Southern California’s Temecula Valley dazzles visitors with world-class wineries, old-town charm and a pair of top-notch RV-friendly casinos
Somewhere between “off the beaten path” and “travel spots we can’t believe we overlooked” lies a delightful destination boasting a burgeoning wine country, charming Old Town and an outdoor playground high atop a plateau. Just an hour’s drive from San Diego’s coastal paradise and Palm Springs’ desert utopia, tucked in the foothills of Southern California, sits the Temecula Valley. For years we heard praises about Temecula’s wine country, but didn’t realize what we missed until we visited on a whim one day. “What a pleasant surprise!” I exclaimed, feeling like a latecomer to a party. We took the back route in past farmland, grazing sheep and dairies. Slowly, pleasantly, the terrain transformed into rolling hills as the two-lane road ribboned between orange groves and fence-lined estates. Vineyards beckoned us toward an eclectic cache of wineries from stately villas to country-style homes fringed with spacious decks. What else could we do but venture in?
Wine Country Gala
“It sounds like the vines are singing!” I commented, stepping out of our dinghy vehicle at Doffo Winery. “They are,” my music-loving husband, Greg, laughed. Speakers set among the vineyards filled the air with tunes, a nice welcome. We walked past the barrel room and encountered an impressive display of vintage motorcycles suspended in rows along the exterior walls. It was all part of a self-guided tour. So far, so fun – and we hadn’t even entered the tasting room yet.
Sunshine streamed through misty skies, just like ancient legends proclaim. Temecula, derived from a LuiseÃ±o Indian word, means “sunlight through the mist.” And that is the secret to this flourishing wine country. In this desert region, known as the rainbow gap, cool air flows in from the coast, creating a microclimate perfect for grape cultivation, with warm daytime temperatures and crisp nights. The first winery, Bella Vista, planted its first vineyard in 1968 and opened its doors in 1978; today there are more than 40, with expectations to exceed 100 in the near future. From intimate settings like Lorenzi Estate Vineyards and Winery to South Coast Winery Resort & Spa’s luxurious restaurant and hotel, Temecula’s wine country offers so much pageantry to enhance your tasting experience. Enjoy live music on the patio, picnics in parklike settings, gourmet wine-paired meals, hot air balloon excursions, horseback riding through the lush countryside or a horse-drawn carriage tour with a chilled bottle of wine. But don’t let the festivities fool you; these award-winning vintners are passionate about their vines and wines. Rather than share our favorites, we’ll leave you to swirl and sip your way through this acclaimed wine region in search of your own. A choice wine is, after all, in the palate of the taster. Tastings run from $10 to $15 for a flight of wine. Some wineries charge $20 on weekends but that doesn’t seem to diminish the crowds. The Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association’s website, www.temeculawines.org, is an excellent trip-planning tool and includes a map along with information on self-guided and guided tours, dining, special events and activities. Our discovery of Temecula’s wine country inspired us to don our treasure-hunter hats and explore the valley over several weeks to see what other jewels it held.
Old Town Festivities
Temecula’s Old Town greeted us with a lively mixture of antique charm and nouveau spirit. The colorful, historic buildings harbor boutiques and eclectic shops, while a cornucopia of restaurants serve up delectable feasts satisfying a wide range of tastes, with ambiances to match. Savor award-winning burgers at Mad Madeline’s Grill with streetside counter seating, Crush & Brew’s artisan cuisine paired with locally crafted beer and wine, The Bank Mexican Restaurant & Bar’s authentic fare in the historic First National Bank building or a host of other tasty eateries. Patio dining abounds, tempting one’s appetite while music wafts through the air adding to the festive mood.
We strolled along Old Town Front Street to a light jazz tune, seeking the unique and unusual. From flavored olive oil and vinegar tastings at Temecula Olive Oil Co. to a trove of unique gifts at The Farmer’s Wife mercantile, the town sports a delightful array of shops sure to turn browsers into buyers. The alluring scent of lavender enticed us into Temecula Lavender Co., brimming with a potpourri of everything lavender: lotions, bath salts, soaps, essential oils, candles and more. Proprietor Jan Schneider shared how her family’s use and passion for this herb inspired them to start a small lavender farm in the Temecula wine country and create lavender products for all to enjoy.
Colorful, crooked letters invite visitors to Pennypickle’s Workshop, where a cacophony of music, clanging, laughter, chimes and the distant rumble of an earthquake welcomed us into the 7,500-square-foot home of the elusive, imaginary professor Phineas T. Pennypickle, master scientist. What a find! Kids of all ages and their fun-loving parents pushed buttons, turned dials and played with contraptions of all sorts as they roamed through the professor’s 11-room house-turned-workshop. My favorite, The Library, with a “Time and Travel” theme, featured a time machine and fireplace portal leading to a black-lighted maze filled with other time travelers. The Kitchen displayed a mess of the professor’s chemistry and physics experiments. Under their father’s watchful gaze, a couple of tyke architects stacked “biscuits” carefully on a metal plate and pushed the earthquake button to see if their building would survive. For the enjoyment of all, the children’s museum manages the number of visitors with several two-hour sessions throughout the day and is open Tuesday through Sunday. It is not necessary to preregister unless you are booking a large group or party. For a nominal entrance fee of $5 (free for children younger than 3), Pennypickle’s Workshop is a fun adventure for all ages and a great way to keep young travelers entertained. Check out www.pennypickles.org for more information.
For those who enjoy the footlights, Old Town Temecula Community Theater presents a full score of live jazz, dance, comedy and musicals. For performance schedules, go to www.temeculatheater.org or call 866-653-8696.
