Wine and old west: Temecula
So you didn't have the money to fly to Provence this summer and don't have the time for a trip up to the Napa Valley. No problem: drive an hour north, and you can almost believe you're in either place. The microclimate of the Temecula valley makes it California's southernmost wine-growing region, supporting 18 wineries within a 10-minute drive of each other. And you don't have to be an oenophile (or even know what one is) to appreciate it all.
Head north on I-15 for about an hour; not far past the Riverside county line, you'll reach Temecula. Take the Rancho California Road exit and go east four miles. Most of the wineries are on or just off of Rancho California Road; it's just a matter of picking one and turning in. All the wineries offer tastings for a reasonable price, which means you can taste a lot of wine (and get more than a little buzzed) for not very much money. (Warning: unless you're planning to spit, bring a designated driver.) To give you a feel for what goes into growing, harvesting, and fermenting grapes, most of the wineries offer tours of their behind-the-scenes winemaking operations. And, of course, all will be happy to sell you a bottle of their wine.
Wilson Creek Winery & Vineyard (35960 Rancho California Road) has a ritzy tasting bar where you can get five tastings (mini-glasses of wine, pretty much the standard everywhere) for $5. Calloway Vineyard & Winery (32720 Rancho California Road) sits atop a hill among the vines and is worth stopping by just for the view. The winery shop has 20 different types of corkscrews in addition to logo souvenirs of varying tackiness, and you can eat lunch and brunch overlooking the vines at Allie's at Calloway.
Some of the wineries are geared mainly toward well-heeled gourmands with money to burn, so if rubbing elbows with graying yuppies isn't your idea of a good time, try one of the smaller wineries, like Hart Winery (41300 Avenida Biona) or Keyways Vineyard & Winery (37338 DePortola Road), where you feel more like you're in the winemaker's home instead of a touristified mall. Then again, if you want to spring for the whole package, on weekends you can take The GrapeLine ($34 per person; call 1-888-8-WINERY for reservations), a comfy bus that will shuttle you from winery to winery until you're ready for the vomitorium.
When all the wineries start to look alike, drive east on Rancho California Road to the Lake Skinner Recreation Area (37701 Warren Road, $2/person day use), a 6,000-acre lake popular with fishermen and RVers. Sit by the lake in the cool breeze and drink that bottle of wine you bought.
And since you drove all the way up here, don't leave without stopping by Old Town Temecula, a six-block stretch of Front Street (south of Rancho California Road), which is the oldest part of Temecula. Some of the buildings are original (stand at the intersection of Front Street and Main Street and you'll see several historic buildings), but most are just a tourist façade made up like an Old West town. In case you're not in the Old West mood, the antique-style streetlights are all fitted with speakers playing country music (though exactly how Garth Brooks relates to 1890s California may elude you). If you like to shop, this is the place-there are dozens of shops with everything from pink flamingoes to native Indian blankets, from souvenir t-shirts to gold jewelry.
Not all is touristy kitsch, though. If you need a cigar to go with your wine, stop by the aromatic Olde Towne Smoke Shoppe (28636 Front St.) and pick something out of their spacious humidor. They also carry a large array of cool lighters, cigar cutters and pipes. The Temecula Olive Oil Company (28653 Front St.) has a selection of fancy oils pressed from California olives. And The Shire (28656 Front St.) has brightly colored Moroccan wares, including tea sets and mirrors. (You can also pet Hank, the house pug.)
For something to eat, head to the Swing Inn Café (28676 Front St.), which will probably be packed with locals who come for the old-fashioned steak-and-potatoes diner fare. (If the locals eat there, you know it's the place to go.) The selection of confections at The Chocolate Florist (28656 Front St.) will keep you feeling French, but try the wonderfully addictive-and fully American-chocolate-dipped potato chips. And don't forget to peek in the cabinet of erotic-themed chocolates. The strong coffee at the Calico Coffee Co (28601F Front St.) will sober you up; sit on the patio and watch the tourists go by while the rest of your party is buying knick-knacks.
If the shops on Front Street aren't authentic enough for you, head around the corner to the small but informative Temecula Valley Museum (28314 Mercedes St., $2 donation), which details the history of the region back to the first indigenous settlements.
