A West Coast sampler: 5 fun things to do in San Diego and Los Angeles

Updated May 13, 2016

The rows of flowers, color-blocked in lines of white, yellow, orange, pink, red and purple, stretched across the horizon like stripes on a little girl’s knee sock as the Pacific Ocean sparkled blue in the background.

The sight of it all was so unexpected, so stunning, that for a minute I got so busy trying to absorb it all that I completely forgot to breathe.

“It’s the ninth Wonder of the World. I don’t know what the eighth Wonder is, but you’re looking at the ninth,” said Fred Clarke, general manager of the Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch. “It’s 55 acres of color, almost like a living rainbow planted in flowers.”

It was only one of several breathtaking moments I experienced during a recent trip to San Diego and Los Angeles, where the area’s natural beauty and knack for surprise took center stage.

A ranunculus spectacle

Those flowers I mentioned before? They’re ranunculus flowers — and there’s about 80 million of them at the Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch.

The Flower Fields are the result of nearly 100 years of cultivation that started with Luther Gage, an early settler who brought ranunculus seeds to the area and began growing them in his fields. He passed on his passion for the flower to his neighbor, Frank Frazee, and his son, Edwin. In 1965, Edwin Frazee moved his ranunculus growing operation to the current site, which is located about 45 minutes from downtown San Diego and owned by the Ecke family.

Today, it remains a working cut-flower operation in addition to a tourist attraction and popular wedding venue. Open from March 1 to around Mother’s Day, the fields draw more than 160,000 visitors annually who test out tractor rides, a playground and a sweet pea maze and, of course, take lots of pictures.

“It truly is a remarkable floral experience. There are not a lot of places in the world where you can see that kind of saturation and quantity of brilliant color,” Clarke said. “It has a spiritual effect on people who are there. Their mouths will drop open. They’ll be blown away with what they’re seeing.”

If you want to bring back some cut flowers, they are sold at the neighboring Armstrong Garden Center.

With the Flower Fields having just closed for the 2016 season, how are Clarke and the other employees feeling?

“You’ve heard the word melancholy, right? You’re tired, and it was a great season, but then you’re sad, you’re going to miss all your friends,” Clarke said. “We wish it could go on, but the ranunculus just don’t cooperate. That’s the bloom cycle of the flower.”

At least, Clarke added, it’s never too early to start planning for next year.

“The Eckes’ wisdom and foresight really allowed the Flower Fields to turn into this symbol of what spring is all about in Southern California,” he said. “It’s our harbinger of spring. Those guys back east have Groundhog Day. We’ve got the Flower Fields.”

Info: 5704 Paseo Del Norte, Carlsbad. 760-431-0352, theflowerfields.com.

Sights and seals

It was 11 a.m. and Nancy Lee was screaming at tourists in La Jolla.

“Those are federally protected marine mammals, and you need to step 20 feet away from the seals!” Lee yelled toward the beach, where a mother harbor seal was attempting to nurse her baby. “If this mother abandons her baby that she’s trying to nurse, the baby will die. Twenty feet away! If everybody steps this way down the beach, you will be able to enjoy the seals without endangering them.”

It’s an act of love for Lee, a local artist who voluntarily polices tourists near the La Jolla Children’s Pool, a sea-walled cove originally conceived as a protected swimming area for kids that has, in recent years, become a popular spot for harbor seals and their young. (There’s a whole different issue regarding the nearby sea lions and their odors at nearly La Jolla Cove, but I’ll save that for another day.)

The Children’s Pool is undoubtedly a California gem, offering panoramic views of the sea and the life within it. As we stood with Lee, however, she pointed out several visitors that approached the mother and her pup to take pictures, some even trying to touch them.

“It is a complex issue of humans living very close to wild marine mammals,” Lee said, “and the inevitable conflicts that this seems to cause.”

We had just come from the beach and found viewing the seals to be one of the most magical parts of the trip. But while we thought we had been giving the seals plenty of space, talking to Lee helped me realize that the more space we could give them, and all of the animals that make California special, the better.

Info: 850 Coast Blvd., La Jolla. lajollabythesea.com/la-jolla-childrens-pool.

