A historic town square surrounded by vineyards and rolling hills, with mountains rising in the distance: the Temecula Valley showcases some of California’s most spectacular features.
The location of this Inland Empire gem, about an hour from San Diego and 90 minutes from Los Angeles, makes it an easy place to visit. Indeed, people come here for hyper-local cuisine (made, for instance, with Temecula Olive Oil), as well as for hiking, cycling and hot-air ballooning. They also come for the Mediterranean-like climate—temperatures range from the high 20s to low 30s in summer to the high teens and low 20s in winter.
Perhaps most of all, however, they come to visit the more than 30 wineries that dot the Temecula Valley. Italian, Spanish and French grapes sprout from the area’s soil and mature in this unique atmosphere, resulting in small-batch vintages. And with many distributed only locally, these award-winning wines are ripe for discovery.
That exploration will probably begin in the heart of the city, a charming area called Old Town. Here, modern Californian staples such as farm-to-table restaurants and craft breweries are set among wooden boardwalks and rustic buildings that bring to mind Temecula’s 19th-century roots. You can even stay in the city’s first inn, the Hotel Temecula, which dates to the late 1800s.
Today, of course, accommodation of all kinds abounds. Stay in a familiar chain close to Old Town, or choose a luxury hotel with a room looking out over rows of vines. Read on for tips on how to design your trip to this gem that’s hidden in plain sight.
From large resorts to intimate inns, Temecula offers a range of hotels—and price ranges—with something to suit everyone. History buffs can soak up the atmosphere at The Hotel Temecula in Old Town—the city’s first hotel, built in the late 1800s. The foyer and first-floor rooms (with bathrooms along the corridor) still maintain their Old West feel, complete with period furniture and portraits.
To immerse yourself in the local wine country, stay among the vines at the Ponte Vineyard Inn, a 90-room boutique hotel built in the style of a Spanish mission, but with a luxuriously modern interior. Oversized rooms—many with balconies—offer views over the inn’s own 125-hectare vineyard. Wine is also the focus at South Coast Winery Resort & Spa, a 25-hectare property set among the peaceful vineyards to the east of town. Take in the view from one of the three-storey tower’s 50 rooms, or get up close to the vines in one of the 76 villas. Nearby, at Carter Estate Winery and Resort, you can watch hot-air balloons float over the vines from outside your bungalow suite—perhaps after a wine and food pairing in the tasting room.
For a good value option in a great location, the Hampton Inn & Suites Temecula offers solid accommodation with a free cooked breakfast and a pool, less than a mile from Old Town.
Feeling lucky? The AAA Four Diamond Pechanga Resort Casino features 1,090 accommodation choices: rooms and suites with custom-made Italian furniture, plus floor-to-ceiling windows serving up mountain, valley or golf-course views. And there’s plenty to do beyond gambling—including 13 restaurants, a concert venue and Journey at Pechanga, the par-72, links-style golf course.
All the tenets of California cuisine—local, fresh and farm-to-table—are on full display in Temecula, which has easy access to local olives (and the resulting olive oil), a dairy, and, of course, wine grapes.
Any dining exploration should begin in the atmospheric Old Town. Sit under the pressed-tin ceiling or out on the patio of The Goat & Vine, where pizza is a speciality. Fresh ingredients come together in delicious combinations, such as the jalapeño-lime-carnitas and the steak-gorgonzola, baked in a stone-hearth oven.
At nearby E.A.T. Marketplace, you can start your day with a pour-over coffee and a pumpkin-pie smoothie, and return for each thoughtfully prepared meal, finishing the day with a vegan casserole and paleo brownie. This Old Town establishment prides itself on using pesticide-free and antibiotic-free ingredients from local farms and suppliers. It also showcases deli meats from California’s acclaimed Diestel Family Ranch and Niman Ranch.
Mexican food in Temecula comes with a dash of history at The Bank. The building, which began construction in 1913, did indeed start out as a bank and was the site of the county’s first hold-up, in 1930, remaining in operation until the Second World War. Today you can drop by for your favourite Mexican dishes, from burritos to quesadillas or a bowl of pozole.
