I’m an un-official California Ambassador and this week on Belly Charms Blog we’re holding a California Extravaganza, featuring writers from around the world who are sharing their perspective of the Golden State. While I hold no real title or association, lately my zeal for Californa has risen to new heights. Recently, while camping at San Clemente State Beach, I found myself in several conversations with travelers from around the country who were exploring California. Some had almost endless amounts of time, others had as little as 10 days. Just about everyone was traveling with an open-mind, ready to go wherever the wind blew them rather than traveling with a set itinerary.
These conversations inspired me to write a compilation of some of my favorite California locations. Because you have to pick a number, I decided to make it a Top 10 list. I also wanted to put together a list that I felt covered a wide variety of what California has to offer. So I’m not sure it’s a Top 10 list in the sense that these are the “10 best locations in California” but instead it’s a list of 10 incredible places that will give you a taste of what California has to offer.
Here are 10 of my “must-see” California destinations.
My list begins here because I call Lake Tahoe home. My wife and I have freedom to live anywhere, and we choose to make our base Lake Tahoe. I’m a ski bum, and in the winter Lake Tahoe offers world-class skiing and riding. The Lake, though, is majestic year-round. Dubbed the Jewel of the Sierras, Lake Tahoe was recently named North America’s best lake by USA Today. The summers here are fabulous, and whether you want to lay out on the beach, water ski, or get up into the mountains for hiking or biking, Tahoe has so much to offer. Off the wall tip: Head to the top of Harrah’s Casino on Friday or Saturday Nights to hang out at Cliche Lounge, the old private lounge of Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack.
Yosemite National Park
I love Yosemite National Park. Standing in Yosemite Valley, surrounded by those rock walls that rise thousands of feet, gives me such an inspired feel. We love camping in Yosemite Valley and having the flexibiltiy to either make a meal over the campfire or head to one of the restaurants in Yosemite Village. There are great hikes for kids — our kids have been hiking with us since they were born! — or really serious hikes like reaching the summit of Half Dome or El Capitan. Off the wall tip: The Awahnee Hotel is both beautiful and historically important. It’s also pricey. If a meal isn’t in your budget, make sure you go just for a cup of coffee or hot chocolate.
I’m always hesitant to add the label “favorite” to anything, but if I were going to put the favorite label on any city in the United States, I’d put that label on San Francisco. I love San Francisco. San Francisco has the highest restaurnt to person ration in the United States, and there are so many great ones. I love riding bikes over the Golden Gate Bridge and into Sausilito and then taking the ferry back to the City. My wife and I used to tarvel to San Francisco four or five times a year before we had kids to enjoy dining, dancing, and shopping. We went back last year for the first time with kids and enjoyed it just as much but in a different way. I left my heart in San Francisco. Off the wall tip: Check out B44’s for dinner. Love that place!
I called Santa Barbara home for more than 10 years, and because my in-laws still live there, we get to enjoy the American Riviera for several weeks each year. Santa Barbara is actually second only to San Francisco for the highest restaurant to person ratio in the United States. There are other things to do than just eat. The beaches are great, as is the hiking and biking in the Santa Ynez Mountains. Just walking around downtown and being surrounded by all the Andalucia style Spanish architecture makes you feel good. Off the wall tip: Santa Barbara has dozens of cultural and ethnic festivals throughout the year. None are bigger than Old Spanish Days Fiesta, but my favorite festival in the iMarrinari, hosted at the Santa Barbara Mission. Over the long Memorial weekend, artists create incredible displays of chalk art. There are also food vendors and other activities going on.
The Redwood Forest
It’s hard for me to communicate the power and majesty of the Redwood Forest. A few years ago we camped at Jedediah Smith State Park near Crescent City and I was totally taken in by the place. Our campground felt like a cathedral. We went on lots of low-key hikes and then enjoyed an incredible drive from Jedediah Smith to Crescent City on an old dirt road. My description is short, but only because there are no words. Off the wall tip: At Jedediah Smith State Park I couldn’t get any cell service so couldn’t check my messages or email or post updates to Facebook. For a few hours it drove me crazy. Then my phone died and I threw it in the car and forgot about it for the next 4 days. It was a great time to decompress in this natural cathedral.
