Inland Empire an attractive vacation spot

By Matt Paulson, Contributor

INLAND EMPIRE, Calif. -- The Inland Empire: Few people in Los Angeles know it even exists. Many that do wish they didn't know. The rest are probably from there.

It's the I.E., the 909, the receiving end of the majority if SoCal's vintage area code raggings. You see, in Southern California, it is possible to predetermine the way a person will act, speak and dress simply by acquiring their phone number. It is the area code system; Southern Californians have it down to an exact science, and nowhere is the area code stigma harsher than in the Inland Empire, the heart of which is also known as the notorious 909.

But located here is a sea of what outsiders call uncivilized roughnecks. They have a penchant for dirtbiking and anything white trash, wearing straight-billed, sideways-cocked hats and rhinestone belts that don't serve a purpose because the pants they were designed to support sag halfway down the wearer's backside anyway. Nevertheless, this is a surprisingly accessible golf destination.

In the 1950s, Southern California hit a population boom, but the eastern counties remained isolated, unaffected by the growing region. The East wanted a piece. So San Bernardino and Riverside Counties decided to come together and deem themselves the Inland Empire. Now, the Inland Empire is roughly the area located south of the San Gabriel Foothills and north of about Temecula, west of just past San Bernardino and east of about West Covina. It is basically made up of part of east Los Angeles County, as well as San Bernardino and Riverside Counties. The heart of the Inland Empire is no more than an hour-and-a-half drive from downtown Los Angeles, without traffic, of course. With Southern California traffic, it could take days.

Because the Inland Empire is not overcrowded -- yet -- and it is readily accessible from pretty much anywhere, it provides the opportunity for a simple, laid back vacation. There are no ocean beaches, but there is also less traffic, less people, and if you go far enough east, less smog. And despite the fact that Southern California, especially inland, is known for its dry climate, mostly void of humid air and precipitation, there are a few green gems sprinkled into the predominantly brown landscape.

General Arnie Palmer of the world-renowned Arnold's Army recognized the potential of this somewhat-isolated golf getaway, as he designed Empire Lakes Golf Course, one of the Inland Empire's can't misses. This host of the Nationwide's Mark Christopher Charity Classic presented by Adelphia, formerly the Inland Empire Open -- the biggest spectator event in the Rancho Cucamonga-Ontario area -- is nestled in the shadow of the San Gabriel Foothills, which, every "winter," display snow-capped peaks carving through the blue sky.

This heavily-mounded, heavily-bunkered track boasts four lakes that come into play on six of the 18 on this par-72 design that opened in 1996. Despite its immaturity, Empire Lakes is one of the finest courses in the Inland Empire. The unique finger bunkers pour out into the landscape, giving it a little extra "touch" of sand -- sorry, pun intended. For the better player, one drawback to Empire Lakes is that it is not immensely difficult, as Palmer designed it to be manageable for all levels. For the general golf population, that is a good thing. But as it continues to mature, it will only get better -- and harder. The rough and the trees will continue to thicken, taking away some of its modern feel and giving it that old-school charm that traditionalists in a game based on tradition come to expect from a good track.

Empire Lakes can be played during prime time for $60 Monday through Thursday, $75 on Friday, and $90 on Saturday and Sunday. You can save a few bones by taking advantage of midday rates ($50 on Monday-Thursday, $60 on Friday, and $70 Saturday-Sunday) or twilight ($40, $45, or $50).

Los Serranos Country Club is a little more steeped in that touch of tradition. This John Duncan Dunn design opened on April 25, 1925. For 23 consecutive years, Los Serranos hosted qualifying for the California State Amateur. For the past 12 years, and counting, it has hosted qualifying for the Los Angeles Open, and since 1996, U.S. Amateur qualifying has been held on both the North and South Course at Los Serranos. It has also hosted a California State Open (1983) and a Southern California Open (1999). So are you convinced yet of the tradition? If not, check out; there's more.

As for the courses, they are indeed can't misses. The South Course from Jack's Blacks remains the longest course in California, with a yardage of 7470 and a par of 74. It provides that touch of challenge not amply provided by Empire Lakes. In a game and an era where equipment continues to lengthen even the most mediocre players, the longer course is going to become more and more popular. Nowadays, even Joe Blow I-play-golf-on-Sundays is able to hit the ball more than 250 on a rather regular basis. The South Course is almost paradoxical in its satisfaction of both the tradition and the times to come in the game of golf.

One can play these Chino Hills tracks for less than that demanded by Empire Lakes. Monday through Friday rates are $26 for the North Course and $32 on the South Course. Twilight rates of $27 on the North and $29 on the South - both riding -- are available after noon. Saturday, Sunday and holiday rates, including carts, are $50 on the North and $65 on the South. Super twilight, senior and junior rates are also available for the old, the young and the cheap.

