This isn’t what I had envisioned at all. I’ve never been to the Golden State before, and when I land in Los Angeles, it doesn’t match the sparkling California from my fantasies. L.A. is gritty.

We hit all the tourist traps and landmarks just to say we did them, but that’s not why we’re here. My mom has always loved California, especially L.A., but on this girls’ trip, we’re really here to discover the lesser-known side of the Golden State — the underrated, hidden gems.

Driving down the Pacific Coast Highway is an experience in its own right. I peel my eyes away from the road to steal glances at the rugged coastline, rising and falling. Dramatic cliffs slope into stretches of sandy beach; white-capped waves crash against the shore. An abundance of palm trees decorate the landscape.

The Gold Coast in California

We’re heading to wine country. No, not Napa. We’re nearing Temecula Valley where the scenery morphs into a landscape I’ve never seen in real life before. The seemingly endless rolling hills are streaked with rows of grape vines and peppered with narrow trees. This sun-drenched scape could be mistaken for Tuscany.

In Napa, you’ll find the large estate wineries with big names you’ll likely recognize from the shelves at the LCBO. Temecula is Napa’s down-to-earth, cool little sister — with equally top-notch wines. At only around 134-square-kilometres, this intimate wine region is home to more than 40 wineries, producing hundreds of award-winning wines. Here you’ll find charming and rustic family-owned farm wineries, like our first stop, Peltzer Winery.

The rolling hills in Temecula, California

Inside the farmhouse, the vaulted ceilings, exposed Edison bulbs and tractor-themed décor set the beautiful, rustic scene. But as cold-drenched Canadians, we want to soak up every drop of golden California sunshine we can, so we snag a seat on the patio next to a bubbling fountain surrounded by the scenery I just can’t get enough of. We sip our way through their delicious whites and reds. I love California cabs so it’s no surprise their cab sauv is my favourite.

Our next winery is also our hotel. Across the street from Europa Village, perched high atop a steep hill and nestled amongst lush greenery is The Inn at Europa Village. The hilltop hideaway is reminiscent of a European countryside escape, the spacious rooms outfitted with French country décor.

The wines here are just as charming. I usually stick to reds, but the La Scappatella sparkling wine blows me away — enough to stuff two bottles into my suitcase.

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Full of wine and giggles, we Uber to downtown Temecula to stroll the strip. Cute shops beckon us in, and I can’t help buying a bottle of the best olive oil I’ve ever tasted from Temecula Olive Oil Company. Wine isn’t the only delicious fluid to come out of California — the state is also a world-class olive oil producer.

But the drinking isn’t done yet for the day. At Crush & Brew, we go through a secret door and back in time to Thompson & Twain Prospecting Co., a saloon straight out of the Wild West. Leaning heavy into bourbon, rye and gin to fit the time period, the craft cocktails here are phenomenal. Admittedly, they’re so good, I drink more than I should before calling it a night.

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It feels like I’ve only just closed my eyes when my alarm starts blaring into the 4 a.m. darkness. The wine and cocktails from yesterday slosh around uneasily in my stomach and my head hums. I drag myself through my morning routine before hitting the dark and winding road to Vindemia Winery, the meeting place for our California Dreamin’ hot air balloon adventure.

From there, we hop into the van that will take us to the launch site. Our pilot is Dylan Bradley, the son of California Dreamin’ co-owners David and Gail Bradley. On the drive, he tells us about his experience flying balloons for more than 15 years and walks us through the safety precautions. I try to pay attention, but every bump in the road causes another swell in my stomach. Is it the wine, the early morning wakeup or fear that’s tying this knot in my belly? Finally, we reach our destination: an unmarked field in the middle of nowhere.

We mill about in the field watching Bradley and his team go through the rigorous feat of preparing what is essentially a cloth balloon and a wicker basket for flight. In the air. Just the thought of it gets my stomach turning again.

The California Dreamin' team takes down a hot air balloon in Temecula

The balloon starts fluttering on the grass, reminding me of those parachutes from elementary school gym class that provided endless fun. Only, this isn’t something to be played with. The balloon begins to grow, swelling larger and larger as it fills with air. As it subsumes the field, the horizon and everything else in sight, it finally dawns on me just how ginormous this balloon really is. This is a serious flying machine that will be going up high. Really high.

A wave of chills runs down my spine. My mouth starts to water. And I’m hot — too hot for being outside in the cold darkness of the early morning. Everything starts to spin and the horrifyingly large balloon blurs away. I’m vomiting. Right there in the field for everyone to see. The other passengers, mostly couples eagerly awaiting a romantic sunrise hot air balloon ride, were probably not expecting their day to start like this.

I feel like crawling back into the van and waiting for this all to be over. I’ve always been plagued by anxiety and I’ve had a debilitating fear of heights my entire life. I always miss out on the best rides at amusement parks and waterparks. I can barely ride the Ferris wheel without trembling. Even tall buildings and elevators get me sometimes.

But I’ve already come this far. So, I say fuck it; fear isn’t going to win this one.

