Sabato Rodia’s Watts Towers, Los Angeles
Southern California doesn’t pride itself on oddity the way Austin, Texas; Portland, Oregon; or its Northern California neighbors do. But any time you drop 22 million people into eight counties, soak them with sun, shake them with earthquakes and surround them with mountains, deserts and an ocean, enclaves of eccentricity are bound to emerge.
The relaxed culture, creative environment and flawless weather bring free-spirited transplants from all over the globe. Groups looking to experience something memorable and unique will find a wealth of offbeat offerings, from Los Angeles to San Diego.
In a domestic advertising campaign aimed at millennials, Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board is calling for visitors to “Get lost in L.A.”
“Following a series of focus groups in our key U.S. markets, we learned that millennials in particular embody an ‘anything-is-possible’ sentiment about Los Angeles,” says Don Skeoch, chief marketing officer for the CVB. “These unscripted moments make one’s L.A. trip unexpectedly amazing, and we’re inviting visitors to get lost in an L.A. sunset, an epic taco, our street art and more.”
Beyond Hollywood, surfboards and theme parks, Southern California boasts many experiences that will surprise meeting-goers and give planners options beyond the expected.
Academy of Magical Arts, Los Angeles
Along a residential stretch of Franklin Avenue at the base of the Hollywood Hills sits a large, chateau-style house, one of many in the vicinity. The Magic Castle is a meeting and performing spot for the world’s greatest magicians that has called Los Angeles home for 53 years.
“Magic right now has just gone through a renaissance and we are seeing huge numbers coming through our doors,” says Joe Furlow, general manager of Academy of Magical Arts, the magicians club that administers the space. “Magic slowly disappeared from all the casinos in the 1980s and the public really started to miss it. Popular culture and movies such as Now You See It have brought the interest back into mainstream entertainment. The Magic Castle is the only one of its kind in the country, with magicians being brought in from all over the world.”
The club is still private and so exclusive that many Angelenos gave up long ago on entering. But the club welcomes groups of all sizes, as long as they book ahead. Strict dress code is enforced.
Sabato Rodia’s Watts Towers remain a must-see for any visitor to the region. The 17 interconnected steel structures, made from found materials and up to 100 feet tall, were the work of one man, an Italian immigrant who spent 34 years on the project. Despite, or more likely because of, his status as an outsider, the towers became a rallying symbol of freedom for the civil rights movement.
During the carnage that ensued as a result of the Watts Riots of 1965, the community famously left the towers untouched, as they did again during the Rodney King riots of 1992. Now administered by California State Parks, the Towers are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and are a National Historic Landmark.
The subject of documentaries and books, Watts Towers have been called “one of the most mysterious landmarks in Los Angeles,” according to Donna Gabaccia, professor of history at University of Minnesota.
Traveling Through Time
Contrary to popular belief, Los Angeles reveres its relatively short past. One of the oddball trends in post-industrial SoCal is bringing that nostalgia into the future.
In the historic West Adams district, The Velaslavasay Panorama is a unique exhibition space built around the 18th- and 19th-century craze for 360-degree panorama.
“It’s a balance of historical features and modern technology, with a unique garden in the center of Los Angeles,” says Sara Velas, founding director. “We focus on art forms and entertainment that were popular before the invention of cinema. Past events have included an old-time bluegrass festival, magic lantern shows, a Chinese opera demonstration, along with an ongoing series of illustrated lectures.”
Groups of up to 90 can book the space, with Velas onsite to provide a private tour and lecture.
More nostalgic technology can be found at Palisades Park on the beach in Santa Monica. An authentic 19th-century Camera Obscura enables visitors to marvel at pinhole optics just steps away from bigger ticket locations such as Shutters Hotel and Santa Monica Pier. Admission is free.
