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. Map
10:00 AM EST, November 22, 2014
The Weekend Escape | San Francisco
A late-summer trip to San Francisco with my wife, child and parents had all of us wanting to check out different parts of the City by the Bay. With some planning, we were able to combine touristy highlights with lesser-known areas, including where we stayed — the city's NoPa neighborhood. NoPa, which stands for North of the Panhandle, a neighborhood near the narrow eastern strip of Golden Gate Park that has hip cafes, quirky shops and colorful Victorians. (Our favorite had disco balls hanging outside.) The tab: $650 for two nights in a two-bedroom cottage, $130 for a light meal with cocktails at La Urbana and $15 for a quick breakfast at Matching Half.
2:00 PM EST, November 15, 2014
WEEKEND ESCAPE | Danville, Calif.
Having a child is the clichéd motivation to move to the suburbs, and so it was for me and my husband. Our quest to trade our San Francisco one-bedroom led us to Danville, Calif., part of what's known as the Tri-Valley area. I didn't know much about it, except that its main street is darling. Every day since, I've fallen more in love with my new town, its bucolic scenery (some of our neighbors are horses) and its all-American charm. The surrounding valleys (www.visittrivalley.com) won me over too, and I find myself wondering why we never ventured east when we lived in the city. It's gorgeous here, and friendly, and there's plenty to see and do. The tab: A two-night stay at the Hyatt House, dinner at Bridges and wine-tasting at Wente cost about $350, not including airfare or gas.
12:00 AM EST, November 8, 2014
Weekend Escape: Boonville, Calif.
Boonville, at the beginning of the Anderson Valley appellation (the wine-growing region that stretches along California Highway 128) sometimes feels like a place beyond the frontier. It even has its own dialect, known as "boontling." Yet you'll find charm in this Mendocino County outpost that you can't find in any other Northern California wine country town. The tab: $410 for two nights at the Boonville Hotel, $77 for dinner and $5 for a tour and tasting of Anderson Valley Brewing Co.
7:13 PM EDT, October 31, 2014
WEEKEND ESCAPE | SAN JOSE
Once upon a time, the best reason to stop in San Jose was to visit the Winchester Mystery House (525 S. Winchester Blvd.;  247-2101, winchestermysteryhouse.com). Although that's still a good excuse to get off Interstate 880, San Jose is no longer a one-trick pony for tourists. Silicon Valley and the tech industry have transformed the city into something more than just an inexpensive place to stay on the way to San Francisco. Nothing exemplifies the new San Jose better than Santana Row, a 647,000-square-foot mixed-use development with about 70 retail shops, 20 restaurants, a movie theater, a hotel and, perhaps most important, free parking. The tab: One night at Hotel Valencia is $199 to $700; dinner for two can be found for $40 to $300.
12:00 AM EDT, October 11, 2014
Turns out there's more to the desert than just Palm Springs. Case in point — Rancho Mirage, a town of about 17,000 residents with an outdoor shopping plaza called the River at Rancho Mirage. This area is home to a movie theater, 10 restaurants (including Michael's Pizzeria and Sam's Sushi), eight retail outlets and three spa/beauty/health businesses. For those who prefer to park their cars and not drive while on vacation, the River is across the street from the 444-room (and 22-suite) Omni Resorts Rancho Las Palmas. Between the resort and the nearby shopping, you can get a few days' worth of fun just by crossing Bob Hope Drive. The tab: In mid-November, a weekend room at the Rancho Las Palmas can be had for $279. Dinner for two can be had for about $40 at Acqua Pazza, in the River plaza.
7:12 PM EDT, September 26, 2014
Weekend Escape: Carmel
Carmel suffers from a paradox that many places would beg to have: It has so many quaint, historic homes, so many gleaming galleries filled with rare artworks, so many beautiful beaches and sweeping cliff-side vistas that the area seems almost a fantasy. But if you work it just right, as my sweetheart, Alice, and I did for a recent stay, you can dodge some of the area's high lodging prices, break an actual sweat charging up those cliffs and even live it up a bit with the locals. The fantasy-free fees: We spent about $425, which included $200 and change for two nights at the Carmel Resort Inn, a modest but welcoming hotel not far from the charming city center.
8:33 PM EDT, September 12, 2014
WEEKEND ESCAPE | LAS VEGAS
The fortunes of downtown Sin City have waxed and waned, but now, thanks largely to a shoe salesman, Old Las Vegas is on a hot streak. Zappos Chief Executive Tony Hsieh is not only leading the Downtown Project to transform the area, he's also moved his company's headquarters here and is investing millions to build a district filled with "entrepreneurial and creative people." For me, the best part is that the budding community mixes the old with the new, adding a fresh layer to downtown's old-school vibe. (Zappos, for example, retooled the former city hall building for its offices.) The tab: Weekend room rates start at $89 at the Downtown Grand; my husband and I spent $210 for meals and drinks.