I chug back some water, slosh it around to rinse my mouth and pop in a breath mint. Luckily, I managed to get all of my upchuck into the field and not on my clothing (that would have been a deal-breaker). Let’s do this.

It’s time for us to board. The crew helps us climb into the basket, which is divided into two rows inside. The 12 of us stand shoulder to shoulder, six on each side, all facing out into the morning air.

It’s time for liftoff. Our pilot pulls the lever and the roaring flame screams into the balloon. This isn’t an airplane, there’s no jarring takeoff. We merely start to float, rising as slowly and steadily as an elevator. Only it keeps going higher, and higher. There’s no going back now.

The view from a hot air balloon in Temecula

The sun begins to peek out from behind the mountains, illuminating Temecula’s curving green landscape. Rows upon rows of grape vines glisten in the early morning rays. The plots get smaller as we continue to rise, everything blending into a textured emerald sea stretching as far as the eye can see. We reach 3,000 feet; so high in the sky, I can almost see the curvature of the earth. Other hot air balloons decorate the sky with their colourful hues. I breathe a sigh of relief. Up here, floating in the still morning is pure calming serenity.

Back on the ground, after a smooth landing, we toast the morning’s adventures with mimosas, while the crew deflates the balloon. Despite my minor panic attack before the flight, I was in very capable hands. Our skilled pilot Bradley and his crew handled everything with the utmost professionalism and care. We all share a laugh and a drink before heading back to the hotel.

It’s only 9 a.m. and I am exhausted. It isn’t long before I’m asleep in my bed.

Seals sunbathing in La Jolla

In the afternoon, we hit the road for San Diego. But first, a brief stopover in La Jolla. We park the car and walk along the rugged shoreline. Below us, the cliff face gives way to sandy stretches of beach where swells of ocean water beat against the shore. The air is refreshingly cold and salty on this hot day. We stroll along, drinking in all the coastal beauty with thirsty eyes, until we spot them: seals!

Dozens and dozens of seals lay on the large rocks jutting out from the water. They stay perfectly still, soaking in the sunshine, until a wave crashes in, the cold spray causing them to perk up for a moment before returning to their peaceful sunbathing. I could watch them forever, especially the little ones flopping their way along the beach, but it’s time to pile back into the car.

We arrive in San Diego, the California that I had dreamed of: palm trees, jacarandas and a walkable waterfront

We finally arrive in San Diego, and this is it. The California that I had dreamed of. The walkable waterfront is lined with bubbling fountains, palm trees sway in the sunshine and the streets are brought to life with blossoming purple jacarandas everywhere I look.

A shrimp dish at Seneca in San Diego, California
Seafood pasta at Seneca in San Diego, California

We eat our way through San Diego’s culinary exploits: brunch at the funky and immensely popular Morning Glory, high-flying sushi at Lionfish, Mediterranean coastal cuisine at Callie, tableside hand-stretched mozzarella cheese at the immaculately decorated Seneca Trattoria, a gin tasting at You & Yours Distillery. We check off Little Italy, the trendy Gaslamp Quarter and Mission Valley. And then we finally get to Barrio Logan.

Street art in Barrio Logan, San Diego, California

Walking down Logan Avenue, this neighbourhood is decidedly different from the rest of San Diego. One of 14 designated California Cultural Districts, Barrio Logan is bursting with authentic Mexican-American culture, art and cuisine. We pass cute shops full of handmade treasures, art galleries and colourful street art so alluring, I have to stop and stare. The neighbourhood is rundown, but hidden behind the grit of economic struggle is a community full of creativity, vibrancy and resilience.

In the 1960s, the thriving Mexican-American community was divided when a major highway was built straight through the heart of the neighbourhood. The residents were promised a park as recompense, but instead, the San Diego-Coronado Bridge was constructed over the neighbourhood, hoisted up by giant concrete pillars and blocking out the sun. Then the park was set to be created under the bridge, but when construction started on a state building instead, there was a community uprising. They occupied the site and painted giant murals on the concrete pillars. Eventually, the community was able to reclaim the site, and Chicano Park was built.

A mural of Frida Kahlo in Chicano Park, San Diego, California
A mural in Chicano Park, San Diego, California

As I walk through Chicano Park, the home of the largest Chicano (a term for Americans of Mexican descent) mural collection in the world, the weight of these towering paintings hits me in the chest. One reads, “All the way to the Bay.”

Of all San Diego’s neighbourhoods that are adjacent to the bay, Barrio Logan is the only one without access to the waterfront. Colourful and captivating, the murals depict scenes of Mexican culture and life. They’re beautiful pieces of art, but more than that, they also tell a story of resilience, perseverance and a community banding together.

Scratch the surface, wander off the beaten path and you’ll discover a whole different side of the Golden state

California isn’t the star-studded lights of Hollywood or the Gold Coast. It has layers. Scratch the surface, wander off the beaten path, and you’ll discover a whole different side of the Golden State. This isn’t the California I had fantasized about — it’s so much better.