Hidden Gems in Southern California

Many tourists flock to well-known destinations in Southern California like San Diego, Disneyland, Los Angeles, and Santa Barbara. These are all great places to visit, but if you’re looking for somewhere different that’s a bit off the radar, check out the following incredible destinations:

The Channell Islands

My husband and I have lived in California most our lives, but somehow missed these spectacular islands that are classified as one of the U.S. National Parks. After seeing some stunning photos on the Internet, we took a short boat ride to Anacapa Island from Oxnard as part of a weekend anniversary trip.

If you decide to go, be prepared and bring supplies. This trip is for adventurous people in good physical shape. You will need to climb 157 stairs to the top of this rugged little island where there is no food, services, water, or flushing toilets. Now, I HATE outhouses, but I’m telling you – the views of the rocky shoreline, massive cliffs, and jagged peaks were worth it. You can easily hike around the rim of the island in just hours with Inspiration Point a grand reward for your efforts.

We visited in June when bursts of bright wildflowers covered the small island and thousands of adorable baby sea gulls were to be found around every corner. Just beware of their protective mamas who will swoop at your head if you get too close.

We returned a couple of years later and visited the larger Santa Cruz Island for an exciting kayak tour of the historic sea caves. On the boat ride there we saw a whale and two large schools of dolphins. The waters can be rough at certain points, but the caves were amazing. This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Some people consider these islands desolate, but if you have an adventurous spirit and love nature, the Channell Islands are considered the Galápagos of North America.

The Huntington Botanical Gardens

This is yet another stunning place that we failed to visit for decades. Located in Pasadena, the magnificent estate is home to more than a dozen spectacular gardens spread across 120 acres. Hard to say which garden is the most dazzling, but the Japanese Garden, the Rose Garden, and the California Garden are a few of my favorites.

We didn’t even get a chance to check out the art galleries. The Huntington Art Gallery, houses 18th- and 19th-century British paintings, sculptures, and decorative arts, and includes the famous Blue Boy. And to my shame as a writer, we did not visit The Huntington Library itself, one of the largest and most complete research libraries in the United States.

Next time.

Ventura County Wine Trail

Napa may get all the attention as wine country in California, but my husband and I enjoyed sipping our way through the coastal rolling hills near the seaside town of Ventura. We visited two of the nearly 20 wineries and tasting rooms.

You can book one of the many wine tours offered. However, we decided to get a map and explore on our own. Beginning in Ventura at the junction of Highway 1 and Highway 101, we drove up Highway 33 toward Ojai.

Surprises await on this somewhat lonely but charming road – from the “USA’s Smallest Post Office” to the last place anyone saw James Dean alive. Our favorite find was Old Creek Winery which felt like returning to a simpler place and time where friendly folk and dogs welcomed us. We enjoyed our purchased bottle of wine and a picnic outside on tables enjoying the Americana view.

By the way, both Ojai and Ventura are worthwhile stops with charming inns, luxurious spas, and bed & breakfasts along with a wide array of outdoor activities. In the summer time, the Ventura Harbor Village is a hubbub of activity with festivals and live music on the weekends.

Laguna Beach

This charming beach town is located halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego. With over 20 different scenic coves, this beach area offers everything from surfing, paddle-boarding, snorkeling, kayaking, and whale watching excursions.

Just beware, the surf can be rough in places. As a teenager, I decided to body surf despite the churning waters and wiped out on a massive wave (think Beach Boys’ song: Heheheheheheee wipe oooout!). Actually, I blame the Beach Boys for this entire mishap since they went and romanticized this whole surfer chick thing with songs I grew up on like Surfer Girl. SO their fault.

However, the scenery can’t be beat. Add ultra-chic restaurants and shops and one-of-a-kind art galleries and you get the picture. There’s even a Baby Boomer Club with Saturday Night dances. Every summer, they host the Laguna Woodstock where baby boomers party like its 1969.

Heisler Park is a good place to start, located just north of the main beach, with an easy half-mile stroll along a paved path with spectacular views of the coastline and the soothing sound of crashing waves. You can take one of the paths to the beaches and tide pools. Benches, picnic tables, and barbecues abound where you can enjoy the magnificent views. Hubby and I had a picnic on one of the grass areas and it was perfect!

Treasure Island Park is another great spot, located on the grounds of the five-star Montage Laguna Beach, where the truly rich stay. Exquisitely landscaped, several lookout benches line the easy-to-walk winding path. Stairways and ramps lead you down to the beach, where you can walk through a beautiful rock archway during low tide, find a spot in the sand for sunbathing, and a large tide pool. In addition, there is plenty of grass areas for a picnic. I’d suggest bringing some wine and cheese to catch a romantic sunset.

Big Bear Lake

I live in the desert, so nearby Big Bear is a great mountain escape with its gorgeous lake and pristine forests. Boating, fishing, and hiking are just some of the activities in this small, laid-back village.

