's Citizen Public House. You have to use a phone on an alley wall to gain entrance, and access is up exterior stairs and across a rooftop. For a less exclusive outing, take the A Taste of Old Town Scottsdale foodie walking tour. Depending upon your group it can turn into something of a culinary pub-crawl - if you're lucky, that is.
The territory within 500 miles of OC includes a lot of wild country, perfect for adrenaline junkies, explorers and adventurers. Here are a few trips to attempt, if you dare.
Located off the coast of Baja, this rugged island 165 miles from Ensenada is a biological bonanza for the brave, with fishing and diving trips galore. Plus, Guadalupe is one of the premiere places to see Great White Sharks from the safety of a ship or while submerged in a sturdy (one hopes!) shark cage.
Mike's Sky Ranch
If you can survive the sharks, you can survive anything, right? So while the narco wars have put Baja off limits to many travelers, for the undeterred a trip to Mike's Sky Ranch is still a must. Located 80 miles inland from Ensenada on the edge of a mountainous national park, the enclave has long been a favorite with dirt bikers and off road racers.
Grand Canyon Crossing
Only the most fit should try to make it from the rim of the Grand Canyon to the Colorado River and back in one day. Quite simply, it's an easy way to die if you don't know what you're doing. But for ultra runners and others with serious ambition (and endurance), the goal is a rim-to-rim run (running from the South Rim via South Kaibab Trail to the North Rim is about 21 miles), or even a rim-to-rim-to-rim run (41.8 miles with 21,420 feet of down, up, down, and back up again).
Red Rock Canyon
Just 20 miles from Las Vegas, Red Rock Canyon offers some of the most challenging rock climbing in the West, with 2,000 climbs graded from 5.4 to 5.13. And for those who prefer to keep their feet on the ground, there's some spectacular hiking as well.
John Muir Trail
It should be on any serious hiker's life list, as the 211-mile-long John Muir Trail running from Yosemite to the top of Mt. Whitney is one of the best backpacking trails in the world. Or to really go for it, try the entire 2,600-mile Pacific Crest Trail, though much of that is beyond our 500-mile OC limit.
Tahoe Stand Up
The North Shore of Lake Tahoe is the perfect place for stand up paddleboarding, providing a more introductory level of adventure. Sure, the lake can be cold, but there are also hot springs and hiking along the shore to warm you up.