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In Southern California, you can have several vacations in one, if you plan a trip from the beach of Oceanside to the wine country in Temecula to Palm Desert. Read on as our TravelingMom tells you of her micro-cations.
California is a state of extremes: one of the longest states, it has a population larger than all of Canada. Yet in one town, a dog won the office of mayor in 1981. California offers vacationers a vast array of delights, from beaches to mountains, from solitude to booming cities, from side open roads to, well, gridlock. On a recent trip to Southern California, I experienced three very different mini vacations (micro-cations – you heard it here first!), each with its own microclimate and terrain, as I explored Oceanside, Temecula and Palm Desert.
Oceanside: Southern California Beach and Surf
My first stop in Southern California was in surfer town, Oceanside, at the SpringHill Suites Marriott. As you would expect from the name, I was just across the street from a public beach access. (Unfortunately, a new hotel under construction will block the glorious view.)
The hotel had an open, airy beach theme, and a game room filled with board games, dress up clothes and surfboard decor.
Like at all SpringHill Suites, a free, full breakfast is included. My gigantic room included a pit couch and balcony. Perfect!
Oceanside, an hour south of Los Angeles, and 40 north of San Diego, is sandwiched between Camp Pendleton and Carlsbad. The once funky downtown is turning over, with more upscale shops and hip restaurants opening. I explored this on the ground, with a Downtown Historical Walk with John Daley Oceanside Historical Society. I also caught the view from behind the wheel of a bicycle with a rental from Alan’s Bike Shop, and from above, with a Waverider Helicopter Tour.
The helicopter tour may be my new favorite way to tour a place. During migration season, you can see whales down below (good option if bad weather cancels your whale watch boat ride). The pilot, who used to fly for the Coast Guard, pointed out wineries, beautiful homes and concert venues. And we didn’t have to sit in traffic or look for a parking space.
Oceanside, Southern California: Surfing as Art
The beautifully curated California Surf Museum showcases hundreds of surfing memorabilia. It even includes newer riffs on the sport, like skateboarding and body surfing. The kid-friendly museum has posters and surfboards, including the surfboard with a shark bite mark ridden by Bethany Hamilton, the champion surfer who lost her arm to a shark. (Anyone remember Soul Surfer?)
Oceanside, Southern California: Foodie heaven
My friend, a local, confirmed we were eating at an iconic Oceanside spot, Beach Break Café. Long waits are common at this 30 year old institution – and they’re worth it. The friendly vibe and family atmosphere were contagious. The owner’s son told me, “Where else could I work where I get to have a meal with my family every day?”
Dad, the owner, shared how he started his breakfast dive with a baby, a surfboard and no experience – just a strong desire to have a job that let him spend time with his family. The place was packed when we arrived, but we beat the wait. We had an outstanding egg scramble, extra crispy hash browns and gigantic mango multigrain pancakes. It was too much food, but we managed to eat it all.
Micro-Breweries on my Micro-Cation
Oceanside is a rising star to several micro-breweries. I biked down Coast HWY to meet some new friends at Urge Gastropub and try the craft beers brewed at Mason Ale Works, housed inside. We toured the brewery and the speakeasy which is “hidden” in the back. In true speakeasy style, the entry is through a side door with a sliding window where someone can size you up before allowing you in. Once inside, you can go to your personal whiskey locker and pull out yoru favorite liquor for cocktails. The vault door remains and the interior looks like a dimly lit jazz club.
And the oddly named Wrench & Rodent Seabasstropub is a huge local hit. Expect long lines; reservations are needed. I tried their sushi, which was excellent.
TravelingMom Tip: Watch out for the “fake wait.” When I arrived around 5:30, only two tables were taken. When I asked to be seated at a table, not the bar, I was first offered a weird table tucked behind a wall, blocking my view of anything. When I explained that I had a reservation (that I had made 20 minutes earlier), suddenly a table opened up outside. The rest of the tables did not fill up while I was there.
Pack a basket of cheeses and small bites, then drive inland about 30 minutes to the Beach House Winery to catch a spectacular sunset from their patio. Owners George and Kim have received numerous awards. I took home a bottle of their award winning Beach House Wine to enjoy for the holidays. In retrospect, I should have bought more. The smooth red wine, with no tannins, was gone in seconds.
