GIFTS THAT GO PLACES : Weekends : Truly original short trips: Wrap one up for a friend who needs to get away from it all

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Here it is again: holiday shopping time. But this year, instead of the same old thing, consider giving your friend or loved one the gift of travel. Granted it doesn't last, but then bathrobes fall apart, ties go out of style and most art ends up in the garage.

And with the dollar so testy these days, 1990 may be the perfect year to give someone what hordes of tourists from around the world pay dearly for: a long weekend in California.

No need to fuss over wrapping. Simply make the basic travel arrangements, write out the itinerary in clever script and let the presentation echo the trip's theme.

For the New York City (but warmer) weekend, wrap up a few checkers along with tickets to the theater. For the ski weekend, write the details on a map of California with Frazier Park circled in red and green. For an eating binge in San Francisco, pack a pair of train tickets in a lunch bag with a bottle of wine, a corkscrew and two paper cups. For the wildly expensive sleeping weekend, wrap up a pair of eye shades with a gift certificate from the hotel of choice.

If you're lucky, maybe you'll be invited along.

THE FEEL-LIKE-YOU'RE-IN-NEW-YORK-CITY-WEEKEND

When the eyes start to wander upward in search of tall buildings and a sudden longing for a fight with a taxi driver strikes, it's time for a weekend in New York.

If it's winter, the prudent traveler overcomes this urge and heads instead for the sparkling skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles. There one can cruise the art museums, strike a sophisticated pose at the theater, stay up past midnight listening to blues. And stroll the streets wearing Mefisto walking shoes with city clothes, just like New Yorkers do.

Begin Friday night by checking in at Checkers Hotel, a downtown gem that's attracting world travelers. Dine on fried noodles at Suehiro in Little Tokyo, where the food is fast, moderately priced and excellent, then to the oh-so-chic Rex Il Ristorante balcony bar for a Cognac and dancing.

After morning muffins in your room, catch a two-hour Conservancy walking tour of downtown Los Angeles' exemplary Art Deco buildings, making note of Checkers' lovely beaux-arts exterior from across the street. Dish dim sum at ABC Seafood in Chinatown. If you can still stand, head over to the Jewelry Mart or Seventh St. Market Place to work off some of those dumplings. Sip late afternoon cappuccino in the hotel's first floor lounge and get ready for the theater.

After dining at the elegant and perennially popular 7th St. Bistro, taxi to the Music Center for theater or music or to the Los Angeles Theatre Center nearby on Spring Street. Cap off the evening with a Jacuzzi on Checkers roof, a sybaritic spot most people don't know exists and from whose steamy depths one can sip champagne and gaze at the lights of surrounding skyscrapers.

Optional: Real New Yorkers will now head out for coffee and blues. Gorky's Cafe is open all night and the music continues until about 1:30 a.m.

Sunday, sleep away the morning but skip the complementary continental snack in favor of an excellent breakfast in the hotel dining room (duck hash and/or apple walnut pancakes with homemade preserves on the side).

Spend an artful afternoon hopping from the Museum of Contemporary Art to the Temporary Contemporary. If you have any energy left, take in a movie at the Laemmle Theater on Figueroa before making the journey home. On Monday, rise refreshed and stimulated, without ever having left the city.

Total cost: about $500 to $600 for two, for two days, two nights, Jewelry Mart not included ($299 hotel, $200 to $300 food and entertainment).

Checkers Hotel, 535 S. Grand Ave., telephone (213) 624-0000; Suehiro, 337 East 1st St., (213) 626-9132; Gorky's, 536 East 8th St., (213) 627-4060; Music Center program information and tickets, (213) 972-7211; Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., (213) 627-6500; Los Angeles Conservancy, (213) 623-TOUR (walking tour reservations necessary); 7th St. Bistro, 814 West 7th St., (213) 627-1242.

THE NATURE WEEKEND

It's the best wildlife watching experience in California--the largest accessible mainland rookery for northern elephant seals in the world, and the seals had the grace to locate it within driving distance of Los Angeles.

From mid-December through April, the elephant seals come ashore at Ano Nuevo State Reserve, about 22 miles north of Santa Cruz, to breed and bear their young. Lucky for the seals, the state regulates the number of people who have access to this glimpse of life in the wild. Lucky for us, the only way to see them is on a beautiful 3 1/2-mile guided walk led by a trained naturalist from the state park system.

The three-ton males land on the beach in mid December, followed in a few weeks by the females. The pups are born about a week later--the result of previous year's efforts--and nurse for about 28 days. The seals then mate again and depart until their next romantic rendezvous one year later.

Since strict tabs are kept on the number of seal watchers allowed, reservations must be made at least 10 days in advance. But don't wait that long. The seals book up fast.

To keep costs down and the nature quotient up, camp about 8 miles away in the arms of the redwoods at Butano State Park or overlooking the Pacific at Half Moon Bay State Beach, about 30 miles away.

And while you're in the neighborhood, drop by to see the 100,000 monarch butterflies--give or take a few--that winter every year in Santa Cruz.