Downtown, The Edison is a stunningly recreated steam-punk lounge built inside a 1910 Beaux-Arts power plant. With full production capability onsite for video and fashion shoots, and an award-winning mixology program, The Edison has been home to the hippest parties in town since opening. Groups of up to 600 can rent all or part of the immense space, with sound, lighting, tech and banquet services at the ready.
Groups wishing to put together the perfect goofy goodie bag while giving back to the local community should visit Time Travel Marts, located in Echo Park and Mar Vista. Both Time Travel Marts are fronts for 826LA, a celebrity-powered charitable group that helps local youth build writing skills through personal tutoring. The marts sell time-travel-themed oddities, from robot toupees to Viking deodorant, as well as actual books written by the real, presumably present-day students.
Museum of Jurassic Technology, Culver City
On a nondescript block of Venice Boulevard in Culver City, a red sign advertises a very odd space. Visitors to Museum of Jurassic Technology will encounter one of the strangest and coolest museums in the country.
Built around the idea of the 19th-century cabinet of curiosities, the museum challenges the idea of what a museum should be, earning founder David Wilson a MacArthur Genius grant in 2001.
Whether it’s the Portrait Gallery of the Heroic Canines of the Soviet Space Program or concerned Letters to the Mount Wilson Observatory, almost everything inside is to some degree a put-on. Yet it is so rooted in fact and philosophy that people will stare for hours, trying to make sense of it.
Astonished laughter frequently breaks out, and everyone at some point drags someone they came with to another room to see yet another ridiculous exhibit. Group visits can be reserved for off hours, allowing for maximum interaction. The Tula Tea Room upstairs offers free tea in a peaceful garden setting.
Off of Mulholland Drive, high above the Pacific Ocean, lie the gates of Malibu Wines. The setting is picture-perfect, the wines are tasty and there is nothing remotely strange about this place until a 15-foot-tall giraffe named Stanley pokes his head out of a nearby tree. Stanley is an actor, has an Internet Movie Database (IMDb) page and appeared in The Hangover Part III. He is also the featured attraction of Malibu Wine Safari, which offers group drives around the 1,000-acre vineyard to visit zebras, alpacas and camels. Groups from 20 to 150 can go on safari, with private tastings included. Of course, just like any Hollywood star, Stanley appears at an extra cost.
Catalina Island is another choice spot for a group retreat that teems with unexpected fauna. Its thriving non-native bison population has been on the island for nearly 100 years, originally brought over as extras for a Hollywood Western. Catalina Island Conservancy leads eco-tours for groups to visit bison and bald eagles.
Long Beach harbor
Long Beach Convention Center & Visitors Bureau helps planners create unique experiences with all the amenities of a major city, yet with a warm, small-town beach vibe. Water and its accompanying accoutrements are definitely the theme there.
Consider taking a field trip to Outer Limits Tattoo, the oldest tattoo parlor in the United States. Nothing says team building like a group tattoo.
The Queen Mary, Long Beach
The Queen Mary is a retired ocean liner that has been in Long Beach for almost 50 years. Twilight tours allow participants to explore the ship’s haunted past and paranormal activity. There’s even a paranormal investigator who escorts groups to infamous haunts such as the first-class swimming pool, engine room, isolation ward and wheelhouse.
Long Beach Lifeguard Museum celebrates the culture that spawned shows including Baywatch. Long Beach was the first U.S. city to have full-time lifeguards. Some of the earliest lifeguards first worked at Long Beach hotels, hired to help keep customers from drowning in the Pacific Ocean, before joining the city’s lifeguard department.
Long Beach Museum of Art
Long Beach Museum of Art was once a creative think tank for avant-garde and cutting-edge video art. From the mid-1970s to the 1990s, the museum provided invaluable support to the medium, including exhibitions and coproduction, helping Long Beach develop one of the most significant video collections in the country. In 2005, Getty acquired the video art archive. The museum grounds include a historic 1911 Elizabeth Milbank Anderson house.
