School’s in — hit the beach!

September 12, 2013

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September is my favorite time to visit the beaches of L.A. Camp field trips are over, school’s back in session, and temperatures are still uncomfortably hot anywhere east of the 405. Even those with unscheduled time seem to forget that the beaches are open after Labor Day, meaning you will practically have the sand and waves to yourself if you show up with a chair and a book.

My favorite Southern California beach is Crystal Cove State Park in Orange County. Marked by 50-foot cliffs that mask all that PCH traffic, it’s a remarkably clean three-mile stretch of sand that is perfect for walking, especially at twilight. It’s a long drive from most parts of L.A. and parking is steep ($15 at last count), but it’s a breathtaking beach that will sweep you away from the traffic and hassles of life in L.A. as easily as any Hawaiian vacation.

A more accessible option for sweltering Eastsiders is Torrance Beach, just south of Redondo. There’s a fee lot just south of Miramar Park, but also often plenty of free street parking on Paseo de la Playa. A long ramp makes it easy to push a stroller down to the strand and there are public bathrooms and outdoor showers. The refineries that anchor the beaches to the north like Hermosa and Manhattan are nearly obscured, and Palos Verdes Peninsula juts off the south. Being in Torrance also gives you an excuse to visit the King’s Hawaiian Bakery on Sepulveda; pick up some of the famous rolls or sample island dishes like Kahlua pork or Char Siu and eggs (I’m partial to the King’s Hawaiian French toast).

James Turrell Divides the Light in Pomona

July 31, 2013

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The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is hosting a 50-year retrospective this year of artist James Turrell. It’s one of the hottest tickets in town (“the art world’s brightest luminary this year,” according to Forbes). But there’s another, easier way to check out Turrell’s fabulous use of light and space — or to extend your Turrell-in-L.A. experience if you are lucky enough to nab a LACMA ticket.

Head east to Pomona College any evening (or Saturday through Monday evening during the school year) and join those in the know for the best free sunset east of the 405. During the day, the Turrell Skyspace looks like a small open-air courtyard with marble benches and a shallow reflecting pool. As the sun sets, it turns into something absolutely magical. LED lights bathe a hovering metal canopy in an array of changing colors, starting with muted shades of gray and lavender and building to striking swaths of turquoise, blue, and burnt umber as the sky fades to night.

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It is an evening ritual that attracts a fun mix of spectators, from professors and groups of undergraduates to families with small children who stretch out on blankets on the grass. The show creates a subtle camaraderie among its fans, inspired perhaps by the shared witnessing of such an unusually beautiful sight.

Music Box Steps: Best Urban Hike in L.A.

July 19, 2013

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Everyone’s favorite gripe about L.A. is that no one walks here. It’s not without validation — I once walked from my office in mid-Wilshire to the Trader Joe’s on La Brea without passing a soul on the sidewalk. People driving by stared at me carrying my canvas bags as if I were a homeless tourist attraction.

But there are pockets of the city that are perfect for a hardy stroll, and Silverlake is one of them. I’m not sure why it took me 13 years of L.A. residency to do the Music Box Steps hike, but it should be on every Angeleno’s bucket list. I followed the Music Box loop from Charles Fleming’s excellent Secret Stairs: A Walking Guide to the Historic Staircases of Los Angeles. It covers 2.5 miles and combines a good cardio workout with a self-guided film history and architecture tour. It made me never want to go to the gym again.

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The Music Box steps got their name from the 1932 Laurel & Hardy short film. Stan and Oliver had to deliver a piano to the top of a flight of outdoor stairs; comic bumbling ensues. The barren hillside in the film is now surrounded buildings and, as Fleming rightly points out, disappointingly ill-maintained given its landmark status. But it still provides a rush for most film buffs, as does the shady triangular pocket park across the street, named for the duo. Besides this slice of movie history, the walk is also studded with views of downtown L.A., all kinds of flora and fauna, and a fascinating mix of homes featuring Moorish minarets, tiled fountains, and thoughtful displays of sun dials and garden gnomes.

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This hike starts and ends at Café Tropical, a little neighborhood hub known for its café con leche and Cuban sandwiches. Parking is reasonably easy to find on surface streets around here. A couple of tips: strollers won’t work, period, and there is very little shade. Go early in the morning in summer, or wait for a cooler overcast day if you must go in the afternoon. It’s probably best to avoid nighttime altogether.

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Turn this into a real L.A. outing and head over to Sqrl café on an edgy corner of Melrose, a 15-minute walk from Café Tropical via Marathon St. I had the burnt brioche with house ricotta and blueberry-rhubarb jam while jazz and an unfathomable number of trendsetting hipsters kept the place buzzing. The hike, combined with the exquisitely good breakfast, was one of those only-in-L.A. experiences that I won’t soon forget.

