The Complete Guide to southern California

And the winner is: the southwest corner of the United States. Southern California really does have something for everyone ­ from the glitz of Hollywood and the dynamism of downtown LA to coastal, mountain and desert wildernesses. And you need not worry about the weather

What do you mean by southern California?

Sun, sea, sand and surf ­ and mountains, forests, scorching deserts, hot springs and lush valleys. The population comprises surfer dudes, movie stars and plastic surgeons and a few million normal people too.

So where exactly is it?

Most Californians will say that the "border post" between the north and south of the state is San Luis Obispo, a pleasant enough little town about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles with one of California's most beautiful Mission buildings. To the south, California ends where Baja California begins ­ the northern edge of Tijuana. Inland, the area falls between the Tehachapi Mountains and the Mexican border.

Why the split?

There's a real north/south divide in California. San Francisco is the uncrowned capital of the north while LA is the unofficial capital of Southern California. (The actual state capital is dull old Sacramento). Culturally and climatically the two areas are worlds apart ­ and wish they were further.

In Southern California you'll find heaving metropolises and wide empty spaces, natural and man-made wonders. There's plenty of culture (LA's Museum Mile and Getty Center are highlights), a diversity of people and an action-packed history.

When's the best time to go?

Anytime. California is often called America's Mediterranean. Balmy temperatures mean that it's a year round destination along the coast. Inland the temperatures soar dramatically in the summer months, however, when in the Joshua Tree National Park they can sizzle as high as 125 degrees Fahrenheit ­ so round about now is ideal.

Who got there first?

About 300,000 Native Americans. European settlers didn't arrive until the 16th century. In 1542 San Diego Bay was discovered by the Portuguese, but the main colonisation was Spanish ­ although the Spaniards had their hands full in Mexico for a couple of hundred years so the first mission (on Presidio Hill in San Diego) was not built until 1769. By 1821 there were 21 established, bringing death and disease (oh yeah and Christianity) to the American Indians whose numbers fell sharply to 35,000.

Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821 and California became a Mexican colony. In 1836, the fight for independence began leading to California's status as a free and sovereign state and eventually American statehood. And the rest, as they say, is history.

 

So San Diego's where it all began?

That's right, which makes the fact that it's often overlooked in favour of its brasher neighbour, LA, all the more unfair. San Diego is built on a picturesque bay and has almost constant sunshine year round (the BBC weatherman Peter Cockroft rated it in these pages as the best holiday weather in the world). There are beaches galore and attractions such as Sea World, Balboa Park (bursting with museums) and the world-famous Zoo. The historical centre has been revamped. You can explore the Old Town State Historic Park with its original adobe buildings on a free walking tour from outside the Seeley Stable (001 619 220 5422). San Diego is also the jumping-off point for a hop across the border into Mexico. It's only 20 miles from Tijuana.

Where should I start?

It depends on what kind of holiday you're looking for. There are numerous companies offering city breaks to Los Angeles or San Diego or multi-centre breaks such as Newport Beach and Palm Springs. But about the most popular way to explore the region is to book a fly-drive holiday, which provides you with flights, car hire and the option of all or some accommodation.

Alternatively you could skip the accommodation by hiring a motorhome. It's also quite easy to do-it-yourself. Get a cheap flight to LA from a discount agency such as Trailfinders (020-7937 5400), which currently has return flights on United Airlines for £274 (book by next Monday and depart by next Saturday). STA Travel (0870 160 6070, wwwstatravel.com), has return flights to San Diego for £251 with Northwest Airlines via Minneapolis or Detroit, for travel before 6 April. It's almost always best to book your car rental in advance from the UK, ensuring that all the annoying taxes are included. Luckily,intense competition makes it a buyer's market. You could pay as little as £150 for a week for a small car, if you shop around.

Who goes where?

British Airways Holidays (0870 6000 500, www.baholidays.co.uk) offers tailor-made city breaks to Los Angeles and San Diego, fly-drive options and motorhome hire. United Vacations (0870 606 2222, www.unitedvacations.co.uk) can organise city breaks, tailor-made holidays and fly drives. Bon Voyage (023 8024 8248, www.bon-voyage.co.uk) organises flight plus accommodation breaks in Los Angeles and Palm Springs. North American Travel Service (0113 246 1466) offers tailor-made trips. Trek America (01295 256777, www.trekamerica.com) and American Adventures (01892 512700, www.americanadventures.com) offer small group tours of California. North American Highways (01902 851138, www.northamericanhighways.co.uk) has a 17-day self-drive holiday called "Oases and Hideaways in Southern California" for £1,085 per person starting in San Diego and including Palm Springs, Joshua Tree National Park, the quaint Gold Rush town of Julian and the vineyards of the lush Temecula Valley.

What's so great about LA?

