Exploring Pasadena’s World Class Attractions

In the early 1900’s, few citizens could have been more enthusiastic about their community than the people of Pasadena. In the Oct. 1, 1914 edition of the Pasadena Daily News, readers were asked to share their views about their home town, and most of them echoed this person’s sentiments:  “Pasadena is the best place to live because it is ideally situated at the base of the beautiful Sierra Madre mountains…a few minutes ride over excellent boulevards to a dozen ocean resorts…and (it has) the prettiest homes and the healthiest people on earth without a saloon to mar the harmony of life in this land of sunshine, fruit and flowers.”

One hundred years later, my wife and I decided to explore Pasadena and see if it could live up to the rave reviews from the past. Nowadays most people associate Pasadena with the Rose Bowl and the Rose Parade, but we discovered during our three day stay that it offers so much more.

We stayed at the historic Langham Huntington Hotel where we enjoyed both our suite’s  expansive view of distant hills and its access to the nearby Club Lounge that provided a private concierge, assorted appetizers and drinks of every sort, including High Tea in the afternoon.

The hundred year old Langham Huntington Hotel owes much of its success to the uber-wealthy railroad magnate, Henry Huntington, who bought the hotel in 1911 and had it completely redesigned. It quickly became an international magnet for upscale travelers, with the local paper gushing: “Here, there and everywhere are cozy nooks, with comfortable seats, all commanding tantalizing views, that make one forget the cares of a busy world, and bring with them the impression of being in a fairyland, with nothing but joy and peace and happiness all about.”

Any romantics who have the extra cash to impress their fiancée can, for a mere $100,000, arrange for the hotel’s “Proposal of the Century” that includes a $35,000 custom diamond ring, a private Rose Bowl venue in which to propose to the accompaniment of the 40-piece Pasadena Symphony Orchestra, followed by two blissful nights in the hotel’s Tournament of Roses Presidential Suite. How much more joy and peace and happiness could one ask for?

We indulged in a couples massage in the newly remodeled Chuan Spa which removed any traces of stress that we had. The Spa provided the kind of soothing ambiance you expect, complete with candle-lit walkways, private saunas and steam baths.

Soon we were anxious to discover what else the vale of Pasadena offered, so we headed to the Norton Simon Museum, just past Old Town Pasadena. We appreciated that the museum’s manageable size, with only two floors, made it easy to explore this remarkable private art collection that combined European paintings from the Renaissance to the 20th century and ancient artifacts from Southeast Asia. The outdoor restaurant, Sculpture Garden and ponds provided the final graceful touch.

One of the main attractions that drew us to Pasadena was the immense Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens situated on 207 acres tucked away in the middle of a residential neighborhood in nearby San Marino. We set aside a few hours for this visit, but we needed many more hours, or even days, to fully enjoy the magnificent collections of artwork, books and plants. Take the Library for example: It contains over nine million items, including some of the most prized books in the Anglo-American world, such as an original Gutenberg Bible whose movable type changed the course of human history, original Lincoln letters and one of my favorites, the original writings of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson extolling the virtues of pristine Nature.

In the Huntington Art Gallery, an audio guide led us through “one of the finest collections of European art in the nation” (according to the Guidebook). We were surprised to learn that the gargantuan set of French tapestries downstairs cost more than the entire mansion cost to build. Money was no object for Mr. and Mrs. Hungtington when they wanted an art object, as evidenced by their purchase of Thomas Gainsborough’s Blue Boy painting in 1919 for $700,000–the highest price ever paid for a painting at that time (equivalent to around $9 million today). The galleries’ treasures included not only paintings, but also intricately inlaid furniture, ornate clocks, statues and miniatures and so much more.

Our time and our feet were running out, so we headed for the desert garden. I’ve seen several fine desert gardens around the Southwest, but nothing has compared with the expansive collection of succulents and cacti that are so beautifully laid out there. The trails meander through one spectacular landscape to the next, eventually leading to a huge pond filled with lily pads and then transitioning through a verdant rainforest. When we left, we realized that even though we had not been able to see all of the estate, it gave us an excuse to return and savor again the magnificent collections that are worth seeing again and again.

Pasadena is known for its architectural diversity, including the renowned Gamble House built by David and Mary Gamble (of the Proctor and Gamble business empire) in 1909. This grand home dominates “Millionaire’s Row” and is venerated by those who admire the early 20th century Arts and Crafts style. To be honest, I don’t know why such wealthy people lived in such a dark house, but what the heck, the woodwork and craftsmanship were fabulous. We thoroughly enjoyed driving through various neighborhoods and admiring the parade of grandiose mansions and magnificent oak trees overhanging many residential streets. In addition the Pasadena Visitors Center provided a brochure with ten self-guided walking, biking or driving tours that helped us learn more about the area.

Some things have changed a lot in the last hundred years because Pasadena now boasts of a thriving night life with high quality restaurants and “saloons” to enhance the citizens’ lives. In fact, there are more restaurants per capita in Pasadena than in New York City. Strolling down Colorado Boulevard on a balmy summer evening, we could see how downtown Pasadena has become energized with chic stores, restaurants and bars.

Pasadena proved to be a terrific place to explore over a long weekend and my wife and I agreed with Elizabeth B. Harbert, formerly of Evanston, Illinois, who pithily wrote in the 1914 newpaper’s review of Pasadena: “We came, we saw, we were conquered.”

Doug Hansen is a travel writer and photographer in Carlsbad, CA. You can find more photos and articles at  www.HansenTravel.org

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FOR MORE INFORMATION:

LODGING:

Langham Huntington Hotel & Spa, 1401 S. Oak Knoll Ave, Pasadena, CA 91106; www.pasadena.langhamhotels.com; 626-568-3900.

TOURS & ACTIVITIES:

Norton Simon Museum, 411 W. Colorado Blvd, Pasadena, CA 91105; www.nortonsimon.org; 626-449-6840.

The Huntington Library, 1151 Oxford Rd, San Marino, CA 91108; www.huntington.org; 626-405-2100.

The Gamble House, 4 Westmoreland Pl, Pasadena, CA 91103; www.gamblehouse.org; 800-979-3370.

EATING:

Cafe Santorini, 64 W. Union St, Pasadena, CA 91103; www.cafesantorini.com; 626-564-4200. Mediterranean cuisine, nice upstairs balcony, reservations recommended.

La Grande Orange Cafe, 260 S. Raymond Ave, Pasadena, CA 91105; www.lgostationcafe.com; 626-356-4444. Former train station with three venues–a cafe, pizzeria and bar/lounge.

Racion, 119 W. Green St, Pasadena, CA 91105; www.racionrestaurant.com; 626-396-3090. International food, reservations suggested.

Trattoria Neapolis, 336 S. Lake Ave, Pasadena, CA 91101; www.trattorianeapolis.com; 626-792-3000. Italian food, no reservations needed.

TOURIST INFORMATION:

Pasadena Convention and Visitors Bureau; www.visitpasadena.com/visitors; (626) 795-9311 or  (800) 307-7977.