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Cary Awards

The best, most unique getaways in California


As we come to the close of another great year in California travel, it's only fitting to pause and reflect on some of the many discoveries we made this year while scouring the Golden State. Yes, it's time once again for the Cary Awards, that annual look-back at the best, the most unique and the most memorable.

California tourism promoters, no doubt, are already impatiently paging through local newspaper travel sections in anticipation of the awards. To be selected for this honor, they know, probably means just about nothing. Yet, as they say, there is no such thing as bad publicity.

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

The Best Travel Bargain award goes this year to the nine hotels in Laughlin, Nevada, where there is still such a thing as a $20 room. Granted, you may have to buy some sort of package to get that price, but those looking for cheap vacations and plenty of entertainment will do well to drive the 90 minutes south from Las Vegas to Laughlin.

The Best Tour Guide award goes to former fighter pilot John Burkholder, who has traded in the swagger of an aviator for the measured stroll of a USS Midway docent. The Midway is now a highly entertaining and informative museum in San Diego Harbor and the museum has hired 160 docents – people who have lived and worked on the Midway — to show visitors all the nooks and crannies of this fascinating ship. We came upon the personable Burkholder as he was telling of a stormy night in the Pacific when he almost could not land his A-7. Fortunately for the million or so annual visitors to the Midway, he got his aircraft down.

The Best Hostess award is a tie this year between Carlotta Davies of Shadowridge Ranch and Cathy Weil of Big Bear's Gold Mountain Manor. Carlotta welcomed us to her Placerville-area bed-and-breakfast with a chilled bottle of Wicked Wildcat White wine, a platter of cheese and fruit and a basket full of warm, gooey chocolate chip cookie bars. After that, she had us in the palm of her hand. Cathy performed similar magic in the kitchen of her historic log bed-and-breakfast inn and made an extra effort to get to know all five couples staying that night at her inn. There was so much banter at the Gold Mountain Manor breakfast table you had the feeling you were dining with family. This is what a California vacation is all about.

The Best Resort Recipe award goes toKathy Williams, proprietor of the Circle Bar B Ranch near Santa Barbara. As you might expect, the ranch specializes in hearty, meat-and-potatoes country cooking and Kathy was nice enough to give us her unbelieveably good recipe for baked ribs. Of course now we pass that off as our own.

The Best Ski Condo award goes to Mammoth Five Star Lodging at Mammoth Lakes. We stayed in a three-bedroom million-dollar condo they offer that is located in the Village area of Mammoth Lakes. Out the window you could see your high-speed lift to the mountain. Just downstairs was a small ski village with restaurants, coffee houses and great shops — reminiscent of Whistler Village for those who have been there. Great vacation packages are available at Mammoth.

The Most Creative Marketing award goes to the Big Bear Lake Resort Association which decided this year enough is enough. While the lake was still picturesque and quite usable, the water level had been falling with the ongoing Southern California drought. So, in November, the association brought in Bennie E. LeBeau, a spiritual leader from the Eastern Shoshone Tribe in Wyoming to do a 6,000-year-old ceremony to replenish the area's moisture. Sure enough, the resort area soon got a huge snowfall that provided the best Thanksgiving ski conditions in four years.

Maybe some of the same forces were at work in the ghost town of Bodie, California, which is this year's winner of the Art Bell Travel and Tourism award. After publishing an article relating that all of the 170 buildings at Bodie were original to the historic town, we got a call from a Bodie enthusiast who swears he visited Bodie in the early 70's and there were only six or seven buildings standing at that point. He said a few years later he visited and found maybe 50 buildings. He says he brought this to state parks officials' attention but they all swear the buildings have been there all along.

Speaking of the supernatural, this year's Crystal Ball award goes to Temecula's South Coast Winery Resort and Spa, which had the foresight to build 76 modern villas in a place where there is no real history of a large resort successfully luring enough overnight guests to pay the bills. The resort is still under construction, but already booked solid on weekends. Spa resorts, in recent years, have just taken off and spa vacations are now appealing to a younger demographic than ever before. Put one in a place where you find dozens of California wineries, and you have a recipe for success.

You might think that the Best Living History award should go to the USS Midway, or perhaps to the Columbia State Historic Park, but this year's winner was a real sleeper. The Palm Springs Riviera turned out to be a visit back to the Palm Springs of Frank Sinatra and, while recently renovated and totally updated, the resort still has the feel you experienced in the movie, "Palm Springs Weekend," — which, of course, was filmed at the resort. What better place to enjoy an authentic, historical California vacation?

The Best Job Milking a Movie award goes to Bodega Bay and, in particular, the Tides Restaurant where Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" was filmed. The actual restaurant used in the movie burned down long ago, but out of its ashes has arisen a near-museum dedicated to selling anything related to birds or Alfred Hitchcock.

The Who Would Have Thought? award this year goes to the Embassy Suites Hotel Mandalay Beach Resort in Oxnard. This resort is a few miles off Highway 101 and, unless you know it's there, it's easy to miss on your way from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara. But once you find it, the Mandalay Beach Resort offers almost a replica of a Mexican beach resort with long, wide open beaches, a fun bar and drink patio, a terrific pool area and, best of all, no vendors trying to sell you stuff on the beach.

The Best Pretend Cruise award is a tiethis year between the Queen Mary in Long Beach, and the Delta King in Sacramento. In each case you can book an authentic stateroom and enjoy fine cuisine in ornate dining rooms with dockside and waterfront views. The Queen Mary, of course, is much larger and fascinating to explore. The Delta King is a riverboat conveniently docked in the Old Sacramento area, which combines historical buildings and museums, great restaurants and sometimes tacky shops. The Delta King also has dinner theater, so be sure to ask about travel packages.

The Most Interesting Inn keeper award goes to the 30-something Jed Ayres, who took a rather unconventional route from student at Mendocino High School to proprietor of Mendocino's MacCallum House. After a little experience as a waiter and bell hop at the Heritage House, Ayres got an MBA, became general manager of computer reseller AmeriData's bay area office, and then moved further up in another company that, unfortunately, went bankrupt. The hometown boy returned to buy MacCallum House from the expert chef he now has preparing his gourmet meals. Oh, one more thing: Ayres worked for that same chef washing dishes while he was in high school.

The Great Gatsby award goes to the resort we found this year that best epitomizes the "good life" — Meadowood Resort in Napa Valley. Once you go through a security gate, you enter a lush world of green lawns, rolling hillsides, meandering trails and forest so thick it might as well be in the Sierras. Brand-new upscale accommodations and first-rate cuisine are big draws, while swimming, golf, tennis, cricket — you name it — are all there to make this a complete escape from every day life.

Finally, the Best Return on Investment award goes to the Costa Mesa Conference and Visitors Bureau for dreaming up a reimbursement program that pays visitors $20 or $30 in auto expense reimbursement plus a $30 dining credit for visiting their city. The Bureau estimates the program brought about one million dollars into the local economy last year. These kinds of travel deals help travelers, but apparently also offer a great return on investment.

OTHER DESTINATIONS: If you found some ingredients here for a great California vacation, be sure and check out other California Weekend articles on fascinating destinations such as Catalina Island, the Central California Coast and Mendocino.

Click here for more great California vacation ideas!

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