Budget-friendly weekend escapes
Want to travel more but spend less in 2010? It’s not wishful thinking. If a cruise or a European tour isn’t in the cards, you can tap the recreational resources of our local region, rich with natural wonders and diversity.
Stuck for ideas and/or motivation? Here are some of my favorite getaways just outside Los Angeles. Prices below do not include tax unless noted.
Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park
When I visited Santa Cruz Island for the first time several years ago, I was astonished by the lack of crowds. Everything about my experience was wonderful: the scores of dolphins swimming alongside our boat from Ventura; our tranquil, tree-shaded campsite (a half-mile uphill walk from the pier); our hike to a remote beach, where we snorkeled among fish and came within an arm’s length of a reef shark; and cliffside walks. Kayaking is popular here and at the neighboring Channel Islands too.
Distance from L.A.: 65 miles
Approximate drive time: One hour to Ventura
Cost: Island Packers’ round-trip boat trip for campers, leaving from Ventura or Oxnard, costs $64 for adults, $48 for kids ages 4 to 12; for day trippers, the cost is $48 for adults and $32 for children, including tax (1691 Spinnaker Drive, Suite 105B, Ventura; 3600 S. Harbor Blvd., Oxnard;  642-1393, www.islandpackers.com). For information on camping and to make a reservation, go to www.nps.gov/chis/planyourvisit/camping.htm. National Park Service campsites cost $15 per night.
This wine country destination -- still usually mentioned with a reference to the movie “Sideways” -- can make for a fantastic getaway. If you like vino, you can while away the hours visiting tasting rooms in the little town and surrounding countryside. You’ll also no doubt clock time at restaurants and galleries.
But you don’t have to go high-end here, because camping is available in nearby Los Padres National Forest and Cachuma Lake Recreation Area. If you don’t like the hotel prices in Los Olivos, check out what’s offered in Solvang, about six miles south.
Distance from L.A.: 130 miles
Approximate drive time: Less than 2 1/2 hours
Costs: At Cachuma Lake, tent sites cost $20 a night, or you can spend $60 to $70 a night for a yurt (www.countyofsb.org/parks /parks05.aspx?id=13440). A sandwich at Los Olivos Café will set you back $12 to $15, plus tip and tax (2879 Grand Ave., Los Olivos;  946-3748, www.losolivoscafe).
This San Jacinto Mountains village is a charmer. Although Idyllwild doesn’t have the ski resorts of the slightly closer Big Bear, it does have a quaint, shop-filled village center and an ultra-relaxed vibe. The outdoors here are popular with rock climbers, hikers and anglers. The region’s trails take in alpine meadows and manzanita forest.
Distance from L.A.: 108 miles
Approximate drive time: Two hours
Cost: At Marion Mountain campground, seven miles north of Idyllwild, a tent site is $10 a night ( www.recreation.gov). Or how about an artist’s loft for $120 a night, booked through Quiet Creek Inn & Vacation Rentals, 26345 Delano Drive, Idyllwild; (800) 450-6110, www.quietcreekinn.com. Dinner entrees at Café Aroma are $10 to $24, 54750 N. Circle Drive, Idyllwild; (951) 659-5212, www.cafearoma.org
When I want to get away from it all, I head to lovely Laguna Beach. Browse art galleries and boutiques, eat overpriced seafood and soak up gorgeous ocean views at little outdoor fairs. Sun on the sands or hike in Crystal Cove State Park. You don’t have to spend a fortune here, if you’re careful.
Distance from L.A.: 50 miles
Approximate drive time: One hour
Cost: You could book a basic room, within walking distance of downtown, for as low as $99 per night on the weekend (tip: Sign up for the hotel’s e-newsletter) at Pacific Edge Hotel (647 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach;  494-8566, www.pacificedgehotel.com). If you’re up for an adventure, camping at Crystal Cove State Park, for $25 a night, involves walking uphill for three miles, Or you could try for one of the park’s much-coveted cottages, at $125 and up ( www.crystalcovestatepark.com). Beach picnics are your most economical bet, but a variety of food is available in town. Sunday brunch at Las Brisas is $33 per person ($16 for children under 12), and worth it (361 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach;  497-5434, www.lasbrisaslagunabeach.com).