Weekend Escapes for Southern Californians
Forty-eight hours of fun? You've got it. Here are weekend escapes that offer rest for the weary and restoration for the body and soul.
May 19, 2013
They say something in our salty blood draws us to the sea. As such, Ventura will always be one of our easiest, breeziest, saltiest options. You know you've left L.A. proper when the boot shops start popping up along the 101. You know you've arrived in Ventura when the wind begins to whip and the gulls begin to circle. The tab: $289 for two nights right on the beach, $120 for meals and $98 for three tickets to the whale-watching experience of a lifetime.
May 5, 2013
Fifty miles north of San Francisco, straddling U.S. Highway 101, sits Santa Rosa, former home of Charles M. Schulz and the gang from "Peanuts." From the highway, as you boom past at 70 mph, Santa Rosa appears to be just another somewhere on the way to somewhere else. But a short detour east into downtown or west into the wine country quickly proves otherwise. The tab: We spent $163 for a night at the Hotel La Rose, dinner for two at Willi's Wine Bar was $84, including wine, and a lavish picnic from Whole Foods Market came to $43. Gas and incidentals added $100 to the tab. Wine at Bella and Iron Horse vineyards, of course, was extra.
April 28, 2013
One look at omnipresent Camelback Mountain and you might think the northeast Phoenix neighborhood known as Arcadia is on the outskirts of town where tumbleweeds blow effortlessly. But you'd be wrong — very, very wrong. Arcadia is where you'll find twentysomethings hanging out at recently opened gastropubs, young families walking to nearby parks, mini-malls with pizzerias and dive bars featuring Skee ball and foosball. This might sound like Los Angeles, but one glimpse of a helmet-less biker cruising down Campbell Avenue and you'll know you aren't in California. The tab for this: about $400 for room, meals (but not the gasoline to get here).
April 21, 2013
The gilt-trimmed high-rises of Waikiki offer a seductive escape from L.A. But those who rent a car — a convertible, please —- can find a simpler side of Oahu on the North Shore, an hour or so away, where locals and tourists carry surfboards instead of Louis Vuitton purses (real or fake) and debates about where to eat focus on which food trucks serve the best garlic shrimp. Residents call it "the country," and they want to keep it that way.
April 14, 2013
Pleasanton, Calif., is — no surprise here — a pleasant small city east of San Francisco Bay that was off the beaten track for much of the 20th century and avoided the redevelopment that destroyed the cores of many older cities. Its downtown — filled with tree-lined streets, vintage architecture, restaurants and boutiques — evokes a small town in New England. My good friend Laura, who used to live there, was my guide on our trip. The tab: We spent about $450, including $220 for two nights at the Sheraton and $230 for food and drinks.
April 7, 2013
Westlake Village, 38 miles west of downtown Los Angeles, seems farther. It straddles the Ventura County line, its golf courses, man-made lakes and gated estates sprinkled among gentle hills. Some weekend visitors golf. Some loll in the spa at the Four Seasons Hotel Westlake Village or chase immortality at the California Health & Longevity Institute. (David Murdock, the soon-to-be-90 founder of Dole Foods, owns the hotel and institute.) It's a good place to lie low. My wife, daughter and I spent $142 on lodging (one night, including tax) and $150 on meals and snacks at Stonehaus, Mediterraneo, Brent's Deli and the Hyatt dining room.
9:39 PM PDT, March 31, 2013
Cowboys are my weakness. That's not just the title of my favorite Pam Houston book, but the truth about my undying fascination with those icons of the Wild West. These days, when most of the horses are under the hood instead of a barn roof, it's a challenge to find an authentic outpost where rootin,' tootin' cowboys still have a foothold. That's why there's Prescott. Though the mile-high city about 90 miles northwest of Phoenix is becoming a desirable retirement haven, it's more notable for its long-running rodeo, historic downtown and saloons that are the next-best thing to time travel.
March 17, 2013
Perched on the Pacific Ocean roughly midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, Cambria is charming — full of local boutiques, not chain stores; fresh, inventive restaurants, no McDonald's in sight; art galleries, studios and a series of small-scale inns and B&Bs. It's also a great base for adventures in Paso Robles' bordering western wine region alongside U.S. 46. On our recent weekend, my husband, Bill, and I were set on checking out some lesser-known wineries recommended by friends. We threw in an off-season visit to nearby Hearst Castle and took a look at the elephant seals in their beach rookery at Piedras Blancas a few miles away.
March 10, 2013
We admire this sugared peak from our downtown L.A. offices on the clearest winter days, a 10,000-foot postcard of pleasures. Indeed, Mt. Baldy offers challenging (though limited) ski terrain. Serious hikers use it to train for Everest. In short, this SoCal playground offers something for almost everyone. And you don't have to be Marco Polo to get there: Baldy is only an hour's drive — one easy turn off the 210 Freeway.