8:29 PM EDT, August 29, 2014
It took only three-quarters of a century to realize Frank Lloyd Wright's vision for a golf clubhouse. But instead of being constructed in his native Wisconsin, as Wright had planned, the building forms the centerpiece of a resort in ruggedly beautiful Plumas County, Calif., in the Sierra Nevada about an hour's drive from Reno or Truckee, Calif. The tab: Excluding airfare to Reno and a rental car, a two-night escape for two will be about $450 for a stay in a Wright-inspired villa and a homey meal in Graeagle, Calif.
6:43 PM EDT, August 22, 2014
WEEKEND ESCAPE | MAMMOTH LAKES, CALIF.
After an early July backpacking trip that had my wife, 7-year-old daughter and me eating instant oatmeal and fending off swarms of pesky mosquitoes, we indulged in a hotel stay, shopping and eating out in the resort town of Mammoth Lakes. Although the backpacking costs were minimal — $21 for our wilderness permit and $18 for a shuttle ride to our Inyo National Forest trail head — the costs to stay in town were reasonable too. The tab: Excluding shopping and travel costs, we spent about $300, including $132 for a night at the Alpenhof Lodge and $70 for a multicourse Thai meal.
4:15 PM EDT, August 15, 2014
After finding myself in Las Vegas twice in six weeks, I needed a break from the high-octane madness of the Strip. So my husband and I headed to Lake Las Vegas for an uncrowded, relaxing change of pace. It was a nice change for the pocketbook as well: I found a great Saturday night rate at a lovely lakeside hotel that was far less than the exorbitant rates Strip hotels charge on weekends. Lake Las Vegas, a 320-acre man-made body of water ringed with low-lying mountains, is appealing, and its faux Mediterranean-style architecture (especially in the village) fits well with its surroundings. The tab: A room for a night at the Hilton Lake Las Vegas Resort & Spa cost $129 plus a $22 resort fee; the hubby and I spent $75 for meals and drinks.
10:44 AM EDT, August 9, 2014
Cedar City, Utah, is a midsummer's dream of a spot, where top-caliber theater rubs shoulders with high-desert canyons from warm late June through chilly mid-October. My husband, mother and I recently visited the early Mormon settlement, a 6 1/2 -hour drive from Orange County highlighted by stunning red and orange cliffs along southwest Utah's slice of Interstate 15. The tab for three: $624 for three nights (two rooms) at the Best Western and $275 for meals.
9:09 PM EDT, August 1, 2014
The smells are what get me. Smoke from an open-air oakwood grill. The sweet earthiness of sagebrush fields. They take me back to a childhood spent in the mountains of Utah and Wyoming, but in fact I'm less than 40 miles from downtown Los Angeles in the tiny 1890s canyon town of Cornell. Sandwiched between Agoura Hills and Malibu, this hidden haven smells of the Old West in all the best ways and makes you feel as if you've left L.A. in your dust. The tab: My boyfriend and I spent two days here for less than $300.
8:10 PM EDT, July 25, 2014
WEEKEND ESCAPE | ROYAL PEACOCK MINE, NEV.
How cool would it be to escape for a few days for free, without being hustled to buy a timeshare? The Wilson family won't promise your trip to their Royal Peacock mine will pay for itself, but it's possible your discovery will more than pay the cost of getting to northwest Nevada, home to one of the world's rarest gemstones, the black opal. Excluding airfare to Reno and a rental car, the trip will cost roughly $600 for two for a two-night stay at the mine, digging fees and food. The "finders keepers" policy means guests may head home with valuable souvenirs.
7:01 PM EDT, July 18, 2014
WEEKEND ESCAPE | IMPERIAL BEACH, CALIF.
Imperial Beach, at the southwest corner of the United States and a short hop from Tijuana, is the poor cousin of Southern California beach towns. Dicey areas have detracted from attractive, sandy beaches and good surfing, so the city is trying to burnish its image. My husband and I enjoyed the redeveloped pier area and the surfing-inspired artworks, especially "Surfhenge," the city's signature public art piece. There has been little in the way of lodging to entice tourists, but a new upscale hotel and restaurant is changing that. The tab: Summer weekend room rates at Pier South Resort start at $319 a night; meals for two cost us about $100.
5:09 PM EDT, July 11, 2014
Weekend Escape: Channel Islands
The four main islands of Channel Islands National Park (www.nps.gov/chis) are as close as 13 miles off Ventura County's coast, yet neither my husband, Michael, nor I had been there. In May, we decided to check out Santa Cruz, the largest island, for a long weekend of camping, hiking, kayaking and wildlife watching. We hiked several miles on trails through fields of wild yellow mustard and along cliff tops, pausing to look down nearly 400 feet to waves, beaches and boulders. Our guided kayak trip took us to cool caves and tunnels, with swells big enough to get my heart racing. The tab: Island Packers charges $79 round trip for you and three 45-pound pieces of gear (1691 Spinnaker Drive, No. 105B, Ventura;  642-1393, islandpackers.com). Camping fees are $15 per site per night (www.nps.gov/chis/planyourvisit/feesandreservations.htm). Aquasports charges $125 a person for a guided three-hour kayak trip along the island's shore ( 773-2309, islandkayaking.com; reservations required). Total for two for two nights: $188 plus $250 for kayaking.
