Just 30 miles east of downtown Los Angeles is the quaint 100-year-old town of Claremont, best known for its tree-lined streets, historic buildings, and college campuses. Stroll through the residential neighborhoods around the downtown core of Claremont Village to see trees that were planted at the turn of the 20th century. Mountain landscapes and Mount Baldy create a backdrop that makes you feel like you’re much more than an hour-and-a-half drive from the city.
When most people think of Claremont, the Colleges come quick to mind, as they are some of the nation’s most highly respected educational and cultural institutions. But the town’s character still exudes much of its Spanish heritage, and there’s a sense of appreciation for independence, creativity, and an overall slower pace of life.
Claremont was one of about 30 towns that were built in 1887 between San Bernardino and Los Angeles as a result of the creation of the Santa Fe Railroad. Thanks to the decision of a local land company to transfer its Hotel Claremont and 260 vacant lots to found Pomona College in 1888, the town survived and thrived.
At the same time, the local citrus industry was booming. Citrus ranches were plentiful and Claremont growers established one of the earliest citrus cooperatives for marketing and shipping citrus fruit, a model that led to the organization of the Sunkist cooperative. Today, the original Packing House has been converted into a mall of sorts, with fine restaurants, shops, artist studios, and evening entertainment.
The city of just under 34,000 residents now covers more than 12 square miles, but the downtown core is Claremont Village. Park your car and walk up and down each street to discover some hidden gems like the Folk Music Center. A family business since it opened in 1958, the store is now owned by the original owners’ grandson, Grammy-winning musician Ben Harper.
Musicians from all over Southern California flock here to find the most unique and rare instruments that cannot be found anywhere else. Looking for Didgeridoos or Djembes? No problem. They’ve got them, in addition to more traditional instruments like guitars and flutes.
It’s an experience to visit and the local vibe is apparent, with family photos interspersed throughout, including a photo of the Harper grandparents on the main counter. I walked out with some kind of maraca shaker ($12) made out of a dried gourd just because it was so unique and different–it makes for an interesting interior decor piece!
Across the street from the Music Center on Yale Avenue is the Cheese Cave, a treat for foodies. The store has a beautifully curated selection of the most treasured cheeses from around the world, artisanal salamis, and handmade craft beers, and there’s even an honorary cheese poet-in-residence whose taste of the day inspires his craft.
Several clothing boutiques are scattered throughout the village, but one of my favorites worth checking out was Nectar on 1st Street, whose fashions are simple, classy, and well priced with a bohemian flair. The collection features mostly independent labels that you can’t find in a major department store.
The Bath Workshop (formerly Bath Junkie) on Indian Hill Blvd. is a sensory experience where you can sample dozens of essential oils and essences to create your own unique scent. That scent is then infused in the bath product of your choice, from lotions and oils to serums and soaps. My personal favorite was a blend of pikake flower and vanilla musk. Prices start around $9 for small candles and soaps.
College Heights Packing House
Much of Claremont’s history is easily visible around town, including its location along the historic Route 66. Remnants of the citrus industry are still apparent at the College Heights Packing House, where until 1972 lemons were received, processed, and stored, then packed and shipped around the country.
Inside the Packing House, I discovered a true gem. At a time when independent bookstores, much less large chains, are fewer and far between, the Thoreau Bookshop (also known as the Claremont Forum) is thriving. Their entire supply is donated, and hand-me-down books are sold for $2 (paperback) and $4 (hardcover). You’ll find a few current bestsellers, plenty of old favorites, and yet-to-be-discovered masterpieces.
I walked out with a few classics, including a 1961 edition of The Travels of Mark Twain, the Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt, and a 1910 printing of The World’s Greatest Books Volume XV Science, complete with the original text from Darwin’s Origin of Species.
As a non-profit, The Forum’s mission is to promote individual and social good through education, arts, and wellness programs, including the Prison Library Project, which sends books to inmates nationwide. They need to raise $350 each week to cover postage costs, and they receive hundreds of thank you letters from incarcerated individuals who have no other means to acquire books.
Also worth a visit is the Packing House Wine Merchants, featuring 1,300 boutique wine labels from all over the world at competitive prices. They host tastings every weekend and select vintages every weekday except Monday.
For Nature Lovers
It was an unexpected treat to find the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in the heart of Claremont. The tenth largest in the U.S. and the third largest in the western U.S., the RSABG and Herbarium contains more than one million specimens. Its Living Collection covers 86 acres housing over 2,500 accessions of plants native to California and Baja.
While a guide is a good idea, it’s not necessary to explore the vast flora. However, ours came in handy, pointing out living creatures along the way, including several species of butterflies and caterpillars, rabbits, and birds, and most impressively identifying insects inhabiting the Prickly Pear that when squished form a reddish ink that has been used for centuries by natives for various dyeing purposes.
Note: Check your cosmetics (particularly ones that boast “natural” sources) for an ingredient called Cochineal. This is essentially the bug from the Prickly Pear that provides the reddish tint!
The Butterfly Pavilion inside the RSABG is an impressive and lovely sight to see. Walk into a mesh tent and be surrounded by dozens of flying works of art, including the spectacular Monarch and the abundant Pipeline Swallowtail.
