California Tips!
February 11, 2007 3:40 AM   Subscribe

California-filter: I'll be traveling in California for one month with my girlfriend. Please provide us with little hidden gems (hotels, restaurants, lunch rooms, best cappuccino in town, things to see and do etc) we won't find in travel guides. Please see our travel plan and other specifics inside.

We will be traveling from appr. 15th of April till the 15th of May this year.

We'll kick off in San Francisco and drive by car to Yosemite NP, Sequoia NP, through Death Valley NP to Las Vegas, Grand Canyon NP to Los Angeles, along the coast via Santa Barbara, along the coast (Big Sur etc) to San Francisco.

We are interested in great scenic views, nature, hiking but also in great food, wine, coffee, small funky shops (clothes, accessories etc), interior design, music (funk, jazz, indie, soul). We like small and affordable boutique (and / or design) hotels, great little restaurants and lunch rooms (preferably with 'home made' products), great bookstores etc.

Show us the good life of California! Thanks!
posted by IZ to Travel & Transportation around California (32 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
stay the night in SLO at the madonna inn!
posted by sergeant sandwich at 5:55 AM on February 11, 2007

Yes, yes, yes to the Madonna Inn.

I have a soft spot for Pismo Beach; very relaxed. The Kon Tiki Inn isn't new, but it's cheap and comfortable -- good rooms. Decent restaurants here and here. Pismo beach isn't very -- how to put it? -- 'boutique,' but that's a relief after excess tourist-trap-cute in other coastal cities.

I also think Carmel is worth a stop. Big Sur is lovely but expensive. Ojai is nothing but tourist traps, though. See if you can't find a low-key biker bar outside the town.

Would that I could remember some bookstore names; no luck. I just checked the Yellow Pages each trip, and had good luck -- the smaller the town, the better the luck, mostly, though I did like one in 'downtown' San Luis Obispo. Possibly this one?
posted by kmennie at 6:29 AM on February 11, 2007

Big Sur is lovely but expensive.

Not necessarily. A night at the Ripplewood cabins is about $100 last time I stayed there (try to get one by the river!), and the food in their cafe is tasty and cheap. (Caveat: Ripplewood is very rustic -- not boutique-y in the slightest.) Deetjen's is nicer in terms of amenities, but a bit pricier. (IZ, this brings up a good point: what is your price range for "affordable" accomodations? This may help generate better answers for you.)

You can also watch the sunset from Nepenthe without having to spend an arm and a leg -- there's a cafe there, too (as opposed to the full restaurant) that's affordable, or you can just get a drink and sit outside by the fire pit. You might want to checl out the Henry Miller Library, too, while you're there.
posted by scody at 7:07 AM on February 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

You might also want to look at WikiTravel as a resource.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 7:22 AM on February 11, 2007

So, yes, Big Sur can be a bit pricey, but you did state that you were interested in great food, wine, etc.

There's a lot of debate about where to go in Big Sur, but in my opinion the BEST is the Big Sur Bakery, better than Deetjens and Nepenthe. Run by Phil and Michelle, husband and wife team that will take great care of you. The dinner is spectacular as is the wine list, but if your timing is not right for dinner, at least stop for coffee and the best desserts between SF and LA.
posted by jtajta at 8:23 AM on February 11, 2007

If you go to Solvang, be sure to check out the view from the front of Mission Santa Ines. The mission sits atop a bluff and offers one of the prettiest vistas anywhere in California (especially true in April when the flowers are in bloom and the hills are green). Instead of taking the 101 to the 246 to get into Solvang, turn right off the 101 onto Old Coast Rd just after Nojoqui Summit and take Alisal Rd into Solvang for the most amazing country road you'll ever see. Alisal Rd cuts through the Alisal Ranch and is a twisty 2 lane road lined with oak trees that have lots of Spanish moss hanging from the branches and you'll likely spot deer and fawn that time of year. You'll also beat the traffic on 246 and save about 30 minutes travel time unles you stop at Nojoqui Falls Park and take the short walk up the trail to the falls (also recommended),

If the Madonna Inn is too kitschy for your tastes, check out the Union Hotel in Los Alamos.
posted by buggzzee23 at 8:26 AM on February 11, 2007

In Los Angeles (actually just north of), I did a hike last week to Switzer Falls in the San Gabriel mountains. I've hiked Griffith Park and Malibu/Santa Monica, but I didn't even know that area was up there and it's pretty impressive.