6:07 PM EDT, July 4, 2014
WEEKEND ESCAPE | OCEANSIDE
Oceanside rarely makes the list of best places for a Southern California beach getaway. This rough-around-the-edges town may not have the panache of La Jolla or the Rodeo Drive-ish allure of Newport Beach, but what it lacks in bells and whistles it makes up for in other ways: wide, sandy beaches; top-notch surfing and water sports; a Cape Cod-style village at the harbor; and a historic pier. And there's even more reason to visit now: The compact beachside downtown has a new ocean-view hotel and a flurry of new eateries and breweries. Leave your car at home and take Amtrak to the downtown station (which links to the local train to San Diego). The tab: Room rates for a night at SpringHill Suites by Marriott start at $139 (before taxes and parking); meals and extras cost my husband and me about $100.
7:21 PM EDT, June 27, 2014
WEEKEND ESCAPE | MONTEREY, CALIF.
Marathons and 10K races are so last year. Obstacle races are the craze among fitness buffs, combining trail running with obstacles such as 8-foot walls, barbed wire, monkey bars and tractor tires. Plus, mud — big pits of gritty, sticky mud that clings for days to your clothes and hair. Three workout buddies and I decided to test our mettle in early June in Monterey, Calif., on the Spartan Beast, a 13-mile race with 25 obstacles touted as the "toughest race on the planet." You couldn't beat the setting: a coastal town known for its great food, mesmerizing scenery and cool weather. The tab: Four of us shared a two-bed room at the Padre Oaks hotel, paying $120, taxes included. The entrance fee for the Spartan Beast ranged from $110 to $205, depending on how early you registered. (The next Spartan Beast in Southern California is Sept. 13 in Temecula; a 2015 date for Monterey has not been set.) A seafood and pasta dinner (carbo loading!) with appetizers the night before the race totaled about $45. Fuel costs aside, I spent about $300 for the two-day, one-night stay.
2:53 PM EDT, June 20, 2014
The hilly scrublands of the Cleveland National Forest, just east of San Diego, are home to the Lions, Tigers & Bears rescue sanctuary. Its 1 1/2-hour tour, by appointment only, is a well-spent $32 for adults and $17 for kids 12 and younger ( 979-3370, www.zerve.com/LionsTigers). Dedicated staff will share with you the heartbreaking realities of America's captive exotic "pets," as well as introduce you to some wild-at-heart friends and their survival stories. Come witness the inner beauty of the beasts. The tab: $100 for one night at the Viejas, $26 for meals and $20 for road-trip snacks.
7:30 PM EDT, May 30, 2014
The unincorporated community of Templeton, Calif., just south of Paso Robles, is a secret worth discovering. Templeton was established in the late 1880s as the southern terminus of the Southern Pacific Railroad and has had several iterations over the years: first as a railroad town, then as a farming community and finally as a wine-making center. Although it still has a rustic, rough-around-the-edges quality, the town seems to be changing again, this time into a tourist destination. The tab: The Vis-à-Vis Suite at the Carriage Vineyards Bed & Breakfast was $174 a night (including the $10 online reservation discount), and dinner for one at McPhee's Grill was $64.50, which included a couple of glasses of local wine. The cost of wine tasting at local wineries varies.
9:22 PM EDT, May 23, 2014
San Diego's Mission Beach turns 100 this year. But don't expect this great-grandfather of a beach to exude gravitas. Mission Beach is a magnet for the young, the tattooed and the restless. Indulge your surfing obsession by riding ocean waves or test your mettle against the WaveHouse's mechanical swells at Belmont Park, an amusement center that is this community's heart. Ride a beach cruiser along the boardwalk to the quieter southern end and watch a volleyball game. For centennial events, go to http://www.missionbeachcentennial.org. The tab: from $199 a night at the Catamaran, depending on the day of the week and the season; a meal for two can be had for $25.
May 18, 2014
Before the summer heat becomes suffocating, head to the desert near Pioneertown, Calif., a former Old West movie set about 25 miles northwest of Joshua Tree National Park. You may get the jitters when you see "no service" on your phone, but bury the device in your bag, take a deep breath and marvel at the shapes of clouds — or the lack of them — or trace the cracks in the orange-tinged boulders in the surrounding high desert. The tab: $497.55 for two nights' accommodations, including tax and $75 cleaning fee. Meals, including groceries, were $177.
May 4, 2014
If you're like me, you sometimes say to yourself, "I'm bored. I wonder where I can pet a pig, feed a horse, eat plantains, buy fresh dates, ask a rabbi a question, listen to street musicians, get my fortune read, apply flip-flop heel balm, walk among a crowd of thousands and drink lemonade?" Luckily, I can do all of that — and get a jump on the weekend — in Palm Springs, where VillageFest takes place from 6-10 p.m. every Thursday from October through May (7-10 p.m. June-September) on Palm Canyon Drive between Baristo and Amado roads. The tab: A queen bed at Caliente Tropics is about $130, depending on the season, and dinner for two can be had from VillageFest street vendors for less than $20.
