I’m pedaling a vintage-looking beach cruiser bicycle with fat tires under the vivid Southern California sun. The lyrics of “America the Beautiful” are buzzing in my head … Oh beautiful for spacious skies … On my right, the sands of Huntington Beach spread out until they reach the glistening Pacific Ocean. On my left, the snow-packed Saddleback Mountains hover in the distance. And out in front of me, a seemingly endless ribbon of flat concrete trail stretching to the horizon toward Mexico. This is a pretty amazing piece of real estate.
In exploring the beautiful “sea to shining sea” that is America, a great place to start your odyssey would be Southern California, a glorious bookend of our nation’s scenic bounty. There, a trove of seaside and inland attractions await you; all you have to do is go west, young reader!
Start your SoCal experience 35 miles south of downtown Los Angeles in the buzzing seaside community of Huntington Beach (Time Magazine recently named it “Best Beach in America”), affectionately known as “Surf City USA,” a town which seamlessly blends mid-20th century surfing nostalgia with 21st-century hipsterism. The Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort and Spa literally bridges land and sea with a walking bridge over the fabled Pacific Coast Highway to the seemingly neverending beach, and from there a bevy of activities are at your disposal: bike and surfboard rentals and even complete sunset beach bonfire experiences with supplies to make s’mores. Walk along the iconic Huntington Beach Pier that juts a third of a mile into the ocean or amble through the Pacific City indoor/outdoor mall, an uber-cool complex of unique shops, first-to-market restaurants, and unique food stalls.
About an hour south of Huntington Beach, “everything is awesome” at the Legoland California Resort with its adjoining Sea Life Aquarium, Legoland Water Park, and the 250 kid-themed rooms of the Legoland Hotel. A paradise for families, release your inner-Lego Batman on more than 60 rides, shows, and attractions. Characters from the recent hit Lego movies are ubiquitous as well as an entire Lego Star Wars complex and Miniland USA where iconic U.S. Cities (New York, Sand Francisco, Las Vegas, Washington, D.C.) are built to scale with millions of Lego blocks.
Then 20 miles inland from Huntington Beach, smack dab in the middle of Anaheim, the original vision of the Magic Kingdom Walt Disney himself dreamed of lives on at The Disneyland Resort. Here two distinct theme parks – Disneyland (the original Disney theme park) and Disney California Adventure Park cover a large piece of real estate in a bustling metropolis. Stay at one of the three hotels near the Downtown Disney District, which boasts dining, entertainment, and shopping experiences. The parks are brimming with energy and, compared to the Orlando’s Disney World, are extremely manageable to get around. Download the extremely helpful app and maximize your day. Also just announced: coming in 2019, a Star Wars-themed land that will let you pilot your own Millennium Falcon.
Fifty miles north of Huntington Beach, another idyllic beach town, Santa Monica, offers different energy but just as much jaw-dropping beauty. Punctuated by the 100+ year-old Santa Monica Pier and its iconic neon-lit Ferris wheel, the town mixes a laidback beachy atmosphere with tony elegance. The Fairmont Miramar Hotel & Bungalows towering atop a majestic bluff overlooking the Pacific acts as an oasis in the city, with service and manicured grounds that will make you feel like a Hollywood A-lister. Or, if you prefer to walk among the SoCal locals, wander over a few blocks to the scenic Third Street Promenade where three continuous pedestrian-only blocks allow for open-air shopping, eating, and world-class people-watching.
Speaking of fascinating people-watching, Hollywood and movie magic are just a few miles away from Santa Monica. A quick ride over to Burbank brings you to Warner Bros. Studio, where you can take a guided tour around the 110-acre lot where hundreds of the movies and TV shows from Friends to The Matrix to Batman have all come to life. Sets, props, and costumes bring these surreal parts of our lives into reality. Pretend to sip espressos on the “Central Perk” sofa from Friends or peek into the coffee shop where Emma Stone served coffee in the “almost” Best Picture, La La Land.
Just beyond the Hollywood Hills lies Universal Studios Hollywood, the sprawling movie and television-based theme park complex—both an actual working movie studio and a full-throttle theme park with rides and mini-theme areas centered around classic movies and TV shows like Despicable Me, Transfomers, Jurassic Park and even The Simpsons. The sets and rides are remarkably larger-than-life, especially at “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter,” where you can actually cast spells (wands sold separately). Whatever you do, don’t miss the studio tour, a hybrid ride/tour which covers 13 acres of behind-the-scenes of movie-making, including a mechanical replica of the mythical shark in Jaws, and the Fast and Furious where you are immersed in an action-movie car chase with special effects and 360-degree 3D-HD realism. Download the app for maximum park efficiency.
As a finale to the SoCal journey, I enlist the expertise of L.A. Bikes and Hikes for a walking tour of the Hollywood Hills, ending at the Griffith Observatory–yet another key setting in La La Land. At the top of the mountain, you can take in the fabled Hollywood sign, a birds-eye view of Downtown L.A. as well as the entire sprawling L.A. Valley basin just as the sun descends below the horizon over the vast Pacific ocean. “America the Beautiful” starts playing in my head again … oh beautiful for spacious skies … this is what the song is all about.
Know Before You Go
You think New Orleans traffic is bad? Traveling in SoCal is manageable, but have a plan! Let’s start with the airports: if you start south of the city at Huntington Beach, fly into John Wayne Orange County Airport (SNA). North of the city or downtown area, Los Angeles World Airports (LAX) is for you. Take time to study the map before booking!
The Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort and Spa is a quintessential SoCal resort with Spanish-style architecture and sunset views. Get a peaceful easy feeling at the world-class Pacific Waters Spa, dine in fantastic restaurants including Watertable and Pete’s Sunset Grille, and rent surf boards or bikes at Toes of the Noes.
When staying in Santa Monica, check into the Fairmont Miramar Hotel & Bungalows, a grand dame property perched atop the jaw-dropping bluffs in Santa Monica. The property, while sitting in prime position of the bustle of Santa Monica, feels like a Hollywood Hideaway on your own private five acres on one of the most gorgeous pieces of real estate in the world. Marvel at the hotel’s magnificent 80-foot-tall Moreton Bay fig tree fig planted in 1879, and dine at the aptly named and delicious Fig restaurant.
LA Bikes and Hikes offers biking and hiking tours of Hollywood.