Best, most unique places we visited in 07
Another year in California travel has come and gone and, through raging
wildfires, skyrocketing gas prices and growing economic worries, the California
travelers just keep on coming.
Recent findings by one of the country's largest ad agencies indicate that
top travel trend for 2007 was the "staycation" — the getaway close to home that
now has replaced the extended vacations of the past. In California, places like
South Lake Tahoe are seeing a huge increase in page views, according to Yahoo
travel, and parks like Yosemite and the Golden Gate are up by hundreds of
thousands of visitors for the first nine months of the year.
This all falls in line with our own observations as we traveled the state
this past year in search of interesting getaways and short vacation
destinations. Hotels and resorts seemed busy every place we went, often even
during mid-week. But that had little impact on the quality of service we
received and we did — as usual — make several interesting travel "discoveries"
this past year.
As is our custom, we're reviewing the best of the year by handing out our
2007 "Cary Awards." The winners don't get much — except for recognition — but we
think readers win by learning where we found the best California travel
experiences for the past 12 months.
Our Best Learning Experience this year was on the Northern California
coastline at Fort Ross State Historic Park, a well-preserved piece of California
coastal history. One of the oldest parks in the state system, Fort Ross had its
beginnings in 1812 when a party of 25 Russians joined with 80 native Alaskans to
start construction of a fort including a stockade, blockhouses and several log
buildings. Today, visitors can tour the buildings, some of
which offer authentic displays with artifacts such as 19th Century
musket rifles or household tools and other items actually used by the Russians.
Out in the courtyard we noticed there were several real cannons — we know they
were real because Park Service employees were firing them off in a demonstration
for a group of school children.
Lake Arrowhead Resort is our Most Improved Resort for the year and, to
make this assessment, we had the opportunity to visit both before and after the
$17 million renovation. All of the 173 guest rooms were re-done, along with the
restaurant, bar and spa. New swiveling plasma TV's, walk-in showers and just an
overall sense of luxury and class are evident in the guest rooms. Some of the
rooms have gorgeous views of the lake; others look out on the alpine forests.
a novelty sometime, plan to stop by the Calico Ghost Town on your next trip to
Las Vegas. Conveniently located near Barstow, about half-way between Los Angeles
and Sin City, this fun little western town takes our prize as the Best
California Rest Stop for 2007. This is a true ghost town, although not the
scary type and really as much an amusement park as a historical dig. Some of the
original town has been refurbished, some re-constructed, and some buildings
created just for tourists. The town was carved out of the colorful hills of the
Mojave Desert back in 1881 and today offers a fascinating glimpse of what life
might have been like for the borax and silver miners of the 19th
Century. Mixed in with the history is a good deal of commerce — from eateries to
crafts shops to gift shops.
Our award for the Best Resort Activities goes to the Ojai Valley Inn
and Spa, tucked in the Ojai Valley just off the main coastal road north to Santa
Barbara. While the resort bills itself as a "spa village," a better description
might be Getaway University, with its campus full of activities and
honest-to-goodness classes in the finer points of life. Once a country club,
this 308-room inn has become much more than that and was, in fact, recently
awarded AAA's five-star designation, making it one of only 15 properties in
California to reach such lofty status.
Chief among those activities are the classes and experiences that can make
your stay as much an educational experience as one of total relaxation. Ojai's
"university" offers "short courses in living better" that are designed to
encourage guests to try new things and learn new concepts. Five short courses
are presented, including such subjects as The Artist's Path, Tasting Wine like a
Pro, Golf: the Name of the Game, Horseback Riding: Life's a Cinch; and
Aromatherapy: Essential Oils from A to Z.
Everyone's looking for a deal, and we couldn't help but notice that Redwoods
Adventures has what we think is this year's Best Lodging Deal, especially
for families or larger groups. The company went in and completely renovated some
workers' houses near an old sawmill in the heart of Redwoods National and State
Parks, north of Eureka. These three-bedroom units are completely new on the
inside and feature two baths as well as all the kitchen furnishings and
electronic entertainment options you might have in your own house. The total
price for a night is $199, or about what you'd pay for an average hotel room in
Another getaway that is a ways out of the Big City is Solvang, which this
year wins our Best Small Town Getaway award. If bakeries and beer gardens
are high on your list of vacation amenities, you couldn't do better than a visit
to Solvang, the Danish-inspired theme community just a half-hour drive from
Santa Barbara. Of course there is much more, but food is a great place to start.
Few can resist the lure of Danish, German and other cuisines offered in a
variety of restaurants all housed in buildings remodeled to make this look like
a quaint little European village. It also doesn't hurt that Solvang is located
in one of California's most scenic areas — wine country that was shown off
spectacularly in the widely acclaimed movie Sideways.
The Best Family Experience, hands-down, was the Greenhorn Creek Guest
Ranch, an amazing way to get your kids focusing on something other than video
games and baggie pants. Located northwest of the Lake Tahoe region, the ranch is
all about going back to Mayberry for a weekend where kids still toast
marshmallows, catch fish in a small trout pond and have frog races. As we
mentioned in our article, the Greenhorn Creek Guest Ranch is where you go to get
a healthier heart. Not that barbecue ribs and steaks and big breakfasts of bacon
and sausage and biscuits are going to unclog your arteries. The heart we're
talking about is the one that helps you look at the world and shape your
reactions to it. It's the one that sometimes gets a little overwhelmed with the
day-to-day and forgets about the big picture.
We had our Most Scenic Drive this year in Sonoma County, where we got
a little off the beaten path at Petaluma and drove into the wine country for
miles on winding roads that are as charming as they are scenic. Best part of
this journey was Healdsburg and a little highway out of town called the Dry
Creek Road, which runs parallel to Highway 101 for several miles and takes you
to Geyserville, just east of 101. This town of about a thousand souls is home to
some inns and is known for its location right in the heart of wine country. It's
estimated that about 70 wineries are within a 15-minute radius of town.
The Most Unusual Bed and Breakfast this year was the Coast Guard House
Historic Inn, located on a hill overlooking Arena Cove on the Northern
California coast. The Coast Guard was preceded by the U.S. Life-saving Service
which was established in the late 19th Century as a means
providing rescue to the many mariners who lost ships or got into trouble in the
fog or on the stormy seas just off the point. In 1901, the Cape Code-style
building now known as the Coast Guard House was built as a "life-saving station"
-- a place for members of the Life-saving Service to live.
Innkeeper Kevin Gallagher has turned this historic building into an
especially charming inn that offers guests a choice between rooms in the main
building or separate cottages just behind the building. We enjoyed a tiny, yet
unique accommodation called the Flag Room which was ideal for a couple or single
person. Like innkeepers at many bed-and-breakfast inns, Gallagher — a
Philadelphia native -- is a gracious and affable host who makes a point of
getting to know each of his guests, whether at breakfast or while they are
enjoying some quiet relaxation in the reading room.
Photos by Cary Ordway, Sandi Ordway
Captions, from top: Sonoma County barn found on Best Scenic Drive; pond fishing at Greenhorn Creek Guest Ranch is like a return to Mayberry; Calico is a fun western theme town easy to stop and see on your way to Las Vegas; Solvang is a great family getaway.
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