Temecula Valley: Southern California Wine Country
Although I lived in Los Angeles for seven years, I had never been to Temecula Valley, just over an hour southeast of the city. My friend, a true wine lover and the founder of Peachhead, met me there. We turned the weekend into a quick girlfriend’s getaway.
The wineries are diverse and unpretentious. I appreciate a delicious wine and how it can enhance a dining experience. In Temecula, wine tasting was fun. I learned about the ingredients in the wines that I preferred, and I wasn’t shamed into liking the “best” wine. Instead, the best wine was always the one I liked best.
We stayed at the Embassy Suites Hotel Temecula, in a two room suite with breakfast and evening wine and cheese included. There are other lodging options in the area but this hotel is well located, clean and the rooms are spacious enough for a family or friends to share.
Southern California Winery Tour
We spent very little time in our room because we were there to tour the wineries. We visited Wilson Creek Winery, Peltzer Farms and Robert Renzoni Winery. Each visit was as different as the wines they offer. Most of the wineries are prepared to host large groups and weddings, and a few offer lodging and a wine club to join. But each has their own theme and beauty.
Wilson Creek has a decadent patio restaurant where we sat outside, un-rushed, searching for the best wine to have with our fig and cheese plate and fresh garden salad. The grounds are spectacular for weddings, corporate gatherings and dates. There are tables along a babbling brook.
The Renzoni Winery is on a hill overlooking the valley and the restaurant is elegant-casual – an outdoor patio with authentic Italian pizza, gigantic sandwiches and of course, delicious wines. I took home Big Fred’s Red, a tasty everyday table wine that beat out their more aged and expensive wines. The general manager shared his passion for wine with us and took us on a tasting tour from light to bold flavors.
Wineries With Kids?
Peltzer Farms is one of the best wineries for kids. They have a petting zoo, kid’s activities, hayrides and beautiful grounds. Check ahead for family friendly activities.
The tasting room, aka the Crush House, is also a gorgeous store decorated by one of the owners. Think Cracker Barrel meets California. Tractor seats adorn an entire wall. The wines here are white and varied. Denis, one of the winery designers, changed it up a bit for us and served our wine in 2 differently shaped glasses. The glass that won out has a smaller opening at the top. It encircles your nose and mouth for a heightened sensory experience.
Downtown Dining and More
Downtown Temecula, aka Old Town, looks like a set of an old western except for the shops and restaurants. I did not expect to find an authentic Italian restaurant like Palumbos Ristorante in town. The pasta was fresh and served al dente and the kid’s menu included $5 options.
Temecula Olive Oil has a tasting room downtown, but I recommend you take a drive to the olive grove, about 15 minutes outside of town. The property is fantastic and their unique way of pressing the olive oil, with a machine they helped invent, is worth seeing. I took home the basil olive oil and the vanilla fig vinegar.
Extraordinary Artisan Table
The restaurant highlight for me was E.A.T. (Extraordinary Artisan Table) Marketplace, owned by Leah. Leah left her Italian roots on the east coast to serve only local, sustainable foods. EAT is family friendly. The casual menu has lots of vegan and gluten free options, and the company requires employees to do eight hours of community service every month at a local farm.
Take a look at EAT’s menu here to see what I mean: plant based chorizo scramble, pear toast with maple drizzle, Italian polenta grits with pecorino. Mouth watering, right? This place is a must-stop, if just for the vegan donuts and health boosting smoothies.
There’s a way to bring a taste of E.A.T. home with you – the recipe for one of its signature dishes, Pasta a La Checca.
Pasta a La Checca
- 1 lb GF pasta fresh *we like fusilli or penne pasta’s
- 2 pints cherry tomatoes (such as orange, red, and yellow teardrop varieties)
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
- 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- ½ cup fresh organic basil
- 1 cup chopped up fresh mozzarella
- ½ cup pecorino romano *you can also use Parmigano- but it has less flavor, so you’ll need a bit more salt
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- Bring water to a boil with a healthy pinch of salt
- While waiting on water to come to a boil- in a large bowl, chop your tomatoes and then mozzarella. Put in one bowl together.
- Dice garlic small *we love to give ours a quick fry to take the bitterness out.
- Chiffonade basil (stack, roll, slice. Stack the leaves on top of each other, gently roll them into a cigar, and then use a sharp knife to slice them into thin ribbons- that is chiffonade)
- Mix basil (reserve a pinch for garnish) and garlic in with chopped tomato and mozzarella.