San Diego is like a big Santa Barbara. We love Coronado and have many happy memories on the island. Love taking the water taxi from Coronado to the Gas Lamp Districg and downtown San Diego. Mission Beach is a fun place to hang out. Balboa Park, originally built for the World’s Fair, is a great place to spend a day. Of course there’s also Sea World. Off the wall tip: Go to a Padres Game at Petco Park. Even if you’re not a baseball fan, there’s nothing like the feeling of being at Petco Park. I have a long-term goal to visit every Major Leage ballpark, and I’ve been to more than a dozen of them. If I were to apply a “favorite” label to one of the ballparks of all that I’ve visited, I’d apply the term “favorite” to Petco Park in San Diego.
In getting around California, you really need to explore some of the Southern California Beach towns. Laguana Beach may not be as big or have as much to offer as places like San Diego or even Santa Barbara, but towns like Laguna Beach are a big part of the overall California vibe. I love the beach right in the main part of town and Laguna Beach has a really vibrant arts community and art festivals throughout the year. There are also lots of great restaurants. If you’re looking for a place to stay, we’ve enjoyed staying at the Pacific Edge Hotel while in Laguna Beach. Off the wall tip: The beach in the main part of town also has a great playground for kids.
Highway 49 and Gold Country
Highway 49 and Gold Country is some of California’s most overlooked terrain. First of all, it’s beautiful. A few years ago I was on business in Mariposa, California and found myself on Highway 49 driving north toward Tahoe. I was completely stunned by the beauty. The water flowed and there were wildflowers everywhere. In addition to the beauty, as you can imagine, Gold Country is loaded with history. Take your kids and pan for gold in Columbia. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll get lucky. Okay, okay… your odds are better playing the lottery. By the way, if you’re touring California and don’t want to drive all the way to Crescent City to see the Redwoods, you can visit Gold Country and see the Redwoods in the Sonora area. Off the wall tip: Check out Columbia Kate’s Teahouse and Bakery. It’s a real special place and a great respite from the heat on a warm summer day.
There are a lot of old people in Palm Springs, but there are also lots of golf courses and swimming pools and water parks. Throw in some great restaurants, and you’ve got an entire town that actually feels like a resort. The Palm Springs Ariel Tramway is the world’s largest rotating tram and accesses 54 miles of hiking trails and 14,000 acres of terrain. The dry desert air is therapeutic and somehow seems to magically prepare your body for that massage at the spa. Off the wall tip: Check out the La Quinta Country Club. If you like to golf, this is the place to do it, but you don’t need to be a golfer to enjoy this incredible setting. Go there.
Disneyland and California Adventure
While you’re in California, you have to go to Disneyland. It’s the most magical place on earth and defenitely a part of Calfiornia History. I love California Adventure. That name by the way, “California Adventure” wasn’t just randomly chosen. The park is designed to create the feel and tell the story of California. My favorite ride is Soarin’ Over California. If I haven’t convinced you that California is an amazing state, that ride certainly will. And your flight attendant on the ride is David Puddy, Elaine’s BF from Seinfeld! Off the Wall Tip: Disneyland Tips are a dime a dozen, but if you are going for the first time or the first time in a long time, go to California Adventure first and get your Fast Pass for World of Color. It’s amazing!
Of course, any list of 10 “must-see” California destinations is sure to leave out so many amazing places. Joshua Tree National Park comes to mind, but I have to confess that though I’ve been in the vicinity, I’ve never actually been inside Joshua Tree National Park. Hollywood, Malibu, Pasadena…. heck, nothing from the greater Los Angeles area made my list. There’s no Monterey or John Steinbeck Country. What about Napa Valley and Wine Country?
Come see us in California. It’s amazing!