7:58 PM EDT, April 11, 2014
You don't have to travel all the way to East Africa to go on safari. Grab your binoculars and camera and scan the 50-mile-long Carrizo Plain National Monument for its array of wildlife. Carrizo Plain, about 100 miles northwest of Los Angeles and known as California's Serengeti, is the largest single native grassland remaining in the Golden State. It's home to the highest concentration of endangered species in California. Drive slowly on Soda Lake Road and search for herds of pronghorn antelope and Tule elk. The real challenge will be spotting rarer critters such as the blunt-nosed leopard lizard, San Joaquin kit fox, San Joaquin antelope ground squirrel and giant kangaroo rat. Don't ignore old fence posts either, favorite perches for raptors such as ferruginous and red-tailed hawks, prairie falcons and American kestrels. The tab: rental car $150, $100 for meals, $2 for a map of the Carrizo Plain, from the Guy L. Goodwin Education Center in the monument [(805) 475-2131, http://www.blm.gov/ca/bakersfield/goodwin.html]. It's open from the beginning of December to the end of May].
5:29 PM EDT, April 4, 2014
Buellton, 25 miles north of Santa Barbara, has been known for just one thing: split pea soup. For years, Buellton was that midday rest stop on the way to points north where you lunched at Pea Soup Andersen's. No longer in the shadow of trendier neighbors Solvang and Los Olivos, Buellton has taken on a life of its own. It's a fun place to stay, explore, eat and drink — and I'm not just referring to wine.
10:03 PM EDT, March 28, 2014
You might know Claremont as that town with five liberal arts colleges and two graduate schools within its city limits. What you might not know is that it boasts a vibrant downtown, called Claremont Village, where more than 150 mom-and-pop restaurants, boutiques, art galleries and music venues create a relaxed atmosphere for all ages. If that weren't enticing enough, the Metrolink/Transit Center drops off passengers just a baseball toss away. The tab: A king bed at Casa 425 begins at $195. Breakfast or lunch for two can be had for less than $20 at Some Crust Bakery, while dinner for two at the Press Restaurant costs about $35. Plenty of free parking is available on 1st Street between Oberlin Avenue and Indian Hill Boulevard.
11:58 PM EDT, March 21, 2014
The village of San Simeon, just across Highway 1 from the sprawling 80,000-acre Hearst Ranch and the entrance to Hearst Castle, is an overlooked gem on California's Central Coast. Whether you stop for a wine tasting or spend the day sightseeing, kayaking, windsurfing or hiking, this sleepy hamlet offers plenty to do. The tab: $330, including meals and one night at the Pelican Inn & Suites in nearby Cambria.
9:11 PM EDT, March 14, 2014
Welcome to Borrego Springs, Calif., population 3,400, in the middle of nowhere (actually, about 150 miles southeast of L.A.). Throw away the smartphone; this is a place to unplug. This designated Dark Sky Community offers breathtaking views of the stars at night. The days aren't too shabby either, as my husband and I learned on a late February getaway. Be sure to stop at the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Visitor Center (200 Palm Canyon Drive;  767-4205, http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=638) to get the scoop on the magnificent 600,000-acre park. The tab: A poolside room for a night at La Casa del Zorro cost $242 (before taxes and a $25 resort fee), and we spent $105 for meals and drinks.
5:23 PM EST, March 7, 2014
My wife and I were in need of a bit of tranquillity in October, so we headed to the Mendocino Coast in Northern California for a weekend of standup paddle boarding. The coast's rugged beauty, flat-water rivers and scenic headlands honeycombed with sea caves and archways make it ideal for paddling on your own or on a guided tour with Standup Paddle Mendocino (Van Damme Beach State Park, Little River, Calif.;  937-0700, http://www.standuppaddlemendocino.com. Guided tours $60 to $75) The tab: $458, excluding fees and taxes, for two nights at the Alegria, $300 for meals, $60 for a stand-up paddleboard tour and $60 for three skeins of yarn.
9:17 PM EST, February 21, 2014
With a population of about 1,500, the 2-square-mile town of Summerland, Calif., epitomizes the cliché "Blink and you'll miss it." Do your best not to blink as you drive through because this sleepy beach community six miles from Santa Barbara is home to an array of mom-and-pop antiques shops, a handful of local eateries and the sorts of views that make you want to do the good kind of nothing all day. The tab: a king bed at the Inn on Summer Hill begins at $249. Lunch for two can be had for less than $30 at Café Luna and for about $20 at Stacky's Seaside. Parking at the beach is free; the antiques, alas, are not.
9:07 PM EST, February 14, 2014
Really, River's End is a bit of heaven, where the beautiful Russian River meets the sea and the Sonoma coast in big rocks and crashing waves. A gourmet restaurant with drop-dead views is perched above the placid estuary of the river, separated by a sandy bar from the wild ocean beyond. After dinner, I had to walk only a few steps downhill to a knotty-wood cabin with a soft bed and a picture window instead of a TV. I stayed just one night, which cost me about $250 for dinner ($85) and the cabin ($162).