For glitz you can't beat the City of Angels, home to muscle men, wannabe actresses and Mickey Mouse. Situated in a desert basin and surrounded by snow-capped mountains, the location is idyllic, the atmosphere frenetic. It's made up of disconnected districts from Downtown's skyscrapers to the designer boutiques of Beverley Hills, laced with a sprawl of freeways, shopping malls, beaches and suburbs. A land of sunshine and swimming pools, you either love it or you hate it, but you can't deny its dynamism: a city of palm trees and poseurs on one hand, and the faded glamour of Hollywood on the other.

So where do I go to see Baywatch babes and hunks? Santa Monica, Venice and Malibu are synonymous with LA beach culture. Santa Monica is LA's oldest resort, an elegant seaside town with art galleries, cafés, and the famous Santa Monica Pier with its restored 1922 carousel. Venice, a replica of the Italian city, with 20 miles of canals laid out in 1905 is now enjoying a revival and is home to artists and advertising execs. But it's Venice Beach that really pulls the crowds, packed with people posing, strolling, skating and performing along Venice Boardwalk. To the south is Muscle Beach where bodybuilders pump iron in the sun. Malibu is a surfers' paradise and, of course, where the rich and famous hide out behind high fences in their beachside residences.

And Mickey Mouse?

Disneyland (001 714 781 4565, www.disney.go.com) is the daddy of all theme parks. If you're travelling with children, you bypass it at your peril. Many of the original 1955 features have survived the latest makeover. As you wander down Main Street, a re-creation of a Midwest town, you can stop to shake hands with a giant Goofy and Donald Duck on your way to Sleeping Beauty's castle. All rides are included in the admission price; a one-day pass costs $43 (£30) for ages 10 and over, $33 (£23) for ages three to nine, children two and under are free). For park opening times call the information line above or check the website. Disneyland is in Anaheim,Orange County, 45 minutes by car southwest of downtown LA and accessible ­ with a bit of a struggle ­ by bus and train.

I hate crowds

Southern California has small coastal towns as well as sprawling urban centres. The twee Danish settlement of Solvang has fake windmills and gingerbread housing, while in Santa Barbara you'll find a palm-fringed bay and Hispanic white stucco architecture. After an earthquake in 1925, the city was rebuilt in the colonial style with red tiled roofs and whitewashed walls. There are old mission buildings scattered throughout Southern California and the Santa Barbara Mission, in the hills above the town, is perhaps California's most impressive. Set in beautifully landscaped gardens it looks out towards the sea and is open daily. Nearby, the Santa Barbara Winery is also worth a detour and is one of the oldest wineries in the state.

And National Parks?

In Southern California you've got coastal, mountainous and desert wilderness areas to explore. The Channel Islands National Park, called the American Galapagos, is a series of five small islands off the coast from LA. You can see seals and sea lions, go birdwatching, whalewatching, hiking and diving. To visit you need to arrange your trip through an operator such as Island Packers (001 805 642 7688, www.islandpackers.com). Don't restrict your attention to National Parks; State Reserves and Parks are often less crowded and more fun . North of San Diego is the Torrey Pine State Reserve, where one of the state's rarest pines is found, while to the east the Cuyamaca Rancho State Park offers hiking trails in the mountains. Heading further inland, you reach the desert.

What can you do there?

Sprinkled with cacti and resorts, the Colorado or Low Desert in the south stretches down to the Mexican border and into Arizona. It's here that you'll find Palm Springs, home to the Betty Ford Clinic and an artificial oasis with manicured golf courses and ageing celebrities. In the surrounding area are numerous hot springs, spas and mud baths, or you can go hiking, riding or take a jeep tour through the Indian Canyons in the Agua Caliente Indian Reservation.

A fast drive away, sandwiched between the Colorado and bleak Mojave or High Desert, desolate except in spring when it's covered with bright orange poppies (the official flower of California), you find the Joshua Tree National Park.

I thought Joshua Tree was the name of a U2 album?

The Mormons got there first. Travelling across the desert in the 1850s they saw the gnarled branches as the arms of Joshua pointing the way. The bizarre trees rise over 40 feet, creating an eerily magnificent landscape, especially at sunrise, or sunset when the coyotes howl, and the area is bathed in a red glow. There are visitor centres, campsites and hiking trails.

What else shouldn't I miss?

The Anza-Borrego Desert is the biggest state park in the country with more than 500 miles of hiking trails, while, to escape the heat, head up into the Mount San Jacinto State Park. There's a cable car, the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway ( www.pstramway.com) to the top of the mountain where snow-covered alpine hiking and cross-country skiing trails offer a contrast to the desert below.

For further information:

California has no tourist office in the UK, but does provide a formidable website ( www.gocalif.com). Each town and city has its own tourist office, of which the two most significant are the the International Visitor Information Center in San Diego (001 619 236 1212, www.sandiego.org) and the Convention and Visitors Bureau in Los Angeles (001 213 689 8822, www.lacvb.com).

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