There’s nothing weird about the city’s Aquabus water taxi service, offered daily in the summer and year-round on weekends. Boats can hold up to 49 passengers and travel between Queen Mary, Catalina Landing, Rainbow Harbor and Shoreline Village. One-way fare is $1.
Orchard Hill Country Inn, San Diego
What would Southern California look like if there were no more golf courses? After years of drought, this water-conscious state is slowly starting to find out. Doubletree by Hilton Golf Resort San Diego is reinventing itself for a post-golf future as Hotel Karlan, a boutique hotel and gateway to San Diego County’s odd and interesting northeast. Hipper than its previous incarnation, Hotel Karlan will feature open floor plans and vivid colors. With a repurposed golf course, groups can take advantage of the 14,000 sq. ft. of flexible outdoor space.
“It’s an oasis in the North County for people looking to avoid the tourist traps,” says Andrew Ross, Karlan account manager. “The transformed golf course provides a unique meeting experience. We still have the big trees, the water hazards and waterfall.”
Bernardo Winery, San Diego
Nestled in the foothills of Black Mountain, the hotel is just a few miles away from San Diego’s oldest winery, Bernardo Winery, a fun, hidden treat. Groups of up to 24 can reserve private tastings. To the east, hikers make a beeline for Mount Woodson, home of the legendary Potato Chip Rock hike. Mount Woodson also boasts an eponymous “castle.” The lovely 95-year-old structure on picturesque grounds can host seated groups of up to 250.
The tiny apple-obsessed town of Julian offers many fun activities for groups. The Observer’s Inn is a bed and breakfast, but it is better known as a fully functional observatory, with guided night sky tours featuring three research grade telescopes. Hosts Mike and Caroline Leigh are knowledgeable, and the setting, far from the city lights, is ideal.
In the village local store, The Bird Watcher caters to ornithophiles in the group. A stay at local legend Orchard Hill Country Inn is highly recommended. The AAA Four Diamond property is set on lush mountain acres and can host seminars and retreats for up to 30 people.
La Quinta Resort & Club
Which came first? The Riverside County desert town of La Quinta or La Quinta Resort & Club? California and federal land surveyors thought the area was uninhabitable before Walter H. Morgan built his oasis on land he purchased from Cahuilla Indians in 1926. Many thought Morgan had gone totally mad for investing in property so far away from Los Angeles, but soon Hollywood elite, including Greta Garbo, Clark Gable and screenwriter Frank Capra, began to arrive to help put the desert village on the map.
Today, the 45-acre resort features five championship golf courses, 23 tennis courts, 41 pools, seven restaurants and a spa. There’s 190,000 sq. ft. of indoor and outdoor event space, and 796 casitas, suites and guest rooms.
Coachella Valley is still regarded by many as the weirdest place in the state per capita, but most find it fascinating. In 1953, in the desert 40 miles north of Palm Springs, George Van Tassel was reputedly visited by a 700-year old alien named Solganda who gave him plans to build a time machine. And build it he did. Over the next 20 years, Integratron was created. Constructed almost entirely of beautiful Douglas fir, the round building is 40 feet high and 55 feet around, standing as something of a modernist masterpiece.
Its perfect acoustics make it the ideal locale for sound baths, sound healing and visitors from around the globe who want to bask in its good vibrations. Perhaps fittingly, Solganda looked no more than 28 according to his host, thus kicking off a never-ending supply of youth-obsessed customers.
Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum, Joshua Tree
As the first African American to attend the prestigious California Institute of the Arts in 1953, Noah Purifoy left a lifetime of art, deeply influenced by the history of the Southland. Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum, near Joshua Tree, was built over the last 15 years of the Watts artist’s life, and contains many found objects from the 1965 Watts Riots.
Hicksville Trailer Palace, Joshua Tree
Also located in Joshua Tree, trailer park/recording studio/B&B Hicksville Trailer Palace allows guests to laze on deck chairs around a communal pool area of Astroturf and a beer vending machine before returning to one of 10 trailers for the night.
