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He says it's not such a stretch that the empress would hear about Fallbrook. "Fallbrook is America's Idar-Oberstein [a legendary German gem center]." And yes, when she died in 1908, Tz'u-hsi was laid to rest with her head supported by a round, pink tourmaline pillow. Gem and Mineral Museum is at 123 West Alvarado Street, Fallbrook, 760-723-1130.

Real México in TJ Yes, it's right next to touristy Revolución, but there's something real about Plaza Santa Cecilia, this enclave beside the "old" city walls. The walls are actually new, but this is exactly where Tijuana got its start, back in 1889, where Hotel Nelson now stands. The plaza and its angled pedestrian-only street (Avenida Santiago Argüello) with its candy-colored buildings deliver the flavor of old Mexico. Come around sunset, sit down at Tradición, the café that sticks out from the orange-colored Hotel Las Américas, settle back with an instant coffee or a Corona, and watch waiting mariachis, quietly rehearsing around the statue of harp-holding Santa Cecilia, patron saint of musicians. The knife-sharpener man. A photographer carrying an old Agfa bellows camera. Meseras, drink-serving ladies blinking in the sunlight outside the much-shortened Long Bar. A little Mixtec woman hauling down her sarapes and kid-size guitars for the night. The arch that hoops over Revolución, glowing orange and silver in the sunset. A couple of drunks think of duking it out but cool off when a blue-and-white police car cruises through, at walking pace. It's all here. México, a quarter hour's walk from the border. While you're about it, have the next trio who come by sing you "La Malagueña."

Ramona Castle In 1881, a seamstress named Amy Strong came to San Diego for her health. She struck gold. The women of the town's emerging aristocracy -- the Grants, the Marstons, the Scrippses, the Spreckelses -- were desperate for sophisticated dresses that would confirm their status. Soon Amy was employing 75 work-at-home seamstresses and traveling to Europe every year to borrow ideas and buy fabric. After 27 years she had enough money to build the house of her dreams, a 27-room, $50,000 (say, $1.5 million today) country "castle." She was inspired by the Craftsman "back-to-nature" movement and by her travels. She liked Holland, so she built a windmill to pump water. She liked French chateaux, so she hauled in local granite boulders to create sometimes eight-foot-thick walls, with the help of adobe bricks made from her property's clay soils. Result: "natural" air conditioning. Timber was her own eucalyptus trees plus oak and redwood. Decorations were Indian carvings. Of course, what most visitors want to see is the "séance room." Its circular ceiling is decorated with astrological symbols. Did Amy hold secret séances up there in the backwoods? The place is now called Mt. Woodson Castle and is the administration office for the Mt. Woodson Golf Club. Visitors welcome (16422 North Woodson Drive, Ramona, 760-788-3555).

San Diego Ingenuity Scripps Institution of Oceanography had a problem. They needed to make measurements at sea from a steady platform. Instruments couldn't be bobbing about with every wave. That's where Drs. Fred Fisher and Fred Spiess came in. Back in the early '60s, they had this idea: why not build a ship that could flip from horizontal to vertical? It would tow like a ship, then float like a buoy. How? Fill the stern with water so that end sinks, and the ship becomes vertical. The center of gravity would lie 300 feet underwater, guaranteeing the ship would not move with the surface waves. The bow-mounted superstructure would now stand five stories up in the air, putting instruments and crew (up to 16) beyond the reach of most waves. Scripps said okay. Result: this 355-foot baseball-bat-shaped "Floating Instrument Platform" ("FLIP") ship. The "flip" process takes 28 minutes. In the living quarters in the bow, what was the floor becomes the wall. Portholes in the ceiling now look out across the waters. The result is near-total quietness, essential to, say, studying how sound waves behave underwater or isolating marine animals' underwater sounds. These days, studies range from how storm waves are formed to ocean-atmosphere heat exchange. When she's in port, FLIP's moored at Scripps' Nimitz Marine Facility, Point Loma. No official tours but call Scripps for information.

Cowboy Picasso of El Cajon Olaf Wieghorst of El Cajon was a Danish immigrant and an ex-cop and didn't start painting Western-themed pictures till he was 46. Yet his clients included presidents Reagan, Ford, Nixon, and Eisenhower; Senator Barry Goldwater; J.P. Morgan; Leonard Firestone; Gene Autry; Roy Rogers; Bing Crosby; John Wayne; Burt Reynolds; and Clint Eastwood. After Wieghorst died in 1988, fans turned his house into a museum-gallery (at 131 Rea Street, El Cajon), and it has become a sort of pilgrimage place for fans who like how he learned about the West from the inside out. After jumping ship in New York in 1918, he became cowboy, cavalryman, and mounted policeman. Always horses. It was only when he retired to El Cajon in 1945 that he turned full-time to painting and sculpting. His work soon earned him the sobriquet "Dean of Western Artists." Partly, people loved his vistas and his close relationship with many Native American tribes. But his strongest point may have been his intimate knowledge of horses. "I try to paint the little natural things," he'd say, "the way a horse turns his tail to the wind on cold nights, the way he flattens his ears in the rain, seasonal changes in the coat of a horse."

The Big Kitchen, Radical Chic "My Area!" says a felt-tip message from this town's most famous pearl diver. "Don't Paint This Over, Goddammit! Whoopi Goldberg." Whoopi scrawled this here beside the Big Kitchen's big kitchen back in 1981, when she was washing dishes here to buttress her struggling career in local theater. But Whoopi's not really why this eatery is famous. The Big Kitchen (3003 Grape Street, 619-234-5789) is it: a breakfast place that even the august Bon Appétit magazine has called one of the "best places for breakfast" in America. But even that's not it. "It" is Judy Forman. This is her community center. It's where serious politics collides with jokes. (Typical wall signs: "Will Be President For Food." "Under Republicans, Man exploits Man. Under Democrats, it's just the opposite.") But understand this: under Judy Forman, things get done. Don't get her going. "We started the Fern Street Circus," she'll say, "sponsored the Grape Street Park Storytelling Festival, got the leash-free dog zone on Grape Street, drove the Miss California beauty pageant out of town...to Fresno! We started the Golden Hill Community Development Corporation." She lists a zillion more. "Now, everybody [seeking office] comes here," she says. "I'm pretty sure you can't get elected if you don't."

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