Springs Preserve: the Most Peaceful Place in Las Vegas

June 23, 2013

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When I visited Springs Preserve northwest of downtown Las Vegas a few years ago, I figured it would only be a matter of time before it added a sponsor’s name, like Trump or Mlife, to its surprisingly un-catchy title. To its credit, it hasn’t, but neither has it quite lived up to the promise it had when it first opened. Part science museum, part desert garden, and part eco-innovator, the sprawling property is owned by the Las Vegas Valley Water District and the polar opposite of the nearby madness of the Strip. It’s a wonderful respite from the casinos, but it can be eerily quiet and devoid of activity on weekdays. The heat (110+) kept visitors inside the Origen Museum or Nature Exchange and the beautiful drought-resistant gardens and playground were as deserted as an East Coast mall in the middle of a snowstorm.

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The highlight of our visit was a better-than-average lunch in the air-conditioned Springs Cafe (pricey, but super-fresh and a welcoming change from the burgers and fries we had been subsisting on). You can see the Stratosphere and other Strip resorts from inside and outside the 2nd-floor cafe. The kids also lingered in the Nature Exchange, where like Kidspace in Pasadena, you can answer questions or trade things found in nature for cool rocks, shells, and minerals.

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A tip: try to visit Friday through Monday. The adjacent Nevada State Museum is open, and admission is included with a Springs Preserve ticket. It looks like a sleek mastodons-meet-stalactite-caves kind of place, but we missed out on our Tuesday visit.

A Quiet Detour on the Jack Smith Trail

June 3, 2013

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I head to Mount Washington whenever I crave a good outdoor workout. The area’s hills and steps are a great natural substitute for a treadmill, and the cool architecture and city views keep things interesting. The Jack Smith urban trail (named after the beloved L.A. Times columnist who lived and strolled here) starts at the flight of stairs just above Marmion Way at Avenue 43. I thought I knew everything about this trail (it’s featured in my book, 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: Los Angeles), but a recent visit added a new layer of magic to it.

The Self-Realization Fellowship, a worldwide spiritual organization with temples throughout Los Angeles, opens the lush grounds of its headquarters to the public most days. The gates are about mid-way through the hike at the corner of San Rafael Avenue and Elyria Drive. Walk through them and you’ll soon find yourself surrounded by lotus pools, meandering paths, and about a thousand shades of green. There’s a big stone table near the rose garden that most writers will find hard to resist and benches placed discreetly throughout, making it easy to cocoon in your own space.

“Where ARE we?” my companion wondered as we wandered through gardens that gave way to more gardens along with stunning views of the city. L.A., of course, minus everything that’s stressful about it.

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Sunday in Santa Monica: Crepes, Spices, and a Giant Whale

May 27, 2013

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I have always been a little intimidated by Santa Monica. Getting there from just about anywhere in the city can shave years off one’s life — and finding a reasonable parking space within a mile of the ocean is often impossible. But on a recent Sunday, the kids and I were up early with a completely unscheduled day ahead of us, so I faced my fears and headed west with a few vague destinations in mind. The 10 freeway was nearly deserted before 10 AM, and we had our pick of parking places (street parking is free on Sunday). The next thing we knew, we were riding the sleek escalators of Santa Monica Place up to the food court and standing in front of a play area dominated by a 46-foot-tall humpback whale. This being Santa Monica, it was a whale made out of sustainably harvested deck wood perched over an “ocean floor” made of recycled rubber, and the kids couldn’t have been more enchanted. They played for an hour, then when it started getting too crowded for comfort, we picked up some crepes and smoothies and headed out to the food court deck and its impossibly scenic setting.

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Our next stop was the tiny Santa Monica Pier aquarium, which was also packed (Sunday afternoon at the beach was now in full swing). But Theo got to see some nurse sharks in an open tank and make a shark puppet out of a paper bag, so he was happy. We spent our last hour shopping at Penzeys Spices, where the clerk hung Jack’s I LOVE Santa Monica drawing in the window, and eating ice cream in the courtyard of the Santa Monica Library, which is also impossibly scenic and surprisingly quiet despite the presence of children.

I don’t know if we’ll go back again soon (too many other destinations on the bucket list), but the kids still talk about our spontaneous trip to Santa Monica and playing in the belly of the giant whale.

