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West Coast Cool in Southern California

A land of sunshine and surf, rugged desert mountains and refined resorts, Southern California captivates visitors from around the world.

With its unique blend of cosmopolitan urban areas and breathtaking landscapes, the southern part of “the Golden State” is an American treasure. Whether you want a star-studded desert oasis, an Old West wine town, world-class museums, shopping and entertainment — or all of the above — it’s waiting in SoCal.

Groups visiting Southern California can journey quickly and easily from glitz and glamour to wine and wilderness. Around every corner is an unforgettable adventure.

San Diego

The area known as California was once home to more than 500 indigenous tribes before Franciscan priests and Spanish soldiers established Mission San Diego de Alcalá in 1769. The mission still stands, and now the “birthplace of California” is the country’s eighth-largest city — San Diego. Its population swelled during the Gold Rush, and the 16 blocks of Victorian architecture comprising the Gaslamp Quarter are a testament to the prosperity that followed the boom.

San Diego became a key location for the military and for West Coast shipping and remains the largest naval base in the Pacific. Sailors flocked to the saloons in the district, and the once-seedy quarter is now a hotbed of nightlife, restaurants, art galleries and upscale shopping.

“We have a great balance between everything that a big city can offer — an amazing dining scene, entertainment from sports to live music,” said Edna Gutierrez, senior public relations manager for the San Diego Tourism Authority, “but also the relaxing feeling of a small beach town.”

The cultural heart of the city, Balboa Park is often referred to as “the Smithsonian of the West,” offering 1,200 acres of beautifully landscaped gardens along with 17 museums and performing arts venues and the world-renowned San Diego Zoo. Beach lovers will want to stroll the sands of Coronado Island, regarded as one of the best beaches in the nation, while foodies (including groups) can enjoy the three-Michelin-star fare at Addison or hop on and off the Blue Line Trolley (which runs from the Mexican border north to tony La Jolla) to sample tacos from some of the many legendary taquerias along the route.

Catalina Island

“Catalina” means “pure” or “clear,” and this outpost 22 miles into the ocean from the mainland lives up to the name. Around 88% of the 76 square-mile rock is protected by the Catalina Island Conservancy. Much of its surrounding seas are part of marine conservation areas with huge and healthy kelp forests, and because there’s no sand on the leeward side of the island, some of the clearest waters on the continent.

While it’s possible to swim — more than 80 people have successfully stroked across the channel — most visitors to Catalina choose to take a one-hour ferry or 20-minute helicopter ride from Long Beach or Dana Point. (When arriving by air, pilots will often point out whales or pods of dolphins frolicking below.) Scuba divers, snorkelers and passengers on glass-bottomed boats or semi-submersibles join them, while groups exploring what locals call “the interior” can observe bats, eagles, fox, and most unusually, a nonendemic herd of 150 bison, the descendants of animals a film crew brought over in the 1920s.

“The island is a great place for a two- or three-day exploration,” said Jim Luttjohann, president and chief executive officer of Love Catalina Island, “and you can really have night and day different experiences over the course of a few days. The adventure begins the minute you leave the mainland, and when you arrive, you’re surrounded by all this natural beauty.”

There’s wilderness aplenty on both land and sea, but Catalina is in no way lacking in creature comforts. The island has opulently appointed hotels and great dining at restaurants like the Naughty Fox (which has solid vegetarian offerings and a killer burger) and the Descanso Beach Club, featuring regional specialties and boasting a spectacular open-air patio overlooking the ocean.

Los Angeles

“If you haven’t been to Los Angeles in the past few years, you haven’t been to L.A.,” said Chris Heywood, senior vice president of global communications for the Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board. “We’re calling it ‘Los Angeles 2.0’ and have had so many upgrades and so much that is new.”

