Bearded university savants opine that Southern California is the center of car culture. We humbly beg to differ.
SoCal is actually a nexus of automotive worship. Dazed acolytes jam endless expanses of concrete, consuming countless gallons of fossil fuel in search of mechanical enlightenment--or at least a fleeting moment of vehicular prestige.
That might sound like a sacrilegious harsh on their mellow, but having thrashed my way through so many crushing rush hours on SoCal freeways, I've become a bit jaded. And this attitude helps to resolve my emotional dissonance over relocating from the balmy climate there to the cold and blustery high Sierras of Northern Nevada.
Even so, upon returning for visits, as I did recently with my wife, Tina, for our anniversary celebration at a couple of tony Hyatt resorts, we find ourselves transfixed at times. As transplanted SoCal residents, we suffer from the same weakness as Lot's wife. Having fled Sodom and Gomorrah, we look back longingly, paralyzed by the vision of a pagan landscape chock-full of allurements.
That's the decadent core of this rambling story of what a Corvette enthusiast can expect and enjoy on a visit to SoCal. But before delving into those enticements and attractions, we should touch on a few practical aspects of getting around.
Comedian Johnny Carson once quipped, "If you stick to the speed limit in Southern California, you'd better have a ramp on your roof, because they'll drive right over you." Of course, Corvette enthusiasts rarely linger at leisurely velocities, so no big worry there.
In addition, keep in mind that SoCal drivers haven't figured out how to use turn signals yet (or maybe they employ some sort of automotive telepathy when changing lanes). They also have difficulty handling anything other than direct sunlight, so be advised when there's an occasional layer of moisture on the pavement. On the other hand, the sunny climate there makes it an ideal location for driving a convertible, Corvette or otherwise.
A greater challenge is finding uncongested roads for stompin' the loud pedal. But when you do, the expanses of smooth pavement are utterly compelling. The temptation of driving a Corvette in SoCal is like letting a binge drinker loose in a liquor barn--so many lanes, so little time.
While avoiding commuting time frames is just common sense, it's no guarantee that you won't encounter a snarled collection of cars on either midday or late-night drives due to a drive-by shooting (or a movie shoot). Which begs a question--why so many damn automobiles?
As famously--albeit apocryphally--depicted in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, at one time Los Angeles had a fairly efficient streetcar system. According to the movie plot and conspiracy theorists, however, it was eviscerated by General Motors, along with tire and oil business interests, in favor of buses and private conveyances. In reality, other factors of human frailty accounted for the demise of SoCal's mass-transit system, such as simple convenience and a proclivity for self-indulgence.
After all, who wouldn't prefer to man the wheel of a convertible Corvette on sunny Sunset Strip instead of schlepping along in a lumbering trolley? How can you ogle those budding starlets (insert your own euphemism here) from the splintering bench seat of a tram? Let alone impress them with your ostensible credentials as a movie producer?
So San Francisco can keep its quaint cable cars and efficient-yet-sterile BART trains. We'd rather be romping the throttle with gusto on the Ventura highway in the sunshine, headed for glory at several waypoints of special interest.
To wit, after picking up a canary-yellow C6 courtesy of Chevrolet at LAX (where you can also readily rent a Corvette if you're not driving your own into the area), we started our SoCal sojourn with a graphic contrast to the surrounding urban environment. In downtown Los Angeles, just east of the intersection of the 110 and 101 freeways, near Union Station, is Olvera Street. It's a short, shaded block of Mexican vendors, sort of like a minuscule sample of Tijuana, but without any little kids hawking Chiclets.
Besides all the kiosks stuffed with curios, and being a great place to stop for margaritas and nachos, this area is historically significant, providing a glimpse of SoCal's Hispanic roots. Through here flowed the Zanja Madre (Mother Ditch), a small conduit of clay bricks that channeled water to residents from 1781 to 1904 (long before William Mulholland and the intrigues of Chinatown ever came to light). The Avila Adobe is the oldest existing house in Los Angeles (no charge for tours), and depicts the Californio lifestyle and "Days of the Dons" in the 1840s prior to American occupation.