March 3, 2013
People travel to the Mojave expecting arid crags, tortured landscapes and vast expanses. But water? Not so much. On a recent winter trip to the Mojave, I stumbled on a new desert lure: bubbling springs, creeks and even a river, the Amargosa. My husband, Barry, and I followed a watery trail through the hamlets of Shoshone and Tecopa Hot Springs, in the seam of desert between Death Valley National Park and the Nevada border.
February 3, 2013
You come to Chandler, Ariz., for desert deceleration — not that fast life they live in Phoenix and Scottsdale. The city of about 240,000 (www.visitchandler.com) sits about 20 minutes southeast of Phoenix, below Mesa. In the central plaza it raises a 40-foot-high tumbleweed Christmas tree every winter. Chandler's several hotels (mostly budget chains) are easy driving from the 11 soon-to-be-active spring training stadiums of greater Phoenix, including the Dodgers (about 35 miles away in Glendale) and the Angels (about 17 miles away in Tempe). A child-related activity brought us to town, but among normal people, golf is the larger draw. Venues include the 18-hole Crowne Plaza San Marcos Golf Resort, which dates to 1913; the Ocotillo Golf Resort (27 holes); and the Bear Creek Golf Complex (36 holes).
January 20, 2013
From land or sea, the Big Sur coastline dazzles. This 90-mile stretch of rugged Central California landscape draws millions of visitors annually, most of whom are content to pull over at Highway 1 viewpoints to catch a quick glimpse of the rocky Pacific shoreline. But I wanted more. I wanted a window on the sea.
January 13, 2013
It's edgy, it's cool — and it's official: San Diego's North Park made Forbes' list of America's Hippest Hipster Neighborhoods in September, joining such spots as L.A.'s Silver Lake and San Francisco's Mission District. North Park has all the ingredients for the cool school: It's culturally diverse and has art galleries, boutiques, trendy bars with handcrafted cocktails and local brews, and foodie-approved eateries. If you're hip to this scene, check it out.
January 3, 2013
Remember when Vegas was cheap? It can be again, except it's not Vegas, it's Reno. There are better reasons to come here than its reputation for quickie divorces might have you believe. For instance, big casinos just like in Vegas but not as pricey and definitely not as raucous.
December 30, 2012
It's understandable why, as wintry weather sets in elsewhere, travelers flock to Palm Springs for warmth and sunshine. Heavy clothes are quickly replaced by T-shirts and shorts — or, at some resorts, no clothes at all. Palm Springs is a hot spot not only for snowbirds but also for those who choose to vacation wearing just their birthday suits at one of the area's several nudist resorts.
December 2, 2012
The slow pace and small-town pleasures of Fallbrook, Calif. — best known for its avocados and festival celebrating the green fruit — can't match the glitz of, well, glitzier destinations. That lack of flash is what's most appealing about this rural outpost in north San Diego County. The ancient oaks of Live Oak Park are waiting to provide shade for a picnic, nurseries that dot the hills are filled with colorful plants to take home, and there are some bright new restaurants known only to locals. C'mon down, sit a spell.
November 18, 2012
Motorists have plenty of reasons to stop in Las Vegas, but for those whose final destination is Ely, Nev., the most important is gas. That's because the three-hour drive north on U.S. 93 is filled with so much nothing that they'll start to ask themselves two questions: First, have those scientists who claim our planet is overpopulated ever driven this route? Second, does Ely, a town of about 4,000, really exist? The answer to the latter, thankfully, is yes.
November 11, 2012
New Yorkers pride themselves on the Statue of Liberty, San Franciscans the Golden Gate Bridge. Both are sturdy, sensible landmarks that reflect well on the cities surrounding them.
November 4, 2012
Santa Paula's downtown is reminiscent of any Small Town, USA, with its century-old inn, mural-lined walls and neighborhoods with Victorian homes. The tranquil lifestyle might make it seem as if it's in an isolated part of the state, but the truth is that the town, population 28,000, is 20 minutes east of Ventura.
October 28, 2012
A family getaway to Santa Cruz proved this eccentric beach town along California's Central Coast is fun enough for a 5-year-old yet cool enough for a teenager. The excitement of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk entertained our young daughter, while the Australian exchange student we're hosting zigzagged her way in and out of trendy stores on Pacific Avenue. We were in town to cheer on my wife, who was playing roller derby against the Santa Cruz Harbor Hellcats. Here's what we did with the rest of our time.