For upmarket pub food paired with artisanal cocktails and craft beer, head to 1909. Formerly a trading post, livery, garage and 1970s rough-and-tumble bar, this gastropub offers options such as crab-and-prawn empanadas and bison burgers, plus signature cocktails such as the Cedar-Smoked Old Fashioned.
To dine al fresco among the vines, head a few miles out from the Old Town and deeper into wine country. At The Restaurant at Leoness Cellars, offerings such as sea bass buerre rouge feature French techniques and pair nicely with the on-site winery’s own bottles, like the oak-aged Mélange or a white Merlot.
Or maximise the vineyard scenery at The Pinnacle Restaurant at Falkner Winery. Set on a hill-top, the restaurant features panoramic views along with dishes such as pesto salmon and Mediterranean chicken—and, of course, delicious accompaniments from the winery.
Exploring the Temecula Valley on foot offers the best of two worlds: mountain scenery and warm Southern Californian sunshine.
Some 35 kilometres outside Temecula is the 3,642-hectare Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve. Walk through the park’s varied ecosystems, keeping an eye out for the mule deer, badgers and turtles that make their home here. Or set off for the Moreno and Machado Adobes—former cowboy bunkhouses that date to the mid-1800s. (Insider tip: bring a picnic.) A little south of Santa Rosa’s visitor’s centre is the Cleveland National Forest and the start of the path to Tenaja Falls. It’s a 1.5-mile there-and-back walk to the 45-metre tiered waterfall.
Bird-watching is the focus at Lake Skinner Recreation Area, located 16 kilometres east of Temecula. Walk the park’s 2.5-kilometre path and look for herons, owls and hawks as you take in the water views.
About 21 kilometres south-west of Old Town lies 89-hectare Santa Margarita County Preserve. Here, walk the scenic River Trail, a there-and-back-again stroll of just over 8 kilometres that follows a peaceful river past boulders and through woodlands. You might see hawks or other raptors overhead, plus deer ambling by.
Dripping Springs Trail, also in the Cleveland National Forest, is a more challenging trail, but it’s worth the effort: spectacular mountain vistas appear a couple of miles in. The entire trail, which takes you from desert terrain into lush forest, is about 21 kilometres, but it’s a there-and-back-again path, so you can walk as much of it as you like before turning around.
Colourful hot-air balloons are a common sight over the vineyards of Temecula Valley, and nothing compares to the bird’s-eye view you get while flying high in a basket. Balloons lift off at sunrise year-round, usually for an hour of flying time. Go with Magical Adventure Balloon Rides and you can enjoy a champagne toast and canapes after you land; a trip with A Grape Escape ends with champagne and a light breakfast in the gardens of one of the wineries.
Of course, you don’t need to fly to reach the vineyards—a variety of vehicles can whisk you to them. Board a deluxe mini-coach for four hours of wine tasting at three vineyards with Grapeline Wine Tours, or take the company’s Vineyard Picnic Tour for visits to four wineries plus a catered picnic lunch. For a fully guided tour, complete with an introduction to the staff at each of the wineries, go with Destination Temecula Wine Tours; you’ll also enjoy lunch at one of the wineries. Feeling ambitious? Winery Hopper offers a hop-on-hop-off service between 12 local wineries.
If you’re craving adventure, get in a Jeep with Sunrider and rumble your way to three wineries. Or make it a romantic afternoon for two: Temecula Carriage Company offers tours in a horse-drawn carriage, complete with a wicker-basket picnic. Or try another unique option, Antique Pink Cadillac, which takes you vineyard exploring in the back seat of a colourful classic car.
The History: A horseshoe-shaped town square anchors Old Town Temecula, where you’ll find plenty of historical action. Not surprisingly, many of the buildings went up around 1883, the year the Southern California Railroad brought travellers and commerce to the Temecula Valley. One of those structures, the Hotel Temecula, had to be rebuilt in 1891—but that structure still stands (and you can stay there). You can also still see the town’s first church building, St Catherine’s—though the 1917 structure has been moved to Sam Hicks Monument Park, at the northern end of Old Town. Other original buildings have been refurbished and given new missions: The 1890 Mercantile building is now the entrance to the Temecula Community Theater; and the 1st National Bank, built in 1914, is now a Mexican restaurant.