Pasadena’s Secret Garden

December 26, 2012

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I think I drove by Arlington Garden about ten thousand times before stopping to explore it. From busy Pasadena Avenue, it doesn’t appear as big as it actually is — I just assumed it was someone’s private garden, or a community garden that required a share purchase. But enter from Arlington Ave. between Pasadena and Orange Grove, and you immediately realize what a special place it is. Scents of lavender, eucalyptus and herbal fragrances are everywhere, and Adirondack chairs are scattered around with whimsical care. Its diverse pockets include a butterfly garden, succulent area, citrus grove, wildflower meadow, and lots and lots of drought-tolerant and endangered California plants. Once designated a construction staging area for the 710 freeway (which never made it this far), the CalTrans land was turned into a garden in 2005 with help from the city of Pasadena, Pasadena Water and Power, and a local couple who saw potential in the dirt and weeds.

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I am always too busy marveling at all the beauty to try out their special phone app, which lets you scan sign codes to identify plants and other garden features. Maybe next time. As much as I love the Huntington and Descanso Gardens, this is a homegrown place that makes you want to kick off your shoes and revel as if it were your own backyard. Sometimes I bring the kids, who love the labryinth created by Mayfield students, and sometimes I drop them at school and take a walk that always ends with a little R&R on one of those Adirondack chairs.

It’s Autumn in Ojai

November 25, 2012

The stress starts to disappear somewhere between the turnoff for the Fillmore Fish Hatchery and the third produce stand selling grapefruits the size of softballs. By the time the car has passed the oak-lined path that leads to the former home of Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti, it is a distant memory that won’t return until long after the sun fades to pink over the Topa Topa Mountains.

Ojai really is the anti-L.A. – a Shangri-La on the edge of the Los Padres National Forest with orange groves, horse ranches and a main street full of small businesses. We usually head up there in late winter or spring, when orange season is at its peak. This year, we veered from tradition and drove up the day after Thanksgiving. With all the golden orange and red foliage, it felt like we had driven into L.A.’s version of Vermont.

From Apollo to Endeavor: L.A.’s Rich Space History

November 18, 2012

There was no better time to be an Angeleno than the day the space shuttle Endeavour flew over the city. Whatever our neighborhood, job or family ties, we all shared equally in the thrill of watching Endeavour’s final flight over our homes, schools, offices and favorite landmarks. I think it’s impossible to truly recapture the joy of that day, but you can come pretty close by stopping by the California Science Center to see the 85-ton orbiter up close and horizontal. We went on a whim after school one day. It was more crowded than expected, but manageable and so cool to walk under Endeavour’s belly and see every ding and scratch it picked up in its amazing travels.

Here’s how a visit works: Timed tickets are required (free, but there’s a $2 per-ticket processing fee whether you get them online or on site). We sailed right in, but soon found ourselves surrounded by several after-school groups. You enter from the 2nd floor of the Science Center, walk through a brief but thorough exhibit on California’s space industry that includes a film about Endeavour’s history and a simulated shuttle ride ($5 a person), then you are given a purple chip and told to walk down a separate flight of stairs to enter the actual pavilion. For now, the shuttle is horizontal and housed in a temporary hangar, but the plan is to someday move it into a ready-for-takeoff position.

P.S. While you are in a cosmic frame of mind, consider visiting the Columbia Memorial Space Center in Downey. Built on the former NASA site that developed Apollo spacecraft, it is one of the last remaining vistages of a round-the-clock space hub that also oversaw assembly of the entire shuttle fleet after the Cold War. The complex closed in 1999, and it’s now a film studio (“Christmas with the Kranks”), medical center, and soon-to-be mall. The Columbia space center does make for a fine afternoon with the kids — interactive exhibits include a paper airplane-making station, rocket launcher, and design-your-own solar system. There is also some information on Downey’s role in space exploration; that may expand as preservationists and former employees voice their concerns that it is all disappearing with the demolition of so many buildings.

Mexican hot chocolate, purple walls, and thou

November 4, 2012

At first glance, Zona Rosa Caffe looks like just another storefront to grab a cup of joe before a show at the Pasadena Playhouse. But follow the narrow staircase up to the sun-dappled living room and you’ll find all the fixings for a leisurely couple of hours curled up with a good novel (there is no WiFi here, so quiet conversations tend to overrule laptops). Day of the Dead banners hover like laundered handkerchiefs above sofas and chairs draped with serapes. Paintings by local artists hang on the walls, and a community chessboard and other board games hint that lingering is encouraged. The coffee is good and strong, but those in the know opt for the out-of-this-world Mexican hot chocolate.

I love Zona Rosa for a quiet escape, but I’ve always wanted to check it out on Thursday nights, when food trucks line El Molino Ave. and there’s live music in the alley next door. (Through November…6 to 11 p.m.)