Ask someone what they think about when they think of Southern California, and you’ll no doubt get the standard response: palm trees, swimming pools, movie stars and, of course, gorgeous weather. All of this is accurate to some degree, but visitors to the southern reaches of the Golden State might be at least mildly surprised by some of the other things found in the region known by locals as “SoCal.”
Television and movies probably are responsible for a lot of the perceptions about Southern California with many movies and TV shows filmed in that region. If you’re old enough, you’ll remember the lead-in to the Beverly Hillbillies – “swimming pools, movie stars…” – and that probably was your introduction to SoCal and all it has to offer. But once you visit SoCal – or live there for 14 years, as we have – the area reveals much more of itself.
Here are a few secrets about Southern California that may surprise you:
Sunny yes, but not everywhere all the time – When you visit Southern California, the likelihood is that you’re going to have great weather. Even in winter, the skies are blue and daytime temperatures are at least as high as a nice spring day in the northern climes. But the region has quite a diversity of weather, with the sunnier and warmer weather just a few miles inland from the sea and the cooler and sometimes cloudy weather on the coast. In fact, the area’s residents refer to “May gray” and “June gloom” to describe the seemingly incessant marine layer of clouds that comes in off the sea at night and takes several hours each morning to recede back to the ocean and reveal that famous SoCal sunshine. The closer to the coast you get, the more you experience this weather pattern.
Always put a “the” in the front of your freeway number – If you’re visiting SoCal and tell a local you’re headed down Interstate 5, he just might not know what you’re talking about. That’s because everyone in these parts refers to Interstate 5 as “the five” or “the I-5” and do that with all the freeway names. Just tune in to the local weather and traffic forecasts and you’ll see what we mean.
People just dress better in Southern California – Okay, that’s a broad generalization and probably unfair, but it’s true that more people seem to embrace the latest clothing styles and, let’s face it, just take care of themselves better than we’ve seen in many other parts of the country. We have not seen any scientific studies, but our guess would be that people in Southern California exercise more and eat healthier foods – not totally unrelated to the fact that SoCal residents cannot cover their bodies with winter coats for half the year as people can in the northern climes.
Foreign cars rule – This is only anecdotal, but it seems to us we see a much higher percentage of BMW’s, Mercedes, Volvos and other foreign vehicles on the road in Southern California than other parts of the country. This is especially true compared with our native state of Washington, but we’re guessing the pattern will hold with most other states. The biggest concentration of foreign luxury vehicles seems to be in Orange County, again based purely on anecdotal evidence and, of course, the occasional look at TV shows like the OC.
Traffic, the good, the bad and the ugly – If you’re visiting Southern California by car, you likely will not get anywhere without navigating the region’s famous freeways. Yes, the traffic can be exasperating and anytime you’re on one of the major freeways you’re playing a kind of Freeway Roulette, hoping that this particular trip will not be interrupted by a traffic tie-up ahead of you that can delay you for hours. On the other hand, Southern California’s freeways are as wide as any in the country, most offering multiple lanes in each direction, and there are many times during the day you will skate through with little or no delay. It all has to do with timing your trips through the cities, avoiding rush hour traffic and paying attention to radio alerts about traffic problems on your route.
CHIPS are outnumbered – Smaller states with fewer vehicles on the road often are able to make their state patrol units highly visible, which acts as a deterrent to speeding. In Southern California, just because of the sheer volume of traffic, you can go for days without seeing a California Highway Patrol car. Not surprisingly, the result is that few local drivers strictly adhere to the posted speed limits.
The best beaches aren’t where you think they are – There are the famous beaches like Coronado and Santa Monica which always get national attention and appear on someone’s list of best beaches in the U.S., but the best beaches for a true escape might be lesser-known stretches of sand that are located off the beaten path. For example, San Clemente offers miles of beaches in its residential area that, on weekdays, have few visitors competing for blanket space. Malibu also has some great beaches available to the general public that are quite close to the beach homes of famous movie stars. In general, the more famous the beach, the more crowded it will be – especially on weekends.
Movie stars don’t grow on trees – Truth be told, you probably will never see a movie or TV star on your visit unless you make a serious effort to go where they go. A gossip site like www.tmz.com can give you a feel for which restaurants and nightspots the stars are currently frequenting – and they do change, as places go in and out of style. You might see a star on a movie studio tour, but the last several tours we have taken have not resulted in any sightings. Actually, we’ve seen the most stars by visiting locations where we knew filming was taking place – websites such as www.onlocationvacations.com list the places where movie and television shows are scheduled to shoot on any given day.
You’ll be competing with the locals – Plan your visit to Southern California when you’re not competing with the locals. Yes, we know, that’s easier said than done when you have kids and a school schedule that only permits you to visit during summer months, the busiest time of year. Disneyland in summer is a zoo, but midweek during the school year it can be downright enjoyable. The same holds true for other popular theme parks and attractions. So our advice is to do what my parents did when I was nine years old – they took me out of school for a week to visit Disneyland and then I made up for it by relaying my travel adventures to the class when I got back. Actually, now that I look back, this was my very first experience as a travel writer.
(Editor's note: CaliforniaWeekend.com is California's leading source of information on getaway travel in the Golden State. Visit the site often to find the latest getaway specials, a comprehensive list of resorts and lodgings and to use the Getaway Machine travel calculator to match up your needs and preferences with exactly the right lodgings and location.)