Relax From LAX: 4 Great Los Angeles Area Weekend Getaways

Written by | Travel

Laguna Beach

Laguna Beach credit Visit Laguna Beach

Old Mission Santa Barbara

Photo by Jay Sinclair/Visit Santa Barbara

Whether you have a three-day weekend on the horizon or you’re looking to make the most of a few unaccounted for vacation days, you know you deserve a break. But just because you don’t have enough time to wing your way to Angkor Wat or skip off to Stonehenge doesn’t mean you can’t get away. Call in on Friday and (cough, cough) maybe even Monday, then pack a duffel bag and give yourself the gift of a long weekend vacation. There’s plenty of weekend options where you can fly of course, but sometimes it’s more fun to gas up the car and go.

Balboa Island

Park the car for the weekend and kick up your feet on the front porch of an adorable vacation rental on Balboa Island. This tiny man-made island has grown from an uninhabited sandbar at the start of the last century to a vacation destination for the Los Angeles community and beyond. Indulge in delicious fresh seafood at a variety of popular island restaurants, pick up the perfect Balboa Island tank top to wear at the gym after your vacation, or simply sit by the water, where you can feel the relaxing ocean breeze and allow yourself to completely unwind.

While you’re basking in the perfect Southern California weather, get out your floaties, surfboard or paddleboard and jump in the water. Then head east of the Balboa Peninsula in Newport Beach to get up close and personal with the large, wedge-shaped waves (local surfers’ favorite). Not into surfing? They still make for good eye candy! The area is also a great spot to clock sea lions chilling with the locals. If you have little ones with you, head over to The Balboa Fun Zone, one of Southern California’s oldest and last great coastal amusement areas. Ride the ferris wheel, show off on the bayside bungee jump, play in the arcade & game room or rent a bike from Seaside Bicycles to add some speed to your exploring.

Be sure to enjoy a Balboa Bar and/or a frozen banana before leaving the island. For the uninitiated, the classic frozen banana comes on a stick, dipped in chocolate, and can be topped with chocolate chips, nuts or even colorful sprinkles. Meanwhile, the Balboa Bar is a vanilla ice cream rectangle dipped in chocolate and rolled in toppings like toffee bits, toasted coconut, or literally any sugary treat. Where to go for such a heavenly treat? Dad’s Donut & Bakery Shop or Sugar ‘n Spice will have you covered. Arrested Development fans will immediately recognize these tasty treats from the Bluth family owned-and-operated frozen banana stand on the Balboa Island Oceanside Wharf boardwalk.

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park Credit NPS and Hannah Schwalbe

Joshua Tree National Park

Tucked in the California Desert, Joshua Tree National Park is the closest National Park to both Los Angeles and San Diego. Known for its distinct Joshua trees (native to the Mojave Desert), the park extends across roughly 800,000 acres (that’s a little bigger than the state of Rhode Island). The Joshua Tree Visitors Guide (joshuatree.guide) is the best local resource for what to see and do while you’re there. Whether you’re looking for lodging, tours, restaurants or an attraction, they’ve got you covered. Checking out their “Top Ten Tips for Visiting Joshua Tree National Park” is a must for anyone venturing to the area for the first or a repeat visit. It’s worth noting The Joshua Tree, U2’s fifth studio album (and one of the best-selling records in rock history), was inspired by not only the area but the band’s interest and “great romance” with the United States. Be sure to add this album to your playlist for your visit.

Roughly 2.8 million people flock to the park each year. There are several Visitor Centers in and around the Park: Oasis Visitor Center, Joshua Tree Visitor Center, Cottonwood Visitor Center, and Black Rock Nature Center. It’s important to bring enough water with you when visiting the park (roughly a gallon per day, two if you’re planning on hiking or cycling). Also note that there’s no cell service throughout the park. Putting together a rundown of what you want to see in this gorgeous landscape? High on the list should be Giant Rock, a giant, seven-story, freestanding boulder near Landers. Native Americans in the area consider the land to be holy ground with many shamen claiming they draw spiritual strength from this 5,800 square foot rock.

The Integratron, designed by George Van Tassel, is a historical desert structure known as a resonant tabernacle and energy machine. Located in Landers, the Integratron is owned by three sisters and offers “The Sound Bath,” a 60-minute sonic healing session that features a half hour of quartz crystal bowls played live, then the balance of the hour to integrate the sound and relax in the sound chamber to recorded music.

The Noah Purifoy Museum is an open field of “Assemblage” art where Purifoy created and worked on ten acres of large-scale desert sculpture during the last 15 years of his life. The Noah Purifoy Foundation offers docent-guided tours with guides who knew and worked with Purifoy. On the hunt for more nature? Head to the Hidden Valley and the Keys View area for Coachella Valley views, and don’t miss the Jumbo Rocks.

Laguna Beach

Quaint, coastal, cultural Laguna Beach provides a weekend escape from the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles. Just a short drive south of LAX, Laguna Beach is an artist colony nestled into Orange County. Boasting seven miles of coves and beaches where visitors can explore sea caves, ocean side bluffs, and natural tide pools. Many know about the area, of course, because of the popular MTV reality show Laguna Beach, The Real Orange County starring Kristin Cavallari. Keep your eyes open when visiting the area, since celebrities have lived in and around Laguna Beach for years. Stars who have called this slice of paradise home include Bette Davis, Diane Keaton, Bette Midler and Rock Hudson.

In 1918 artist Edgar Payne opened an art gallery that eventually became the Laguna Art Museum. Today there are over 70 galleries and 400 working artists and studios in the area. Be sure to check out Wyland’s famous “Whaling Wall” right on the Pacific Coast Highway. If you’re planning a trip in the summer, definitely make every effort to go between July 7 and August 31, 2019 when the art (literally) comes to life at the Pageant of the Masters. The 2019 Pageant of the Masters theme, The Time Machine, will transport audiences from the past to the future in search of great art and amazing stories. The best-selling show in Orange County is literally an enchanting 90 minutes of tableaux vivants (“living pictures”), recreations of classical and contemporary works of art in which real people pose to look like original artwork in an outdoor amphitheater. Laguna Playhouse, an historic Equity theatre, located just steps from the Pacific Ocean, has been presenting live performances on the stage there since 1920. Recent productions include Peter Quilter’s End of the Rainbow about Judy Garland’s last years, I Am My Own Wife, A Night With Janis Joplin and Million Dollar Quartet.

Looking to get your nature on? The city features more than 20,000 acres of protected wilderness for you to enjoy. It’s impossible to miss the scenic and delightful Heisler Park, stretching along the bluffs on Cliff Drive from Aster Street to Diver’s Cove. Take in this oceanfront park with its meandering walking trails, lush gardens and marine refuges. Pack a picnic and enjoy great people (and nature) watching. Another local favorite, Thousand Steps Beach, is nestled in South Laguna just across from 9th Street and South Coast Highway. It’s tricky to find, but once you’re there, be sure to get some selfies inside the large sea cave. Be careful if you’re heading that way during high tide! Fun fact: the dolphin population off the Laguna Beach coast is significantly greater than Florida, Hawaii and the Caribbean combined. If dolphin/whale watching is on your bucket list, it’s best to head to Dana Point or nearby Newport Beach. Newport Whales offers a $20 Whale Watch & Dolphin Cruise. Captain Dave’s Dolphin & Whale Watching Safari, a slightly more expensive option, offers exclusive underwater glass viewing pods bringing guests “face to face with some of the largest creatures on Earth.” One big incentive to going with Captain Dave’s is Mrs. Captain Dave’s famous Triple Fudge Brownies, served complimentary on every whale watching trip.

Old Mission Santa Barbara

Old Mission Santa Barbara Photo by Jay Sinclair

Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara, tucked between the spectacular Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, was once a bustling hub for the film industry. Flying A Studios, California’s first major movie studio, set up shop in the area and operated between 1912 through 1921 when hundreds of silent films were produced in Santa Barbara. While the industry moved south to Hollywood, celebrities still walk the red carpet at the annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival (sbiff.org), and many live in the area. Considered the “American Riviera,” famous residents living in Santa Barbara include Kevin Costner, Tom Cruise, Jennifer Lopez and Stevie Nicks. Oprah Winfrey purchased a $48 million mansion in nearby Montecito, where Ellen DeGeneres also lives.

Stargazing aside, there’s plenty to see and do on a weekend trip to Santa Barbara. Santa Barbara County’s winemaking history goes back over 200 years when Mission vine cuttings were first planted in 1782. Pierre Lafond opened the first Santa Barbara Winery in 1962, the first legit winery since Prohibition. California’s wine industry really took off in the second half of the twentieth century. Then Sideways came out in 2002, and the tourists started coming by the busloads. Fan of that movie? Plan a Sideways Wine Tour, featuring a two-day suggested wine trail featuring the wineries on the “Sideways Wine Route.” Some of the best wineries that should be on your list? Foxen Vineyards, Kenneth Volk Vineyards, Firestone Vineyards, Sanford Winery and Vineyards, and Kalyra Winery. Having a good time? Extend your trip and go beyond the tour’s offerings. There’s no shortage of great vineyards and local tasting rooms.

Back in town, be sure to hit State Street where you can spend an afternoon at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. From March 3 through October 13, Kehinde Wiley takes over SBMA’s Park Entrance with his monumental painting Equestrian Portrait of Prince Tommaso of Savoy-Carignan. If you’re going next year instead, try to plan your 2020 trip around their highly anticipated Van Gogh exhibition, Through Vincent’s Eyes: Van Gogh and His Sources (opening October 11, 2020). Over on Laguna Street, don’t miss the Old Mission Santa Barbara in its original glory. Established in 1786, the Mission continues as the beating heart and soul of Santa Barbara. Tour the glorious 13-acre grounds featuring a nine-room museum of historical artwork and artifacts and featuring the Chumash Room showcasing Native American artifacts, a recreation of a 17th century kitchen, as well as a historic cemetery and mausoleum.

Whale watching in the Santa Barbara Channel is a must. The nutrient-rich waters make the area an ideal location to spot these incredible creatures. The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center (sbnature.org) at Stearns Wharf provides a fun way to discover the wonders of ocean life and have unique encounters with some new favorite marine animals from the Santa Barbara Channel. On a related note, the Ritz-Carlton Bacara Santa Barbara – nestled in the Gaviota Coast – offers Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ambassadors of the Environment experience which introduces guests to the natural wonders and rich cultural history of the area. Discover Gaviota Coast’s natural wonders of land and sea (a kelp forest, diverse birds, the intertidal zone and traditional Chumash culture) through a wide assortment of related activities.

Last modified: March 26, 2019

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