Where to play: the Hotel Temecula hasn’t always been open to guests, but it is now. Start your day with sustainable coffee at E.A.T. Marketplace, or pop in anytime for locally sourced dishes. Pop in for a pizza with innovative combinations of fresh toppings at The Goat and Vine. Head to Old Town’s original bank, which is now a Mexican restaurant called, fittingly, The Bank. Or try the namesake burger at 1909, in an original building that has also been home to a trading post, a livery and a garage. Browse for antiques at Serendipity Antiques and relax in the outdoor garden. If the children need a break from all this history, take them to Pennypickle’s Workshop, Temecula’s children’s museum. And if you want a break from them, experience the country-music scene—complete with line dancing and mechanical bull–riding—at the Temecula Stampede. Or find out what’s on at the Old Town Temecula Community Theater.
For many visitors, the Temecula Valley Wine Country is a surprise. After all, a lot of people don’t expect to see gently rolling hills blanketed with rows of vineyards so close to the California desert. But the Temecula area has been producing top wines since the late 1960s. And like the best vintages, this wine country just gets better with age.
It’s a diverse growing region, home to everything from cooler-climate grapes like Chardonnay to warm-weather varieties such as Syrah and Grenache. How can wine grow so close to the desert? It begins with a rich, granite-based soil that plays host to the vines. Then it continues with a unique micro-climate in which the grapes thrive: crisp mornings coated in mist, a warm daytime sun, and cool ocean breezes that welcome the clear night sky.
More than 30 wineries take advantage of these conditions, and the result has been lots of award-winners—which, of course, you can sample. One of the oldest wineries in the region, Callaway Vineyard & Winery (first launched by the golf-gear family) dates back to 1969, and it offers both a big tasting room and cellar tours where you can taste from the barrels. Go to Europa Village and sit on the patio to savour the Cinsaut, made from a grape usually found in the South of France; the winery is also home to a 10-room B&B with themed rooms like Syrah and Pinot Grigio. Head to the Leoness Cellars—located along a rural stretch known as the Deportola Wine Trail—and take one of the vineyard tours before enjoying some Mélange de Blanc or Grenache by the patio’s outdoor fireplace.
Plenty of the wineries are sights in themselves. At Wilson Creek Winery & Vineyards, sample the signature almond sparkling wine and take a stroll around the grounds to see the thousands of roses and other flowers—or book the on-site manor, which sleeps 24, for a wedding or reunion. For a tasting plus dinner theatre, Longshadow Ranch Vineyard & Winery does a Wild West show in its ranch-style winery on Friday nights.
Briar Rose Winery, meanwhile, houses its tasting room in a replica of the seven dwarfs’ cottage from Snow White. The wines here are unique too—like the Talking Frog bubbly, a blend of Viognier and lager beer.
Launched in 2001,Temecula Olive Oil Company was founded by two friends, Catherine Pepe and Nancy Curry, who went into business together after Nancy’s husband, Thom, had the idea of making olive oil. Thom now manages production for the company, which grows a mind-boggling 48 varieties of olives at its estate near Temecula and other Southern California sites.
Temecula Olive Oil Company has tasting rooms in Old Town San Diego, Seal Beach and Solana Beach, along with its original location in Old Town Temecula and the newest location in Laguna Beach. Pop in for free samples of the company’s extra virgin olive oils and balsamic vinegars; there’s also a terrific selection of olives, flavoured oils, spreads and salts.
On the second and fourth Saturday of each month, you can get a behind-the-scenes tour at the company’s ranch, located 25 minutes from Old Town. You’ll start with a guided walk through the scenic olive groves, learning about Temecula Olive Oil Company’s sustainable growing practices and olive oil production, and then taste your way through the company’s offerings. In addition to its extra virgin oils, it makes a variety of flavoured olive oils. You can even buy your own olive tree to take home.
For a VIP experience, parties of 10 or more can book a day at the ranch, complete with a tour led by one of the company founders. The package also includes a guided olive oil tasting and a specially prepared lunch that showcases Temecula Olive Oil Company products.