8:30 PM EST, February 7, 2014
If you're 25 or younger, you'll enjoy downtown Flagstaff, Ariz., walking distance to Northern Arizona University. The area is populated with people your age, an independent bookstore, an independent record store, restaurants and plenty of watering holes with cheap drinks. If you're older than 25, you'll enjoy downtown Flagstaff as a fun, inexpensive reminder of what it feels like to be a college student. Either way, you'll have a good time. The tab: Rooms at the Weatherford start at $75 and top out at about $139. Or if you are adventurous, there is a room two feet from a bar for $49. The pineapple tofu salad at Mountain Oasis International Restaurant is $8.95, while prime rib, served Friday and Saturday nights, is $18.95.
February 2, 2014
Taos, N.M., has had many lives: a pre-colonial Native American community, a Spanish settlement and, more recently, an artists' colony for those seeking a quieter pace. Today, many come to Taos to ski, but this resilient small town is enjoying an artistic renaissance after the 2008 economic downturn. The town of just 5,700 has about 80 galleries featuring imaginative, provocative art that captures Native American culture and the beauty of the Southwest. The tab: Our family of three spent about $300 a night for lodging and less than $150 a day on food and sightseeing.
8:41 PM EST, January 24, 2014
It's good to be reminded that Sacramento isn't just a consumer of our tax dollars and a dispenser of red tape. It's also a real place with real seasons — daunting heat in summer, golden leaves in fall, chill winds in winter, rampant green renewal in spring. My family and I spent a weekend in November, when fall foliage was still draping Capitol Park (between L and N and 10th and 15th streets) with gravitas. I found J Street livelier than I remembered from a few years before. My wife and daughter liked the wooden sidewalks and Old West flourishes of Old Sacramento. And on our way to dinner, we all got a nice look at the noble facade of the Sacramento Memorial Auditorium at 15th and J.
January 10, 2014
With $100 lift tickets commonplace, some ski resorts seem determined to price most families right out of the sport. Then there's June Mountain — the little hill that could. With snow scarce, it could hardly be a worse year to be staging a comeback after last year's closure. But once storms resume, be sure to give June a try. Less frantic and expensive than Mammoth Mountain 20 minutes away, June keeps family budgets in mind. The Eastern Sierra resort is letting kids age 12 and younger ski free every day this season. June also has an appealing vibe. The 1,400-acre resort is perched above an authentic alpine lake town, not a stucco faux village. Add snowshoeing, ice skating and sledding, and you have one of the best family options in these parts. We managed a quick overnight for three for a little less than $600, including lift tickets, rentals, a first-rate hotel and some memorable beef. That's not a downhill record — but it's close.
10:01 PM EST, January 3, 2014
Designated a national park just a year ago, Pinnacles can overwhelm with the sheer number of adjectives that leap to mind. "Mind-bending," "extraordinary," "wondrous" — all fall flat when you try to describe this surreal landscape of cloven cliffs, jagged spires and imposing boulders southeast of Salinas off the 101 Freeway. My sweetheart and I took a 10-mile trek through creek bed and cliff top there, earning our sighs of relief in the whirlpool tub that soon followed. The charge for our sweat equity? We spent about $600, which included $500 for two nights at the Inn at the Pinnacles, a polished and welcoming B&B a condor's wing flap from the park's doors.
11:00 PM EST, December 27, 2013
Williams, Ariz., also known as the Gateway to the Grand Canyon, was the last city on Route 66 to be bypassed by the Interstate Highway System. On Oct. 13, 1984, Interstate 40 opened and Route 66 through Williams was forgotten — almost. Over the years, Williams refused to turn its back on the Mother Road and has instead embraced Route 66. Dozens of businesses have been remodeled, and the historic downtown has been revamped, with new gift shops, restaurants and classic roadside motels all paying homage to America's Main Street. The tab: a king suite at the Lodge on Route 66 is $165, and dinner for two at Cruiser's comes to about $46. And items at Cruiser's Gift Shop, well, how can you go wrong with a Route 66 coffee mug for $9.95?
6:33 PM EST, December 19, 2013
Presto change-o; now you see it, now you don't. If you're looking for an undiscovered, secluded escape hidden from view yet minutes from the bustling center of San Marcos and its restaurants, bars and entertainment, Lake San Marcos is for you. My husband hurt his back last month and wanted a slow-paced weekend to relax. We came to the right place: Leisure is king in this mellow enclave tucked away on a lake in a quiet residential neighborhood in northern San Diego County. Here, paddle boats rule the lake, and golf is the preferred "action" sport. The tab: My husband and I spent $139 for a night at the Lakehouse Hotel & Resort and $75 on food and drink.
5:10 PM EST, December 13, 2013
Live like a king, or a captain, with an overnight stay aboard a private yacht. Dockside Boat & Bed rents luxe vessels for a night — or two or three — at Rainbow Harbor in Long Beach. Roomier than most hotel rooms, the boats include galleys, living rooms and sequined reflections from the harbor itself. The tab? Our one-night, two-day stay totaled $275, including $50 for meals. The boats never leave the dock, but the experience is as relaxing as only a night on the water can be.
November 24, 2013
After exiting Interstate 80 in Auburn, Calif., about 30 miles east of Sacramento, I realized I had arrived in mining country. Within five or so seconds of leaving the freeway (watch for the hairpin turn), I was gawking at a larger-than-life statue of Claude Chana, who discovered gold here in 1848. Excluding airfare and car rental, a weekend visit to Auburn will cost about $500, including two nights at the popular Power's Mansion Inn and a mouth-watering dinner at Bootleggers Old Town Tavern & Grill.
