We’ve all heard the expression “Nothing is sure but death and taxes.” To that, I’ll add: for non-Californians, driving in Southern California is sure to be a harrowing experience. With its spiderweb of freeways and drivers who appear to be in qualifying heats for the Indy 500, even the stoutest of us can turn into cringing, white-knuckled cowards.
What if I told you that you can experience three SoCal cities without having to rent a car, and worse, getting behind the wheel of it. The trio – San Diego, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara - are linked by Amtrak, and once you’re in each, through use of public transport, the occasional Uber and your own two feet, you can get pretty much everywhere you need to go.
San Diego – where California began
I began my odyssey in San Diego, the Golden State’s southernmost city where history and good weather reign supreme. I checked into the Guild, a luxury boutique hotel just a block from the city’s Spanish-style train station.
Long on charm (it occupies a 100-year-old building), it’s short on hassle. I was able to walk to both the Gaslamp and Little Italy Districts where a slew of restaurants and bars offer a smorgasbord of entertainment options (absolutely do not miss dinner at Born and Raised, a movie-set gorgeous space, and then after dinner cocktails at its rooftop bar.)
It’s also a quick walk from the Guild to the waterfront where a ferry provides transportation to iconic Coronado Island and its even more iconic Del Coronado Hotel.
The “Del” as the locals refer to it, opened in 1888 and is a National Historic Landmark. Described as a cross between “a luxury cruise ship and a wedding cake,” it’s red-domed cupola is instantly recognizable, and the stretch of sandy beach is sure to inspire California dreamin,’ especially if you are overlooking it during lunch on the patio at the hotel’s Sheerwater Restaurant.
I did need an Uber to get to beautiful Balboa Park; the upscale enclave of La Jolla; and the Cabrillo National Monument.
Balboa Park covers 1,200 lush acres and its distinctive Spanish mission-style architecture houses 17 cultural institutions ranging from the Spanish Village Arts Center to the Elizabethan-inspired Old Globe Theater. Since I was here at lunch time, I found Panama 66, situated in the Museum of Art’s Sculpture Garden, an ideal spot.
La Jolla, with its beautiful coves and rocky cliffs, is calendar-worthy. A walk along the cliffs is an essential experience, as is stopping in for a drink at the seaside La Valencia Hotel and dinner at the legendary Marine Room.
At the latter, my table by the window allowed me to watch as foam-tipped breakers appeared to swallow the beach below the restaurant. As for the menu, their lemon-thyme scented avocado fritters and the ahi tuna tiger eye with pickled ginger, wasabi and citrus cashew sauce are deliciously California.
Point Loma Peninsula is the site of Cabrillo National Monument, where in addition to sweeping views of San Diego Bay and the Pacific, there’s a statue of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo who landed here in 1542, marking the first time a European explorer had set foot on the West Coast of the United States.
On to the City of the Angels
Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner from San Diego to Los Angeles offers a glimpse of some of the most beautiful scenery Southern California has to offer – lovely towns such as San Juan Capistrano where the swallows come home to roost every spring, and miles of beaches lapped by sapphire waters.
Once in LA, I took a quick uber to the Sheraton Grand, centrally located in the city’s downtown (yes, it has one) and then, another to lunch at Cielito Lindo on colorful Olvera Street. This one-block stretch is the very spot where Los Angeles began.
Exploring LA’s outlying areas such as Beverly Hills, Santa Monica and Malibu without a car would be quite a feat, but there’s plenty to do within walking distance of the Sheraton Grand.
The hotel is located in the BLOC, an indoor/outdoor “Lifestyle Experience” (you didn’t think they would call it anything so mundane as a mall in LA) which also features a go-to restaurant JOEY, a must both for the buzz and the juicy steaks.
Another favorite restaurant was at the charming century-old Hotel Figueroa, just a 15-minute walk from the Grand. A bountiful breakfast at Breva fueled me for the day.
And what a day. First stop: the Grammy Museum, just across the street from the Figueroa. If I had thought this was going to be all about Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, Beyonce and Jay Z, I was in for a surprise.
They were all there, but so was Hank Williams, Leadbelly, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, Gustavo Dudamel and Jack Norworth. Wait….Jack who? At the museum, you’ll discover that he occupies a place in American musical history, having penned the words to “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” This museum is thoughtfully curated and should rate several hours of exploration.
I didn’t need quite that long at nearby FIDM (Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising), a free museum that is eye-popping in its displays.
Every year, it hosts exhibits of the costumes from Oscar-nominated films and Emmy-nominated TV shows. I happened to be here during the latter and marveled at the medieval togs from Game of Thrones; the whimsical garb from The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and the outlandish creations from The Masked Singer. Since I’ve never watched the last, it was fun to guess who was behind the outlandish getups. My favorite: the white ballgown and unicorn head which had hidden Tori Spelling.
This being LA, I wanted to inject a little Tinseltown glamour into my visit, so I had a leisurely lunch at Faith and Flower, another eatery worthy of a cinematic closeup, and headed to the 70th floor of Spire 73, where the roof-top bar has both killer drinks and killer views of the City of Angels.
It will take a bit of planning, but don’t leave town without boarding the Metro Red Line to the legendary Hollywood Bowl (the performance on the night I was there was the classic film An American in Paris with the Los Angeles Philharmonic providing the live soundtrack.
Another Hollywood legend, Musso and Frank Grill on Hollywood Boulevard, was the site of my final dinner in LA. Celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, it has served mouth-watering meals to every star from the silent era to today’s tabloid favorites.
This place could easily be a movie set (sense a theme here?) In fact, it has been – it’s made cameo appearances in movies such as Ed Wood and Ocean’s Eleven, and has its own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Santa Barbara – America’s Riviera
With the Santa Ynez Mountains tumbling straight down to the palm-lined beaches, it’s no wonder Santa Barbara is referred to as the American Riviera.
Heading north from Los Angeles on the Coast Starlight, it took a while for the real scenery to kick in, but once it did, I couldn’t tear myself away from the large glass viewing window.
My first stop in Santa Barbara was its Urban Wine Trail. Santa Barbara County, while not as famous as Napa or Sonoma, produces outstanding wines and they’re available in some 36 tasting rooms throughout an area known as the Funk Zone.
One standout is Margerum Wine Co. The wine is so good that Sybarite, a sauvignon blanc, was served by the Obamas at a 2014 state dinner for the Prime Minister of Singapore.
If it’s good enough for the Obamas, it was good enough for me, I reasoned. In truth, all the wines were good enough for me and I enjoyed quite a convivial afternoon.
The conviviality continued that evening on a special “full moon cruise” aboard Celebration Cruises’ Azure Seas, where I watched the harvest moon rise and the sun set within minutes of each other.
The Harbor View Inn proved a great choice for accommodations– an easy walk to the Funk Zone, pier and trolley stop where I hopped aboard a trolley to take in sights such as swanky Montecito (if you want to know how swanky, Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres were neighbors) and beautiful Old Mission Santa Barbara.
Santa Barbara is so determined that you won’t need a car that if you book your train ticket through their Car Free website (santabarbaracarfree.org) you will receive a 20 percent discount on your ticket, and perks at participating attractions and restaurants.
Use your savings to indulge in restaurants such as Tyger, Tyger, a Vietnamese-Thai establishment, and The Lark, the current hot table, both located in the Funk Zone.
Then pat yourself on the back for discovering that you really don’t need a car to explore Southern California.