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Farewell, Bali. Hello, Laguna.

That's the new year's travel buzz. Luckily for Southern Californians, there are plenty of nearby options to entice. Within easy reach, from San Diego to Mammoth to Las Vegas, new faces in familiar places await.

Given the sputtering economy, lingering security concerns and a prospect of war in Iraq, many of us are sticking closer to home, frequently spending less money but occasionally splurging (and not feeling guilty, since a self-indulgent weekend still costs less than some vacations abroad).

Even though the '90s boom has passed, its echo is alive in the form of romantic new hotels, revived cultural landmarks and expanded family attractions. From the sunbaked desert of Phoenix to Orange County's golden coast and its crop of new luxury hotels, projects started years ago are finally ready to open.

Some world travelers will jump at the chance to take advantage of bargains and smaller crowds abroad this year. But for those who don't, 2003 is a good time to discover all over again the possibilities in our own backyard.

Mammoth changes

It takes a village to grow a ski resort -- and about a billion dollars. At least, that's the tab at Mammoth Mountain in California's Eastern Sierra.

For eons the resort's après-ski scene lent new meaning to the word "lackluster." But now Mammoth is being transformed into a flashy village with upscale lodging and shopping. The grand opening is set for Memorial Day, although the 77-unit Lincoln House and the 89-unit White Mountain condos are slated to open in February or March. (Most units are sold, but many are available as rentals.) They'll be joined by nearly three dozen stores, galleries and restaurants.

Most everything is within walking distance, including the 15-passenger gondola that can move 3,600 people an hour.

The 11,053-foot Mammoth Mountain had found itself on a downhill course in the last decade. Skier visits were off, partly because of the glam factor -- or lack thereof. Enter giant Intrawest, developer and operator of Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia and Copper in Colorado.

The company's new village also will contain Grand Sierra Lodge, a 67-unit building where one-bedroom condos will begin at about $350,000 but also will be available for rent. This last piece of the core village is expected to be completed in 14 to 18 months.

Sorry to see Mammoth go the way of Aspen? Take heart. There's one thing money can't buy: fresh, deep, natural snow. The resort has had nearly 8 feet so far this season.

Mammoth Mountain, (800) MAMMOTH (626-6684), http://www.mammothmountain.com.

Tahoe revamped

Not to be outdone, the city of South Lake Tahoe, on the lake's California side, has a billion-dollar make-over of its own.

Unlike Mammoth, the problem here hasn't been the absence of a bustling shoppers' village. It has been the presence of one: an ugly asphalt maze of traffic-clogged streets, weary motels and tacky trinket shops cluttering town.

This year, though, a face-lift of Joan Rivers-size proportions continues. Old commercial areas such as a bedraggled Raley's supermarket center are being injected with new retail stores. Landscaping is being tucked and lifted. And in a bit of odd timing, an outdoor skating rink is set to open in April.

Some low-end accommodations have been excised. In their place are Marriott's 261-room Timber Lodge and 199-room Grand Residence Club, open only a couple of months. Both are time-share-style properties but can be reserved on a nightly basis. Recently quoted winter rates started at $160.

To prevent the kind of sprawl that marred South Lake Tahoe in the first place, the city's redevelopment calls for 131 units of old lodging to be retired for every 100 new units. The goal is fewer but nicer accommodations, better shopping and more green space to complete the make-over.

Gold in Orange County

Is a warm beach more your speed? Look no farther this year than Orange County, where three new resorts will make the most of their settings along Pacific Coast Highway.

A onetime trailer park is scheduled to open Feb. 21 as a 262-room high-end hotel. Montage Resort & Spa, on 30 prime acres, is done in "California bungalow" style -- a touch of Craftsman with a splash of surf and sand.

Chances are surfer dudes won't be hanging out here, where room rates will begin at $450.

Who will? We're guessing anyone prosperous and curious enough to see what money can buy at Laguna Beach's first new luxury hotel in decades. (A partial answer: an ocean view from every room, marble baths, three pools, beach access and some name dropping. James Boyce, lured away from Mary Elaine's at the Phoenician in Scottsdale, Ariz., is executive chef at Studio, one of the three restaurants.)

It wouldn't be a resort without the spa, here a 20,000-square-foot affair with 21 treatment rooms. Some are indoor/outdoor, so you can hear the ocean in case you forgot it's close by.

The surf also takes center stage at the 517-room Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort and Spa, scheduled to open Jan. 19. The collection of original art -- it's said to contain more than 1,800 pieces -- has a surf theme, with many works done by boarders from around the world. Although the hotel is across the highway from the beach, the designers cleverly centered the rooms in a way that makes traffic disappear, leaving views of the Big Blue.

