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Cary Awards

Best, most unique places we visited in 08

By CARY ORDWAY

Another year, another busy schedule of trying out a variety of California getaways — and now it´s time to revisit our favorites for our annual look back at the best trips of the year. Yes, it´s time again for the Cary Awards.

Our 2008 awards cover a broad range of getaways with something for everyone. From canoe rides to historic theme parks, from beach getaways to weekends in the Big City, we found lots of new places to explore right here in the Golden State.

Let´s start off with our Best Family Getaway, which this year goes to Burke´s Canoe Trips, on the Russian River just north of the Bay area. Summer is prime season for this Huck Finn type of getaway, a fun destination that is neither expensive nor difficult to get to. For decades people of all ages have made their annual pilgrimage to the Russian River to get a river-level view of some of the best scenery and wildlife California has to offer.

The Russian River flows through such famous Wine Country destinations as Geyserville and Healdsburg before it makes its way out to the sea through gentle hills covered with thick redwood forests and teaming with rare birds and other wildlife. About a 10-mile stretch of the river from Forestville to Guerneville is ideal for calm-water canoeing or kayaking and a Burke's Canoe Trips helps make it even easier by providing canoes, kayaks and a shuttle service that will return you to your car near Forestville.

The water here is so tame that it's really not all that good for inner-tubing because in some parts you can't keep enough forward motion without a lot of paddling. For that reason, canoes and kayaks — which seem to glide over the water with little effort — are ideal. For more information on Russian River canoe trips, phone 707-887-1222 or visit www.burkescanoetrips.com.

The kids also will like our Best Kids Resort, which this year is the Resort at Indio, a relatively new lodging near Palm Springs. This group of condo-style buildings includes 453 units altogether, built around what almost looks like a water theme park full of swimming pools, whirlpool spas, giant sprinklers for the kids, ponds, canals and even a man-made river to float down on a resort-provided inner-tube. There are a couple of huge swimming pools - the largest being almost 5,000 square feet. The resort also includes tennis courts, a basketball court, a recreation center with pool, ping-pong and other games, and a modern workout gym. Golfers need go no farther than the Terra Lago golf course adjacent to the resort.

We noticed that family groups large and small were taking full advantage of the pools and other facilities. Come mealtime, many would walk the short distance back to their condo units and fire up the barbecues available on their decks and patios. For more information on the Resort at Indio, phone 800-867-2095 or visit www.greatpricedcondos.com/id/.

The Best Couples Getaway this year is the Napa Valley Wine Train, one of the most popular tourist attractions in a place that is the definition of elegance. The visitor who boards the Wine Train gets a little taste of pampered rail travel — think Orient Express — for a fraction of what it would cost for the real thing.

Once on board, it's clear that the Wine Train has pulled out all the stops to make this as luxurious as possible. We settled down into plush chairs facing one another with a table in between. During our three hours on board, we were treated to waves of meal and beverage service starting with wine (not included in your meal price, by the way), appetizers, salad, a main course — which during our trip was a choice between salmon and a beef entrée — and dessert. Everything was exquisitely prepared and the presentations rivaled what you would find at an expensive gourmet restaurant. To learn more about the Napa Valley Wine Train, call 800-427-4124 or go to www.winetrain.com.

Couples also will appreciate our selection for the Best Beach Getaway, a cottage just across the road from the beach in Cambria. If long walks along a driftwood-strewn beach are your idea of a trip to the sea, then Moonstone Beach is a good candidate for your next outing to the California Coast. Cambria is a place where you can spend hours each day walking - on the beach, on the boardwalk and through a quaint, historic artist's colony chock-full of art galleries as well as unique shops and good restaurants. We stayed in one of three Moonstone Cottages. Each of the cottages is perfectly decorated with a lot of attention to detail. They're not huge, but quite adequate for a couple and have plenty of room to move around. We stayed in the Seascape, the cottage closest to the ocean with the best view, which included a fireplace and mini-kitchen with a refrigerator, microwave, sink and counter space. Outside, a well-maintained English garden added to the storybook feel. For more information on Moonstone Cottages, call 805-927-1366 or go to www.moonstonecottages.com.

We love exploring California history and so we truly appreciated the winner of our Best Historical Getaway, which this year goes to the Columbia State Historic Park, near Sonora. Located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada where gold was discovered in the mid-19th Century, Columbia may be the best place to get a sense of what it all was like back then.

Several local business owners operate park concessions that help re-create the feeling of a town in the Gold Rush era. On any given day you'll find people all over town dressed like it was still the 1800's and doing all they can to create the illusion that you are traveling back in time. Columbia's Main Street looks like a movie set except that the downtown stores are not just storefronts but actual historical buildings. For more information on Columbia State Park, call 800-777-0369 or visit www.parks.ca.gov.

History also figures into our selection for the Best Kept Secret, which goes to Angel Island State Park. It´s not that they´re keeping it a secret — it´s just that many visitors to San Francisco probably don´t even know it´s there.

Angel Island is a prominent part of the Bay panorama and has been a popular destination for hiking, biking and exploration for the decades since it became a state park in the 1950's. Only accessible by boat, the island is a quick ferry ride from Fisherman's Wharf and an especially good day trip for San Francisco visitors. When they arrive on the island, they'll find a quiet, peaceful, almost idyllic landscape with pretty coves, modest hills and picture-postcard vistas of the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin County. Dozens of historic buildings also portray the rich military history of the island. For more information on Angel Island, phone 415-435-3972 or visit www.angelisland.org.

If you´re headed for the city, you could hardly do better than Santa Monica, which we are naming our Best Big City Getaway due to the incredible variety of activities, all in near-perfect weather year-round. On one recent weekend, we checked into the Hotel Oceana, a completely updated, upscale lodging on Santa Monica's picturesque Ocean Avenue, where our third-floor suite had spectacular views of the ocean and, in the distance, Catalina Island. This hotel proved to be ideally located near the beach as well as the popular Downtown Third Street Promenade shopping district.

Over the course of the weekend, we visited nearby Hollywood — and the fascinating if not well-publicized Hollywood Museum — and discovered Will Rogers State Park with its historical buildings and great hiking trails, just three miles from Santa Monica. For more information on Santa Monica, phone the Santa Monica Convention & Visitors Bureau at 800-544-5319 or visit www.santamonica.com.

Our Most Unique Travel Adventure for 2008 was a trip to Santa Barbara without our car. It´s tough to pry the car keys from us Southern Californians but, in the interest of the environment, we gave it a try. It turns out that Santa Barbara´s Car-Free program makes it easy and offers lots of incentives that make it well worth your while to try visiting Santa Barbara by train or air. Our trip on Amtrak from San Diego went off without a hitch, and we were amazed at how much we could do without our car. For more information on car-free Santa Barbara, go to www.santabarbaracarfree.org or phone (805) 696-1100.

Photos, from top: Canoeing on the Russian River; Napa Valley Wine Train; Moonstone Cottages; Lazy River at the Resort at Indio

Photos by Cary and Sandi Ordway

OTHER DESTINATIONS: If you're looking for other California vacation ideas, be sure to check out other California Weekend articles on Los Angeles, Long Beach California, Huntington Beach and Getty Museum.



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