If it's cold, the butterflies will be hanging serenely in bunches from eucalyptus trees at Natural Bridges State Beach. If it's sunny, they may rise en masse in a show that looks like butterfly snow. Guided butterfly walks through lovely eucalyptus groves are offered on weekends mid October through February. Visitors may even see a bird or two.

Total cost: about $180 for four for three days, two nights ($2 per person for the seals, $12 a night at both Butano and Half Moon Bay, $6 per car for the butterflies, $150 for gas and food).

Seal-watching recorded message: (415) 879-0227; camping reservations for Butano State Park and Half Moon Bay State Beach: (800) 444-7275.

EASY SKI WEEKEND

Nested between high-rise pines and dramatic mountains about 85 miles north of Los Angeles is a secret getaway that is as surprising as it is lovely--and as yet, not all that crowded.

Near Frazier Park, the Pine Mountain Club is an area at 5,400 feet that gets enough snow to be amusing but not enough to annoy. Surrounded by the Los Padres National Forest, it's populated by bear, deer, raccoons and cross-country skiers, and is made for those who still dream of white winters and silent pine forests.

Pack your down jacket--the one you used to wear while waiting for the bus in downtown Chicago--and drive north up Interstate 5, exit west at Frazier Park and drive about 17 miles to the Pine Mountain Club development. It's almost like being in the wilderness except for the microwave oven.

Two-bedroom homes that sleep four rent for about $100 a night. There is a restaurant and a surprisingly well-stocked deli in the local grocery.

Hike through the mountains or rent cross-country skis at Frazier Ski & Pack; sleds can be rented in Lake of the Woods from Mt. Pinos Wintersports. Take your own sheets and chains for your car. If you're lucky, you'll get to use both.

Total cost: about $400 for four for two nights, three days ($200 for lodging, $200 for food, gas and ski rentals).

House rentals through Realty Executives, (805) 242-7676, and Realty World Mountain Properties, (805) 242-2500; Frazier Ski & Pack, (805) 245-3438; Mt. Pinos Wintersports, (805) 245-3760.

THE SPA WEEKEND

Leave that irritating aerobics video behind and journey into what you're really looking for--a mellow mood--at Two Bunch Palms Resort and Spa in Desert Hot Springs. Al Capone could never have known that his 1930s mineral-bath refuge would evolve into a 1990s New Age spa. Not only is it close, it's neither as pricey nor as strenuous as many of the other popular spas, yet it's exotic and luxurious.

Sit in mineral springs and get out only for an exfoliating brush with peppermint soap, a salt glo or a herbal steam. Among other options: mud n' sun, mud n' steam and mud bath body wrap.

At Two Bunch Palms, mineral water enriched green clay is something to pursue, not clean up.

And there's no exercise equipment to avoid. Although a swimming pool, tennis courts and jogging paths are at the ready, emphasis is on re-energizing rather than working out.

Celebrity watch (Goldie Hawn, Bette Midler, Robin Williams) if worldly activities are of interest. But leave the children at home. This is the place for a romantic, self-pampering, revitalizing weekend.

Total cost: about $650 for two for three days, two nights ($110 per night for lodging, $430 for food, body treatments and gas).

Optional: An even better deal, although not nearly as romantic, the nearby Desert Hot Springs Hotel & Spa has eight natural hot mineral pools, massages and facials.

Total cost: about $300 for two for three days, two nights, low-season, including dinner, breakfast, massage, facial, gas and food.

Two Bunch Palms Resort and Spa: (619) 329-8791; the Desert Hot Springs Hotel & Spa: (619) 329-6495.

THE CHEAP WEEKEND

Travelers from around the world dream of Santa Barbara but we can have it for pennies, almost.

Access is so easy, it's tempting to disregard. But remember, Santa Barbara is the place that has lured millionaires from their dark and snowy East Coast homes for nearly a century.

Saturday morning drive to Santa Barbara, check in at the Motel 6 a block from the beach ($44 per night) near Fess Parker's Red Lion Resort, and dine on grilled seafood tacos at Pescados ($15 for two) or at La Super-Rica ($12 for two). Go to the Zoological Gardens ($4 for adults). Walk on the beach. Sip free wine at the Santa Barbara Winery, two blocks from the ocean. Drink in the history and beauty of the tile work and murals in the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, and take the elevator up to the clock tower for a panoramic view of the city (free).

Carry out a cup of soup from Our Daily Bread ($2.25). Walk to the Santa Barbara Shellfish Company at the end of the pier for a Mexican cocktail of shrimp and cilantro (about $3.75). Visit the Mission Santa Barbara ($1) and the Botanic Garden (free). Window shop along quaint Coast Village Road in Montecito.

See a few movies (some matinees are discounted). Get a slice of pizza for lunch from Giovanni's Pizza ($1.55) or a delicious buttermilk and currant scone from Jeannine's Bakery ($1.35). For a snack, go to La Tolteca tortilla factory for a quesadilla (75 cents for corn, 95 cents for flour). Stop for caffe latte ($1.30) at Espresso Roma Cafe. And go home feeling endowed rather than deprived.

Total cost: $100 for two for two days, one night.