If you don't have time to make it to Empire Lakes or you just can't get used to the smell of Chino (It may seem like an oxy-moron to have any sort of farming anywhere near the unmatched sprawling metropolis that is Los Angeles, but Chino is actually known for its agriculture), check out Sierra Lakes Golf Club in Fontana, Oak Quarry Golf Club in Riverside, Oak Valley Golf Club in Beaumont and Indian Hills Golf Club in Riverside.

Sierra Lakes in Fontana is another enclave located at the ankle of the mountains. Designed by Ted Robinson, author of Sahalee, host of the 1998 PGA Championship, won by everyone's favorite PGA Tour eyesore -- no, not Ernie Els -- Vijay Singh. Yet again, this is more mundane for those in the top percentile, but my average or less-than-average friends will enjoy this gentle experience.

Oak Quarry carves through the Jensen Quarry in the Jurupa Mountains. Also known as the Landmark Golf Club at Oak Quarry, this isolated mountain track is an echo in that Inland Empire undercrowdedness. Try to find a house on Oak Quarry. I dare you.

At Oak Valley Golf Club, a site for the PGA Stage Two Qualifying Tournament, the idea of being playable to all levels once again rings true. Oak Valley, taking into account the different tees, varies from 5,300 to 7,000 yards.

Indian Hills: This all-level 18-hole, par-70 track was designed by Jimmy Powell and Harold Heers, the gentlemen that brought you Claremont Golf Course. The idea of no parallel fairways is a unique experience for everyone's favorite wayward hackers. Once again, to the better player, "all-level" is a turnoff, but, if you have time, give it a whirl. To the not-so-good player, "all-level" means you, so enjoy.

For those driving, the Inland Empire is accessible by some of the state' s most used freeways. Interstate 10, which travels from Los Angeles all the way across the southern half of the United States and ends in Jacksonville, Flor., cuts directly through the middle of the Inland Empire. Interstate 15, which comes all the way down to San Diego from Salt Lake City, Utah and is Los Angeles' only major outlet to Las Vegas, is the aorta of the Inland E mpire. The 57, which branches off Interstate 5, the main access highway to central and Northern California, also runs north-south through the Inland Empire. And finally, the newly completed 210 has helped relieve the highly traveled I-10 by running parallel to the north. The wealth of major freeways is an accurate testament to the explosive growth of this region.

For those who wish to fly into the Empire, Ontario Airport is a new, not-yet-busy major airport, to which most planes will fly. Compared to the zoo at LAX, Ontario is a Godsend. There is less waiting, less walking; there is simply less crowding, which, as of now, seems to be the theme of the I.E. Ontario is also located at the intersection of I-15 and I-10, one of the most important crossroads in all of California, and especially the Inland Empire. From there, one can easily travel to any part of the Inland Empire, as well as just about anywhere in Southern California.

Where to stay

The Ontario Mills Mall -- the mecca of the I.E., to which all 909ers must travel to truly call themselves Inland Empire-dwellers -- has a wealth of places to stay. The Ontario Airport Hilton, the AmeriSuites, the Baymont Inn & Suites, as well as many other temporary homes are found at or near the Ontario Mills Mall, from whence one can hop on I-10 or I-15 and head anywhere in the I.E.

Chino Hills is not exactly the best place for hotel choices. The supply is a little bit down. To stay near, head north a few miles into Diamond Bar. There, you can find a Holiday Inn and Comfort Suites.

Where to eat

If you're a first-timer in Southern California, the In-N-Out burger is a necessity. It's not exactly fine dining, or anything close to it, but everyone from SoCal will highly recommend it to outsiders. There are three located in Ontario. There is one located of the 60 freeway and Mountain Ave N. at 2235 Mountain Ave. There is one of I-10 at Vineyard Ave, and there is one off Ontario Mills Parkway, which is accessed by taking I-10 to Milliken Ave. N. If you enjoy the In-N-Out experience, pick up a location guide at any restaurant; it has every In-N-Out spot. So anytime you are pining for the pinnacle of seared animal flesh, you've got the nearest location at your fingertips.

For some finer dining: Near Ontario Mills, there is a place called the New York Grill, located at 950 Ontario Mills Drive. With a long wine list, you can drown your snowman blues in a nice merlot while chomping on a thick steak. The service is good and the complimentary valet parking means your '87 Caprice with the bullet-hole decals will sit in style. Check it out: (909) 987-1928.

In Chino Hills, the heart of dining is at the Chino Hills Spectrum, located off Grand Avenue on the east side of the 71 freeway. There, one can find just about any type of restaurant. Black Angus, Benihana and Mimi's Cafe are just three of the many places to grub at the Spectrum.

Matt PaulsonMatt Paulson, Contributor

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