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Leon Kaye headshot

6 Off-Beat, Random and Sustainable Things to Do in California

A trip to California offers many alternatives if you need a break from the state’s 40 million people, notorious traffic and deathly real estate prices.
By Leon Kaye

2020 has finally landed on our calendar, and with this new year, comes a new batch of new year’s resolutions, goals to kick into high gear for 2030  . . . and for some of us, January 1 means we need to plan our vacations that will occur at some point during the next 365 days.

A trip to the Golden State this time of year often means enjoying warmer temperatures in Southern California’s beach towns or spectacular skiing in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. But as a native son, I thought I’d ring in the new year by giving you a few ideas of what you can do if you need a break from the state’s 40 million people, notorious traffic and deathly real estate prices.

If you want to veer off the beaten path, contribute to local businesses, score some “out there” sustainability ideas or support local artisans (or any combination of these), here are just a few ideas for you to check out the next time you venture this way to visit family, attend a conference or come out on business.

Forestiere Underground Gardens, Fresno

It was a love story for the ages: Sicilian immigrant Baldassare Forestiere arrived in the San Joaquin Valley in 1901 to become a citrus farmer. The problem was that the land he bought was a massive patch of nearly impenetrable hardpan, which meant it was next to impossible to plant anything. So instead, Forestiere dug underground, kept digging underground, and dug some more. By the time he was 44 years old, he had excavated a network of tunnels spread across 10 acres in his quest to provide a comfortable home for his bride.

Sadly, Forestiere never married; but he did leave a legacy with an impressive labyrinth of rooms, grottos and gardens, where he could grow everything from citrus to pomegranates to grapes. Forestiere certainly gave us ideas on how to cope with climate change and the impact air conditioning is having on the planet – just build underground, and do it the most low-carbon way possible: by pickax and hand. His farming methods are also a workman's comp attorney's nightmare - there were no ladders to risk falling off of, as when it came time to pick fruit, one only had to bend over at ground level.

Members of the Forestiere family currently operate what’s left of this subterranean masterpiece.

An orange tree twists to the sky at Fresno's Forestiere Underground Gardens
An orange tree twists toward the sky at Fresno's Forestiere Underground Gardens

Photo: An orange tree twists to the sky at Fresno's Forestiere Underground Gardens

Glass blowers and their art, Benicia

California history buffs know of Benicia, about 45 minutes by car or an hour ferry ride northeast of San Francisco, as California’s state capital briefly in the 1850s before the state's legislature moved permanently to Sacramento.

Locals in the town of 27,000 pride themselves as being an oasis of calm in the hectic Bay Area, and, of course, for its colony of artisan glass blowers. Many of the artisans who work in the studios in Benicia’s downtown were inspired or trained by the Murano glass studios in Venice. If you have a few hours to spend after visiting San Francisco on your way to the Wine Country, consider visiting this cluster of workshops nestled along the Carquinez Strait. Benicia’s downtown is also a true Main Street – at last glance there are no national chains on the main drag.

Pick your own fruit, Bishop

Most people visit the Owens Valley and Eastern Sierras to go skiing at Mammoth. Bizarre geological wonders such as Mono Lake and Devils Postpile National Monument are also big draws during the summer month. The town of Bishop, population 3,900, bursts at the seams during peak fishing season.

But if picking your own fruit is your way of getting in touch with the earth, then consider visiting Apple Hill Ranch just outside of Bishop. Depending on the time of year, cherries, peaches and apples are yours for the pickings. The farm’s Facebook page keeps its fans posted about the latest fruits (and vegetables!) on offer.

There’s no shortage of pick-your-own fruit options in California – this chaotic web page is a joyful time suck if you’re curious about other foraging options, whether you are hankering for berries around Monterey Bay or stone fruit in the Central Valley.

Free range zebras, San Simeon

Yes, this makes about as much sense as hippos in Colombia, but a weird twist in history could mean long-term salvation for these majestic animals - and unlike the Hippopotamus amphibius, Pablo Escobar wasn't involved. Another nefarious character, however, was involved with this scheme.

Along Highway 1 between Cambria and Sam Simeon, home to world renowned Hearst Castle, is a herd of zebras. This oddity was due to the early 20th century publishing giant William Randolph Hearst, who built this estate get away from it all and co-host soirees with his mistress. Visitors to Hearst Castle drove through what was by most estimates the world's largest private zoo at the time. By the late 1930s, financial difficulties forced Hearst to sell or give away most of his prized exotic animals. Others, including the zebras, were set free.

Today, you can watch the zebras graze along the east side of Highway 1, roaming around obliviously while visitors gawk from behind the high chain-link fence. After passing Cambria while driving north on 1, just look out for the animal prints to your right.

Zebras roaming near San Simeon, CA
Zebras roaming near San Simeon, CA (Image credit: vgm8383/Flickr)

Photo: Zebras roaming near San Simeon, CA (Image credit: vgm8383/Flickr)

Gaze at the sunset at Point Vicente, Palos Verdes

Are you in the Los Angeles area with only a few bucks in your pocket and a maxed-out credit card? Then get a ride to Point Vicente, where the lighthouse first started warning ships about the treacherous waters around Palos Verdes in 1926. Come here in the late afternoon or early evening depending on the time of year, as the cliffs will dazzle you with shades of gold and you’ll happily forget that you’re in a metropolitan area home to a zillion people. Point Vicente is between Redondo Beach and Long Beach, two communities that offer a nice change of pace from the City of Angels.

Point Vicente, Palos Verdes, CA
Point Vicente, Palos Verdes, CA

Photo: Point Vicente Lighthouse, Palos Verdes, CA

Shields Date Farm, Indio

Most visitors come to the Coachella Valley for a certain musical festival. Others flock to Palm Springs for the stellar winter weather, the White Party, golf, mid-century architecture, the tennis tournament at nearby Indian Wells, cosmetic surgery or all of the above. The more adventurous check out the Salton Sea and nearby oddities such as Slab City.

Somewhere in between, in and around Indio, is the region’s thriving date industry. The history of how dates ended up in these parts is certainly a colorful tale. Many of these date palm orchards are organic. And while there is some controversy over date growers’ impact on local groundwater supplies, these date palms are among nature’s wonders – they can bear fruit for decades, and have an average lifespan of 200 years.

Then there is Shields Date Garden. If you are into Route 66 kitsch, this is your place, though in fairness, the restaurant on the premises is pretty darned good. You’d be remiss if you don't take time to watch the film “The Romance and Sex Life of the Date,” but you can always watch the film on YouTube. Plus, we’re a little late to mention this, but there is also The Walk, which takes you through the 12 episodes in the life of a certain historical figure named Jesus of Nazareth.

Image credits: Leon Kaye

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye