Culinary Institute of America at Copia
Bob McClenahan Photography/The CIA at Copia

8 Great Learning Vacations in California

8 Great Learning Vacations in California
Cook like a pro, make cheese, or even get on a Hollywood stage at one of these fun classes

Everyone knows that if you want to learn to surf, California is the place to do it. But the great talent that the Golden State has to offer is hardly limited to beaches, bikinis, and boards. For starters, there are movie stars, world-class chefs, and no shortage of artisan foods—plus all that wine. It has all the makings of a California-style educational vacation. 

Indeed, classes abound where you can soak up some of the local ingenuity and craftsmanship. At farms all over the state, for instance, “agritourism experiences vary from indulgent to nitty-gritty,” says Erin Mahoney Harris, author of the book Visit California Farms: Your Guide to Farm Stays, Tours, and Hands-On Workshops. “You can book a farm stay in a gorgeous farmhouse, try your hand at milking a goat, learning about raising chickens, or keeping bees.” In the desert, meanwhile, you can get behind the wheel of an M series BMW with a pro and learn how to steer your way out of a hydroplane. (“We have a 300-by-300-foot skid pad that we flood with water,” says Natalie Popkin, a spokesperson for BMW Performance Driving School.) Or, you can take to a stage in L.A. and learn how to work an audience at a Hollywood-based school for improv.

Gaining knowledge is all part of getting to know California—and perhaps yourself in the process. When planning your next California vacation, check out these cool educational travel experiences, listed north to south, that are also a lot of fun. (Then, check out our list of educational travel experiences just for kids.)

 

Blend Your Own Wine

Wine Tree Farm, Amador City

Less than an hour from Sacramento in the Shenandoah Valley, you can sip Zinfandels that date back to the Gold Rush era. Visit the wineries and tasting rooms in Amador and El Dorado counties and it’s likely that your glass will be poured by the winemaker him or herself. One of those winemakers is Corinne Moore, who offers a two-hour wine blending class multiple times per month at her off-the-grid, solar-powered winery. After tasting and learning the history of three wines—Syrah, Grenache, and Mourverde—Moore will help you create a blend that suits your tastes, and then you can take it home.

Best time to visit: Classes are held on Sundays, and the tasting room is open Friday through Sunday. If there’s not a date on the winery's calendar that works for you, Wine Tree encourages you to call or email to set up a private blending class.

Don’t miss: Plan a full afternoon of wine tasting—Amador City is close to more than 40 wineries in Amador County.

 

Cook Like a Pro

The Culinary Institute of America at Copia, Napa

You don’t have to be a professional chef to tap into the skills taught at the world-famous Culinary Institute of America, which was founded in 1946. This 80,000-square-foot campus—which opened in 2016 in downtown Napa’s bustling Oxbow district—offers dozens of classes on a variety of topics, which change seasonally and last up to 90 minutes. Learn from the pros how to make fresh pasta from scratch (think pappardelle and ravioli) and select the best sauces to match. Or discover what happens when you pair 16 different food components (i.e., salt, spice, sweet, acid, fat) with four styles of wine.

Best time to visit: There’s at least one session daily, usually in the afternoons or evenings, with about 15 to 30 students. Costs start at $15 per person, including food and/or wine samples.

Don’t miss: Bring the kids with you on a Sunday for a Family Funday cooking class—like Brunch Batters, where guests of all ages learn how to make pancakes, waffles, or mac & cheese.

 

Make Your Own Mozzarella

Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company, Marin County

As the country’s top dairy producer, California isn’t short on cows—or on resulting fresh cheeses. You can find all the necessary ingredients to make your own ricotta, mozzarella, crème fraîche, cultured butter, and more at the Point Reyes’ Farmstead Cheese Company, which overlooks the beautiful Tomales Bay in Marin County. The 720-acre, family-owned farmstead is home to about 400 cows, which are milked daily. The dairy began making cheese in 2000, and a culinary and education center called The Fork launched in 2010. Public and private events include culinary classes, walking farm tours, cheese tastings, farm dinners, and farm brunches.

Best time to visit: About 10 to 12 events are offered every quarter, year-round.

Don’t miss: The Friday Farm Tour Series takes place every week from May 1 to October 31 at 1:30 p.m., rain or shine ($25 per person). The family-friendly event features ice cream sandwiches, a 45-minute walking tour, selfies with livestock, and cheese tasting on the patio.

 

Live and Cook Like a Farmer

Rancho Dos Amantes, Monterey County

If you’re new to farm stays, the beautiful bed-and-breakfast at Rancho Dos Amantes, 15 minutes from Lake Nacimiento, is a great introduction. Collect eggs from the hen house, milk a Nubian goat, pick apples or berries, and sink your teeth into the ripe fruit right there. Relax in the evenings with a cooking class in the Red Barn Kitchen (ask about their popular no-knead bread recipe), a glass of award-winning local wine, or s'mores by the fire pit. Life on the 40-acre ranch is pretty simple but sweet.

Best time to visit: Cooking classes are small, ranging from 6 to 10 students, and are available whenever the two gardens and 24 raised beds are abundant. Costs start at $215 per person for one night during the week, including breakfast and a cooking class.

Don’t miss: Rancho Dos Amantes also offers cheese-making classes, upon request, using fresh goats’ milk.

 

Paint a Masterpiece

Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara

Whether you’re a natural with a paintbrush or, well, you’re not, you’re welcome to color inside or outside the lines as part of the new Swirl N’ Savor art class offered at the Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara, the grand-dame resort that dates back to 1927. Overlooking the Pacific Ocean and Channel Islands, the 22-acre property makes a fabulous artist’s studio. With the help of an instructor from downtown's The Painted Cabernet, you’re guaranteed success with a step-by-step (and sip-by-sip) plan to recreate a featured painting.

Best time to visit: Check The Painted Cabernet’s calendar for dates and times. Rates start at $65 per person for approximately 90 minutes, including a glass of wine, some cheese and charcuterie, and art materials. (You don’t have to stay at the hotel, either, to take the class.)

Don’t miss: Afterward, stay for lunch or dinner at the resort’s al fresco Bella Vista; or check out its Ty Lounge, which offers Spanish tapas and high-concept cocktails, like the 8 Barrels with aged Breaker bourbon, maple syrup, lemon, and nutmeg.

 

Get On Stage

Actor’s Improv Studio, Hollywood

Learn how to get a laugh (and keep ’em rolling) at the Actor’s Improv Studio in North Hollywood. Founder, owner, and head teacher Bill Applebaum is a Second City Chicago alum who has appeared in feature films (such as Pretty Woman), guest-starred on Seinfeld, and written for The Carol Burnett Show. Of course, there’s more to improv than getting a chuckle: In addition to teaching you to think on your feet, an improv class can help you build confidence while remaining calm and in control. 

Best time to visit: Thursday night’s class is dedicated to people who are not actors, but want to learn improv for fun, career enhancement, or to build self-confidence. If you’re an actor, Mondays or Tuesdays are ideal for you. Rates start at $45 per person for a single three-hour class. Private coaching, workshops, and special events are also available.

Don’t miss: Grab a drink with your new friends at one of the awesome bars within walking distance—including The Federal Bar, a bank building from the 1920s that’s now a modern speakeasy.

 

Become a Salt Expert

Terranea Resort, Rancho Palos Verdes

You can’t live without salt—and not just to sate those French-fry cravings. Learn about the history and importance of this essential mineral, and how to savor it with wine, at an intimate epicurean workshop at the Sea Salt Conservatory, part of the oceanfront Terranea Resort in L.A. County. The hotel’s natural evaporation greenhouse was created in 2015 to produce the resort’s own signature salt (approximately 300 pounds per year) from the Pacific. The workshops are open to eight students per session; each includes a sea-salt tasting (including pure, smoked, Meyer-lemon-flavored, and herb-infused variations) and a pairing with a glass of Napa Valley-based ONEHOPE wine.

Best time to visit: Workshops are held on the first Saturday of the month at 10 a.m. Rates start at $70 per person for two hours.

Don’t miss: Make time for the resort’s spa treatments, like the 90-minute Terranea Seaside Renewal, with a special sea-salt scrub that’s high in magnesium, zinc, potassium, copper, and iron.

  

Drive Like a Pro Racer

BMW Performance Driving School, Greater Palm Springs

Live out your “fast and furious” dreams on the 1.4-mile road course at the BMW Performance Driving School, nestled between the Santa Rosa Mountains and Joshua Tree National Park. Its 32-acre training facility offers classes to driving enthusiasts of all skill levels (and even teens). Burn rubber in a powerful M car, and in the process, learn life-saving skills—like emergency braking and how to get yourself out of a real hydroplane situation—all under the keen supervision of a BMW-certified driving instructor. Choose from three high-performance classes, ranging from one hour to two days. Classes average about 10 to 15 people, with plenty of seat time and one-on-one coaching.

Best time to visit: The center is open year round, with several dates each month. Rates start at $299 per person.

Don’t miss: The school is located within the Thermal Club, a private country club with one of the longest (5 miles) racing circuits in the country. Students get special access to this exclusive club, so be sure to swing by to catch a live race or a stunning sunset.

 

Craft Your Own Surfboard

Laguna Beach House, Orange County

It’s easy to rent a surfboard and sign up for a lesson just about anywhere along the SoCal coastline. But if you’re looking for a unique experience, consider the “Shape, Surf, and Stay" package at Laguna Beach House, just off Laguna Beach’s Main Beach. The 36-room boutique hotel, decked out with vintage surf decor and memorabilia, has teamed up with renowned local surfboard shaper Donald Brink to offer guests a chance to custom hand-craft their own boards at his Dana Point studio, a 15-minute drive away. Afterward, take your new board for a test ride with Brink, who will teach you how to catch world-class waves. 

Best time to visit: This package is available year-round (advanced reservations required). Rates start at about $1,100 per night, including a one-on-one board-shaping class (standard glass job provided) and the surf lesson.

Don’t miss: The Hobie Surf Shop, right off the Pacific Coast Highway. Just down the road, in Dana Point, is where Hobie Alter first created, shaped, and sold foam surfboards.

Cristina Goyanes

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