Life is a Highway 

Ultimate California Weekend Road Trips
Duane Wells 

When you need to get away but just don’t have the time or money to take a real vacation, there’s always a good ol’ fashioned road trip—below are the best weekend road trips for Southern Californians.

A Little Bit of Romance: Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara may be only a little over an hour outside Los Angeles, but it’s a world apart from trash-tastic, fast-paced Hollywood, and that makes it the ultimate quick weekend getaway for lovers or lovers-to-be. For a change of pace, a visit to the romantic, perfectly manicured beachside city that has earned the nickname “the American Riviera” may be all you need to turn your bad romance into a good one. Not only has the sleepy seaside town provided the bucolic backdrop for HBO’s critically-acclaimed film Cinema Verité as well as sentimental box office blockbusters like Sideways and It’s Complicated, it is also home to Hollywood celebs ranging from Oprah and Ellen to Rob Lowe and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Not bad recommendations, I’d say.

Recommended: Spend a day just steps away from the beach, wine tasting along Santa Barbara’s Urban Wine Trail right in the heart of downtown; book spa treatments at the Bacara Resort and Spa; and make a dinner reservation at the Olio Pizzeria for the ultimate romantic getaway practically right in your own backyard.

Let’s Go Outside: Catalina

Santa Catalina Island is one of those rare places that reminds you just how diverse and unique life in Southern California can be, particularly if you’re the outdoorsy type. Just 22 miles off the coast of Southern California, Catalina’s main town, Avalon, is about one square mile and just about as cut off from the hustle and bustle of city life as it gets in this part of world (if you discount camping, which I always do). I mean, it may be the only place in SoCal where there isn’t a traffic problem, because there are few cars on the island due to the fact that there’s a 14-year waiting list to even own one here. Talk about a world apart!

Recommended: Park your car in Downtown Long Beach, hop on the Catalina Express, book a hotel and a golf cart, and then spend the weekend cocktailing, hiking, biking, kayaking, relaxing with a massage at a spa or some combination thereof.

Fun in the Sun: Palm Springs

Palm Springs is the gay mecca of the desert. Enough said. Whether you visit for a big party weekend when the town is buzzing with tanned, gym-toned bodies or just cruise through on a random weekend for absolutely no reason at all, Palm Springs delivers the kind of magic you’ll only find in the heat of the desert.

Recommended: Load up the car, rent a house with friends for the weekend, stretch out by the pool and soak up the desert sun along with copious amounts of Belvedere. It’s the perfect recipe for a lazy, fun weekend. (And if you do venture out, have a drink at the Ace Hotel pool, pop into Trio for the out of this world mac ‘n cheese and a martini, check into Cheeky’s for the Bacon Flight with brunch or straggle into Sherman’s Deli for a fantastic post-hangover pastrami sandwich.)

In the Spirit: Ojai

Rustic and spiritual Ojai is a great out-of-the-way spot where you can get in touch with nature on a hike through the Los Padres National Forest, visit local farms like Friends Ranch and swoop up armloads of fresh produce, indulge in yoga at one of the local studios, visit a spa or grab your didgeridoo and make your own kind of music in a quiet corner. One main drag, not surprisingly called Ojai Avenue, runs through the center of the town, where you’ll find just about one of everything you need—one antiques store, one lovingly aged movie theater complete with timeworn marquee, one country store—you get the idea. It’s got small-town charm to spare, just 85 miles outside of Los Angeles.

Recommended: Sample the local fare at some of Ojai’s most popular haunts, like Azu, which has a truly superior tapas menu complemented by a fine wine selection, or Feast Bistro, where the root beer BBQ sauce on pizza or pork deserves an ovation. And book into the Emerald Iguana Inn or Blue Iguana Inn, both of which are lush, well-manicured treasures that make for excellent retreats.

Raise Your Glass: San Diego

When you want to party where no one knows your name, why not give a weekend in San Diego a whirl? Troll the big gay clubs and bars of the Hillcrest district in uptown, and make new friends and influence people any time of the year. Trust me. Party people love this city. Don’t be fooled by the uniforms—things aren’t nearly as buttoned up in San Diego as they might seem at first glance (especially not on Pride weekend). It’s the perfect road trip for those times when you want to mix it up away from your home turf (with or without your friends).

Recommended: Counter the party scene with dinner in picturesque La Jolla, pop across the border to Tijuana for an adventure if you dare, visit the San Diego Zoo (it really is worth it), take it all off and go commando at Black’s Beach or test your luck with a stroll through Balboa Park if fireworks are more your thing.

Walkin’ On Sunshine: Laguna Beach

Though not as gay as it once was, Laguna Beach is still a gay-friendly, gay-welcoming oasis in the O.C. defined by pristine beaches, an artistic community, quaint shops, good restaurants and a slew of grand resorts side by side with cozy oceanfront B&Bs and the like. And it’s less than an hour away from Los Angeles on a good day, making it a great meeting point for a romantic rendezvous.

Recommended: After a little fun in the sun and some shopping, try taking a hike through the Laguna Beach hiking trails for some of the best beach views in Southern California.

Shut Up and Drive: Napa Valley

What could be more fun than a weekend of wine tasting—if of course you’re a oenophile? Picturesque views, beautifully landscaped wineries and a collection of some of the most buzzed-about restaurants in Northern California (belonging to some of the most well-known chefs in America) make Napa Valley a decadently fun road trip. Just be sure to park the car before the fun begins.

Recommended: Hire a limo or some other form of chauffeured transport so that you can really kick your revelry into high gear at all those wonderful wineries that are lined up neatly side by side in the heart of the valley.

Easy Does It: Sonoma

Sonoma County is a vision of what life should be like every day. There’s an easygoing earthy sensibility to the place that feels more European than Californian, which is why it makes for such an excellent road trip. Cultured without being stuffy and relaxed without being coarse, Sonoma County is charm incarnate, and the entire vibe of the city is invitingly country chic. It’s the kind of place where people say, ‘Hello—how are you?’ and genuinely care how you respond. It’s shocking, I know, especially when you consider that the town is scarcely an hour outside of San Francisco. That said, If you love folksy charm, outstanding food and great wine—and you want to indulge yourself in all three—this would be the getaway for you.

Recommended: Go all out and rent a dream house with friends for the weekend through Beautiful Places. For the ultimate fantasy, pitch up at the The Girl and the Fig brasserie for a meal, sample the swine-laden menu of Bovolo in Healdsburg, treat yourself to a meal at Chef Duskie Estes Zazu roadhouse restaurant and go wine tasting everywhere you can.

Leave Your Heart: San Francisco

If Palm Springs is the gay mecca of the desert, San Francisco is quite simply the gay mecca—and it has been for decades. No news flash there. San Francisco is a world-class city in every category, a fact that is evidenced by everything from the city’s devoted foodie culture to its diverse nightlife scene and endless cultural options. Perhaps no other city in California offers what San Francisco serves up in one gorgeously fog-wrapped package, which is why it may well be the ultimate road trip—it’s a chameleon-like destination that can be whatever you want or need it to be.

Recommended: Do it all, but do book a room with a view and treat yourself to at least one amazing dinner. A personal favorite of mine is The Slanted Door in the Ferry Building just across The Embarcadero, but I’ve been equally enchanted by a number of authentically delicious eateries in Chinatown.


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