When you decide to vacation in a distant or exotic locale, if you're anything like me, you investigate, you plan, you drive your spouse nuts with all the research.
But for getaways close to home, I've always tended to go for the easy and familiar. Over and over. It's just so effortless to say, "Let's go to Palm Springs," which invariably means checking into the same Rancho Mirage resort my family always visits, with comfortable, airy rooms and a twisting water slide that keeps the kids entertained. Enjoyable, yes. But after the umpteenth trip, hardly exciting.
Then last year, I was asked to write a travel book of great weekend escapes in Southern California. Goodbye, travel rut. Suddenly I began looking at Southern California through fresh eyes.
Nearly every week I went someplace different. Date nights. Day trips. Weekend treks to my favorite places and places I'd always meant to visit. My husband, teenage daughter and 9-year-old son often came along, and they had a blast kayaking, horseback riding, swimming, snorkeling, hand-feeding emus and roaming luscious nature spots from San Diego to the Gaviota Coast, Catalina Island to the California desert.
I sampled my way through two wine countries, played blackjack in the afternoon, cooked alongside a great chef, savored amazing farmers' markets and swam with schools of bright, teeming fish.
Here are five of my favorite SoCal road trips to help jump-start your travel adventures for the new year.
CATALINA'S WILD SIDE
Skip hectic Avalon during summertime and visit the remote, rough-and-tumble village of Two Harbors instead. It's a place most island visitors never see. There are more bald eagles here than shops. The resident celebrity is an aged bison named Wilson that roams the surrounding hills. Shorts and sport sandals are the dinner attire of choice at the fanciest restaurant in town, which is also the only full restaurant in town.
Just more than an hour's ferry ride from San Pedro or Marina del Rey, Two Harbors is undeveloped and unpretentious. The heart of the village is little more than a cluster of beach shacks, with a general store, dive shack, visitors' center and watering hole. Just up the hill from town, a stone path leads to Banning House Lodge, a cozy 1910-vintage California inn with sweeping views of both Isthmus Cove and Catalina Harbor -- the protected anchorages that give the narrow isthmus of Two Harbors its name.
Many visitors arrive on powerboats and sailboats, staking out moorings in the harbors and the nearby coves. But you don't need your own boat to enjoy the clean, crystalline water surrounding Two Harbors. You can snorkel from the beach. Or rent a kayak to explore the island's craggy coves and caves. Nature-lovers, anglers, and boaters will revel in this wild hamlet. But if shopping, double Frappuccinos a busy night life are essentials, you might find yourself eagerly awaiting the next ferry home.
Where to stay: Banning House Lodge, (800) 322-3434; www.visitcatalinaisland.com/twoHarbors. Summer rates are $199 to $299 a night; several family rooms sleep four. Rates dip in fall and spring ($119 to $245) and winter ($89 to $224).
Eating out: Harbor Reef Restaurant and Saloon, (310) 510-4215. Try fresh swordfish and other seafood caught right off the island.
Getting there: To reach Two Harbors from San Pedro, take Catalina Express, (310) 519-1212 or (800) 315-9518, www.catalinaexpress.com. From Marina del Rey, take the Marina del Rey Flyer, (310) 305-7250, www.catalinaferries.com.
ECO RESORT AND S'MORES
Next time you're thinking about a Santa Barbara weekend, consider heading up the coast 20 miles farther, and standing on the bluffs at El Capitan State Beach. You'll see a wild, unspoiled stretch of California. And across U.S. 101, the rustic El Capitan Canyon campground has become an eco-friendly resort in the backyard of Los Padres National Forest.
El Capitan Canyon is a hideaway where you can enjoy campfire s'mores along with hot-stone massages. Tucked into a seaside pocket, the 300-acre resort offers camping for those who want some amenities too. Guests stay in cozy cedar cabins surrounded by leafy stands of giant sycamores. There are kitchenettes, full bathrooms, hardwood floors and bed linens that feel as though they belong at a fancy hotel. Some cabins have Jacuzzi tubs; many come with lofts accessible by ladders, one of many kid-pleasing touches.
Visitors can ride bikes, hike miles of hilly trails, trek to a nearby llama farm or play on the nearby beach. Another option: Use El Capitan Canyon as a quiet base of operation for exploring Santa Barbara or the Santa Ynez wine country.
Where to stay: El Capitan Canyon, 11560 Calle Real, Santa Barbara; (866) 352-2729, www.elcapitancanyon.com. Nightly cabin rates: December through March, $125 to $310, and April through November, $145 to $350. Rates for safari tents are $125 to $145 nightly.
Eating out: Canyon Market at El Capitan Canyon. The market serves sandwiches, pizza and other simple, tasty fare and carries a selection of Santa Ynez Valley wines. You'll also find provisions if you want to grill at the fire pit outside your cabin. On Saturdays during summer, there are barbecue dinners and evening concerts in the canyon.
BASEBALL GETAWAY IN SAN DIEGO
Imagine going to a prime-time major-league baseball game without being stuck in traffic or worrying about parking or standing in line (except at the hot-dog stand). You don't even have to climb out of the swimming pool and towel off until just before game time.
