A taste of a quick getaway

by John Pixley


It was Pie Day. It was time to go home. My friend and I had spent the weekend at a camp outside of Julian, in the mountains north of San Diego, and it was Monday morning—time to leave. Another pre-Thanksgiving stay at the camp was over.

But we weren’t just leaving, weren’t just heading home. It was time for another pre-Thanksgiving stop.

That’s because, as I told my friend, it was Pie Day. 

It started several years ago when, after leaving the camp on Monday morning, I wanted to stop off in Julian and get an apple pie. After all, the small, quaint mountain village is famous for apple pies, at least in the fall, and I had been hearing about how wonderful they were. There are several places in town selling pies, and my friend and I chose the Julian Café and Bakery, with its friendly alpine front.

Well, we got lucky. We hit the jackpot, we hit a hole in one, all on our first try. With apologies to the memory of my mother and grandmother, the Apple Crumb Pie, with apples cooked perfectly with a touch of cinnamon and with a topping like an apple crisp, is like no other apple pie I’ve had.

My grandmother would no doubt say the sweet, crunchy topping is gilding the lily. I like to gild the lily even more and eat this pie warm and with ice cream.

So leaving the camp isn’t just going home. It is, indeed, Pie Day. Taking this wonderful pie home to enjoy is a real treat, something I look forward to each year.

It is also nice that the drive home isn’t very long, about two and a half hours. And it is a pretty drive, at least until the 15 freeway. It may not be quite like going to the east coast to see the fall foliage, but there are plenty of autumnal colors to be seen before the year ends, whether on Highway 76, 78 or 79. There are also all the roadside attractions and curiosities – copper horses prancing above the bluff, signs promising the best milkshakes and cocktails in another half mile—making the drive around the bend is a trip back in time.

This distant place, with its rich colors and quiet—not to mention the best apple pie in the world, bar none—isn’t so far. In fact, Julian would make a nice day trip, a quick, serene getaway now that the busy holiday season is here. It could be another, or a new, tradition, appropriate in this season, just as picking up an apple crumb pie has become a new autumn tradition for me.

San Diego isn’t that much further. In fact, the drive down on the freeway is shorter than the winding drive up to Julian and has become another day-tripping tradition for me. A nice, surprising  bonus is that driving to San Diego is easier, often with less traffic, than driving to Los Angeles.

Food is also a highlight of this new tradition.  I leave by 8 so I get to San Diego by 10 or 10:30, in time for a big breakfast or, really, brunch, featuring French toast in particular.

For several years, I went to a restaurant in the Hillcrest neighborhood called R Gang for an outrageous French toast made with Cap’n Crunch batter and stuffed with cream cheese. Much to my dismay, I found the restaurant no longer open on my last visit, but I remembered the Crest Café, which features an assortment of adventurous French toast. I loved the French toast stuffed with marmalade and cream cheese, and topped with orange syrup on my last trip, and I’m looking forward to trying the creme brulee French toast with fresh strawberries and one concocted with lemon biscuits and blueberry sauce.

(Too bad I have to go to San Diego for this. Anyone want to take my suggestion to open a restaurant in the Village featuring adventurous French toast like this? I guarantee it would be a real hit.)

After brunch, I have gone thrift shopping while I’m in the Hillcrest neighborhood. I also have enjoyed spending an hour or two along the cliffs south of Ocean Beach and then ending up in OB, which is like Venice but gentler and sweeter with its hippie-surfer vibe. I end the day with dinner at 5 or 6 before heading back to Claremont.

This makes for a nice, surprisingly easy day trip, with San Diego’s distinct, sun-splashed, just-north-of-the-border feel. It’s far away but not too far, especially with the drive down on the 15, the best thing since sliced bread, when going down on Highway 5 once meant a three- or four-hour drive. This is usually a spring fling for me, but it could be a very nice outing during the holiday season.

I remember going whale watching with a friend in San Diego just before Christmas one year and how delightful it was to see the boats in the harbor draped with colored lights, shining on the water, as we returned in the balmy evening.

One of the nice things about Claremont is that, in addition to all that is going on, it’s not that far from places that are very different—far-off escapes that aren’t so far. There is Los Angeles, of course, with an endless array of different environments and experiences, but there’s also everything to the east of us, along the 10 and down the 15. Julian and San Diego, with their tasty treats, aren’t the only quick getaways during the holidays.

Closer than Julian but with the same far-away country feel is Oak Glen, otherwise known as Apple Valley.  With its apple orchards and cider mills, this is a real day or few hours in the country barely an hour away.  It is particularly nice at this time of year, with the apple harvest, and especially on a weekday, when there are no crowds and lots of quiet.  Of course, there is food involved (even if there are limited restaurant choices), with a piece of apple pie and a bottle of fresh cider topping the list.

Much closer, but also a different, unique taste treat for the holidays, is Graber Olives in Ontario. Yes, these distinct green olives are available in stores and online, along with other treats and gifts sold by Graber, but going to the shop with the original factory is a special back-in-time trip for those who grew up going there every Christmas. There are also those iconic nativity scenes, definitely from another time, along the center of Euclid Avenue nearby.

There are also the mountains—not only Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear Lake, but also Mt. Baldy just up the road. Even when there isn’t snow, Mt. Baldy Village is another world, cold and quiet, a mere half-hour away. And, yes, there’s a taste treat. Go up for breakfast at the Mt. Baldy Lodge and order a cinnamon roll for an extra special quick getaway.  


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