Not too far away from that area is Passadena. You can find some good restaurants there (I'll leave it to others more familiar with the area to recommend them).
posted by willnot at 9:05 AM on February 11, 2007

Eek, so many SoCalians in here! Moving up North...

I say Big Sur or something with Redwoods is vital and doesn't have to be expensive. Camp! Drive Hwy 1 to see the coast and then head over to ice cream sandwiches in Big Basin. Take a hike around.

Dinner in Capitola, just south of Santa Cruz. If you like Sushi, there's nothing better than Pink Godzilla on 41st Ave. I also love Riva on the Santa Cruz wharf. Go to the Boardwalk! Cheap and lovely.

Up in San Francisco, you must go to House of Nanking, my new favorite chinese restaurant. And be on the look our for mathowie and other bloggerati at my favorite west coast coffee shop, Ritual Roasters - they french press everything. Head up to Coit Tower at the top of Nob Hill for a lovely view. Even better, spend the day walking around that neighborhood, North Beach, eat Italian for dinner, and get sundaes at Ghirardelli Square.

I'll also say that I was personally overstimulated by the Madonna Inn and like it for a bathroom break and maybe pie, but little else.

Last, if you're in my own South Bay and among the chosen, the Company Store is the only place you can buy Apple merchandise!

Yay California; say hi for me!
posted by coolhappysteve at 9:39 AM on February 11, 2007

Second Pink Godzilla -- best sushi ever.

You also mentioned jazz: check out the Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz; it's a fantastic, intimate venue that gets lots of great acts.
posted by jacobian at 10:05 AM on February 11, 2007

Yet another vote for the Madonna Inn and for Solvang.

While in LA, consider enjoying pad thai while listenign to Thai Elvis (@ the Palm(s?) on Hollywood Blvd.). The Magic Castle is fun, but expensive, eats up a whole evening, and will require a pass from a member to get in (though your hotel may be able to provide one).

Also, while in LA, check out the Farmer's Market (3rd & Fairfax). Touristy, yup. But still one of the best places in LA (IM). I have stayed at the nearby Farmers Daughter Hotel -- it's a motel, but for its central location it's tough to beat its price.

Don't leave LA without grabbing a sandwich at Phillipe's in downtown. Or a meal at El Cholo (the one on Westner, and not the later copycats).
posted by herc at 10:07 AM on February 11, 2007

Hmmmm.... The Wawona lodge up at Yosemite is very cool, 1850ish old hotel, nice. You can also pack in by horse and stay at camps that are set up, not to be missed if you have time and can afford it. Solvang is nice, worth the stop, but the Danish food is not all that. Pismo is way sweet, more laid back and authentic than Carmel or Monterey for a Ca costal town. Take the back way through the vineyards from SLO. On 1A north of Salinas there are some great beaches that are secluded and a favorite for locals and sunbathing clothing optional, in a very non perv European way. Just north of that is a light house that is a youth hostel a bit south of half moon bay that is a very nice inexpensive stop. They have individual rooms. If you are in SF area on a Wednesday, the Woodside Polo club plays and has a BBQ, very relaxing. If you are there on a Sunday bring a picnic lunch and head over the Circus Club in Menlo Park for Polo Way laid back and free also usually a BBQ after ask for Mia tell her Robert and Cinda say hi you will have a great time. Depending on your route north Cassa de Fruita just outside Gilroy is worth a stop. If you are going to be in SLO try to be there on a Thursday when the farmers market is open it is one of the best in CA. Oh and find the Wagon Wheel restaurant near Paso Robles is a treat. Then there is AJ spurs in Atascadero, if you like steak. Don’t miss Bolinas, and Smiley's great history good watering hole. If you are passing Pleasanton on your trip have dinner at Claude and Dominique’s Bistro just off the main street down town. IMHO it is better than the French Laundry start with a Kir Royale, try the pheasant a la Claude, not cheap but Mon Dieux. Do the Monterey Aquarium. Then grab a picnic lunch and go to the coast just north of Monterey find a rock and relax. By all means take the back roads. Stop at the fruit stands, do the winery tours on the fly and hit the mom and pop shops, surf shops and stay off the beaten path. Sorry this is kind of all over the place but hints and discovery is better than directions and absolutes, enjoy.
posted by MapGuy at 10:22 AM on February 11, 2007

