There are so many sensory experiences along San Jose’s themed shopping and dining district called Santana Row, that it’s understandable why so many first-time visitors might become confused about where they are. In creating Santana Row, some of the world’s best urban experiences were fused, generating a new place that defies categorization. More than a shopping district, it is a community with parks, townhouses and a hotel. Facades of the five-story buildings along the boulevard hint stylistically that Santana Row evolved over the past century. A pseudo art deco frieze atop one of the false fronts heroically declares “DeForest” hinting that some industrial plant once occupied the building in the 1930s. The consistent height of the buildings along its 1500-foot “Main Street” shocks one’s senses after arriving from sprawling Silicon Valley where building height seems constrained only by purpose. Suddenly, you’ve entered an urban canyon as is common in European cities.
Santana Row’s developer set out to redefine the urban neighborhood, by salvaging its best characteristics and filling its street-level spaces with chic shops and gathering spots that would attract upscale tenants and residents. The strategy worked. Santana Row is home to such famous names in fashion as Gucci, Tommy Bahama, Ann Taylor, Burberry and Brooks Brothers. Discriminating diners are attracted to such one-of-a-kind restaurants as Tanglewood where inventive forms of “comfort food” are served in what General Manager Andy O’Day calls “Spirited American Cuisine.” Entrees include such unusual items as “Coca-Cola Braised Pork Belly” or “Buttermilk Fried Wolfe Quail” served with honey-buttered mini biscuits, American culinary legend James Beard’s favorite biscuit.
Just like Tanglewood’s menu, everything about Santana Row is completely new and yet, also, remembered vaguely. We’ve been here before… somewhere in our imagination. That sense of familiarity amidst the surreal is the result of a wholly California invention… the theme park. Santana Row is an adult evolution of the theme park, where an idealized, proverbial environment is created for our enjoyment. It stands to reason that the state where the theme park was invented (Disneyland, 1955) would also extend its affection for whimsy to shopping. Throughout the golden state, shopping is more than what is inside the store. It’s the experience that goes with it.
If San Diego was the birthplace of California, then Old Town San Diego – the city’s historic pueblo dating from 1769 – is the birthplace of themed shopping. Here in 1968, California established a state historic park to preserve its first downtown. Today, 27 early-1800s homes, a one-room school house, the first church in San Diego and government buildings are preserved. Scattered among the historic buildings once-derelict motels and shops have since been transformed into Mission-revival adobes containing 106 shops and 12 art galleries that bring life to the museum-like quiet of the state park by selling colorful south of the border crafts, clothing and treasures. On visiting Old Town, a government official from Mexico was overheard saying to another of his colleagues, “The Americans are even doing Mexico better than us.” Patio restaurants amidst the themed shops resonate with the happy sounds of Mariachi musicians as they entertain diners and stroll beneath columned arbors draped with magenta bougainvillea.
Beyond the limed walls and red tile roofs of Old Town, the maritime history of San Diego (home to the U.S. Navy, America’s tuna fleet, cruise ships and numerous yacht clubs) is celebrated at Seaport Village. A contrast of silvery-black weathered buildings and colorfully painted salt box structures provide a nautical flair along the waterfront. Lushly landscaped paths wind past curio shops and eateries and along San Diego Bay where benches provide good spots to watch passing sailboats and warships.
Further up the California coast in Orange County’s Newport Beach, coastal life is the theme of Fashion Island, an enclave of Mediterranean style with splashing fountains and a signature koi pond. The first impression one has on entering Gary’s Island – one of three local Gary’s stores in the mall – is the brilliance of the apparel’s tropical colors: turquoise and yellow, pink, and lime. While, at Lola Rouge Kids, designer fashionistas aged 6 to 16 go “gahgah” over its trend-setting party wear. Clearly, you’re not in London any more. Though, if you seek more conservative rags to don, explore Orange County’s only Bloomingdale’s or Neiman Marcus among Fashion Island’s 200 specialty stores.
The granddaddy of California’s destination shopping centers is Costa Mesa’s South Coast Plaza. Although sleek South Coast Plaza does not fit categorization as themed shopping, because it is such a favorite of travelers (24 million shoppers a year) it deserves a spot on any review of what makes California shopping special. South Coast Plaza’s distinction is its unusual concentration of the most glamorous names in design: Tiffany & Co., Valentino, CHANEL, St. John, Hermes, Dior, Hugo Boss, Louis Vuitton and Giorgio Armani to name a few (there just isn’t space here to name them all). More than a shopping center, South Coast Plaza’s 280 stores elevate shopping to the level of performance with their showmanship and the center’s five valet parking stations and five concierge desks that will arrange dinner reservations or theater tickets, if you can bear to stop perusing the stores.