November 17, 2013
For years our family made an annual pilgrimage to Yosemite, driving through the tiny town of Oakhurst, Calif., about 14 miles from the entrance to the national park. We didn't stop, unless it was at Raley's market or to say hello to the talking bear in front of Ditton Realty, which, with a push of button, would (and still will) recite "'Twas the Night Before Christmas." But Oakhurst, as it happens, is worth more than a passing glance as you head up Highway 41. It has, in no particular order, a world-class inn, at least one superb French restaurant, some intriguing shops and what must be the largest collection of life-size, chain saw-carved wooden bears to be found, well, anywhere.
November 10, 2013
San Francisco's artisan coffee shops have become a destination for the caffeinated crowd. Young guys work like highly trained chemists behind gleaming counters, intent on concocting the perfect brew. And the baristas don't just rely on $10,000 espresso machines to do the work. These coffee shops put on a show with glowing heat lamps, bubbling beakers and beautifully artistic cappuccinos. They also serve a memorable breakfast and lunch using local, organic ingredients from places such as Acme Bread, INNA Jam and K&J Orchards. The tab: $149 (before taxes) for a night at Hotel Monaco; $10 for breakfast and a caffé mocha at Blue Bottle Coffee; $18 for a pound of El Meridiano Colombian beans from Sightglass; and $4.25 for two scoops of ice cream at Humphry Slocombe.
November 10, 2013
Welcome to the wild, wild East Bay, where coffee roasters smell the trends but don't follow them. In Oakland, you'll find a diversity of places, from taprooms such as Modern Coffee, which uses beans from several roasters, to minimalist independents such as Subrosa, which uses beans from a single roaster, San Francisco's Four Barrel. And, yes, you can have your ubiquitous Oakland-based Blue Bottle if you must. Or get your beloved Sightglass coffee precision-made at CRO Café in Temescal Alley. The tab: $159 (before taxes) for a night at Waterfront Hotel; $12 for breakfast and a cappuccino at Brown Sugar Kitchen; $17 for a pound of Highwire Espresso blend from Highwire; and $5.25 for a sundae cup at the Bodega.
3:00 PM EDT, November 1, 2013
You never know what you might see in Reno. On our first night in town, my wife and 6-year-old daughter called me to look out the window of our 27th-story hotel room. There, in the center of town, was a brilliant fireworks display — an appropriate welcome to this Nevada town full of flash and color. Although there is a plethora of casinos and night life, we found this mini-Vegas to be offbeat and kid-friendly. It's also affordable: two nights at Circus Circus cost about $175, a buffet dinner for two at the Silver Legacy was $50 and the Discovery Museum cost $24 for two adults and one child.
October 27, 2013
Mendocino gets most of the ink when the virtues of quaint, oceanside Northern California villages are written up, but Fort Bragg, its more working-class neighbor to the north, is no slouch when it comes to charms. My sweetheart and I spent a few days here last winter and could have filled a few guidebook chapters with all the good goings-on. Tallied up, we spent about $650, which included $340 for two nights at the North Cliff Hotel, just listed on TripAdvisor as a 2013 Travelers' Choice for Romance.
October 13, 2013
Give any Arizona guidebook a glance, and a few dozen locales will be described as "a former copper mining town." That's also true for Bisbee, nestled near the Mexican border in the state's southeast corner. But the similarities stop there. Bisbee boasts some of the best art galleries in the state, side by side with newly sprouted brewpubs and Zagat-rated restaurants offering Southwestern-influenced vegetarian food as well as gourmet pizza and pasta. Amid it all, Main Street's antique shops and galleries are surrounded with examples of Victorian architecture. The Copper Queen Mine that had supported Bisbee for nearly a century closed in the mid-1970s after the ore played out. The town withered but refused to die. Instead, starving artists and aging hippies purchased the then-inexpensive homes and land, transforming the hardscrabble mining town into an artist colony. Today the town is popular with art lovers and those seeking relief from the brutal Phoenix and Tucson heat in Bisbee's higher elevations. Excluding airfare from LAX, a two-night trip for a couple is about $400, including a meal at Café Roka, about $90 with drinks and dessert.
October 6, 2013
Although writer John Steinbeck died 45 years ago, we continue to visit Salinas, Calif. — his birthplace — and surrounding Monterey County in search of the characters and settings found in his classics "The Pastures of Heaven," "East of Eden," "Cannery Row" and "Tortilla Flat." Although we can't find Doc, Junius Maltby or Lee Chong's grocery store, the essence of the Salinas Valley lingers in the blend of cultures, overcast skies, farming communities and locals who combine a passion for their work with a penchant for libations.
