What's great in wine, beer, fine dining,
places to stay, & places to visit
in California State

With the $2.5 billion L.A. LIVE entertainment complex continuing to re-establish a buzz east of the Harbor LA Downtown Skyline Summer Night SMALLDowntown LA Skyline on Summer Night. Freeway, thousands of people moving into center city's lofts, condos and apartments each year, and even a new football stadium on the way, there's been no shortage of press about the resurgence of Downtown Los Angeles. The good thing is that, as with any dynamic urban district, there are more than a few less-than-obvious, if not downright hidden, places to check out and feel in the know about Los Angeles.

It's Not Easy Being Green: Downtown's Gardens

Few Downtown buildings provide a bigger feast for the eyes than the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall atop Bunker Hill. Which makes the Concert Hall's Blue Ribbon Garden all the more a treasure. The Blue Ribbon Garden, which is reachable by four flights of stairs, sits atop one of the Concert Hall's roofs and provides 3,500 square feet and almost four dozen trees of serenity that's downright symphonic.

A little less hidden but also enchanting are the orchards and fountains adjacent to Bank of America Plaza on Hope Street near the Fourth Street overpass. There, three waterfalls spill into a willow-shaded pool, while tiered seating and lawns give people from nearby offices respite.

For a bit of quietude near a more traditional structure, there's Maguire Gardens, the 1.5-acre park next to the Los Angeles Central Library that was named for downtown office developer Robert Maguire III. The park includes a multi-level fountain, adjoining pools and great views of the Library, which was built in 1926 by noted architect Bertram Goodhue and renovated in 1993.

Finally, away from the high-rises and amid the pagodas of Little Tokyo, lies the James Irvine Japanese Garden, also known as "The Garden of the Clear Stream," at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center. There, solitude seekers can meditate by a 170-foot-long stream or amid the dozens of blooming trees.

Mum's the Word: Downtown Speakeasys

Nothing screams "overlooked" like a bar that's in the basement of a building that contains not one, but two, high-profile food-and-drink establishments. Indeed, the classic building at 515 West Seventh Street houses Cedd Moses' whiskey haven Seven Grand on the second floor and Mas Malo, the sister restaurant to Silver Lake's innovative Mexican eatery Malo, at street level. But if you really value the "low" in "low key," check out Mas Malo's basement cantina, which combines a below-grade locale with a top-grade tequila collection.

Meanwhile, head to the corner of Sixth and Los Angeles Streets, and you can get two hidden gems for the price of one. Cole's shares the distinction with Philippe the Original of inventing, or at least claiming to invent, the French Dip sandwich in 1908. But while Philippe's reputation kept expanding, Cole's fell into the shadows, shutting down in early 2007. But the restaurant reopened almost two years later under the watch of Downtown bar impresario Cedd Moses (Seven Grand, Broadway Bar) and still features the legendary roast beef sandwich served au jus, as well as a full bar. And if you happen to be in the area in time for a nightcap, look for a plain door in back of Cole's, which leads to The Varnish, serving up well-crafted drinks with a throwback, speakeasy vibe.

In Step: Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising (FIDM) Museum

When people think Central Los Angeles and Museums, Exposition Park immediately comes to mind, making Downtown's Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM) Museum in South Park all the more of an offbeat destination. Since 1969, FIDM has attracted the best and brightest looking to get into the fashion industry, and its museum includes a collection of about 15,000 fashion artifacts dating back to the 1800s.

Even more hidden is the Annette Green Fragrance Archive, tucked away on FIDM's second floor. The Archive features iconic and whimsical perfume bottles and fragrances dating back more than 130 years.

Well-Trained Eye: Metro Rail Art

New York has the Met for local art lovers, and you need a museum ticket. Los Angeles goes one better with its own version of "the Met," which requires a train ticket. The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) commissioned about 300 artists to create works of art throughout Metro Rail's network of stations, and many of these works are Downtown. The 7th Street/Metro Center station includes two tile murals depicting unfolding film strips as a tribute to the movies, while Pershing Square's station has a dozen neon sculptures as a nod to the fact that the country's first-ever neon sign was installed nearby in 1924.

Sneak a Snack: Downtown Restaurants

If bacon-wrapped matzo balls are a contradiction you're willing to embrace, The Gorbals is worth seeking out in Downtown's Historic Core. Known for a cuisine that defies convention, the Scottish/Jewish/Spanish/whatever restaurant features items ranging from Vietnamese bahn mi to Welsh rarebit to gribenes (chicken or goose skin cracklings with fried onions). This menu is beyond off the beaten path.

Nothing says "hidden" like a pop-up restaurant, and Downtown obliges in this particular trend. Specifically, Wolvesden, is an Arts District dinner party of sorts thrown every few weeks by Chef Craig Thornton, and the decadence is matched only by its exclusivity. Both the number of courses and number of guests tend to range in the low double-digit territory.