Last summer, my husband and I cycled around the lake, enjoyed a picnic, zipped down an alpine slide, drove go-karts with speeds up to 30 m.p.h., and took a ride on the scenic sky chair for terrific views. After watching people take the chair lifts to mountain bike down the trails, we put this on our to-do list for next time.

For the adventurous at heart, parasailing and ziplining are also available.

El Matador Beach

Looking for a spectacular shoreline with white sands, towering cliffs, crashing waves, and craggy rock formations in a semi-hidden location?

Look no further than El Matador, located north of Malibu off the winding Pacific Coast Highway. It’s easy to miss the small, brown sign pointing toward the small parking lot at the trail-head, so watch carefully between Broad Beach and Decker Canyon Roads. Once you find it, be prepared to hike down a 150-foot bluff with the help of some steep stairs.

Not for small children or those who are physically challenged, but if you can make it down the steps you’ll be treated with breathtaking views. The locals know about this beach and you may see some photo shoots taking place – we did!

There is blissfully little to do on this small but glorious stretch of beach, so bring a picnic lunch or some wine and find a hidden nook to enjoy an incredibly romantic setting.

Redondo Beach

By now, you’ve probably noticed that my husband and I are beach bums. We found this beach on accident while looking for a nearby place to stay the night before flying out of LAX the next morning.

The Redondo Pier is a landmark with panoramic ocean views and water activities that include harbor cruises, seasonal whale watching, kayaks, paddleboards, and pedal boats. Truth be known, we didn’t try any of these out, but we loved the views from Tony’s on the Pier where we enjoyed Happy Hour!

The pier is also home to a 16-foot great white shark affectionately known as Georgette, on display in a large tank at Shark Attack on the Pier. If you have grandchildren with you or are young at heart, you may enjoy the semi-submersible yellow submarine (darn, now I’ve got the Beatles song stuck in my head) for underwater viewing of the local sea life.

Sure beats staying at an airport hotel if you’re flying to or from Los Angeles.

Catalina Island

This island is more well-known than some of my previous recommendations, but a sentimental favorite. My husband and I spent our honeymoon there 40 years ago and have returned several times. This is a small, quaint island, with no stoplights or fast food restaurants. A typical traffic jam involves two golf carts and a bicycle built for two.

On our honeymoon, we blissfully rode bikes around Avalon, went horseback riding, toured the famous casino, and sunbathed on the small beach. We also took a bus to Two Harbors, the only other village on Catalina Island. Snorkeling, parasailing, fishing, glass bottom boat rides, paddleboarding, Segway tours, golfing, and hiking are other popular activities.

Decades later, we sailed our boat to the island from Long Beach – which turned out to be one wild ride. My husband and grown children returned again for our open-water dives to become scuba-certified amid the famous kelp forests surrounded by the bright orange Garibaldi fish. Next time we visit, I want to try the new zip-line that’s 600 feet above sea level with one run that is 1,100 feet long with speeds up to 30 m.p.h. Wheee!

Taipei Taiwan Travel Guide for First Timers

If you are planning a trip to Taiwan for the first time, there are several areas worth visiting to make the most of your trip. While there are multiple beautiful, historic areas, the following are my personal favorites for Taipei travel. Please feel free to use this as a sort of personal Taipei travel guide when planning your Taipei vacation.

Taipei 101

We start our Taipei tour at Taipei 101. This is a skyscraper located in the Xinyi District. In 2004, it was listed as the world’s tallest building at 1,671 feet. It held that title for 6 years until the Burj Khalifa in Dubai eclipsed Taipei 101 in 2010. The tower boasts 101 stories and features an outdoor observation deck on the 91st floor like the Empire State Building in New York City where you can see beautiful views of the surrounding areas.

The bottom five floors of Taipei 101 feature a luxury shopping mall with upscale shops such as Burberry and Louis Vuitton. On the 88th floor indoor observatory, you can see the 730-ton mass damper, basically a giant ball that acts like a pendulum to counteract the buildings sway during high winds. Without this damper, people on high floors can actually suffer from motion sickness from the constant swaying of the building! Taipei 101 is a city icon that is visible for miles across the city. Every New Year’s, Taipei 101 attracts tens of thousands of visitors to see its spectacular fireworks display.

Ximending Shopping

If you are into shopping, you can’t go wrong with Ximending. This is the shopping area in the Wanhua district of Taipei and is considered to be the fashion capital of Taiwan. On weekends, Ximending streets are closed to traffic and becomes a pedestrian shopping mall. The area is popular with street performers of all types and, because it is a hotspot, you can catch celebrities hosting small outdoor concerts, album launches, and other events.

Ximending is also famous for its “Theater Street” where there is a concentration of several movie along Wuchang Street. For history buffs, though, the most famous theater in the district is the Red House Theater which was built in 1908 during Japanese occupation and is still an operational theater with regular performances.