September 29, 2013
La Jolla is known for its cosmopolitan vibe, high-end shopping and fine dining. For a more down-to-earth, beach-centric experience, head to La Jolla Shores, a compact, laid-back neighborhood across the water from the village center. Popular with locals and families, the beach has fire pits, a park, a playground and sweeping views of La Jolla Cove. It's a busy launch point for water sports; summer and fall weekends draw groups of kayakers and snorkelers. Take the plunge: The area is full of shops where you can rent gear or take a lesson (snorkeling gear rental, $20; kayak tours start at $39). The tab: My husband and I spent $229 for a night at the Hotel La Jolla. Dinner at Cusp was $85; other meals and drinks were $40.
September 8, 2013
Telegraph Avenue may be the spiritual heart of Berkeley and the University of California campus the focal point, but from a visitor's point of view, downtown is the ideal place to stay. It's close to everything and has its own vibe, with an eclectic hodgepodge of iPhone-wielding professionals, hippies young and old, students and the homeless. I stayed downtown for the weekend and met my friends Susan and Rich, who live nearby. The tab: $510, including $370 for two nights at the Hotel Shattuck Plaza and $140 for meals.
7:36 PM EDT, August 16, 2013
More than any other skill, glass blowing has allowed Tacoma, Wash., to emerge from Seattle's shadow. Carve out a couple of hours from a leisurely weekend of museum-hopping, shopping and sightseeing, and you'll take home something more tangible than the usual vacation leftovers of memories and a sunburn. At the Tacoma Glassblowing Studio (114 S. 23rd St., Tacoma;  383-3499, http://www.tacomaglassblowing.com. Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. weekends), manager Brian Farmer shepherded my son David and me through the process. It began by selecting colors and design, then rolling, cooling, reheating (up to 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit), blowing and shaping. By the time we were done, two amorphous blobs of molten glass had become a sapphire pumpkin and a greenish wavy bowl — ours to own after they cooled overnight. The tab: Airfare excluded, a weekend getaway for two will cost about $950, including lodging at Hotel Murano (two nights), meals ($225) and museum admissions ($66).
1:00 PM EDT, August 3, 2013
There's no way to describe Ashland, Ore., as anything but quaint. Whether you're browsing knickknacks in Renaissance Rose, combing through an extensive John Steinbeck collection at Shakespeare Books & Antiques, sipping on freshly squeezed apple juice from the Ashland Food Co-op or standing 10 feet from a deer on Hargadine Street, this town of about 20,000 is inviting, charming and, well, quaint. The tab: Three nights in suite R at Grape Street Gardens runs $240 (prices are prorated if guests stay weekly or monthly), while dinner for two can be had for less than $50. Two seats near the stage at an Oregon Shakespeare Festival performance will set you back about $150, but everything in Lithia Park is free, including parking.
11:00 AM EDT, July 27, 2013
Albuquerque may not be L.A., but New Mexico's largest city is home to "Breaking Bad," the AMC series that is both shot and set here. It returns to the small screen Aug. 11. Plus Albuquerque Studios, where parts of "The Lone Ranger" were filmed recently and "The Avengers" was filmed a couple of years ago, is among the nation's biggest production facilities (not open to the public), so visitors can immerse themselves in this high-desert Hollywood. The tab: Airfare excluded, a two-night getaway will cost about $500, including lodging at Hotel Parq Central, a trolley tour for two and a meal at the restaurant that "Bad" fans know as Los Pollos Hermanos.
July 21, 2013
If you've walked Disneyland's Main Street, U.S.A., Fort Collins, Colo., might seem familiar: Its downtown served as one of the inspirations for the theme-park thoroughfare. But Fort Collins, a Civil War-era U.S. Army post, is anything but saccharine. Downtown thrives with independent businesses, funky artisanal shops and creative cuisine. Fort Collins is also the largest beer producer in the state (brewing 70% of Colorado's beer), a destination for bike enthusiasts and a springboard to the spectacular Rocky Mountains. The tab: Our family spent four days last summer visiting relatives, and aside from airfare (and free lodging), we spent about $200 a day on food and fun.
July 12, 2013
Tired of the shuttle-bus lines, the candy wrappers, the oh-the-humanity crowds that threaten to spoil the Yosemite experience? Have we got a summer place for you. The sleepy June Lake Loop offers all the joys of the Sierra with a fraction of the fuss. There are four alpine lakes, waterfalls, towering back-country hikes, kayaks, a high-end spa and some of the huskiest trout you've ever seen. This all makes June Lake one of the most amiable — and versatile — weekend jaunts in California. The tab? $168 for a double room at a swanky-rustic lodge you'll never want to leave; $100 for meals, including a hearty dinner at a clubby steak joint; and $30 for fishing licenses and cigars. The hiking, and enough scenery to fill two memory cards, are free.
6:50 PM EDT, July 3, 2013
Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep may have made famous the bridges of Madison County, Iowa. But that county's six covered bridges are a mere ripple in the river compared with the 20 in Lane County, Ore. This sprawling county, which stretches from the Pacific Coast through Eugene to the Cascade Mountains, boasts the largest concentration of such spans west of the Mississippi River. The tab: Weekend room rates this summer at Inn at the 5th in Eugene start at $189. (Eugene hotels can fill up when the University of Oregon Ducks have home games so book in advance in season.) Sandwiches, soup and beverages for a family of four at Fleur de Lis will run about $45.