The world knows Los Angeles, America’s second-largest city, not least because of the movie industry. The magic of Tinseltown is documented at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, which opened in late 2021. It features millions of movie treasures, like the original figure from “E.T.,” Dorothy’s ruby slippers from “The Wizard of Oz” and a 25-foot shark from “Jaws.” High above the city, the iconic ‘Hollywood’ sign is celebrating its 100th anniversary. At the historic Sunset Hollywood Ranch (founded in 1929), groups can enjoy trail rides with stunning views of the sign, the city skyline and Griffith Observatory.

But Los Angeles is much more than movies, and visitors can also delight in museums like the Getty and the newly renovated Hammer Museum; hip neighborhoods like the new Vinyl District; and thousands of restaurants ready to welcome groups. Musso and Frank Grill, the oldest eatery in Hollywood, is a perennial favorite.

Sports lovers are spoiled for choices with professional teams, and the city is preparing to host the Summer Olympic Games in 2028. Shoppers will want to make a pilgrimage to the luxury boutiques on Rodeo Drive, and people-watchers won’t want to miss the antics and outfits displayed on the boardwalk at Venice Beach.

Greater Palm Springs

In the golden days of Old Hollywood, studio contracts prohibited stars from venturing farther than two hours from the lots where movies were made. Located 110 miles from L.A., Palm Springs quickly became the preferred playground for actors and actresses seeking rest and relaxation while soaking in hot springs. The small town in the Sonoran Desert’s Coachella Valley known for rodeos and ranches attracted stars and socialites — and its mild winter temperatures and huge concentration of midcentury-modern residential architecture (said to be the highest in the world) still delight today.

“First-time visitors think we’re just one little town called Palm Springs,” said Gary Orfield, director of tourism development at Visit Greater Palm Springs. “They don’t realize how big we are, how much there is to do. We actually have nine cities here and an amazing variety of activities.”

The vast wilds of Joshua Tree National Park are about 30 minutes away, with twisted trees and imposing rock formations perfect for hiking, biking or bouldering. For speed demons, the BMW Performance Center puts people behind the wheel on a professional racing track for the ultimate driving experience.

Drawing on the fertile agricultural bounty of the Salton Sea area just to the south, Greater Palm Springs has become a hotbed of hot chefs. Whereas celebrity cooks once opened outposts at the resort area, locals like Michael Beckman of Workshop Kitchen + Bar now export their own concepts. For Art Deco glamour and Rat Pack retro classics like caviar and deviled eggs, the Colony Club is sure to satisfy.

Temecula Valley

Horseback riding through (or hot air ballooning over) glorious vineyards? That’s the vibe in Temecula, where cowboy charm meets California cool. With 33,000 acres and more than 50 wineries, the largest viticultural area in Southern California still flies under the radar while producing award-winning wines offered with gracious hospitality.

The Luiseño Indians called it “Temet-cunga” (place of the sun), and it’s the only city in California to still retain its original name … albeit with a change in spelling due to the Spaniards who arrived in 1797. The Pechanga Band (a tribe of the Luiseño) operate a casino with the largest gaming square footage west of the Mississippi. The luxurious resort features top-flight restaurants, a comedy club and an indulgent spa.

Located 90 minutes from L.A. and an hour from San Diego, Temecula has a rich equestrian history with Thoroughbred farms, show-jumping facilities and vast network of horse trails that crisscross the valley. It’s not uncommon to see hitching posts at wineries — some locals do drink and ride. Groups without their own horses can hop between tasting rooms by carriage, convertible bus or even motorcycle sidecars.

“No matter what you’re looking for, you can find it here,” said Visit Temecula Valley president and CEO Scott Wilson. “And the area is just beautiful. We’re a valley surrounded by green mountains. It’s just a very relaxing, beautiful place, with as much or as little as you’d like to do.”

“Relaxing” is the perfect description of Old Town, a beautifully restored slice of the Old West, replete with boutiques, antiques, impressive eateries, a local olive oil company, farmers market and a historic bridge that plays host to numerous events and concerts.