Road trips in the Los Angeles area definitely call for at least one canyon drive. For me, the perfectly banked curves, the shadow and light, the rush of excitement as you catch your first glimpse of the Pacific from high above, feels almost like coming home.
I lived in Southern California for thirteen years. Driving this time with Mr. H. by my side, I wanted to rediscover my favorite spots.
Of course, I love all the obvious things about LA – the beaches, the weather – but my absolute favorite parts are the canyons. Topanga, in particular.
LA’s tony westside and famous beaches are connected to the San Fernando Valley via a series of curvy, mountainous roads. Each has its own unique personality.
Coldwater connects to the mansions of Beverly Hills, Laurel was once an epicenter for sixties-era folk rock, Malibu Canyon is steep and dramatic.
Topanga Canyon is a hippie hangout with a shady past — as well as amazing hideaways and hidden treasures.
There’s The Inn of the Seventh Ray, a romantic restaurant with white tablecloths set outside next to waterfalls and ancient sycamore trees. There’s an outdoor theater specializing in Shakespeare. There’s a blues festival, a banjo festival and a strawberry festival.
One of our first stops in LA was Jalen Jalen, a Topanga-based import company set into the canyon wall, next to Owl Falls, a three-story, spring-fed waterfall.
Brian Gibson, owner of Jalan Jalan, personally selects every item in the store and on the grounds, and the site draws designers, collectors and architects as well as casual shoppers.
Many of the large Balinese stone carvings and teak root benches are meant for outdoor use. They age gracefully under the elements, waiting to be set into place in a new location. Inside are carved masks, crystals, geodes and jewelry.
Getting to Jalen Jalen can be a little stressful, depending on the time of day. Traffic. Honking horns. Tight curves. But parking and walking into Jalen Jalen, strolling next to the creek, will bring a sense of peace that will last for the rest of the drive. You’ll find a large carved Buddha next to the waterfall, a bit of greenery and the sound of rushing water. Perfection.
From the canyon we dropped down onto Malibu Beach, and stopped for a walk in the sand. In my previous LA life, I’d made a habit of having picnic dinners on one of the closed lifeguard stands at sunset. I’d tried my first boogie board at Malibu. I’d lost my bikini bottoms in a post-earthquake undertow there, too.
The warm sand felt exactly as I remembered. It was good to see that some things had stayed exactly the same.
The Venice Beach area has changed a lot since my days of hanging out at the Rose Cafe and Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center. The boardwalk is still wild on the weekend – but, to my eyes anyway – the mood is more forced and less organic. There are cannabis dispensaries, tech companies and high end apartments where there were once vintage clothing stores and quirky little coffee shops.
We took some time to walk along the canals, where the bohemian color and creativity I’ve always associated with Venice can still be found. You’ll get a glimpse of an LA lifestyle only a few can experience.
The canals are located just off 25th street, but you’ll walk right past them unless you’re looking.
Originally called the “Venice of America”, these man-made canals were dug in 1905 by the community’s developer. Almost every house has a dock, and the sidewalks are linked by bridges. It’s a perfect area for a leisurely stroll after lunch or dinner.
We stopped in at Gjelina for a cocktail and a sea bass sandwich. The entire menu is locally-sourced and definitely delicious.
Then we headed downtown for a splurge-stay at The Biltmore Hotel.
A legendary landmark since 1923, The Biltmore is a grand dame of the West Coast. The look is an opulent mix of Moorish, Spanish Baroque, Neoclassical and Renaissance.
The hotel has hosted six presidents, been seen in countless movies, and was the site of John F. Kennedy, Jr.’s nomination acceptance speech, as well.
Downtown Los Angeles has seen the biggest changes since my time in the city. A walk downtown will lead you to the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Natural History Museum and the Walt Disney Concert Hall, designed by local favorite, Frank Gehry. Upcoming shows at the Disney include classical masterpieces as well as holiday sing-alongs, and a live-music version of Home Alone.
For our next stop, Mr. H. and I headed out to Pasadena for a tour of the Gamble House, one of the finest examples of Craftsman architecture on the West Coast.
Then over to The Huntington – a former grand home turned research library, art museum and botanical garden.
The Huntington has always been one of my favorite LA spots. My collective wanderings through the house and gardens must add up to weeks if not months, and I still feel as if I haven’t seen enough.
The property was developed by railroad magnate Henry Huntington who turned his private home and collections into a public institution. It now houses one of 12 surviving copies of the famous Guttenberg Bible, a 15-century manuscript of The Canterbury Tales and The Blue Boy painting by Thomas Gainsborough, to name just a few.
The 130-acre botanical garden features twelve distinct districts, including a Japanese Garden, an allee of classical statues, a Desert Garden, and a Chinese Garden with a lake, teahouse, stone bridges and pavilions.
When I lived in California, I always ushered in the holidays with a traditional Christmas Tea at the Huntington’s rose-garden-based tea house. There would be savory sandwiches, scones with jam, and lots of little biscuits and sweets. Giant wreaths, red ribbons and a perfectly proportioned Christmas tree gave me the classic holiday vibe I craved in sunny, Southern California.
At the moment, the tea house is closed for renovation – but traditional tea can still be pre-ordered and served outside at a nearby pavilion.
My wander through the Huntington’s gardens had me thinking of home.
The holidays are approaching, yet again. This time I’ll be back in Georgia, hanging my own wreaths and Christmas lights. But first, I’ll be focused on autumn leaves and fall layering. Halloween. Thanksgiving. Our gatherings may be slightly different than in the past – but they can still be colorful.
I’m ready to be home. The good news is – half the fun is getting there!