Touring with TMZ

TMZ has carved a niche for itself as one of the most trusted — and sleazy — sources of breaking celebrity news, so when our family decided to try out a celebrity tour during our time in Los Angeles, the TMZ Hollywood Tour seemed like the way to go.

During the tour, tour guide Laila Lopez enthusiastically pointed out a lot of places where celebrities have gone. In-N-Out Burger on Sunset, where celebrities like to eat after a night on the town! The corner of Sunset and Courtney, where Hugh Grant allegedly picked up Divine Brown! Chateau Marmont, where Lindsay Lohan supposedly racked up a $46,000 bill! As we passed each location, TMZ clips related to that spot would play on the in-bus TV.

Over the course of the two-hour tour, we did not, however, see anyone remotely close to a celebrity. (Side note: When we were flying out of LAX my husband thinks he might have spotted Dog the Bounty Hunter, so at least there’s that?)

Lopez, who warned us from the beginning that it “was not a classy tour,” was, however, an engaging and entertaining host, and the tour did offer an interesting introduction to some popular celebrity hangouts as well as our first glimpse of the famous Hollywood sign.

The biggest highlight of the tour to me, however, was the quick stop we made at the Abbey Food & Bar, where we received chocolate cookies with TMZ written on the top in white icing. Celebrity sightings might be few and far between, but you can never go wrong with cookies.

Info: Tours leave multiple times daily from the TCL Chinese Theatre. 855-486-9868, tmz.com/tour.

Inside Slimmons Studio

When I found out you could take a drop-in fitness class at Richard Simmons’ Slimmons Studio in Beverly Hills, I couldn’t think of a better way to get a workout while on vacation. Especially since, according to his website, Simmons frequently teaches the classes himself.

A few days after I signed up, I received an email letting me know that Simmons has actually been on sabbatical for the past two years and isn’t currently teaching classes. A few days after that, rumors started swirling that Simmons was being held hostage in his own home.

I didn’t know what to think about all that, but I knew I still wanted to take a class at the studio, where so many people inspired by Simmons have walked through the door and decided to make a total life change.

My class, held on Sunday morning, was called Sweat Plus! (Tip: The Beverly Hills Farmers’ Market is held right down the street from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Sundays and makes for a fun post-class stroll.)

The hourlong class featured a spectacular best-of-the-’80s music mix including “Jump (For My Love),” “Beat It,” “Whip It” and “Caribbean Queen” that alone was worth the visit.

Despite the stellar tunes in the background and the disco ball hanging overhead, however, I quickly realized that I was in over my head compared to my classmates, who were several decades older than me and had way, way better moves.

“How are you doing over there, Kristin?” my instructor asked as she noticed me struggling to keep up with her speedy combination of aerobics, dance and toning. I choked out a response.

“Just moving, that’s all that matters,” she said encouragingly. “Just as long as you have a good time.”

At one point I got so far behind what the rest of the class was doing that I simply started spinning circles on the studio floor.

After the class ended and I walked past the fitting for-sale T-shirts proclaiming “Richard Simmons Kicked My Butt,” I was shocked to find that not only had I gotten a great workout, but I had also had a blast. The morning had provided a fitting sample of the inclusive, encouraging brand that Simmons spent his career building, and I was glad to see that the spirit lives on, even in his current absence.

Info: 9306 Civic Center Drive, Beverly Hills. 310-275-4663, richardsimmons.com.

Books and bodices

Sisters Bea and Leah Koch have always loved books but couldn’t help noticing a void in the selection of romance titles available at typical bookstores.

Craving more variety, they turned to Kickstarter to help them raise money to open the first exclusively romance bookstore in the country.

They ultimately raised more than $91,000 and officially opened the doors to “The Ripped Bodice” in Culver City in March.

The store is home to hundreds of books in subgenres that include demons, paranormal and music, as well as more than a few books with “Texas” in the title. (“Texas Mail Order Bride,” anyone?) You’ll also find gift items, cards, jewelry and more.

I had no idea what to expect from a “romance bookstore,” so I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was warm, trendy and enlightening. There was even an area just for kids, complete with coloring pages.

Info: 3806 Main St., Culver City. therippedbodicela.com.