A Gallery Treat
Just footsteps from the theater, we discovered a gallery of famed metal sculptor Ricardo Breceda, known for his lifesize and larger-than-life sculptures depicting prehistoric mammals, wild horses, mythical creatures, raptors and even a 350-foot-long sea serpent in the Borrego Springs, California, desert. To our delight, we learned his 20-acre Jurassic Park gallery is newly located a short drive from Old Town on U.S. Highway 79 in Aguanga. We bid the city farewell and set off for the hills. A full-size stagecoach pulled by a team of horses marked the gallery’s location for our visit, and the menagerie of creatures filling the field was hard to miss. Stallions, frozen in time, reared up, manes flying in the wind. Wild horses galloped toward the road, freeze-framed in mid-jump. The display may differ on your visit. For more information visit www.ricardobreceda.com.
Country Stars or City Lights
When you retreat to your motorhome after a fun-filled day, do you prefer a casual country setting, an upscale resort in the heart of the city or a luxury resort offering a blend of both? Graciously, the area offers all, anchored by Lake Skinner Recreation Area, north of the wine country; Pechanga Resort & Casino, south of Old Town; and Pala Casino Spa & Resort, south of Temecula.
Lake Skinner, a serene setting with 184 full-hookup sites, 16 water and electric sites, and 41 water-only sites, offers plenty of day-use and extended-stay activities including bicycling, kayaking and boating. Hiking and horseback riding (bring your own horse) along a 6-mile equestrian park trail is available from the end of May through November. Lake swimming is not permitted, but youngsters may quench the summer’s heat at the Splash Pad near the playground. Don’t forget your fishing rod, as fishing is the park’s most popular year-round activity. Striped bass, largemouth bass, carp and bluegill inhabit the lake. Catfish are stocked in the summer, as are trout in the winter. Boat rentals are available at the camp store marina. Lake Skinner hosts the annual Temecula Valley Balloon & Wine Festival (www.tvbwf.com ) in May. We recommend checking the park’s website (www.rivcoparks.org/parks) for rules, regulations, schedules and special events when planning your trip. Please note that as of press time, the water levels at Lake Skinner were very low due to drought conditions; check the website for updates and call 800-234-7275 for information on the Splash Pad.
Pechanga Resort & Casino, nestled at the base of the foothills, offers an elegant city setting with dazzling casino and theater entertainment, a full menu of restaurants, luxurious spa facilities, a well-appointed fitness center and breathtaking views from its 18-hole championship golf course, Journey. The RV resort, tucked a short distance from the casino, features 168 full-service, spacious 18-by-55-foot sites with manicured lawns. Amenities include a heated pool with two spas and a shuttle service with at-site pickup available 24/7. Guests may also practice their golf swing at Journey’s practice facilities at no additional charge.
With its grand opening this past May, Pala Casino Spa & Resort’s RV Resort is the area’s new rising star. Framed by the Palomar Mountains, Pala is known for its serene setting and a score of live concerts, special events and entertainment. Guests may indulge in a variety of venues including jazz in the underground Wine Cave, tribute bands in the 2,000-seat events center, outdoor concerts at the Starlight Theater and a medley of popular artists in several lounges. The Starlight Theater also plays host to the resort’s Food & Wine Festival (August 20 this year). Dining in the resort’s 10 restaurants features tastes from around the world. We had the pleasure of previewing the 10-acre, 100-site luxury RV Resort prior to its completion. All sites are full-service, stretching 20 feet wide and up to 70 feet in length, with grass lawns, picnic tables and free Wi-Fi and cable TV. Amenities include a heated pool, two spas, horseshoe pit, barbecue grill areas and an indoor game room. For an additional fee, guests may celebrate special events in the clubhouse that features two meeting rooms complete with kitchens. A complimentary casino shuttle is available 24/7. Our travels carried us away prior to the resort’s debut, but we hope to return soon.
Take a Hike
If Temecula’s bustling activities leave you yearning for nature’s solitude, take heart. Better yet, take a hike in a nearby park. We explored the Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve, located about 14 miles northwest of Old Town Temecula near the city of Murrieta, on a windy day. After a short visitor center briefing we chased our hats across the parking lot at Vernal Pool Trailhead and began our trek to the historic adobes shaded by a 400-year-old oak tree. Bicycling, horseback riding and dog walking are permitted in a separate multiuse area. Our easy-to-moderate 4.6-mile round-trip hike over rolling hills and oak tree-speckled meadows was an ideal way to unwind. Prices for a day pass run $4 per adult, and $3 for kids between 2 and 12 years of age.
Relaxing in the shade of the ancient oak, we reflected on the Temecula Valley’s appeal. Its wine country extravaganza, boutiques, art galleries, local craft breweries, live theater, cuisine, impressive special events calendar, natural recreation areas and RV camping under stars and city lights make it a place where visitors can create their own unique travel adventure. And yes, the Temecula Valley remains a travel spot we can’t believe we overlooked!
The city of Temecula is located off Interstate 15 in Southern California. From Los Angeles, take U.S. Highway 91 east to I-15 south; it’s about 35 minutes from the interchange to Temecula. From the Palm Springs area, take state Route 111 west to Interstate 10 west, merge on to Highway 60 west, then take Interstate 215 south to I-15 south.
For More Information
City of Temecula
951-694-6444 | www.cityoftemecula.org/temecula/visitors
Pala Casino RV Resort
844-472-5278 | www.palacasino.com/resort/rv-resort
Visit Temecula Valley
888-363-2852 | www.visittemeculavalley.com