Camellias in their winter glory at Descanso Gardens. (Descanso Gardens )
With Valentine's Day two weeks away, hotels are romancing travelers' pocketbooks with Champagne, chocolates, flowers and more. Hand over hundreds for a special package, and it's all yours. Who said money can't buy love?
For Southern Californians with more imagination than funds, here's my valentine to you: four romantic, affordable day trips.
Hearts and flowers: Descanso Gardens in La Cañada Flintridge. You bring the hearts, they bring the flowers: one of the largest collections of camellias in North America. Lucky for you two, many varieties of these showy blooms peak around now. You'll find them on bushes amid coast live oaks. Then stroll over to the Japanese Garden to gaze into the koi pond.
"It's a lovely, low-key romantic experience to walk through the gardens," said Jamie Bray, Descanso spokeswoman. "I've been told a lot of people pop the question here."
(818) 949-4290, http://www.descansogardens.org. Adult admission, $8.
Diamonds galore: Balboa Park in San Diego. Amid this rambling park's many attractions, you'll find "All That Glitters: The Splendor and Science of Gems & Minerals," on exhibit through June 1 at the San Diego Natural History Museum ($17 per adult). Its treasures include the 240-diamond "Aurora Diamond Butterfly of Peace, " which a dealer created as "a symbol of the soul and positive transformation," the museum says.
The evening brings " Jane Austen's Emma: A Musical Romantic Comedy," playing at the park's Old Globe Theatre through March 6. In the play, based on the novel, the heroine "sets aside her own romantic pursuits in favor of flexing her matchmaking abilities on those closest to her," the theater says. You can't attend on Valentine's Day because there are no Monday shows, but any other day is good. And isn't true love timeless? Tickets: $39 and up.
The grounds of Balboa Park, which are free to enter, are scenic and replete with intriguing nooks. With 15 major museums (admission fees vary) and the San Diego Zoo, you won't get bored.
Sweet inspiration: Will Rogers State Historic Park, Pacific Palisades. Among several trails that thread through this 186-acre park is one that leads to the aptly named Inspiration Point, a 2-mile round trip that climbs 300 feet into the mountains to a flat-topped knoll. There you'll feel you're on top of the world, with a panorama that takes in the Santa Monica Bay, the San Gabriel Mountains and, on a clear day, even Santa Catalina Island.
Picnic at the knoll or down below, near the polo field. But don't linger for sunset; the park closes at sunset, after opening at 8 a.m. daily. Park admission is free, but parking costs $12.
Will Rogers, the humorist and actor who once lived here, surely knew how to pick a place. His philosophy: "I never met a man I didn't like." The perfect sentiment for Valentine's Day.
(310) 454-8212, http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=626.
Romantic night: Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. California's largest state park, mostly in San Diego County, is a remote wilderness known for its wildflowers, cactuses, washes, roadrunners and seemingly endless vistas. But our interest here is the night sky, among the clearest anywhere in the state.
On a moonless evening, stars abound. But for gorgeous scenery, look for a full moon to light the landscape, said Dennis Mammana, who lives in Borrego Springs and writes the syndicated "Stargazer" astronomy column.
Valentine's Day weekend, falling a few days before a full moon, "is going to be very, very nice, but you won't see a heck of a lot of stars," Mammana said. "But you will have moonlight."
And splendid isolation. Arrive in the afternoon to get the lay of the land and choose your parking spot, then linger for sunset and beyond, because it's easy to get lost. And I don't mean in each other's eyes, although that may happen too.
http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=638; parking, $5 off-season, $8 peak season.