Also onsite is the Grow Native Nursery (GNN), which offers special sales, advice from expert staff, and a stunning selection of fresh, vibrant native California plants and water-wise solutions for home landscapes. (Check the website for their seasonal hours of operation.)
Heritage and Research at the RSABG
Members of the Tongva Tribe and Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden worked together to design, construct, and maintain a replica of a traditional Tongva family village unit on the property where you can see how the indigenous peoples lived.
The Tongva (meaning “people of the earth”) have lived in the Los Angeles basin dating back to 7000 b.c.e. Approximately 5,000 Tongva lived in the region when the first Spanish explorers arrived in 1769. In fact, many local communities have adapted Tongva names, such as Cahuenga, Topanga, Tujunga, Cucamonga, Azusa, Jurupa, and Pacoima.
The RSABG Research Department is home to dozens of scientists and graduate students, as well as the Herbarium’s collections. A number of special research programs are underway that reflect RSABG’s dedication to conserving native California plants and advancing knowledge about them. This includes the Catalina Island Mountain Mahogany, of which only nine–yes, nine–trees remain on the island.
The RSABG sponsors several events throughout the year including Tai Chi in the Garden, Movie and Jazz Nights, and others, so check the website for the most current event information.
Where to Stay
The Doubletree Claremont Hotel is nestled in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains on Historic Route 66. It is a convenient location for those visiting the Claremont Colleges and just 10 miles from Ontario International Airport (ONT). The hotel is efficiently pleasing, clean, and comfortable with a pool, fitness center, 24-hour business center, and onsite Essentials Day Spa & Salon.
The Orchard Restaurant inside the hotel serves a wide selection of California cuisine for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, including a full breakfast buffet ($16) each morning. All accommodations (recently renovated) feature the new Doubletree Sweet Dreams Bed, 32-inch LCD flat-panel television, in-room safe, and refrigerator. A bonus: All guests receive a warm, melt-in-your-mouth chocolate chip cookie upon check-in–this famous cookie is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. Rates start at $119, but various promotional specials are available on the hotel’s website.
If the boutique style is your preference, Hotel Casa 425 is the place to stay. With just 28 rooms, the hotel is part of the Four Sisters Inns collection. The outdoor courtyard has a laid-back vibe with fire pits and film screenings on select nights. Each room features oversized soaking tubs and is contemporary in style with all the expected luxurious amenities expected of a boutique hotel (think: iPod docking stations, high-end teas and coffee, fine linens, wireless Internet, and complimentary bicycle rentals). Rates start at $185 for a Courtyard King.
While Claremont has many fine restaurants to choose from, perhaps the best in town is La Parolaccia Osteria Italiana, which serves fresh, made-to-order Italian dishes that are just a step away from actually being in Italy.
We started with the Carpaccio alla Veneziana ($10.50)–raw beef tenderloin thinly sliced and topped with celery, lemon juice, shaved parmesan cheese, and sliced black truffle. My main course was the Spaghetti al Salmone ($11.95), which included fresh salmon, eggplant, onions, capers, and leeks prepared with a touch of cream and tomato sauce. View the full menu here.
Another locale to try (in the Packing House) is Casablanca Bar and Grill, a popular nightspot to enjoy true Mediterranean and Lebanese cuisine. During your meal you can be entertained by belly dancers and later, if desired, try one of Casablanca’s flavored hookahs on the outside patio.
Annually over nine weeks during the summer, Memorial Park packs in thousands of locals every Monday night for the free concert series featuring some of the best entertainment in the area. Each week hosts a different artist and genre of music, from Motown to reggae and classic rock. If you go: Bring a picnic dinner and blankets or chairs to sit on. Remember that dogs and alcohol are not allowed in city parks. Get more info here.
Every night except Monday, head to Piano Piano, the popular dueling piano bar located on the Doubletree property. If you’ve never experienced it, imagine two piano players on stage, face to face, performing the greatest hits of all time, all at your request, while they also add a comedic edge and interact with the guests. There is a $5 cover for arrivals after 8 p.m. Check the website for weekly drink specials and to make reservations (recommended on weekends).
As I visited on a Monday night and much of the town was quiet, I stumbled upon another shining spectacle around the corner from the Doubletree: a Mexican restaurant called Casa de Salsa. During their Margarita Mondays (when margaritas are $2.50), the locals come out to test their inner American Idols on the karaoke stage. It may not be Simon Cowell worthy, but it’s definitely good for a belly laugh and lighthearted fun.
For a more upscale lounge-like evening, from Sunday to Thursday, Hotel Casa 425′s Lobby Bar is the best place to get a specialty cocktail or martini while you listen to smooth jazz and upbeat ambient grooves.
A Perfect Day
Tip if you’re only in town for one day: Stop by the Thoreau Bookshop during your stroll through Claremont Village to pick up a diamond-in-the-rough book. While at the Packing House, get a bottle of wine from the Wine Merchant, then head to the Cheese Cave for some cut-to-order savories. Next, picnic in Memorial Park while you and your guest read verses from the classic you just picked up at Thoreau’s, and if the time of year allows, enjoy the free concert. After the concert, head to Hotel Casa 425 for a cocktail and light fare. If it’s a weekend night, skip the park picnic and get a delicious dinner at La Parolaccia instead. Then venture on to Piano Piano for late-night entertainment.