Yangmingshan National Park

If beautiful sights are what you look forward to when travelling, then I can’t recommend Yangmingshan enough. It is the largest natural park in Taipei. Yangmingshan is great for hiking and has numerous trails that can last an entire day or just a couple of hours. Popular trails include Seven Stars Peak which will take you to the highest peak in Taipei at 1120 meters (3600 feet) or see the stunning waterfall of the Juansi Waterfall Trail.

Each February through March, Yangmingshan is the site of the Yangmingshan Flower Festival when several varieties of flowers such as azaleas, camellias, and especially cherry blossoms reach their peak bloom. Every evening of the festival, cherry blossom trees are illuminated for a particularly romantic sight. Visitors can also have lunch and dinner at one of many restaurants such as The Top or Grass Mountain Chateau for spectacular vistas of Taipei below.

Between the beauty of the cherry blossoms and the views of the city, Yangmingshan is a well-known romantic spot for lovers all over Taipei. From April to May, when calla lilies reach full bloom, you can pick your own lily flowers for only a few dollars at one of several flower farms.

Lastly, don’t miss out on Yangming Shuwu, also known as Yangming Villa, the beautiful summer retreat of the late president Chiang Kai-shek. Yangming Villa house and gardens are maintained as they were when occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Chiang. The house is a two-story traditional Chinese home, with reception rooms and offices on the first floor and the Chiang’s personal residence on the second floor where their paintings and personal photographs are still displayed. The gardens are especially beautiful in the Spring when the flowers are in bloom. As a bit of trivia, it’s been noted that several bushes are planted in bunches of five – to symbolize the “5-star” rank of General Chiang.

National Palace Museum

Next, we find ourselves at the National Palace Museum which opened in 1965. If you love history, this is the place to be! National Palace Museum has a humongous collection of 700,000 permanent exhibits of Chinese Imperial history and artwork that spans over 2000 years plus prehistoric Chinese artifacts and artwork that dates to the Neolithic era, or better known as the “Stone Age”.

The most popular item in its collection is the Jadeite Cabbage. Carved during the 19th century, it is a piece of jadeite that has been shaped to resemble a head of Chinese cabbage and has a locust and a grasshopper camouflaged in its leaves. Legend says the sculpture is a metaphor for female fertility, with the white cabbage stalk representing purity, the green leaves of the cabbage representing fertility, and the insects representing children.

Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall

Another historically significant landmark on our trek to learn about the history of Taiwan is the Chiang Kia-shek Memorial Hall. This is a national monument that was built in honor of former Republic of China President Chiang Kia-shek. The memorial marks the geographic and cultural center of Taipei. It is the most visited attraction by foreign tourists. The pagoda style memorial hall has a presidential library and museum on the ground level.

The main hall features a large, seated statue of Chiang Kai-shek, much like the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. The memorial hall and its surrounding Liberty Square plaza encompasses 60 acres and includes many ponds and garden spaces. The plaza also houses two of Taipei’s performance art buildings, the National Theater and the National Concert Hall.

Beitou Hot Springs and Public Library

My favorite place to visit while in Taiwan is an area called Beitou. Beitou is a mountainous district north of Taipei City and is most known for its hot springs and its magnificent public library. The mineral waters from the many natural geothermal vents in Beitou are famous for their healing and therapeutic properties. An entire industry of hot springs bathhouses and hotels have sprung up in Beitou offering aroma therapy, massages, and hydrotherapy. There are a lot of places where tourists can soak their feet in the hot springs stream. Be sure to visit the Hot Springs Museum. When it was built in 1913, it was the largest public bathhouse in Asia at that time. Today, the museum offers a glimpse at its bathhouse facilities and Beitou’s history.

Next, visit the Beitou public library. Its wooden structure that fits seamlessly into its Beitou Park setting. Through use of eco-friendly features and design, the library is Taiwan’s first “green” building. The library opened in 2006 and was built to reduce the usage of water and electricity. To do this, architects used large windows to allowing in natural light and a solar panel roof to provide the electricity needed for operation. Also, the library collects rain water to be stored and used to flush its toilets.

Tamsui Fisherman’s Wharf

Our final stopping point is Tamsui. Tamsui is located on the western tip of Taipei and our favorite place was the Fisherman’s Wharf. We learned that not only do the restaurants that dot the Fisherman’s Wharf boardwalk provide the freshest seafood available, it also provides breathtaking sunset views. Fisherman’s Wharf still functions as a harbor for local fishermen and they proudly provide harbor for 150 vessels! Our favorite walk is across the “Lover’s Bridge” pedestrian bridge, named as such because it opened on Valentine’s Day 2003.

Its architecture resembles a sailing ship’s masts. It was about a 3-minute walk across the bridge, which at sunset is magnificent. Lover’s Bridge is also a great place to catch the yearly fireworks show and concert that the city hosts each year to celebrate Chinese Valentine’s Day (which occurs in August and not February 14th). Another way to experience Tamsui is to take a ferry from the Tamsui Ferry Pier and disembark at the Fisherman’s Wharf. The ferry is a cheap way to see terrific views of the Tamsui waterfront. A one-way fare costs only $2 USD and takes only about 15 minutes.