The guest rooms include a bit of Spain in the form of Andalusian-flavored furnishings. The bathrooms are large, the comforters are down and the Internet access is high speed (for all that Web surfing).

Also onsite are a 20,000-square-foot spa and the Californian, the signature restaurant, which promises -- what else? -- California cuisine. Rates begin at $375 a night, double occupancy, but ask about specials.

Balboa Bay Club Resort & Spa can boast some originals too: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and John Wayne, among others, were members. This year you can enter their world on the water.

The private club, which has 28 guest rooms for members, is scheduled to open 131 guest rooms for nonmembers in April. Rates will begin about $275. Not cheap, but neither is the membership fee (in the thousands).

Rooms are done in restful whites and honey colors. Guests are welcomed with a bowl of fruit and a vase of orchids.

The club has 150 yacht slips. Don't have your own? You can charter the Duke's wood yacht, the Wild Goose.

Montage Resort & Spa, (949) 715-6000, http://www.montagelagunabeach.com. Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort and Spa, (714) 698-1234, http://www.hyatt.com. Balboa Bay Club Resort & Spa, (949) 645-5000, http://www.balboabayclub.com.

S.F.: BART and art

Here's a day for the history books: Today.

Because today we are recommending flying into fogged-in, delay-plagued San Francisco International Airport in 2003.

Are we crazy or just stupid? Both, perhaps. But we're willing to gamble that this year, the airport everyone loves to hate may deserve a second chance. Here's why:

The eagerly awaited BART train extension connecting SFO to downtown has a target opening date of late January, which, in transit-official lingo, may mean February. Or March. Or April.

Officials decline to give a specific date. But whenever the line opens, it promises a cheap, convenient, fast way to South of Market museums, Union Square hotels and the Civic Center.

Civic Center? Yes, there will be something worth seeing there. On March 20, the Asian Art Museum is scheduled to reopen after an eight-year, $160.5-million move from Golden Gate Park to the former main library near City Hall.

Gae Aulenti, the architect who turned a Paris train station into the Musée d'Orsay, has aimed to transform the 1917 Beaux Arts-style building into airy quarters filled with natural light. The museum, the nation's largest devoted to Asian art, will have almost 40,000 square feet of exhibition space for a collection that contains 14,000 objects and covers 6,000 years. Among its treasures: a gilded bronze statue from China that dates to 338 and is thought to be the oldest known dated rendering of Buddha in the world.

From the Civic Center, you can hop back on BART to another landmark transformed: the Ferry Building. Along with the Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower and the Transamerica Pyramid, this century-old Embarcadero building at the base of Market Street is one of the city's iconic sights, thanks to giant neon lights proclaiming "Port of San Francisco."

After more than two years and $70 million in structural repairs, skylight replacement and restoration of 14,000 square feet of tile mosaics on the floor, the Ferry Building will be reborn March 21 as a gourmet food emporium and farmers market. Among the tenants signed up: Marin stalwarts Cowgirl Creamery, an artisanal cheese maker based in Point Reyes, and Hog Island Oyster Co., from Marshall; the Acme Bread Co. of Berkeley; and specialty chocolate makers Scharffen Berger, also of Berkeley, and Recchiuti Confections of San Francisco.

These sweets notwithstanding, some locals are a little sour on the new bow-and-arrow sculpture outside the Ferry Building. The 60-foot "Cupid's Span" by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen had one wry reader of the San Francisco Chronicle complaining in a letter to the editor, "San Francisco has again been shafted ... by a piece of public 'art' that is apparently pointless (and I do not mean the arrow)."

BART, (650) 689-8300, http://www.bart.gov. Asian Art Museum, (415) 581-3500, http://www.asianart.org. Ferry Building, (415) 274-0400, http://www.sfport.com.

San Diego: Hip hooray

Whimsical. Witty. A tad wacky.

And now, San Diego has a new W to add to its local dictionary: the W Hotel.

It's about time. The area has some nice lodgings certainly -- the Hotel del Coronado, La Jolla's La Valencia and the new Lodge at Torrey Pines. But for hot hangouts with a little style and a lot of attitude, the city's hotels can be wholeheartedly ho-hum.

Here comes the 261-room W Hotel, which opened less than a month ago on B Street downtown, within walking distance of Horton Plaza. The airy lobby throbs to hip-hop and soul beats, and young professional types lounge in daybed-like window alcoves, white-vinyl scoop chairs and futuristic bar stools shaped like upside-down Hershey's Kisses.