- Add fresh pasta to boiling water (fresh pasta only takes 3-4 minutes) *If not fresh, complete this step first!
- Drain the pasta (reserving 1/3 cup of the water) and toss it with the tomatoes. If the pasta is still a little dry, add some of the cooking water.
- Toss together, platter then add grated pecorino romano cheese on top and more basil for garnish!
This dish is great cold- but E.A.T. suggests short pasta noodle if making a cold dish- something odd about a long noodle in a cold pasta salad like this one.
In the spirit of pairings, pair your visit to EAT Marketplace with a visit to the interactive Temecula Museum across the street. It is small and sweet, with exhibits for kids and adults. I took the advice of signs encouraging us to “please touch” and climbed on the grown-up replica of a horse for photos. Kids can dress up in pioneer outfits and play in their crafts room.
Greater Palm Springs: Southern California Desert Beauty
After all the tasting and touring, I needed a vacation from my mini-vacations! My daughter is going to school in Tucson and was able to meet me. We took a road tip to the luxurious Omni Rancho Las Palmas Resort & Spa in Rancho Mirage.
There I enjoyed one of the best facial of my life. I was glowing for days after, and best all, the facialist didn’t try to “upsell” me. The resort was completely sold out, but didn’t feel too crowded. We found space at the spectacular pools and outdoor fire pits.
The resort is obviously popular (they literally had to turn people away at the door) but my room and the spa rooms need a refresh. The furniture was dated and the room was dark. But honestly, my eyes were closed most of the time in the spa and I will return the next time I am in the area.
A Desert Jewel in Southern California
Palm Desert, which is adjacent to (not the same as) Palm Springs, doesn’t seem like part of the beachy, surfer California I know. But it is only two and a half hours from Los Angeles and it is a desert jewel.
If you saw the movie San Andreas, this part creepy/part totally cool tour of the San Andreas Fault with Desert Adventures might freak you out. We rode in an open sided Jeep along the fault and through narrow canyons. Our tour guide stopped at one of the natural oases to teach us about the vegetation and habitat. We stopped again at a recreated Cahuilla Indian village that had a mural depicting how they lived. It’s a special opportunity – Desert Adventures is the only company allowed to drive on the privately owned ranch. My daughter liked the village, the first oasis and the pictures of the canyons, but she said 3 hours was a long to time to sit.
Recharging and Relaxing
After the San Andreas fault tour, we brushed the dust off and headed to Pacific Seafood on El Paseo, in Palm Desert. We were seated in a canopied booth on the patio, where we could watch the sun set and the shoppers shop. After we ate bacon-wrapped scallops and homemade ice cream, we decided shopping would be a great way to walk it off.
We ended our day with a fabulous duet massage at Agua Serena, Hyatt Regency Indian Wells Resort & Spa. They set our tables up outside, side by side, with the moonlight streaming in, creating an ethereal experience. That arrangement was so special that we are still talking about it. I highly recommend it for couples or a mother/son weekend. After the massage, you have access to their top of the line spa and its steam room and sauna.
Local Restaurant Scene
The best way to top off a relaxing spa treatment is with an amazing meal at Lantana Restaurant, the Hyatt’s signature restaurant. Our table had it all: a view of somebody’s fireworks, soft music from the bar, fresh air and great food. The dessert was a scene stealer: chocolate lava cake with ice cream, but not just any old lava cake. This was light and chocolatey, not overly sweet.
The local restaurants are worth checking out too. The valets at Rancho Las Palmas will drive you in a golf cart across the street to the biggest slab of ribs you have ever seen, a flight of craft beers and a pig at Babe’s Bar-B-Que & Brewhouse. Everything at The Brewhouse is huge: the outdoor fire pit, the bronze pig, and the comfort foods portions.
Eureka is a California chain where I ate my first umami turkey burger, a ridiculously good burger with fig jam. Fig jam! The menu is slightly different at each of its locations, but all are super family friendly. It’s worth seeking out when you are in California. There is something for everyone, and we had to take advantage of the outdoor seating before returning to real life on the East Coast.
Note: I was the guest of Visit California, which covered my expenses. Opinions, full stomach and serenity were all my own.
Want More? Here’s an itinerary for how to spend 2 days in Temecula.