If not, performance shopping is found at two of the biggest names in entertainment, Disney and Universal Pictures. Set between Disneyland and Disney’s California Adventure theme parks, the shops and restaurants at Downtown Disney in Anaheim are all about having fun, whether buying sports merchandise at the ESPN Zone, listening to jazz as you dine at House of Blues, purchasing Disney memories at World of Disney, being amazed at the Lego Imagination Center or creating a new persona at Sephora. Universal City Walk at the entrance to Universal Studios Hollywood in Los Angeles claims 65 cool things to do, from finding native American arts and crafts at Adobe Road, to dressing like a “hog” at the Harley Davidson store, to finding Southern California skateboard fashions at Skechers, to unearthing rare video games at EB Games, or to being amused by the rock and roll memorabilia as you chow down on a burger at the Hard rock Café Hollywood.
There’s a local saying that goes, “nobody walks in L.A.,” though along Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, it seems everyone in L.A. County is. This is one of the places to see Hollywood celebrities out and about, particularly midweek when it’s less crowded. Among those who have been seen on the three-block-long Promenade include Brad Pitt, Cher, Meryl Streep, Jane Fonda, Jack Nicholson, Charlise Theron, Jennifer Aniston, Whoopi Goldberg… by now you’ve figured out all area celebrities eventually stop here to watch a film at any of several multi-screen motion picture complexes, to shop at Fred Segal or buy an Austrian ice cream at Charley Tremmel’s.
If star watching is your bag, look for them (again, midweek) at the Beverly Center in L.A. (between Beverly Hills and Hollywood) or in Palm Springs along Palm Canyon Boulevard. The ultimate star-watching location is, however, Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive (pronounced Roh-DAY-oh). This posh street of high-end stores was the set for Julia Robert’s character’s shopping spree in the movie Pretty Woman. The shopping area is much more compact than the impression it made on the big screen. Allow an hour to walk its three blocks and a budget of $10,000 if you actually plan to buy something at Bijan (431 N. Rodeo Drive) reputed to be the world’s most expensive store. Though, the window shopping and people watching are free.
If there is an opposite of stuffy and pricey Rodeo Drive it must be historic Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles. This is where the Pueblo de Los Angeles began and this mercado still exudes the liveliness of a Mexican village. Street vendors sell Mexican jumping beans, restaurants serve authentic traditional recipes and vibrant Mexican art and crafts are displayed under red tile and canvas awnings along its cobbled streets.
The sights and textures of Olvera Street’s glimpse of old Mexico are quite a contrast from the Assyrian architecture of the Citadel Outlets south of downtown L.A. on Interstate 5. This outlet center was once the headquarters of the Samson Tire & Rubber Co. and to reflect a Samson and Delilah theme was fashioned after a 7th-century B.C. Assyrian palace and is adorned with heraldic griffins and bas-reliefs of Babylonian princes in the style of ancient Samaria, Akkadia and Babylonia. Today, the winged guardians at its entrance guard the retail royalty of: Calvin Klien, Tommy Hilfiger and the United Colors of Benetton, among the center’s many outlet stores.
If the Citadel is Sumaria, then Carmel by the Sea must be the place Californian Thomas Kinkade got his inspiration to paint cottages and gardens. This village set beside a picture-perfect bay on the Monterey Peninsula has, since its earliest days, sought to protect its beauty, charm and environment. After the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 displaced artists, poets, musicians and writers (Jack London among them), they gathered here and influenced the town’s bohemian style. Today, this village of Tudor-styled cottages and 200-plus shops is the epitome of “quaint,” a village of homes without street numbers where art galleries are more prevalent than petrol stations.
Columbia State Historic Park near Sonora, in the Gold Country, is another place that rejects the present. There, the 1850s live always. Wells Fargo stage coaches roll along its dusty streets, miners retell their tall tales, shops are filled with goods reminiscent of the California gold rush, and the sounds of laughter, card games and honky-tonk pianos are heard from inside saloons along its wooden sidewalks. A similar atmosphere is found in Old Sacramento, the original jumping off spot for the California gold rush in 1849. A blend of tourist shops and those serving the local populace keep travelers and residents alike returning to Old Sacramento, as happened from 1848 to the early 1870s, when the California Gold Rush eventually slowed.
One themed California shopping area that has never slowed down is San Francisco’s famous Chinatown. Since its earliest days, Chinatown has been a window to the Far East, importing exotic goods and spices to scent San Francisco streets with commerce and character. The Chinese immigrants who founded Chinatown didn’t know they were building a themed shopping area. They recreated what was familiar to them. The resulting pagoda-marked district is as close a resemblance of China as you’ll find outside the Orient. Street signs read in both Chinese and English characters, buildings have the stacked, up-swung roofs of royal palaces, smoked ducks hang in shop windows, small markets sell produce and fresh fish along the street, Chinese is spoken in all the shops, and carts laden with goods crowd sidewalks waiting to be shipped across the country. None of this was done to evoke character; it is real life in a fantasy place.