After a day at the beach, you can hit the Beach, a petite outdoor bar with a heated sand floor, fire pit and cabanas. Or work up a sweat in Sweat, the open-air fitness area overlooking a pool that's so small it ought to be called Bathtub.

For more hipness, hop east of the Gaslamp Quarter to what has been dubbed the East Village. The neighborhood, in the shadow of the Padres' baseball stadium construction site, is slowly becoming the province of the bohemian (by San Diego standards, at least). A few folk art galleries and funky gift stores are mixed among the renovated lofts.

Even the Gaslamp Quarter -- the bar and restaurant district where '80s music and '90s pickup lines live long and prosper -- is getting a little hipper. Newcomers include the Red Circle Café, a dance club where a youthful crowd spills onto the street, and the Gaslamp Strip Club, a tongue-in-cheek steakhouse that is home to a collection of work by pinup artist Alberto Vargas.

W San Diego, (619) 231-8220, http://www.whotels.com.

Flush with casinos

A short drive north or east of San Diego lie more changes: thousands of slot machines, off-track betting, poker, million-dollar bingo games -- all this and Elvis too.

Native American casinos in or near Temecula and El Cajon are trying to give Las Vegas a run for our money. The gambling halls here have gotten glitzier, offering upscale dining, 24-hour casino action and Vegas-style shows, Elvis impersonators included.

The newest kid on the block is the Barona Valley Ranch Resort and Casino, which just opened its new hotel and casino New Year's Day about 30 minutes east of San Diego.

The $260-million resort has 397 rooms, a 130,000-square-foot gaming area and an existing golf course that Golf Magazine ranked last year as one of the top 10 new places to play in the United States.

In Temecula, Pechanga Resort & Casino opened in June with a 522-room hotel, a 1,200-seat showroom and an 88,000-square-foot casino.

And sporting an authentic Vegas name: Harrah's Rincon Casino and Resort in Valley Center, east of Temecula. It opened in August with a 201-room hotel and 45,000-square-foot casino.

Barona Valley Ranch Resort and Casino, (888) 722-7662, http://www.barona.com. Pechanga Resort & Casino, (888) 732-4264, http://www.pechanga.com. Harrah's Rincon Casino and Resort, (877) 777-2457, http://www.harrahs.com/our_casinos/rin/.

More Phoenix resorts

Didn't think the greater Phoenix area could possibly boast more resorts with the desert floor dotted with the likes of the Boulders, the Arizona Biltmore and the Phoenician (not to mention the Ritz-Carlton, the Fairmont and the new Four Seasons)?

Well, say hello to three more. The first is the 3-month-old Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort and Spa, a dozen miles south of Sky Harbor International Airport. Among its draws: an equestrian center where guests can take 1 1/2-hour guided trail rides across the sage-and-creosote-covered landscape of the Gila River Indian Community.

On Wild Horse's heels comes the 2-month-old Westin Kierland Resort and Spa, a 735-room expanse in Scottsdale with more fun-in-the-sun features, including a lazy river and 110-foot waterslide. The hotel's showcase restaurant, the "Nuevo Latino"-flavored Deseo, was conceived by Douglas Rodriguez, the 1996 winner of the Rising Star Chef of the Year Award from the James Beard Foundation.

Still hungry? The J.W. Marriott Desert Ridge Resort and Spa opened about a month ago in northeast Phoenix. It aims to out-posh the posh Marriott's Camelback Inn in Scottsdale -- ambitious, considering Camelback has earned AAA's five-diamond rating for 25 years straight. But with a 28,000-square-foot spa, two golf courses, and hard, clay and grass tennis courts, Desert Ridge just may succeed.

Nailing down room rates these days is more art than science; prices vary wildly depending on season and availability. During a recent check for weekends in February, we came up with double rooms starting at $289 for the J.W. Marriott, $199 for the Westin and $169 for the Sheraton. Check Web sites, call the hotel -- and cross your fingers.

Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort and Spa, (602) 225-0100, http://www.sheraton.com. Westin Kierland Resort and Spa, (480) 624-1000. J.W. Marriott Desert Ridge Resort and Spa, (480) 293-5000, http://www.marriott.com.

West Coast cruises

What's the hottest port of call in 2003? Home, sweet home.

With safety concerns still fresh in travelers' minds, more ships are calling up and down the California coast: San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, even smaller harbors in Monterey and Santa Barbara. The number of cruises stopping in San Francisco alone will nearly double this year, to 74.

