A Look Back At This Years California Adventures

The end of another great travel year is upon us and it's time to look back and reflect upon the California adventures that have taken us from the sea to the mountains to the valleys...well, let's just say we would have no trouble writing a song and calling it "California, the Beautiful."

In our travels up, down and across the Golden State, we've made many discoveries over the past year. And, like previous years, we are devoting the last column of the year to handing out the coveted Cary Awards -- our picks for the best, most unique and most memorable of our many California getaways during 2005.

So without further delay, may we have the envelopes, please?

The Best Big City Hotel in a Small Town award goes this year to an Atascadero hotel that has been polished up to pass muster with the most discriminating of travelers -- those visiting the many wineries near Paso Robles. The Carlton Hotel is just as upscale as the finest Napa lodgings, yet the town of Atascadero is a simple, laid-back every-day small town with nary a designer clothing store in sight. The Carlton originally opened in 1929 and was a magnet for celebrities such as Jack Benny, Bette Davis, Fred McMurray and Dick Powell. The renovation has created 52 individually designed guestrooms with such features as marble bathrooms, deep whirlpool baths, oversized bath towels, high thread-count cotton sheets. The result: This hotel now feels more like a swank downtown San Francisco hotel than a country inn. Visit www.the-carlton.com.

The Most Unique City Getaway this year had to be Dockside Boat and Bed, where we enjoyed a wonderful night "on the water" while visiting Long Beach. It's a getaway experience that's easy and suitable for almost anyone, as we found out during our stay on the 40-foot Desiree in Long Beach's Rainbow Harbor. No need to mess with the engine compartment or study charts or worry about dinging the boat when you come into dock just a little too fast -- because you're not going anyplace. The boat comes with all the amenities, including a kitchen, and is a cozy alternative to a big-city hotel room. And Dockside has premiere dock space -- just five boats tied up right in the middle of restaurants and other tourist attractions in or near Rainbow Harbor. Visit www.boatandbed.com.

The Best Getaway You've Never Heard Of award this year goes to cabin rentals at Shaver Lake. While folks in Fresno and other parts of the San Joaquin Valley have visited Shaver Lake for many years, the area is less well-known among other residents of California. The lake is tucked between Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks and hints at the same natural beauty found in the parks. The difference is that Shaver remains largely undiscovered and therefore not quite as prone to seasonal traffic congestion. We rented the perfect "cabin-in-the-woods" from Vacation Rental Specialties -- actually a complete vacation home built like a cabin. We recommend the "Whalen Log Cabin," a million dollar home available for just $225 a night. Visit www.goshaverlake.com.

The Best Do-It-Yourself Cruise has to be the Duffy boat cruise through the waterways around Balboa Island in Newport Beach. Balboa Island is a fascinating place with zillion-dollar cottages and homes all neatly plotted around a small-town USA Main Street (actually called Marine Avenue) that is loaded with shops and restaurants. You can drive right onto the island, but an especially unique way to view the island is from the water. Duffy boats are made locally and the 21-foot boat we rented could accommodate 10 adults with plush bench seats on each side of the boat with table tops available in the middle for drinks or snacks. The boat was entirely shaded -- which came in handy on this hot summer day -- but had plenty of open areas on the sides to enjoy the view. Visitors with little or no boating experience needn't worry -- like our Duffy attendant told us at the dock: "This will be like driving a golf cart." And it was. Visit www.duffyboats.com.

Not far away from Newport Beach is Huntington Beach, which this year walks away with our Best Gimmick to Attract Baby Boomers award. Not that this gorgeous stretch of Southern California beach needs a gimmick, but you have to hand it to the local visitor bureau for coaxing Dean Torrance of "Jan and Dean" fame to join the bureau's Board of Directors and sing the many praises of Huntington Beach. The city, of course, is capitalizing on the famous surf anthem "Surf City" by Jan and Dean which presumably was written about a stretch of California beach very similar to Huntington Beach, where it is said the 60's surf craze all started. The city of Santa Cruz begs to differ -- it's laying claim to the Surf City title based on its own long history of surfing. But no matter, the award here is based on marketing, not the location, and this ploy no doubt resonates with the boomers.

The Most Bang for Your Buck award this year goes to the March Air Force Museum, near Riverside. Just a little ways south of town on Interstate 215, the museum is a treasure-trove of vintage and military aircraft -- more than 60 aircraft altogether, from little single-engine prop planes to the mammoth B-52 bomber. Just a few steps away is the indoor museum that tells the story of how aircraft were first used in warfare and how they have become a vital part of our nation's military power. Thousands of artifacts are on display to bring it all to life. It was obvious that kids of all ages were eagerly exploring one aircraft after another, climbing up to look into the cockpits, examining the bomb doors or landing gear and just gazing at some of the larger aircraft with a look of amazement. Adults like it too and, best of all it's just $7 for adults, $3 for children 5 to 11. Visit www.marchfield.org.

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