Since you're going to Death Valley, you could see a show at the Amargosa Opera House. The theater was acquired 40 years ago by a Broadway actress, after it had been in disuse for half a century. She fixed it up, spent years muralling the walls and ceiling, and has been performing one-woman shows there ever since. It's not what you'd expect in the middle of the desert.
posted by aws17576 at 10:43 AM on February 11, 2007

Wow. Synchronicity: I just posted this on another forum:

Madonna Inn. Good: Mens room, cocktails. Bad: Guestrooms, restaurant. Do not eat or stay at the Madonna Inn. Just drink, pee and leave.
posted by trip and a half at 10:51 AM on February 11, 2007

Hearst Castle is a few miles away.

Hearst Castle fascinating (especially if you get a good tour guide; personally, I'd skip the hagiographic film about Hearst at the beginning, though), but it's definitely more than a few miles away -- it's about 65 miles down Hwy 1, which will take a few hours given how twisty the road is. But of course, that drive also provides one of the most spectacular views in America! (Hwy 1 north of Big Sur, up to Carmel/Monterey, is also breathtaking.)

Just wanted to mention this in case you're thinking of doing Big Sur/Hearst Castle in one day, so that you know to allow enough time.
posted by scody at 10:59 AM on February 11, 2007

You've got some good stuff here already. I'll second:

Pismo Beach
Santa Cruz Boardwalk
House of Nan King (SF)

Solvang is way to touristy, you'll be bored there in a heartbeat. Instead, consider spending that day around the start or end of your trip up in Napa. If you like wine, that's a whole nother thread in and of itself.

Touring the mission in SB is pretty fun, and downtown is really nice for shopping / walking around. Check out P.S. Limited for great unique shopping (shameless family plug - my grandmother started that store). There's also an awesome coffee shop / bookstore to chill in just down the street from there.

I like Monterey a lot - good empty beaches around there, and the aquarium is pretty cool.

And if you're in shape for it when you get to Yosemite, the best hike there is Glacier Point to the top of Half Dome. Its a big trip for a day, but doable.

Oh, and any trip to San Fran without a visit to the Palace of Fine Arts is a big miss.
posted by allkindsoftime at 11:01 AM on February 11, 2007

FYI, hwy 120 (Tioga Pass) through Yosemite does not generally open before mid- May, and sometimes not until June. Just bringing it up in case you were planning to take 395 down to Sequoia. However, your timing will be just about perfect for the wildflowers in Death Valley.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:23 AM on February 11, 2007

Seconding the Treebones suggestion.
posted by sillygit at 11:39 AM on February 11, 2007

if you like architecture, try to include Palm Springs -- a tour of the Modernist houses is to die for
posted by matteo at 11:51 AM on February 11, 2007

and since you like coffee and you want to check out Joshua Tree National Park, I've had very good coffee at Water Canyon Coffee Company, Old Town Yucca Valley (scroll down)
posted by matteo at 11:59 AM on February 11, 2007

Highway 1 is fairly gorgeous drive, but it can be hard on the passenger because of the windiness of the road.

Go through Monterey - one of my favorite places and I like the Fisherman's wharf there better than San Francisco's. Take the touristy drive and poke around Pacific Grove.