That's the beauty of the San Diego baseball getaway, an ideal SoCal escape in spring or summer. The main attraction is Petco Park, San Diego's new open-air stadium that straddles downtown's newly revitalized Gaslamp Quarter and East Village.
Downtown San Diego is packed with hotels, but only one has a sky bridge leading directly from the lobby escalator into Petco Park. As a guest at the Omni San Diego Hotel, you can avoid the crowds piling into the 46,000-seat stadium and instead use the hotel's private entry with a flash of your room key. You don't need to be a hard-core Padres fan to appreciate the VIP treatment or the cool stadium.
Where to stay: Omni San Diego Hotel, 675 L St.; (619) 231-6664, www.omnihotels.com. Home-run packages start at $289 a night and include lodging, reserved tickets, access to Petco Park by the sky bridge, overnight valet parking and breakfast for two.
Eating out: Petco Park straddles the Gaslamp District, and you can easily walk to restaurants and other attractions downtown. Good choices include Red Pearl Kitchen, 440 J St., (619) 231-1100, www.redpearlkitchen.com), for delectable Pan-Asian cuisine. Or try Basic Urban Kitchen, 410 10th Ave., (619) 531-8869, www.barbasic.com, a converted warehouse with a bare-bones menu; you get a choice of red or white pizza, and then you build your pie from a toppings list.
PALM SPRINGS RETRO ESCAPE
Sink your toes into the deep ivory shag of a retro hideaway in the new/old Palm Springs. The former Rat Pack hideaway is ground zero for the style known as "Desert Modern," and its treasure-trove of Midcentury Modern architecture is being restored and polished to a vintage high gloss. The city's new breed of tourists come to marinate in the desert's history, culture and kitsch along with spa treatments.
While you're strolling downtown, stop by designer Trina Turk's hip boutique, 891 N. Palm Canyon Drive, (760) 416-2856; get your java at Koffi, 515 N. Palm Canyon Drive, (760) 416-2244, a friendly, retro-style coffeehouse; and detour a block off the city's main drive to browse the Palm Springs Museum, 101 N. Museum Drive, (760) 325-7186, www.psmuseum.org, where you can pick up a copy of the Palm Springs Modern Map ($5) to navigate the city's architecture. Or take Robert Imber's Palm Springs Modern Tours, (760) 318-6118 a three-hour minivan tour ($65) exploring the city's architecture and history.
Where to stay: At the heart of downtown, the old Marquis Hotel has been reborn as the chic Hotel Zoso, 150 S. Indian Canyon Drive, (760) 325-9676; www.hotelzoso.com, and welcomes guests with a faux-snakeskin couch and backlit onyx lobby bar.
The 16-room Movie Colony Hotel, 726 N. Indian Canyon Drive, (760) 320-6340 or (888) 953-5700, www.moviecolonyhotel.com, is an island of calm and cool. The wildest place is the Parker Palm Springs, 4200 E. Palm Canyon Drive, (760) 770-5000, www.theparkerpalmsprings.com, an ultra-mod hideaway surrounded by tall privacy hedges and safeguarded by doormen in hot-pink blazers. Think Frank Sinatra meets James Bond meets Austin Powers. Even if you don't stay at the Parker, stop by to have lunch or to sip a drink.
COTTAGE LIFE AT CRYSTAL COVE
The old standby is Newport Beach. It's an easy weekend trip. The fresh take is to head south to stay on the sand at the Crystal Cove Beach Cottages.
Nestled between Newport and Laguna Beach, Crystal Cove is a 2,791-acre state park that boasts a great swimming beach, tide pools and, since summer 2006, freshly refurbished oceanfront cottages where you can stay overnight and soak up the quintessential California experience.
The nonprofit Crystal Cove Alliance is renovating the original rustic beach cottages one by one, with new foundations, wooden beam ceilings, hardwood floors and warm, simple furnishings that evoke the 1930s and 1940s. The cove, though, is so popular that reservations disappear as soon they become available each month. It's worth the effort. Crystal Cove remains an unspoiled treasure, one of the last of its kind in Southern California.
Where to stay: Crystal Cove Beach Cottages (No. 35 Crystal Cove, Newport Coast; (949) 376-6200, reservations at (800) 444-7275; www.crystalcovebeachcottages.org. Private cottages accommodate four to nine guests at nightly base rates from $117 to $179; $31 extra per person for additional guests over the four-person minimum occupancy. Dorm-style cottages also are available, with locking private bedroom doors and shared kitchens; nightly rates are $31 (single occupancy) to $92; $21 extra per person for additional guests. You'll need to book reservations months in advance or score a last-minute cancellation.
Day trips: You don't need reservations for a day trip to Crystal Cove State Park, www.crystalcovestatepark.com, which has 3.5 miles of public beach and 2,000 acres of undeveloped woodlands with hiking and biking trails up through El Moro Canyon. For the historic district and beach, park in the Los Trancos visitors' parking lot on the inland side of Pacific Coast Highway. Parking is $10.
Eating out: Beachcomber Cafe, (949) 376-6900, is the cove's beachfront restaurant. Or stop by the Crystal Cove Shake Shack, 7408 Pacific Coast Highway, for shakes and sandwiches.