For a scenic detour on your way home, take Highway 79 south to the Pechanga Parkway, which winds south (make sure you're sobered up from all the wine tasting) down a wooded canyon. After about 10 miles, you'll hit Highway 76; go west through picturesque orange groves and after another 10 miles you'll meet up with I-15. This detour has the added benefit of taking you past both the Pechanga Resort and Casino (Pechanga Parkway, 1.5 miles south of 79S) and the Pala Casino Resort & Spa (11154 Highway 76), just in case you need an extra vice to go with your alcohol.
A drive in the mountains: Julian
A seasoned day-tripper will likely live by the old cliché that says it's not so much the destination that makes an enjoyable trip, but rather the route you take to get there. After all, the primary purpose of a day trip is simply to get out of town. Destination? You already accomplished your goal when you passed the city limits. Sometimes it's nice just to enjoy the ride.
Sure, for a nice drive you could head up Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 101)-that is, if you want to crawl along in traffic, stopping every few yards to yield for folding-chair-carrying beachgoers crossing the road. No, for a unobstructed route, head up toward the mountains and the cool, wooded valleys and winding roads around the Cleveland National Forest. If you have a convertible, this is your trip. Your destination""if you must have one-is an elevation of 4,000 feet and the mountain town of Julian.
Head east on I-8 past Alpine to the Highway 79/Descanso exit. Go north on 79 and you'll soon be winding through Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. California 79 is a driver's delight, with nary a beachgoer to be seen. (You might have to stop for a horse or two crossing the road, though.) Pine trees, oaks and cottonwoods line the road and the vistas are gorgeous. (Suggested driving music: Aaron Copeland.)
Stop for a hike at one of the many trails that branch off of 79; many start at the Paso Picacho Campground. For full info, stop at the ranger station in Cuyamaca (12551 Highway 79). After about 15 miles you'll come to Cuyamaca Reservoir, a local fishing mecca. Not that you must fish, of course. have packed a picnic breakfast to eat along the shore.
You'll pull into Julian just about lunchtime. This former mining town was borne in a 1869 gold rush and has since become a favored getaway for folks around the region. Yes, there will be other day-trippers walking Julian's main street, but though the town caters to sightseers and shoppers, it hasn't taken on the artificial flavor of a tourist town. The feel is friendly and casual, not cheap and packaged. Stop by the Miner's Diner (2134 Main St.), elbow yourself a spot at the crowed old-fashioned soda counter, and order a sarsaparilla from the soda fountain. At the Julian Cafe and Bakery (2112 Main St.), you don't even have to walk inside-you can buy a caramel apple through a window that opens onto the sidewalk.
Oh, and did we mention that Julian is the center of an apple-growing area, and is known for its apples? At least a dozen places in town-far too many to name-claim to make the "best in Julian" apple pie, along with myriad other pie varieties. (David Lynch aficionados will think they've died and gone to Twin Peaks heaven.)
It's worth dropping by Quinn Knives (2116 Main St. #11) to see the jaw-dropping selection of, well, knives of every imaginable sort. Well worth wandering is the Old Julian Book House (2230 Main St.), which lives up to its name-it's an old house crammed wall to wall with used and rare volumes. You can even tour the Eagle and High Peak Mines (at the north end of C Street) to get a feel for what gold mining was like. Kitsch? Perhaps, but remember, it's always nice and cool underground.
When you get back on the road, head west on Highway 78, winding through more scenic mountains. As you approach Ramona, the trees thin out and you'll be in a place where horses are more common than dogs as family pets. In Ramona, take Highway 67 south back to I-8, passing Lakeside and Santee and completing your loop.
Swallows and such: San Juan Capistrano
Going north on I-5 is not the most pleasant of drives, (though the stretch through Camp Pendleton is nice), but it's worth a day trip in order to see one of the most historic places in Southern California. About 10 miles past Pendleton you'll reach the SR-74/Ortega Highway exit. Exit and go west two blocks, and you're at Mission San Juan Capistrano (Ortega Highway and Camino Capistrano, $6). The Catholic mission was founded in 1776, seven years after Mission San Diego and just a few years before the first housing developments went up in Orange County. Just kidding!