If you're into some lower-end tourist traps, you might try Casa de Fruta or even Garlic World in Gilroy.
posted by plinth at 12:16 PM on February 11, 2007

In Big Sur, one of the best stops to make is Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Walk out to the environmental campsites to spot grey whales, follow the footpath the other way to see the waterfall.

I really don't agree with the Pink Godzilla recommendation, not do I know any locals that do either. I think the name gets the attention. Naka is right across the street, a good old fashioned sushi bar where, of course, Naka makes your sushi to order. Other favorites for me are Mobo in downtown Santa Cruz and the quite good, big restaurant Takara.

Santa Cruz also possesses three Japanese tea house/spas which are a great wind-down or romantic escape after a long travel day. I like The Tea House best.

Bookshop Santa Cruz is a great book store. We also have a fantastic old indie movie theater, the Del Mar, on pacific. Pacific on a Friday night is an activity unto itself.

Do Hearst Castle, Redwoods, the boardwalk, the Mystery Spot (I used to give tours there) the Aquarium, and you can hit the Tech in San Jose and enjoy one of many Asian American communities where great boba and pho can be had (I frequent Cupertino Village's 99 Ranch for food as well as a little cultural tourism) if you go through Silicon Valley to the city. If you go up the 1 to the city instead, do it at sunset and takeaway an Indian Pizza from Golden Gate.

If you should be in Ventura, my hometown, an hour north of LA and an hour south of SB, for a stop, there is no better fish and chips anywhere than at Andria's, at the harbor, there's superb Italian at Ferraro's, complimentary wine when there's a wait, and of course fantastic down home Mexican all over (especially Casa de Soria and the takeaway Corrales).

Frankly I could go on unendingly. Feel free to email me if you have any questions. I've lived within your route all my life!
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 12:27 PM on February 11, 2007

You should also have a contingency plan in case Hwy 1 to Big Sur or Big Sur to Gorda is closed due to mudslides. This is an El Nino year and anything can happen. Slides have caused months-long closures in the past.

There are some nice beaches to comb for jade in the Cambria area and you can score some great seafood in Morro Bay.
posted by buggzzee23 at 12:31 PM on February 11, 2007

House of Nan King (SF)

I'll let you in on a little SF secret. The House of NK is good, both food-wise and experience-wise, but the food at Chef Gia's (next door) is better, costs about half as much, there's never a line, and you don't have to put up with the attitude of the Nanking waiters.

Also in SF, get a burrito at Taqueria Pancho Villa. Yes, the line is sometimes out the door (and always near the door). Fortunately, it moves fast. Not only did Bon Appitit and Zagats rate this one highly, but Beck has played an impromptu gig there.

If the weather is decent, consider having one of the many beers on tap in the garden of the Zeitgeist (Valencia @ Duboce). There you'll rub shoulders with everyone from the local hell's angels (the only people in town who're allowed to call it Frisco) to the dot-com millionaires that you've heard of on CNBC, lots of local stagehands, and the people who build the freeways. If you happen to see Virginia, the Tamale Lady, make sure to get a tamale.

The best coffee in town is at Blue Bottle Coffee, which is in Linden Alley, near Gough Street. Please park at one of the meters on Gough or Hayes, don't block Linden street's many driveways.

When you're in Vegas, do go off the strip to the Pinball Museum, which has hundreds of machines of many vintages, all set up for you to play!
posted by toxic at 12:32 PM on February 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

Many of the things that are mentioned are on countless tourist guides. The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk? Pfft! ;)

Dig around the Bay Area Backroads archives before doing anything else. There's always neat stuff on that show.
posted by drstein at 5:04 PM on February 11, 2007

While in LA visit The Museum of Jurassic Technology. It's difficult to describe, but well worth the trip. It includes a horn removed from a woman's forehead, and art that you must view through microscopes... It's unlike anything I'd seen previously.
posted by kamikazegopher at 8:01 PM on February 11, 2007

I'm from LA. I love LA. I jump on people who say bad things about LA. But I recommend that you spend as little time as possible in LA.