Motel 6: (805) 687-5400 (reservations taken); Pescados, 422 N. Milpas; La Super-Rica, 622 N. Milpas; Our Daily Bread, 831 Santa Barbara St.; Giovanni's Pizza, 3020 State St.; Jeannine's Bakery, 5 W. Carrillo St.; La Tolteca, 614 E. Haley St.; Espresso Roma, 728 State St.

THE KIDS WEEKEND

Future civilizations will note that, in the early 1990s, American children would rather hurtle down a 350-foot water slide at 45 miles per hour than perform any other legal activity. Although Raging Waters in San Dimas is probably better known, Oasis Water Resort in Palm Springs is not only pleasurably terrifying for the kids, it's location amidst acres of golf courses is a plus for parents.

On some water slide expanses, people under 100 pounds may actually become airborne for a few seconds. While this may not sound like fun to some, at Oasis, the kids--no matter what their age--will delight in a raft of new methods for getting water in their nose.

Equipped with seven major slides, a 600-foot inner tube river, a wave action pool that can produce 4 1/2-foot waves and a wading pool, the water park has enough action to amuse the kids for a weekend. Although the park is closed for the winter, it will open again in March. Stay nearby at the Oasis Villa Hotel in a two-bedroom, two-bath condo with a kitchen.

Total cost: about $650 for six for two days, two nights, ($400 hotel and $250 for food, gas and water park tickets). To help pare costs, go with another family since villas sleep six.

Oasis Villa Hotel, 4190 E. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs, (800) 543-5160.

CHOO-CHEW WEEKEND

Pick up a French picnic from the Biltmore Hotel (order ahead through room service) on the way to Union Station. Catch the 9:55 a.m. Coast Starlight train to San Francisco. Wait a respectable half-hour before opening your pate and salmon picnic. The vistas between Santa Barbara and San Louis Obispo contribute to one of the most magnificent train rides in the country.

Have dinner on the train but stop for a late snack or ice cream sundae at Fog City Diner after your 8 p.m. arrival in the city. Check in at the Hotel Juliana--charming, attentive and relatively inexpensive--near Union Square.

Rise early for a lovely breakfast at Postrio. Follow this with a morning snack of olive bread and cheese from the Il Fornaio deli (buy some Italian cookies to take home on the train). Next go to Caffe Roma for cappuccino, then on to lunch at that darling of food lovers: Zuni Cafe. For a break, drop in on Macy's basement and Williams-Sonoma for cooking demonstrations that result in free food tastings. (Look for cookware sales while you're there.)

On to Swan Oyster Depot for oysters and clams on the half shell, followed by a cable car ride up the hill to the Top of the Mark for a sensational view and a glass of California wine. Pause for a few moments. Then on to Monsoon for a fabulous multicourse Chinese banquet (call ahead). Top it off with a nightcap at Star's across the street.

Sunday, stagger to the 8:05 a.m. train with a box of homemade muffins from Campton Place and cookies from Il Fornaio to tide you over. Should you run through those, there's always the dining car.

Total cost: about $850 for two for three days, two nights, (round trip Los Angeles to San Francisco, $142 per person; $270 for lodging for two; $300 for food for two).

AMTRAK: (800) USA-RAIL; Biltmore , 506 S. Grand Ave., (213) 624-1011; Hotel Juliana, 590 Bush St., (415) 392-2540; Fog City Diner, 1300 Battery St., (415) 982-2000; Postrio, 545 Post St. (415) 776-7825; Il Fornaio, 1265 Battery St., (415) 986-0646; Caffe Roma, 414 Columbus Ave., (415) 391-8584; Zuni Cafe, 1658 Market St., (415) 552-2522; Swan Oyster Depot, 1517 Polk St., (415) 673-1101; Top of the Mark, the Mark Hopkins Inter-Continental Hotel, 999 California St., (415) 392-3434; Monsoon, 601 Van Ness Ave., (415) 441-3232; Campton Place, 340 Stockton St., (415) 781-5555 .

SLEEPERS' WEEKEND

For the work weary who can't be trusted to stay home and relax, what better place to be paralyzed with fatigue than a pricey resort on a cliff overlooking the Pacific? It's a vacation occasion for a time when money is no object . . . or someone else is paying.

At the Ritz-Carlton in Laguna Niguel, amusement is just a room-service call away. But the place itself is so beautiful, simply staring at it is acceptable behavior.

Pick up the phone and call for vintage champagne, foie gras or diet soda and cashews, for a VCR to amuse yourself or for a massage. No need to leave the bed or the room. Bathe in the unlimited luxury of an executive suite overlooking the surf. One of your bathrooms may be decorated with Italian green marble and a sparkly chandelier.

Simply by parting the blinds, watch hang-gliders hooked to the wind or visually participate in one of the weddings that occur almost every weekend on a cliff below.

Should enough strength be summoned to rise from bed, there's an 18-hole golf course, 18 acres of gardens, four tennis courts, a fitness center with exercise and weight room, volleyball, jogging and bicycle trails, two swimming pools and English high tea in the Library lounge.

But no work.

Total cost: about $2,000 for two for three days, two nights ($1,540 for lodging, $460 for food and amusements).

The Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel: (800) 241-3333.

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