08/31/2012 07:06 am ET Updated Oct 31, 2012

Torrance And Temecula: Much To My Surprise (PHOTOS)

As someone who grew up on the East Coast and who now lives in Texas, California has basically meant two things, Los Angeles and San Francisco proper. But I recently had reason to visit two lesser-known destinations, which turned out to offer far more than I ever expected.

The first was Torrance, California. What was I doing there, you ask? Well, I am on this journey to conquer all of the things that have longed scared the heck out of me -- and Space Mountain was still on that list.

But flying out there just to go to Disneyland for one day seemed insane. So we decided to check out Torrance and have, what I like to call, a little hub and spoke vacation. It turned out to be an ideal location for just that and the area itself had some quaintness of its own to offer.

We stayed at the Torrance Marriott South Bay since it was within walking distance of several places to eat and shop and had a Hertz rental car office (and a Starbucks, much to my twelve-year-old's delight) right inside. Although corporate chains are not my first pick in general, this turned out to be a very good choice.

It was right across the way from Del Amo Fashion Center (i.e., the mall) where we had a really fun dinner at Stacked restaurant. iPads at each table allow you to order whenever you're ready and throughout your meal. And they had delicious burgers, shakes and ice cream cookie sandwiches.

Our first day there was our Disneyland day. I was so ready to chicken out of going on Space Mountain at the last minute, especially when I found out there was some sort of Halloween ghoul called Ghost Rider, I believe, who would be "joining" us. But when I offered to wait in line with my daughter and then send her in on her own, she said, "But I only want to go on it with you." So, we went. And I even managed to keep my eyes open the whole time.

I was afraid that Space Mountain might be the only big draw for her. But there's something about Disneyland that makes you want to just go on all the kiddie rides and do all of the things that in "real life" you might think you were simply too cool for. And we had a blast.

We had two more days in Torrance and there was actually more to do than we could fit in. There was bike riding on the Torrance Beach Santa Monica Beach Trail; visting the Certified Farmers' Market in Charles H. Wilson Park; taking a Garlic Cooking Class with local chef Michael Shafer at The Depot restaurant; shopping and more eating at Riviera Village; and checking out the Taste of Redondo Pier food festival.

Of course, there was also playing at a number of beaches up and down the coast; not to mention all of the seafood eating up and down the coast as well, including my favorite: eating crabs that were crawling around just minutes before they were steamed and served sans plates on paper covered plastic trays.

We also paid a visit to the South Bay Aquarium where they offer a cool kids' program that allows children (or anyone for that matter!) to use an embosser at each exhibit to fill in the boxes on their aquarium "passport." And, of course, we took the obligatory green-screen photo that made it look like we were holding baby turtles.

Although those things were silly, they were fun and the aquarium itself was pretty impressive. And even as crowded as it was that day, you could get around surprisingly easily, which is a big bonus in my book.

Honestly, it never would have really dawned on me to go to Torrance if it wasn't for its proximity to Disneyland. But it turned out to be a fun pick for a quick mother/daughter get out of town weekend.

The other California destination I recently visited was Temecula, California. My girlfriend's best friend from elementary school was getting married there. So off we went. I won't lie, I wasn't expecting much from Temecula. But I stand corrected.

Now, lodging is a bit of an issue. There are two choices: super expensive, gorgeous, winery properties or a variety of lower level chains. Since $400 a night wasn't in the budget, budget properties were our only choice. Even those were pricey actually because you are in spitting distance of so many gorgeous wineries.

We decided on the Quality Inn Wine Country and I had to "eat crow" that very first night. It was super clean and very comfortable. The staff was extremely nice and the breakfast was impressive, including make your own waffles. Truth be told they had me at chocolate chips when I realized they were one of the mix-in offerings for the waffles.

Aside from the beautiful wedding, we also had some time for a little fun on our own. We had a great afternoon wandering Old Town Temecula where we shopped in the cute little stores; grabbed a bite to eat; and even sipped root beer floats on the porch of the Old Town Root Beer Company, that specializes in, you guessed it, root beer. There were more brands and varieties than I had ever before laid eyes on.

Although we didn't have time to tour any of the many wineries or take a hot air balloon ride, which is supposed to be fabulous there, we did get to go horseback riding through one of the wineries with Wine Country Trails Vineyards Horseback Riding Tours.

I've been trail riding many times. But this trip was particularly entertaining. Our guide, an old school cowboy, told cowboy jokes as we took in the beautiful vineyard scenery.

"Why did the cowboy ride his horse?"

"It was too heavy to carry."

It is definitely something I would recommend as well as do again myself.

We didn't do any fine dining in Temecula, although the wineries offer plenty of that. But we did have some pretty darn good pizza at the Temecula Pizza Company and some burgers and fries just the way I like them, greasy, at Mad Madeline's.

The wedding festivities would have been well-worth the trip alone. But it was fun to have the chance to check out a town that we otherwise would have overlooked all together.

When I was just out of college, I worked as a Children's Theater actor, traveling all over the South. I had the chance to see lots of smaller destinations and some of my best memories are of the great local haunts we'd find there.

Even though I travel a lot these days as well, I don't do much of that kind of traveling any more. But I think I'll start seeking it out again. These California trips reminded me of how much I love the road less often traveled.