Look, LA is an absolutely incredible place to live, but a pretty frustrating place to visit, especially if you don't know anyone there. I visited Santa Barbara one time in the Summer and it was packed with Europeans. I made a theory that they visited LA, hated it, went up to Santa Barbara, and found what they thought LA was going to be like. Ok, that couldn't possibly be true, but Santa Barbara is really nice to drop in on.

The other recommendations that people made for LA are pretty damn good. Here's a little hike I really love: If you absolutely must go to LA, get on the 118, just west of Topanga Canyon Blvd is the Rocky Peak exit. Make a right over the bridge and park. It's a bunch of nice grassy hills that looks like this. Yes, it is a dream world of magic. Wander around for a while visiting hilltop after hilltop.

Make sure you visit Joshua Tree before you get to LA. It rules.

When you make it up to Santa Cruz, I recommend wandering around the UC Santa Cruz campus. It's unlike any other campus you've ever seen. That's because it's in the middle of a big redwood forest on a hill overlooking the ocean. Have a good walk around. See the view of Monterey Bay from Stevenson College. Pretty nice, right? Then, make your way across campus to Empire Grade (that's all the way on the other side), cross the street, cross the big meadow and find a big huge river-carved canyon that leads all the way to the ocean. This one's a dream world of magic, too. I recommend following that whichever way you want to Wilder Ranch State Park. Then get a taxi or bus or hitchhike back to your car.

Have fun while you're here in beautiful California!!!
posted by redteam at 11:01 PM on February 11, 2007

Emphstic second on Museum of Jurraisic Technology. Read the Lawrence Wechsler book about it before you go for extra pleasure.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 4:29 AM on February 12, 2007

If you like wine, stop off at the various wineries around Paso Robles, near Hearst Castle.

As for LA, I agree about the Museum of Jurraisic Technology. For a more traditional museum, don't forget the Getty.

And for food, hot dogs: Pink's on La Brea; Mexican: El Tepeyac in East LA; hamburgers: In N Out all over California and Tommy's near downtown LA.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 8:45 AM on February 12, 2007

El Tepeyac gets a hearty thumbsup from me.. I always try to make it there whenever I'm in LA.
posted by buggzzee23 at 1:59 PM on February 12, 2007

Seconding drstein's excellent suggestion to poke around the Bay Area Backroads archives - it's a long-running local 'sights and tastes' sort of show.

If you want funky, boutiquey, bookstores, wine, and views - Backroads will be perfect for you, and definitely out of the guide books. Good call, drstein!
posted by coolhappysteve at 8:11 AM on February 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

Good Stuff in here so far. I'll second:

Pismo - shocked that no one has mentioned the Splash Cafe. Best clam chowder I have ever had and I live in Boston now.

Big Sur - Nepenthe a must-do, just for the views at sunset. If you want to camp, Big Sur Cabins & Campgrounds are good for car camping, but book early, they fill fast. Lots of amazing hiking to be found, and MOST IMPORTANTLY do not miss pfiffer beach. On an unmarked road, off the 101, just south of big sur; one of the most aesthetically stunning beaches you'll ever see, but too cold to swim most of the year. Bring a sweatshirt.

Santa Cruz - boardwalk is uber-cheesy, but that is what makes it great. i had my first date there. get cotton candy and taffy, take pictures in a photo booth and ride the big dipper. mariannes for ice cream--right by the highway 17 on ramp; they sell a flavor that is called "Highway 17" but is actually rocky road, which you will understand if you take 17 into or out of santa cruz.

other can't-not-mentions:

- drive through gilroy. roll the windows down. go to the outlets.
- nicks crispy tacos in san francisco
- brunch in sausalito. stay at one of the b&bs, they're all fabulous.
- marin headlands. makes my heart hurt to think about how much i miss califronia.

love every minute...
posted by itsallhappening at 5:17 PM on February 19, 2007

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