The goal: Make cruising seem more accessible to the younger set (as if Royal Caribbean's cruising-isn't-just-for-geezers TV commercials aren't enough) and attract new customers within driving range of ports.

Among the new offerings is a seven-night sailing aboard Celebrity Cruises' 1,870-passenger Mercury. The ship will leave April 12 and 26 from San Francisco and call in Monterey, Santa Barbara, Ensenada, San Diego and Santa Catalina Island. Discounted rates for an inside cabin start at $750 per person, double occupancy.

For years small ships have offered eco-cruises in the Gulf of California along Baja's eastern coast, but large ships stayed away. Here comes Holland America. Its first season plying the route was successful enough that it's returning this year.

The 1,266-passenger Ryndam and Statendam will depart from San Diego and call in Pichilingue/La Paz, Santa Rosalía, Loreto and Cabo San Lucas. The seven-night trips are scheduled for spring, fall and next winter. Discounted spring prices start at $788 per person.

In April Carnival is scheduled to open its $40-million terminal near the Queen Mary in Long Beach. It will be home port for the line's popular Mexico cruises on the Elation and the Ecstasy. One of the newest members of the Carnival fleet, the year-old, 2,667-passenger Pride, will take over the Elation's route in the fall.

Celebrity Cruises, (800) 722-5941, http://www.celebrity-cruises.com. Holland America, (877) 932-4259, http://www.hollandamerica.com. Carnival, (888) CARNIVAL (227-6482), http://www.carnival.com.

Redding? No, really

So it's not exactly at the top of most people's to-do list. Or even in the middle.

But this town off Interstate 5 about 160 miles north of Sacramento is slowly gaining attention with some new attractions. The centerpiece is the 300-acre, $82-million Turtle Bay Exploration Park, a nonprofit complex of gardens and museums that explores Logland's art, history, culture, nature and industry. The park's 35,000-square-foot Turtle Bay Museum opened quietly last summer on the banks of the Sacramento River. Exhibits feature Native American art and handicrafts plus the Visible River, a 22,000-gallon aquarium with native fish designed to make visitors feel as though they're standing on the bottom of the Sacramento River.

Park projects under construction include the Sundial Bridge, which is anything but pedestrian. The 700-foot-long, glass-decked walkway designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava will span the Sacramento River like an elegant harp.

Turtle Bay Exploration Park, (800) 887-8532, http://www.turtlebay.org.

Half Moon Bay watch

OK, we admit it. Somehow the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay eluded our radar when it opened in 2001. Or to put it more accurately, it appeared as a tiny blip on our screen. Just another Ritz, we thought.

In the spirit of the new year, let us note, since we have now seen it with our own eyes, that the Half Moon Bay Ritz is one of the hotel company's most gorgeous properties. Set atop a bluff overlooking the rugged Pacific Coast, waves crashing below and surrounded by golf course greenery, you might wake up here and think you're in Scotland. In fact, the hordes of knicker-wearing valets by the courtyard entrance look as though they're ready to tee up.

The shingled 261-room hotel and spa, whose design is meant to evoke a 19th century seaside lodge, is a short hop over the Santa Cruz Mountains from San Francisco International Airport. It's an easy getaway from L.A. but admittedly, at $225 to $745 per night, a splurge.

It's no wonder AAA awarded this Ritz five stars in its first year of operation. The décor, an English-Portuguese mélange, reminds us of those tasteful, rich-as-sin interiors of Cape Cod manses featured in shelter magazines: overstuffed sofas, dark and blond wood floors, a telescope aimed at the sea in the conservatory.

Golf-wise this is heaven. Though it's a luxe hotel in a spectacular location, its two adjacent courses are public. (Greens fees are $125; the hotel has pull in getting good tee times.)

Another pleasant surprise is the town of Half Moon Bay. Clearly the beneficiary of Northern California's roaring '90s, the low-profile burg has been gentrified. Main Street is full of old buildings refurbished into boutiques, galleries, restaurants, antiques stores and coffeehouses.

The Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay, (650) 712-7000, http://www.ritz-carlton.com.

Vegas: Shopping, Céline

Forget casinos for a moment and think about other ways to part with good money.

Like shopping.

The aging '80s Fashion Show Mall on the south Strip is super-sizing itself. When finished in October, it will have more than 250 stores and eight anchors. The price tag: about $1 billion.

The city's first Nordstrom recently opened along with a Bloomingdale's Home Store. Macy's, Dillard's, Robinsons-May, Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue all have relocated or expanded. Lord & Taylor and a food court make their debut in October.