For large groups, Morongo Casino off Interstate 10 in Cabazon provides the perfect locale to access the oddness. With 272 rooms, gaming, a 12,000-square-foot ballroom and 80,000 sq. ft. of flexible meeting space, guests can venture into the desert by day and return to a fun and comfortable home base by night.
And while in Cabazon, why not visit the giant dinosaurs, Dinny and Mr. Rex? Made famous in the movie Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, the replicas were built to advertise a now-defunct diner.
Yes, Southern California has weirdness worth checking out. It’s a side of the region that often goes undiscovered—unless you’re weird, of course.
Natalie Compagno is an avid traveler and has written for The Huffington Post, Yahoo Travel and more.
Get Out of Town
Regional daytrips include the very trippy Salton Sea, technically California’s largest lake. Twice as large as Lake Tahoe, its average depth of 31 feet holds just a fraction of the water. Now rapidly shrinking, in the 1950s it drew more than 1.5 million visitors annually, more than Yosemite.
Those days are long gone, but the ruins and remnants remain a fascinating trek for geocachers and oddball enthusiasts. An entrepreneur created Bombay Beach, an Indian-themed waterfront resort town that is still, somewhat miraculously, home to 250 people.
Things keep getting weirder, and more interesting, the deeper into the desert one travels. Salvation Mountain in Niland is an ambitious folk art landmark composed of recycled materials and thousands of gallons of paint. Featured in the movie Into the Wild, the place has a hypnotic, psychedelic, apocalyptic vibe that is pure California. U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer called it “a unique and visionary sculpture…a national treasure…profoundly strange and beautifully accessible, and worthy of the international acclaim it receives.”
Charming Felicity in the Sonoran Desert is one man’s labor of love, an inspirational and yet extremely odd community named after his wife. Housing the Center of the World, the site also pays homage to pyramids, Michelangelo and the Eiffel Tower, among other things. Its Museum of History in Granite (pictured above) is reportedly in contention for World Heritage Site status.
Walk on the Weird Side
If the outdoors beckons—and it will—groups can hike, climb and rappel, from the San Bernardino Mountains to the Hollywood Hills. Southern California is a fine place for a hike, with accessible peaks up to 10,000 feet, and epic ocean and mountain views everywhere. Locals go on quests every weekend to visit the remnants of weirdoes past.
In the Angeles Crest National Forest, Pete Sykes, director of operations of Southern California Adventure Company, suggests team-building activities on the challenging San Antonio trail on Mount Baldy. Farther west, Switzer Falls is a spectacular waterfall climb that also goes by the ruins of the Mount Lowe Railway Line, a scenic tourist attraction from the 1890s. Abandoned in 1938, it is now on the National Register of Historic Places. Mount Wilson Observatory (pictured) can be reached via an arduous climb or bike ride and has a working observatory on top. Groups can arrange guided tours in advance.
In the Santa Monica Mountains, weirdness abounds. Nike Missile Defense station, off Mulholland Road, is an easy hike to a daunting relic of World War II, when the West Coast feared Japanese bombers on a nightly basis. Over in Solstice Canyon, ruins from the oldest structure in Malibu, a stone cottage from 1865 known as the Keller House, can be found on the trail.
And in Rustic Canyon, hikers find Murphy’s Ranch, the ultimate rite of passage for all newly arrived outdoor enthusiasts. The ranch was part cult, part Hitler sympathizer camp and quite possibly a German spy outpost. Whatever it was, it was well-funded as the camp hired many of Los Angeles’ most noted architects of the 1930s to build, among other things, a bomb shelter, power plant, bunkers and immense storage tanks.
Created to welcome Germany after a Third Reich victory, Los Angeles Police Department stormed the compound the day after the Pearl Harbor invasion, arresting the occupants. Visit sooner rather than later since this fascinating, derelict site is slowly being dismantled by the city.