At the other end of the historical spectrum is one of our favorite shrines to automobilia, the Petersen Automotive Museum. Located west of downtown in the Fairfax District of Wilshire Boulevard, this landmark institution is a must-see for any car guy or gal worth his/her salt. Exhibits of more than 150 vehicles feature everything from original Corvette race cars to Euro exotics, classics to hot rods, along with lighthearted dioramas depicting various eras and icons of transportation.
If you start to feel some hunger pangs, on site is a Johnny Rocket's diner, and other nearby eateries include Jewish delis and a Farmer's Market. Farther west is the famed Rodeo Drive, but I decided to divert us away from the exorbitant shopping opps there in favor of a scenic drive south.
Along the way, there are a few other car- culture sites such as the Edelbrock Museum (visits by appointment only) in Torrance. East of Los Angeles is the SoCal Speedshop, which hosts a number of events for rodders, and the NHRA Motorsports Museum in Pomona.
By the way, if you happen to be around on a weekend, Donut Derelicts is a popular Saturday morning hangout in Huntington Beach. All sorts of rigs roll into the parking lot for a caffeine-and-sugar fix and inevitable bench racing. On the same day, there's also Cars and Coffee in Irvine near Alton Parkway. Alternatively, if you're staying on the north side of town near Burbank, you might spot car collector and Tonight Show host Jay Leno at Bob's Big Boy in Toluca Lake, which hosts weekly cruise nights and a colorful cast of counterculture characters.
Getting back to our cruise southward, one way to circumvent traffic in Orange County is to take the wide-open 73 toll road from Costa Mesa. Alternatively, a much slower--yet even more scenic--route is to take Highway 1 through the seaside towns. Portions of it are fairly open, such as between Seal Beach and Huntington Beach. If you stay on the main highways, though, once you roll past where the 5 and 405 freeways converge, the traffic usually starts to lighten up, and farther south you can relish the ocean views while flexing your right instep.
Keep in mind, though, that California Highway Patrol officers are not solely on duty to supply central casting with stand-ins for the occasional Chips remake. Even so, you can usually blow out the pipes on your Vette as the 5 freeway heads through Camp Pendleton. Keep an eye out for military training missions with helicopters and amphibious landings. That's where a number of movies have been shot, such as Clint Eastwood's Heartbreak Ridge.
Carlsbad was our first stop on the way, where we stayed at the Park Hyatt Aviara. A true California retreat, designed in the Spanish colonial style, this lush resort is set off by palm trees, expansive gardens, rolling hills, and views of the Pacific Coast. The property spans 205 acres set on the northern shore of the Batiquitos Lagoon, which is one of California's pristine wetlands.
While feeling fairly spoiled by the posh surroundings, we encountered a bit of Corvette camaraderie to add to the fun. Turns out one of the friendly desk staff there, Ryan White, comes from a family of Corvette owners, who graciously pulled into the classy porte cochere for an impromptu shoot.
Besides relishing the resort's haute cuisine and lavish surroundings (admittedly a distinct cut above my more typical accommodations, such as the aptly named Clown Motel in Tonopah, Nevada), we came across a fabulous find for foodies. Tip Top Meats in Carlsbad near the Palomar Road exit off the 5 freeway boasts not only a well-stocked grocery full of every European delicacy you can imagine, but also serves up some hearty fare, cafeteria style. No, it's not swanky like the Hyatt's in-house gourmet restaurants, but we couldn't help going back for seconds and even thirds of the down-home comfort food. My wife knows more than a little about German cooking, and she continues to rave about the place.
After getting pampered by all the rich food and friendly staff, we headed back north to another Hyatt property in Huntington Beach, overlooking the famous pier where surfing contests are held. We don't have to tout the beaches of SoCal, and they're right across the street from the grounds.
All told, a sojourn to SoCal has all the makings of an epic road trip, whether you're into the resort lifestyle, checking out automotive attractions, or scrounging around for some funky hangouts. Which is all any devotee of car culture could hope for, and then some. So tell those university savants to stop stroking their beards, and instead go fire up a Corvette and head out on the highway.