Little Tokyo deserves its own section when it comes to overlooked restaurants, as the district is chock full of noodle houses and ramen dens. Lots of the attention goes to Orochon Ramen, which has been featured on Travel Channel's Man vs. Food and has a "Wall of Bravery" for those deviant enough to try its super-spicey "Special 2" Ramen (it's three levels above "Hyper" and two levels beyond "Extreme"). That said, no less an expert than Pulitzer Prize winning restaurant critic Jonathan Gold has tapped Daikokuya Ramen as LA's best. So, once you figure out how to pronounce the name, you may want to head over there.

Finally, with LA leading the nationwide food truck craze, it's worth pointing out that one of the more understated yet outstanding eateries in Downtown was birthed in 2012, when its proprietors decided to go from four wheels to four walls. Mexicali Taco & Co. features a menu with a handful of authentic, Baja-style tacos amid a cheery, familial setting located on a no-man's-land stretch of Figueroa north of Sunset Blvd. Be warned, though. The restaurant may be understated, but its legendary Vampiro — a quesadilla infused with garlic sauce — will ensure that your breath won't be.

 

(TravMedia.com contributed to this article)

 

Editor's note: Links to the websites of hundreds of lodging and dining options in Los Angeles can be found at Taste California Travel's Resource Directory.

 

If the number of people visiting Death Valley National Park’s Ranch at Furnace Creek at lunchtime in July is any indication, then some people truly do like it hot. Lots of people, in fact. This arid, desolate and ruggedly Furnace Creek DV09007 FC Ranch Entrance SMALLbeautiful park typically draws some 230,000 travelers during the summer months, when the temperatures can be as high as 125 degrees Fahrenheit.

Situated in east-central California on the edge of the Mojave Desert, the park hosts as many as 900 tour bus travelers each day. Nearly all of the visitors are from European countries; most come from Germany, France and the UK. Lunchtime in the Wrangler Buffet is a smorgasbord of languages – German, French, Italian and Dutch.

“Although we have domestic travelers too, Europeans in particular love Death Valley during our extreme summer months,” said Phil Dickinson, director of sales and marketing for Furnace Creek Resort. “The American West, with its wide open spaces and distinctive landscapes, is a beloved travel destination for European travelers, and Death Valley is particularly appealing to this group, in part because of the extremes.”

Death Valley is one of the hottest places on the planet, with a record-high temperature of 134 degrees Fahrenheit recorded in 1913.

Yet heat is not the only extreme in this 3.3 million-acre park. With a low point of 282 feet below sea level at Badwater Basin, it is also one of the lowest places on earth. For perspective, Badwater visitors can look up on a cliff – way up – and see a sign marking sea level. And from that point, travelers can look across the valley to Telescope Peak in the Panamint Mountains, which rises to 11,049 feet above sea level.

Death Valley is also dry, receiving less than two inches of rainfall per year on average. In years the park receives more than that amount, there are often flash floods in low-lying areas due to the lack of vegetation and the broad expanses of impermeable rock.

Furnace Creek Golf SMALLSnow capped mountains above a desert green.

In addition to the tour buses the Ranch hosts golf groups with a penchant for the extreme and automotive companies conducting hot-weather testing for new vehicle models. Golfers play the year-round Furnace Creek Golf Course all summer. And more than 50 intrepid golfers are expected to participate in the second-annual Heatstroke Open June 22-24.

In mid-July, 90 of the best runners on Earth will compete in the “Badwater Ultramarathon,” a 135-mile race that begins at Badwater and ends at Mount Whitney, 8,300 feet above sea level. In between, runners pass through three mountain ranges. The invitation-only race is described by its organizers as the “most demanding and extreme race on the planet.”

Plus, there are Hollywood movie shoots and national magazine photo shoots regularly staged throughout the park. The park’s otherworldly landscape makes it a particularly great location for science fiction movies. Parts of the 1977 mega-hit “Star Wars” were filmed in the park.

Xanterra Parks & Resorts, operator of the Ranch at Furnace Creek and concessions in the park, continually educates visitors about the potential dangers of the park’s extremes through signs and park guides.

“We advise our summertime visitors to drink plenty of water, wear sunscreen and hats and to limit physical activities to the cooler early-morning and evening hours,” said Dickinson. “The Badwater runners never listen to us on that latter point though.”

To harness the power of the unrelenting sun, Xanterra constructed a five-acre, one megawatt solar PV system four years ago. The massive system powers more than one-third of the resort’s electricity needs annually, and 100 percent of electricity during peak power-generating times.

Xanterra’s year-round operations include the 224-room Ranch at Furnace Creek; 18-hole Furnace Creek Golf Course, the world’s lowest course at 214 feet below sea level; two restaurants; a saloon; general store; spring-fed swimming pool; tennis courts; the Borax Museum and a service station. In addition, there is a 3,000-foot airstrip adjacent to the property. Xanterra also operates the AAA Four-Diamond-rated Inn at Furnace Creek, open mid-October through mid-May. The Inn includes a restaurant, gift shop, spring-fed swimming pool, tennis courts, lush gardens and conference and banquet facilities. The Inn provides a stunning and lush oasis in a harsh climate thanks to water flowing from nearby natural springs.

 

For more information about facilities in Death Valley National Park go to www.furnacecreekresort.com.