San Juan Capistrano was the seventh mission in the California chain and quickly grew into a thriving small city unto itself, supporting farming, winemaking, iron smelting, soap making and grain milling operations. Many artifacts from that era have been preserved in a series of exhibits around the mission.
It's a tranquil spot to wander or sit among the colorful flowers that fill the grounds. You'll find fountains, a 225-year-old chapel, old graves and archaeological digs. You can watch preservationists working on the Great Stone Church, a marvelous building that took nine years to build and was the biggest structure in California when dedicated in 1806. A massive earthquake destroyed most of the church just six years later, and the mission is working to preserve what survived. The group World Monuments Watch has placed the Great Stone Church on its list of "100 Most Endangered Sites."
After you're done at the mission, a good way to see historic San Juan Capistrano is to take the walking tour through the 250-year-old town. It's self-guided and free-maps are available at the kiosk outside the mission, and the tour isn't nearly as long as it looks from the map.
Make sure you see the Los Rios historic district, one of San Juan's first neighborhoods that still has many late-1800s-era houses, some which have been turned into restaurants or galleries. On the quiet, shaded street you can actually forget you're in Orange County. Stop at The Tea House on Los Rios (31731 Los Rios St.) for a grand old English-style afternoon tea. Or if your tastes are not so refined, Pedro's Tacos (3172 Camino Capistrano), right across from the mission, sells 99-cent tacos.
Before heading back home, drive three miles down Del Obispo Street to the seaside town of Dana Point. Stop at Doheny State Beach (25300 Dana Point Harbor Drive), where you can take a dip in the ocean, pick through tide pools, play volleyball or cook out. Or stop by the Ocean Institute (24200 Dana Point Harbor Drive), an interactive learning center focusing on ocean science and maritime history. After you've soaked up enough ocean, take Route 1 through the towns of Capistrano Beach and San Clemente back to I-15.
Border jumping: Playas de Rosarito
Finally, if you're day-tripping around the region, it would be a shame not to head south into Mexico. Hey, Mexico is cheaper, less crowed and just as beautiful. After you cross the border at San Ysidro, follow the signs for Rosarito and get on SD1. This road will cost you about $2.25 both ways, but the toll is well worth it; the tarmac is free of potholes (a rarity south of the border) and hugs the coastline most of the way-Mexico's version of the PCH, only minus the stoplights.
You'll pass Playas de Tijuana, and it's only about 10 miles to the Rosarito exit. This will put you on Blvd. Juarez, Rosarito's main drag. Drive through the center of town, stopping at the open-air market Apsia (centered around Calle Emiliano Zapata), which has a dizzying array of furniture, crafts and food.
Continue south on Blvd. Juarez, and you'll come to the beach area. Find a parking spot and stroll the boulevard. There are plenty of places to eat, shop and drink. Cuban cigars, pottery, cheap beer, carnitas-you name it, you can find it. If you're hungry, the restaurant El Nido (Blvd. Juarez 67) is like a tropical paradise inside, with bird cages, hanging plants and waterfalls. Or lounge on the beach, where you can rent a horse or an ATV to ride around in the sand. If possible, make this trip during the week-Rosarito's Blvd. Juarez tends to be a little too crowded with drunken American college kids on the weekend. (Hey, if you wanted that, you could have just gone to PB, right?)
After you've had your fill of the beach, go south on Blvd. Juarez/Route 1, where just outside of Rosarito is a two-mile stretch of artisan shops filled with pottery, furniture, sculpture, stoneware, curios, bulk tile and just about anything you would ever need to furnish a house. A little farther south is Foxploration ($12 admission), the movie park at Fox Studios Baja. Yes, that's the place where they filmed Titanic, and movie lovers can get their fix seeing the humongous tank and blue screen.
The terminus of your trip can be the Hotel Calafia (KM 35.5 on Route 1), an old mission turned into a hotel-nightclub-restaurant-shopping area. It's all terraced into the side of a cliff overlooking the ocean and is a perfect place to stop for a margarita, gaze out at the waves and decide if you really want to go back home.