October 14, 2012
Like a fine wine, Paso Robles, Calif., gets better with age. I was delighted to find new downtown restaurants, wine bars and shops since last visiting five years ago. And there are now more than 200 eclectic wineries dotting the region's oak-shaded country roads. Fall is a great time to visit, especially during Harvest Wine Weekend (www.pasowine.com; Oct. 19-21 this year). There's a crush of activities to celebrate the crushing of the grapes: Jump in and try your hand, oops, feet, at grape stomping, get a vino-therapy massage or go to an elegant winemaker dinner or casual barbecue.
October 7, 2012
It's often said that good writers have to find their voice. If that's so, Samuel Clemens found his in Virginia City, Nev. While working for its local paper in the 1860s, he assumed the name by which he's best known: Mark Twain. Were he alive, Twain would still recognize this town 25 miles southeast of Reno; it hasn't changed much in the last 150 years.
September 30, 2012
Hollywood loves Lone Pine, Calif., a dusty town in the Eastern Sierra. Since 1920, crews have been making the 3 1/2- drive to shoot hundreds of movies, TV shows and commercials with the majestic Mt. Whitney and the knobby Alabama Hills as backdrops. Visitors can walk in the footsteps of Humphrey Bogart, Kirk Douglas and John Wayne and relive the heyday of western filmmaking.
September 9, 2012
Benicia, a small waterfront town in the Bay Area often overlooked by travelers, is an elixir for big-city angst. Less than an hour from Oakland and San Francisco, this charming hamlet gives visitors a chance to relax as they stroll the compact downtown's boutiques and antiques stores. This one-time state capital (1853-54) and location of the first Army post on the West Coast is dotted with historic sites and is a haven for the creative set — about 500 artists make Benicia their home.
September 2, 2012
Yachats. Say it YA-hots. This tiny dot on a map of the central Oregon coast had been on our list of places to see for its bountiful beachcombing and dramatic vistas. My wife and two sons, ages 11 and 8, stopped for two nights in August during a Northwest motoring loop.
5:18 PM PDT, August 24, 2012
The long-neglected west end of downtown Napa is undergoing a resurgence, sparked by a stylish hotel that has blazed a trail for new restaurants, wine-tasting rooms and retail shops. No need for a car; you can walk to everything in this six-square-block area. Adding to the buzz is the Uptown Theatre, a restored Art Deco gem that is now an intimate concert hall featuring such name acts as Chris Isaak, Mother Hips and "Weird Al" Yankovic.
August 5, 2012
While working on an update to a Napa and Sonoma guidebook, I realized that Petaluma, 15 miles west of Sonoma Plaza, might merit its own itinerary. In early June, I drove 40 miles north of San Francisco to figure out whether the small, historic town is worth recommending. Petaluma might not have the public relations clout of Sonoma County's fancier towns such as Healdsburg, but it's rife with hidden treasures, not least of which is a devotion to excellent food.
July 29, 2012
Consider this first, and last, call. Tickets go on sale Thursday for the nation's largest one-stop showcase of craft beers, the annual Great American Beer Festival in Denver (http://www.greatamericanbeerfestival.com) Oct. 11-13. Last year, 49,000 tickets to the event at the Colorado Convention Center (700 14th St.;  228-8000, http://www.denverconvention.com), a chance to sample the wares of 475 or so brewers from around the country, were snapped up in less than a week.
July 22, 2012
Ferrying to Santa Catalina Island — just you, that special someone and an upper deck brimming with buoyant kids, chiding parents and assorted Jimmy Buffett look-alikes — isn't exactly a secret on any summer Friday. L.A.'s fabled leisure isle hosts more than 1 million visitors each year, and by the looks of those lines at the waffle-cone place, the throngs at the Green Pleasure Pier and the buzzing golf carts in downtown Avalon, many of them are hitting it right now. Should that deter you? Nah — it's all fun. But it might inspire a little solitude strategizing without resorting to hiding out in Two Harbors or (more drastic) hiking the Trans-Catalina Trail. When I'm traveling to Avalon, here are some of my favorite escape hatches beside, above and beyond the bay.
July 15, 2012
This isn't one of those cushy Fish-Carltons like those über-expensive Montana trout resorts. Hot Creek Ranch in Mammoth Lakes has nine no-frills cabins whose biggest amenity is one of the sweetest spring-fed creeks you'll ever see, right out your front door. You and other guests will have a two-mile stretch of it all to yourselves. Isn't that the ultimate VIP perk, anyway? Plus, it's an easy five-hour drive from L.A.
July 8, 2012
The 51st state. The closer you get to the Oregon border along the 5 Freeway, you begin to see signs announcing the State of Jefferson. After a quick Internet search, you discover that this is a grass-roots movement begun in 1941 to create a state composed of counties from Northern California and southern Oregon. The capital of the proposed region is Yreka, a mining town with a population of about 8,000. With Western-style architecture and turn-of-the-last-century homes, Yreka is more than just a place to sleep on those long drives to the Pacific Northwest.