 

Editor's note: Links to the websites of other Desert area lodging and dining options can be found at Taste California Travel's Resource Directory.

 

cyclist in occidental8 SMALLTake either of two roads from Occidental to the coast.

Less than an hour north of San Francisco is some of the best bicycle riding in Northern California. You can travel flower-lined country roads that pass organic farms, ride under towering redwoods or pedal down quaint lanes past vineyards and wineries. You can also try winding routes that follow the gentle Russian River to the wild Pacific coastline.

The area is synonymous with good riding. With 2,250 kilometers/1,400 miles of lightly traveled secondary roads and a growing system of off-road bike trails, Sonoma County appeals to a wide variety of riders. Whether you are a dedicated cyclist attacking mountain passes or a weekend pedaler eager to sip wine and cycle through the vines, Sonoma County can provide you the perfect track. It's no wonder Bicycling Magazine listed the area as one of "The 7 Greatest Rides on Earth."

An avid cycling community is here. Perhaps the most notable is star resident and professional cyclist Levi Leipheimer. Serious bicyclists come to train as well as to compete. Sonoma County was at the starting line (and Stage 1 finish) for the Amgen Tour of California, May 13.

 

Here are some ways to explore the county by bicycle:

 

Challenge and Train

Two challenging rides in the county are the Kings Ridge-Tin Barn Road near Cazadero and Coleman Valley Road near Occidental. The Kings Ridge ride, favored by pro racer Levi Leipheimer, is a challenging, hilly course. It is considered one of the most beautiful, fulfilling bike rides in the world. The Coleman Valley ride is a landmark climb in Northern California and was featured in this year's Amgen Tour of California.

The Sonoma Coast 60-kilometer/40-mile ride is best done in the early morning before the motorists hit Highway One. It includes a couple of challenging hills. A good starting place is the town of Occidental through Monte Rio and Duncans Mills along Highway 116 to the fishing village of Bodega Bay.

The Geysers 80-kilometer/50-mile loop (1,000 meters/3,500 feet of climb) is very remote, with no services and very challenging terrain between Geyserville and Cloverdale. Suitable for fit, experienced riders only.

 

Sip and Cycle  

Come for one of the popular wine-tasting rides, known as "sip DryCreek5 Sign SMALLPastoral Dry Creek Valley offers tranquil riding. Photo by George Roseand cycle," where you can stop along the way every mile or so to taste wines at one of the more than 300 wineries. There are ideal places along the way to linger with a picnic of fresh wine country produce, breads, pasta, olive oil, fruit, cheese and chocolates.

The West Dry Creek Road near Healdsburg is a picturesque ride with a few rolling hills through vineyards and country roads. Many of the wineries are only minutes apart. Another great route is Red Winery Road in the Alexander Valley between Healdsburg and Geyserville. This is a quiet, peaceful, flat and virtually traffic free area with beautiful oak dotted hills and miles of vineyards.

 

Bring the Whole Family

Explore the many paths as you pedal through Armstrong Redwoods under the giant trees in a truly tranquil and peaceful setting.

The Joe Rodota Trail, a segment of the West County Trail, is paved and runs between Santa Rosa and Sebastopol. It's built on an former railroad right-of-way; several bridges have been constructed over the old trestles. The trail is especially popular in the spring with the vivid blooming of the wildflowers. It is an excellent place for bird watching year-round.

The West County Trail between the towns of Sebastopol and Forestville is a paved path and relatively flat with a few gentle climbs. An unpaved horseback riding trail runs parallel. The West County Trail and the Joe Rodota Trail offer beautiful farm and agricultural views.

 

Leisure and Moderate Trails

The leisurely 32-kilometer/20-mile Sonoma Valley ride explores the scenic Valley of the Moon. Begin at the Sonoma Plaza, ride past the historic General Vallejo home and continue on back roads through the town of Glen Ellen to the Jack London State Historic Park. The winding roads and gentle climbs allow you to soak in the beautiful views of lush greenery, vineyards, streams and oak trees.

Starting and ending in Petaluma, the 48-kilometer/30-mile Spring Hill-Chileno Valley ride is a pleasant tour of the dairy lands along the border between Sonoma and Marin Counties. Much of this trail is on quiet back roads and is very scenic; some sections offer moderate to fairly serious climbs.

 

The following Santa Rosa-based companies offer bicycle rentals or tours:

 

Getaway Adventures & Rentals

www.rinconcyclery.com

Bike rentals or guided personalized tours; gourmet lunches available.

 

Rincon Cyclery

www.rinconcyclery.com

Located just blocks away from excellent riding sites - Spring Lake Park, Howarth Park and Annadel Park. Staff will help you find the right bike and the right trail or road to ride on.

 

Other good places for cycling information:

 

Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition

www.bikesonoma.org

The coalition also has a bicycle map online, or available for purchase a printed map.

 

Santa Rosa Cycling Club

www.srcc.com

Excellent site for group events and rides.

 

(TravMedia.com contributed to this article)

 

Editor's note: Links to the websites of hundreds of Sonoma County lodging and dining options can be found at Taste California Travel's Resource Directory.

 

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