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Gas-wise getaways

California 'stay-cation' ideas that aren't so radical

By CARY ORDWAY

Okay, let's face it – five-dollar gas may not be that far down the road and that can translate into more expensive vacations and getaways. Some hotels are even promoting “Stay-cations” or, in other words, vacationing in your own home town this year.

Maybe a less radical approach is to simply draw a circle around your particular region and take a look at the getaways that are much closer, but not the same scenery and attractions you can experience almost anytime. After all, vacations and getaways are supposed to be special, right?

So don't panic. The options are considerable and we've found a few special semi-stay-cation getaways for residents the Bay Area, Los Angeles and San Diego. These getaways are all less than 90 minutes away from your home.

San Francisco residents

When ordinary folks think of well-known California vacation destinations, the city of Santa Rosa probably does not appear near the top of the list. In fact, this “under-the-radar” destination may not show up on the list at all.

Better known is Sonoma County -- where Santa Rosa is located – which is famous for its rolling hills and scenic vistas of vineyards and backcountry farmlands as well as a cluster of charming communities that attract wine-lovers and visitors who just enjoy the rural ambience.

Santa Rosa is an easy one-hour drive north from San Francisco on the 101 Freeway. With a population of around 150,000, the city is not a rural enclave but rather a commercial hub in an area where the countryside is dotted with small towns.

We drove to Santa Rosa but, before heading out to explore the countryside, we stopped by historic Railroad Square where locals come to have dinner in one of several gourmet restaurants, or visit the shops in the many historical buildings. In fact, this entire section of Santa Rosa is on the National Register of Historic Places, and visitors are encouraged to take a walking tour of the area.

After exploring Railroad Square it was time to drive about 15 miles north on Highway 101 to the quaint town of Healdsburg. Healdsburg was built around a Spanish-style plaza which, today, remains the centerpiece of a downtown that still retains many historic buildings. The town has something of a Mayberry feel with its Sweet Shop selling gumballs on the corner and institutions like the Raven Performing Arts Theater that hosts local plays and touring musical acts.

But while the town may seem as simple as Mayberry, life here is definitely more sophisticated. There is a high per-capita number of gourmet restaurants, and high-end galleries, jewelry, apparel and other gifts are clustered around the plaza. More than anything, though, Healdsburg is a jumping off point for gorgeous drives through the Central Sonoma County countryside where one begins to see just how important wine and grapes are to the local economy, with wineries popping up every few miles.

Back in Santa Rosa we found a modern multi-story building housing the Charles M. Schultz Museum and Research Center. It was created in Santa Rosa because Schultz had lived there the last 30 years of his life.

Still another Santa Rosa attractions is the Pacific Coast Air Museum. People who love to kick the tires of historic and military aircraft will completely enjoy this unpretentious collection of vintage aircraft, most of them jet aircraft of the mid to late 20th Century.

For more information on Santa Rosa, contact the Santa Rosa Convention and Visitor Bureau www.visitsantarosa.com or phone 1-800-404-ROSE.

Los Angeles residents

Those driving south on Interstate 5 to San Diego will know exactly what we mean when we say there just is no more spectacular ocean view than the one you encounter while making your way through San Clemente. On a clear, sunny day – and most of them are – it's hard to keep your eyes on the road as you take in a landscape that includes San Clemente's neatly terraced, palm tree-studded hills and the vast blue ocean with its distant horizon.

The beach, to us, is one of the main attractions of San Clemente, which is just a little over an hour south of Los Angeles. It's possible to walk five miles altogether on a beach that is wide, scenic and – best of all – hardly used. There is no stumbling over other beach-goers as you search for some solitude among the masses. At this beach, there is nothing but solitude along great stretches of sparkling sand where you can plop down anywhere you like, set up your blanket, chairs and cooler and pretend that you're Robinson Crusoe for at least the afternoon.

There of course is a good representation of surfers on any given day along this beach – this is prime territory for those in search of consistent waves. Boogie-boarders too are drawn to the beach to ride a curling surf that, in some places, offers a thrill a minute. But most of the people you see here are simply beach-walkers, enjoying a gentle stroll on wide sand that seems to go on forever.

A few miles north from San Clemente State Beach is the pier area, a part of San Clemente that attracts visitors and locals alike. If you're looking for a weekend getaway, this may well be the spot with its charming village-like atmosphere where you can dine in sidewalk cafes, visit the local market or walk out on the pier for some great views of the surfers and the entire coast. A number of lodgings are available in this area, many with spectacular views of the ocean and pier area.

One of our favorite things to do is to stop at the pier on our way through San Clemente. It's just a little over a mile from the freeway and it's a rewarding mini-getaway just to drop in at Fisherman's Restaurant on the pier and enjoy fresh fish and a microbrew while basking in the sun and soaking up the seaside atmosphere.

While in San Clemente, you'll want to stroll down Avenida Del Mar where you'll find a wide assortment of shops in a lushly landscaped setting. This is not some famous shopping district with designer stores and celebrities; rather it's Main Street USA with the kind of shopping you might find in your hometown – a varied collection of shops, boutiques, antique stores, galleries and sidewalk cafes.

For more information on San Clemente, contact the San Clemente Chamber of Commerce at (949) 492-1131 or visit www.scchamber.com.

San Diego residents

With its location between Los Angeles and San Diego, its inland balmy weather and its impressive group of first-class wineries, it's no wonder the Temecula Valley has become a major weekend destination for SoCal leisure travelers.

There are dozens of wineries in Temecula, most of them conveniently located along a few major thoroughfares that stretch several miles eastward from Temecula's more densely populated areas. The city itself has expanded in recent years to the point that more than 300,000 people live in the Temecula Valley.

Along with that expansion has come several big-time wineries that have built tasting rooms, restaurants and other tourist-friendly facilities right alongside their wine-making operations. The valley hasn't, of course, caught up with Napa and its 300-plus wineries, but Temecula still weighs in with an abundance of scenery – vineyards are everywhere you look – and a variety of wineries that gives you a feel for both the big and small, the more corporate as well as the more down-home family operations.

It's a remarkable and easy destination for residents of both L.A. and San Diego, who can get to Temecula in an hour.

We had the chance to sample a few of the wineries during their World of Wine Barrel Tasting Weekend in March – a fun event that each year is marked indelibly on the calendars of many locals and visitors alike. During the two-day event, most of the area's wineries set aside special areas in their tasting or barrel rooms for visitors to taste one or more select wines as well as sample a specially prepared food dish.

There are excellent overnight accommodations in the area, several designed to take advantage of vineyard views. The area has several brand name lodgings, most located in the downtown area.

If you're not visiting during Barrel Tasting, you'll find you can reasonably visit between four and six wineries in a day - most of the wineries are clustered in an area along Rancho California Road. But wineries are not the only attraction in town - the city's Historic Old Town is a popular day trip for people from surrounding communities. A number of historical buildings are highlighted in a walking tour of the area, and there are many festivals held throughout the year to bring attention to the area.

For more information on Temecula Valley wineries and accommodations, contact the Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association at (888) 363-2852 or visit www.temeculacvb.com.

Photos, from top: Barn on colorful drive near Santa Rosa; Amtrak train stops right at San Clemente Pier; Temecula Valley is popular wine getaway for Southern Californians

Photos by Cary and Sandi Ordway; Temecula photo courtesy Temecula Wine Growers Association


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