June 24, 2012
About 55,000 people call Hanford, Calif., home, but the town is filled with enough history to accommodate a city of millions. Downtown is a must-see thanks to the Hanford Civic Auditorium (1924), the Kings County Courthouse (1896), the Hanford Fox Theatre (1929) and a 1920s ice cream parlor named Superior Dairy Products Co. There's also the China Alley Historic District from 1882, as well as a 1922 building now used as the Temple Theater. This history gives visitors a glimpse of the past, as Hanford's slow pace of life exemplifies the way things used to be.
June 10, 2012
Sonora, Calif., the county seat of Tuolumne County, has a charming downtown full of antiques shops, clothing boutiques and restaurants. Start the weekend by heading to the Sonora Farmers Market on Saturday morning. The market, at Theall and Stewart streets, sells not only fresh fruits and veggies, but also pastries, crepes and locally roasted coffee.
June 3, 2012
Let's get lost in the Pacific Northwest, and I don't mean in Seattle or Vancouver, Canada. Little Gig Harbor — for most of the last century accessible only by boat — is a working fishing village ringed by tall pines on the ragged western edge of Puget Sound. Think sailboats, beachcombing, art galleries, a blessing of the fleet festival, fresh salmon, Washington state wines and the occasional glimpse of Mt. Rainier on the eastern horizon. At the far end of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge — famous for the collapse of its first incarnation four months after it opened in 1940 — Gig Harbor isn't easy to get to, about a 45-minute drive from Sea-Tac Airport. But it's worth it, as I discovered recently.
May 27, 2012
Intro: Let wine snobs snicker when they hear you spent a weekend at a vineyard in Temecula. I took a friend for an overnight stay at the South Coast Winery Resort & Spa (34843 Rancho California Road;  587-9463, http://www.wineresort.com), a 39-acre slice of nirvana where relaxation is inescapable. Twenty-four hours wasn't nearly enough time to enjoy the premises.
May 20, 2012
The sleepy Central Coast town of Arroyo Grande, population 17,000, is the ideal place to shut out the mayhem of city life for a few days. There's not much to do except relax, drink wine, read your book and take sunset strolls.
May 13, 2012
The Portland Hop. I know, it sounds like a dance craze in 1937. But really, it's what you do when Southern California gets you down and you need to drink small-batch beer, eat Northwestern locavore meals and see bike commuters in the rain. My wife, daughter and I hit Portland, Ore., for a few days last August. Here's the report.
May 13, 2012
The fantastical murals of San Francisco's Mission District are an intriguing dialogue between artists and their city that you can easily experience on foot. On any given day in Clarion Alley, tourists from all over the world mingle with field-tripping students (and the homeless). Start at the Mission Street end of Clarion Alley, then exit at Valencia Street and head south (turn left). Check out the murals all the way to 20th Street. Typically, walk one or two blocks (east or west) to view. Murals include "Vamos Gigantes" (19th Street between San Carlos and Lexington streets), "MaestraPeace" (18th between Linda and Lapidge streets) and "Mission Pool" (Linda Street at 19th Street). Or take one of four mural tours offered by Precita Eyes ( 285-2287, http://www.precitaeyes.org; no tour more than $15), a mural arts organization in the Mission.
May 13, 2012
Sunnylands, the 200-acre Annenberg estate in Rancho Mirage that hosted five decades of political and Hollywood luminaries behind its pink walls, opened to the public for the first time in March. Consider this 20,000-square-foot dwelling, set in a far-as-the-eye-can-see expanse of golf course green, as a latter-day incarnation of the Gilded Age mansions of Newport, R.I. Inside the house, digital reproductions of the Annenbergs' $1-billion-plus Impressionist art collection compete for space on the few walls not made of glass.
May 13, 2012
What an appealing slice-of-life California town, an easy day trip by car or train. Come for the history, stay for the food. This restaurant-intensive ranch town is the oldest community in Orange County. If San Juan Capistrano — or SJC — had a dating profile it would say: "Self-deprecating, authentic, still likes a good time."
May 13, 2012
If you know anything at all about Del Mar, it's that the seaside town north of San Diego is the place to play the ponies. The horses aren't the only thoroughbreds in the track's history; you'll hear it connected to such names as Bing Crosby, W.C. Fields, Red Skelton, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, jockey Willie Shoemaker and, my favorite, Seabiscuit. But I'd encourage a Del Mar visit any time except the July 18-Sept. 5 racing season, just for the peace and quiet.
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