June 30, 2013
Astoria, Ore., is tucked near the mouth of the mighty Columbia River where Lewis and Clark came to a weary halt in view of the Pacific Ocean. Fortunes made from fishing and lumber mills lined the town's hilly streets with Victorian flights of fancy, thus the sobriquet "Little San Francisco." The paint started peeling when the salmon gave out in the 1960s, but Astoria made a stunning comeback, starting with the construction of a 4-mile-long bridge that crosses the river to Washington state. The chandeliers were polished at its vintage 1920s Liberty Theater, now the heart of a thriving downtown filled with shops, galleries, martini bars and craft breweries; loving restoration secured the Astoria Column on Coxcomb Hill; and four small museums operated by the Clatsop County Historical Society tell wild stories about Astoria's 19th century red-light district. Then there's the smashing Columbia River Maritime Museum, a paean to boats, from Native American canoes to Coast Guard life savers, and to the intrepid captains and crews. The tab: About $360 round trip between L.A. and Portland, Ore., on weekends on Alaska Air; car rental at Portland International Airport is about $30 per day; a two-night weekend stay at the Cannery Pier Hotel is $458 for a double, breakfast included; dinner at Clemente's will run you about $100 for two; plus $50 for museum entrances, park admission and Ft. Clatsop.
June 23, 2013
Say "redwoods" and you're apt to think of Yosemite. But the world's largest remaining old-growth redwood forest is actually 200 miles north of San Francisco, along a fairy-tale stretch of the 101 Freeway. Dotted with small towns and kitschy roadside attractions, Humboldt County's redwood corridor supplies a literal breath of fresh air to anyone with an urge to get far from urbanism. In April, my husband and I spent two nights in the region. Not including gas for our drive from San Francisco, we spent about $50 for meals at Sicilito's and the Lost Coast Café. We would have spent $435 more for a room and dinner at the Benbow Inn if it hadn't been for an extraordinarily thoughtful wedding gift — what sent us here in the first place.
June 16, 2013
Many Napa Valley wineries are beginning to welcome visits from families, and they're making a serious effort to keep the kids engaged. Lest we forget, wineries are farms, and in many cases they have farm animals, game birds, fish ponds, picnic grounds and other kid magnets. Not all of wine country is kid-friendly, mind you, but you can find ample attractions to make this a satisfying destination for serious wine lovers … and grape juice lovers too. The tab: We spent about $647 for a family of four, including $315 for one night at the Villagio Inn, $260 on meals and $72 on a castle tour and wine tasting.
June 9, 2013
Way back in the 20th century when life was simple, my wife, Mary Frances, and I lived in Carpinteria, swooping in and out of Santa Barbara without a second thought. Nowadays, returning as Angelenos with a 9-year-old, we have second and third thoughts, as we consider cost, balance kid stuff and adult stuff, and consult the school calendar. But we managed a great visit a few months ago, thanks to a hotel that gave us creature comforts and walking access to great food, historic atmosphere and the beach. All it cost was money. The tab: $339 (before taxes) for a night at the Spanish Garden Inn; $53 for lunch at Anchor Woodfire Kitchen; $157 for dinner at Julienne; $28 for a one-hour surrey rental; $10 to visit Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park; and $1.64 on Stearns Wharf for a how-to-draw-sea-critters book that yielded hours of fun.
June 2, 2013
Many people heading to Riverside make a beeline for the Mission Inn and spend the weekend at its spa, restaurants and pool. They barely venture outside, and that's a shame because, as my husband and I discovered, downtown Riverside has blossomed into a fine arts and culture district. There are many examples of classic California architecture and more than a dozen sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The tab: We spent about $200, including $105 for one night at the Hyatt Place and $95 on food and museum admissions.
May 26, 2013
Wild and lonely, on the Central Coast about 45 minutes southwest of Lompoc, Jalama Beach County Park is one of those places that puts the golden in the Golden State. Getting here over mounded hills and through moss-bearded oak thickets is glorious enough, and then you see the beach stretching for miles from Point Arguello to Point Conception. The 23.5-acre park, donated to Santa Barbara County in 1943 by the Atlantic Richfield Co., has a small restaurant and store, a handful of cabins and camping sites, but nothing more to break the spell of clashing coast and ocean. Swimming is allowed, but the surf is often rough, better for body and kite surfing, fishing and beachcombing. The tab: Two nights in a prime tent-camping spot, $86, plus a $6.50 reservation fee. A cooler full of beverages and snacks, $50. Two dinners and breakfasts for two at the grill, $75. Plus the cost of gasoline to get here.
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.
12:39 AM EDT, April 1, 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 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 (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.
8:18 PM EDT, 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 Oct. 11-13. Last year, 49,000 tickets to the event at the Colorado Convention Center (700 14th St.;  228-8000), 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
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), 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; no tour more than $15), a mural arts organization in the Mission.
1:00 PM EDT, June 7, 2013
President Obama and China's President Xi Jinping will meet this weekend at Sunnylands, the 200-acre Annenberg estate in Rancho Mirage. It has hosted five decades of political and Hollywood luminaries behind its pink walls.
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.
Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times