Have any cash left? Many no doubt will spend it on a singer millions love although few are willing to admit it: Céline Dion. Her $95-million Colosseum showroom, rising alongside Caesars Palace, is scheduled to open in March. It's patterned after the Roman landmark and will hold 4,000 seats. Cirque du Soleil creator Franco Dragone will direct.

Perhaps pampering is worth more to you than a pop star. Then here's yet another Ritz-Carlton. It will be this region's first, opening by the end of February at Lake Las Vegas Resort, 17 miles southeast of the Strip near Lake Mead. Expect 350 rooms near two golf courses, plus a 30,000-square-foot spa and a harbor bridge leading to shops and restaurants. Did we mention the 40,000-square-foot casino?

Fashion Show Mall, (702) 369-8382, http://www.thefashionshow.com. Caesars Palace, (877) 427-7243, http://www.parkplace.com/caesars/lasvegas. Ritz-Carlton, Lake Las Vegas, (702) 567-4700, http://www.ritz-carlton.com.

The heart of L.A.

Bashing downtown L.A.? That's so '90s.

Fess up: Many of you have heard about the revival downtown but still haven't set foot in the heart of the City of Angels, are we correct? Or you haven't been there in years. Or you zip past on the freeway.

Too bad. Because seeing is believing, and 2003 promises even more.

The biggest news is architect Frank Gehry's much-anticipated Walt Disney Concert Hall. The crazy-geometry, stainless-steel-clad hall rising at 1st Street and Grand Avenue opens in mid-October with gala performances by Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Interest in the place is high, and so are prices: The lowest subscription seat price is $35; the best seats go for $120. The $274-million hall will be open for informal peeks and guided tours when concerts aren't in session.

The strikingly minimalist Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, looming over the 101 freeway at 555 W. Temple St., has become as much a sightseeing stop as a place of worship. Tourists often fill the bookstore, the chairs and tables on the vast plaza, and a quite good cafeteria.

Within walking distance, the renovated City Hall gleams just as it did when it opened in 1928. Go inside (it's free) to see the restored rotunda's ornate 60-foot-high ceilings, Malibu tiles and 2,200-pound bronze chandelier.

Then stroll over to L.A.'s birthplace, Olvera Street, at once tacky and charming. A restored 80-foot-long mural by David Alfaro Siqueiros, "América Tropical," is to be unveiled this fall next to La Golondrina restaurant.

The work of Lucien Freud, thought by some to be Britain's best living painter, will be the subject of an exhibition Feb. 9 through May 25 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, the show's only U.S. appearance.

And you closeted Céline Dion fans can hum "My Heart Will Go On" at "Titanic, the Artifact Exhibit," opening Feb. 9 at the California Science Center in Exposition Park. It will feature objects recovered from the sunken ship, re-creations of cabins and a dining room, and an "iceberg" to touch. Alas, no Leo.

Want a home away from home, close to home? Try a downtown hotel: the new über-hip Standard, Checkers (now part of the Hilton chain), the Omni (adjacent to MOCA), the funky Figueroa Hotel or the ornate Biltmore, to name a handful.

If you get lost looking for any of these places, there's always the Purple Patrol. A downtown business association funds these purple-shirted envoys who keep streets clean, patrol on bikes and staff information kiosks for tourists, many of whom these days are Europeans.

Want even more guidance? New guided tours (historic-, contemporary- or museum-themed) are offered daily by Red Line Tours. The company recently opened an office in the historic Bradbury Building on Broadway. Red Line offers access to old movie palaces, visits to the jewelry district, even group tours of the new cathedral. In a city that loves its cars, the company valiantly tries to use public transportation to herd its guests around the historic core.

And what if you live downtown? Where do you go to explore your backyard? The Metropolitan Transit Authority's new Gold Line is scheduled to open in early July. The light rail will link beautiful Union Station with shopping central in Pasadena's Old Town. The aboveground line also stops in front of the under-visited Southwest Museum, one of the best collections of Native American art in the country.

One town, but a world of possibilities.

Walt Disney Concert Hall, (323) 850-2000, http://www.disneyhall.org. Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, (213) 680-5200, http://www.olacathedral.org. http:// Museum of Contemporary Art, (213) 626-6222, http://www.moca-la.org. California Science Center, (323) SCIENCE (724-3623), http://www.casciencectr.org.http://http:// Red Line Tours, (323) 402-1074, http://www.redlinetours.com. Metropolitan Transit Authority, (800) COMMUTE (266-6883), http://www.mta.net.

This article was written by Craig Nakano and reported by Travel staff editors Jane Engle, Catharine Hamm, Rosemary McClure, Vani Rangachar and Leslie Ward.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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