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Palm Springs alternative: weekend escape in Temecula

An abundance of flavors awaits at the Temecula Olive Oil Company.
An abundance of flavors awaits at the Temecula Olive Oil Company.
Jenna Rose Robbins

When the girlfriends and I decided to get away for the weekend, our first thought had been to get ourselves some glam hotel rooms in Palm Springs, stake our claim on some poolside chaises, and drink ourselves silly with strong fruity concoctions adorned with umbrellas and fruit. But with lodging prices soaring upwards of $300 a night, we decided to look elsewhere -- and we found Temecula.

The first, and only, time I'd ever visited Temecula, I'd left underwhelmed. Ten years ago, my traveling companion and I stopped in for some grub after visiting the (literal, not figurative) oasis in nearby Anza-Borrego. This was before smartphones, so we picked a place at random and ended up at Texas Lil's, a greasy spoon of a restaurant that was jumpin' on account of the nightly karaoke. Thus, my only impression of Temecula consisted of drunken locals warbling country tunes while I ate a lackluster salad, the only vegetarian item I could find on the menu.

I shouldn't have judged Temecula by that one lone experience, especially since it's done some growin'-up in the decade since I've visited. This time around, the initial draw of the small, historic town was its proximity to Glen Ivy Hot Springs, about a half hour's drive up I-15 in Corona. And the spa did not disappoint. We spent several hours more there than we had planned, indulging in the Jacuzzi-warm waters of the mineral springs, taking the plunge in the hot and cold pools, and slathering ourselves in red clay that left our skin feeling baby's-bottom soft. But what surprised us were Temecula's other gems, not the least of which was the quality of the wine.

All of my traveling companions, myself included, would consider ourselves wine snobs to some degree, and even though Temecula touts its wines as one of its biggest attractions, we put as much stock in their claims as we would have a restaurant bragging it had the best Mexican food in Des Moines: The claim might be true, but the only other Mexican food of note in Des Moines is most likely Taco Bell. (Note: I actually had fabulous Mexican food in Des Moines when I drove cross country, but I chalk that up to the chef being a native Angeleno.)

With recommendations from friends in hand, we headed out to Hart Winery, just a short drive from the Temecula Creek Inn, where we made camp. Ten bucks got us six different wines and a souvenir glass, as well as all the oyster crackers we could eat. And these wine snobs were impressed, particularly with the Tres Hermanos, named for the three owners. The Rhone-style blend was both bold and smooth, with just the right amount of flavor. Being on a budget, I regretted not buying a bottle, but it's in my notes for the next time I visit.

With the intent to sample some more of the local libations, we hailed a cab from our hotel to downtown, which looked like an Old West version of the Sunset Strip from all the Saturday-night traffic. Our first option for dinner, Public House, wouldn't take a phone reservation, and by the time we arrived, the wait was an astounding hour and a half. (An hour and a half. In Temecula!) After strolling the quaint streets of the historic district, we opted for Crush and Brew, mainly for the drink options. While we left satisfied with our meal, we were a little off-put by the LA prices for food that was not of LA quality. A few bucks less on each dish would have been more appropriate, but that's what you get when you go foraging without a plan.

After breakfast at our hotel, whose front-desk staff was so friendly it felt as if we'd landed in Mayberry, we headed back to town to further explore the historic section of downtown Temecula, which maintains a remarkable authenticity. Even the newer buildings keep up Old West appearances so that it's hard to distinguish the original from the recently built -- which is how it should be. Antique stores abound, and I didn't notice a single chain in the whole burg. Sometimes zoning laws prove warranted.

We'd heard tales of fabulous olive oil in town, so we beelined for the Temecula Olive Oil Company, located in one of the town's historic buildings, complete with old-timey wrap-around porch and, as luck would have it on the day we were visiting, a trio of musicians performing bluegrass in honor of that weekend's festival. As at Hart, we bellied up to the counter for our tastings, ready to partake in the delights of the mighty olive.

And delighted we were. So delighted, in fact, that we each stocked up on our favorites. Although I enjoyed the basil-infused olive oil the best, my budget-minded brain forced me to go with the sampler pack, which allowed me to bring home three delish flavors: olivum (a late-harvest oil that tastes like springtime in a bottle), roasted garlic, and blood orange, which I plan to use on my salads.

Just down the block was another botanical delight, the Temecula Lavender Company. (Temecula businesses either lack originality when it comes to their company names or they're terribly search-engine savvy.) Lavender being one of my favorite scents, I could have gone crazy and blown the bank on anything from home fragrance to lavender pepper. But, for once, I showed some fiscal restraint.

As I drove back to Los Angeles, visions of all the delectables I could have -- should have -- bought danced in my head. Next time I visit Temecula, I told myself, I'll do some damage. Because there will be a next time, and I'll come with a nice full bank account.

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