While Los Angeles and San Francisco steal the spotlight as California’s go-to hot spots, there’s a lesser-known SoCal scene that’s begging to be visited. Uniquely positioned in California’s Rainbow Gap (dubbed that because the Santa Rosa Range allows the Pacific Ocean breezes into the valley for a mild climate), Temecula Valley is located just 90 miles southeast of L.A. and 60 miles north of San Diego. It’s filled with more than 40 wineries, family-friendly activities and historical charm, so you’ll have no problem making the most of your two-day trip to Temecula.
Spend your first day exploring Temecula’s historic Old Town. The wooden boardwalks transport you back in time to the area’s railroad years at the end of the 19th century, and there’s plenty to keep you busy. Old Town’s main drag, Front Street, is home to antiques shops, art galleries and quaint restaurants. Start at Pennypickle’s Workshop, a children’s museum that’s nabbed awards from Nickelodeon and the Themed Entertainment Association — it’s just as fun for adults as it is for kids. The science-themed spot focuses on interactive exhibits and rooms (you’ll find secret passageways, fun gadgets and onsite scientists who perform experiments).
Next, sample some of the area’s local product at the Temecula Olive Oil Company. Taste blood orange, basil or garlic olive oils, and vanilla and fig, honey or pomegranate balsamic vinegars, all of which are produced at a nearby ranch. The snack will tide you over until you arrive at Mad Madeline’s Grill for an easy, delicious lunch. This casual eatery is known for its burgers and sides such as gooey cheese fries that will make you forget about counting calories.
Post-meal, continue on Front Street to visit the Temecula Lavender Company. This cozy shop smells soothing and fresh thanks to the lavender products — essential oils, hand soap, bath salts and more — which also make handy gifts. For those with a penchant for soda, the Old Town Root Beer Company a is a must. Peruse the shelves to discover more than 100 root beers and 300 soda flavors, and don’t leave without trying a root beer float.
Once you’ve successfully surveyed the surrounding shops, take some time to unwind at your hotel, such as the nearby Temecula Creek Inn, before dinner. After freshening up, head back to Old Town for a meal at a Front Street eatery like The Edge or Public House. The Edge affords a hearty selection of small plates — including Hudson Valley foie gras and chorizo baked brie, whereas Public House boasts a gastropub vibe with options like gyro spiced beef tenderloin and shrimp scampi.
Devote day two to exploring Temecula’s expansive wineries, but first start out early with a sunrise balloon ride. The Grape Escape (clever, right?) experience begins at 6 a.m. at Europa Village Winery. You’ll head out with the crew to find a launching-off point, and then up you’ll go for an unforgettable ride over the valley. After a 75-minute ride, enjoy a mimosa and light breakfast back on the ground as a part of the ballooning experience.
Relax for the rest of the morning to prepare for an afternoon winery tour. The first stop is Ponte Winery. Located on 300 acres, the barn-like structure feels rustic without any kitsch. Ponte produces only 1,500 cases of wine per year, but offers 23 varieties, from whites (pinot grigio, vernaccia, muscat canelli) to reds (barbera, petite sirah, merlot) to sparkling (moscato, rose spumante). Depending on what time of the week you visit, you can book a guided tour of the grounds or stick to a tasting (which includes six selections and a Ponte Family Estate souvenir glass). On your way out, don’t forget to visit the shop, where you can pick up artisan Vosges chocolate, Ponte balsamic vinegar and olive oil, wine aerators and more.
Next, head back to Europa Village Winery (the site of your balloon ride) for another wine tasting. The charming winery is rather new to the Temecula scene, and its concept was inspired by the Old World European wine countries in Italy, France and Spain. There are separate sections to represent the various countries in the main building, but the winery soon plans to expand to three different villages (C’est la Vie Wine Chateau, Bolero Cellars, Vienza), including special bell towers ideal for weddings. While you have to wait for Europa’s future plans, there’s still plenty to enjoy now: Sit outside next to the vines for a tasting, or opt for an overnight experience at the 10-room inn.
To top off of the day, make your way to Callaway Vineyard & Winery. While the name Callaway is best known in the golf industry, entrepreneur Ely Reeves Callaway Jr. also dipped his toes in the winery business, to much success. This 40-year-old winery sits on 20 acres, and its cold-temperature fermentation process results in wines that are rich in natural flavors. Tastings are conducted earlier in the day, but save plenty of room for a meal at the onsite Meritage Restaurant. With a terrace overlooking the scenic vineyards, the restaurant offers tapas and entrées such as corriander-dusted ahi tuna steak with tapenade, roasted carrot, radish, potato and fennel, as well as roasted organic half chicken and market vegetables with preserved lemon, garlic and olives. Of course, suggested wine pairings for each dish are offered on the menu, but your waiter is more than happy to help you pick the perfect variety for your meal as well.
Photos Courtesy of Temecula Valley CVB and Jake Ashcraft