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Cary Awards

A look back at the best in CA travel for 2006

By CARY ORDWAY

Another year, another few dozen California getaways, and that means it is time for this travel writer to go back and find the best of the best for this year's Cary Awards. As in past years, we will take a look at some of the more memorable experiences of the year and single out those deserving of special recognition.

Not that any of these places really care. It's not like they are running ads in Travel and Leisure magazine campaigning for their Cary Award. But in our humble little way we'd like to give each of these a hearty "job well done" and, at the same time, let our readers know about some especially enjoyable getaways they may have missed reading about.

So without further delay, the envelopes please.

The Best Family-Run Resort this year goes to Rankin Ranch, where Bill Rankin has done a remarkable job transforming part of a working cattle ranch into a popular kid-friendly resort. When guests come to the Kernville-area Rankin Ranch, more than likely they will become part of Bill's extended "family" — legions of repeat customers who now account for 75 percent of ranch guests. There's just something that feels good about experiencing a few days in the life of a hard-working ranch family where old-fashioned family values aren;t really old-fashioned. Bill and his wife, Glenda, set an example for a son and three daughters who have been raised on ranch chores and self-reliance. Throughout their stay, guests will encounter family members cooking, serving, organizing and, yes, making sure those ranch chores still get done every day.

The Best Vacation Concert Venue has to go, hands-down, to Pechanga Resort in Temecula. Their state-of-the-art showroom offers the chance to get close to big-time stars — we're talking top-of-the-charts country as well as other genres — and avoid the hassles of long lines and traffic. The ticket prices are a little higher, but well worth it.

We were surprised this year when we ventured over to the Coastside area near San Francisco and found the Best Metropolitan Getaway. You can be in the "Big City" enjoying all of the shopping and tourist attractions and then, 30 minutes later, you can be curled up by the fire in one of Coastside area's hotels with wide beaches and spectacular rocky coastline making you feel like you're a thousand miles from the city. Half Moon Bay is a great example, but there are several communities from Pacifica all the way down to Santa Cruz.

The Best Vacation Thrill Ride this year was Catalina's Classic Inland Motor Tour, an informative sometimes hair-raising journey 31 miles into the island's interior. Lasting about four hours, this tour gave us an entirely new perspective on an island we'd never really bothered to fully explore. Spectacular views were just the beginning; the rugged interior holds many surprises for visitors who think the edge of Avalon is where the sightseeing stops. Tip: Sit in the front of the passenger van where you will feel like you are going to drop thousands of feet below every time the vehicle turns on island's narrow, windy roads.

If you're the type of traveler who truly likes to get away from people — who puts a high premium on quiet, uninterrupted peace, and who will not go into withdrawal if you have to go a night without television — then you'll enjoy Morton Peak Fire Lookout, winner of the Best Place for Solitude Award. During daytime, the lookout is staffed by volunteer lookout hosts who have attended classes to learn just how to spot forest fires. At night, it becomes a wilderness "resort" — albeit a very basic one. For just $75 a night ($85 on a weekend) you get your own "cabin on stilts" with a zillion dollar view and solitude to match. It's easy to get to as well — just an hour's drive east from L.A. in the San Bernardino Forest.

We found the Best Road Food at the Harris Ranch Steakhouse, near Coalinga about half way between San Francisco and Los Angeles on Interstate 5. Harris Ranch is a resort oasis that seems like it was built out in the middle of nowhere, but that offers comfortable lodgings and amenities such as an Olympic-size swimming pool. The highlight for guests and hungry I-5 travelers is the Steakhouse, where you'll enjoy deliciously prepared beef of the same quality as top national brand steakhouses, but at a more reasonable cost. All of the beef is raised within a few miles of the Harris Ranch Steakhouse.

The Best Vacation Transportation again involved Catalina Island and this particular getaway we thought would be ideal for the busy professional person who needs to get far away, but doesn't have much time to do it. The award goes to Island Express Helicopter Service, which operates a fleet of four modern six-passenger helicopters from their base helipad in Long Beach, next to the Queen Mary. Flight time to Catalina: just 14 minutes.

We had our Best Vacation Breakfast at the Whispering Pines Lodge in Kernville, near Bakersfield. The lodge is a delightful place to stay with its wooded setting and cabin-like feel, but we suspect the real reason this place fills up quickly on weekends is the full breakfast. Bed-and-breakfasts seem to run the gamut from those offering a roll and some coffee to those priding themselves on both the quality and quantity of food they present. The Whispering Pines falls into the latter category with its bacon, sausages, eggs, pancakes, biscuits and gravy, quiche, fruit, rolls, juices and coffee all served up tasty and fresh in an atmosphere that encourages you to go back and fill your plate again.

The Most Scenic Getaway this year is the Double Eagle Resort and Spa, which happens to be located in one of the state's most scenic vacation spots — the "June Lake Loop." This area just east of Yosemite Park probably should have been included in the national park — its dramatic mountain faces, pine forests and sparkling lakes make it just that beautiful. Driving into June Lake we were reminded of those pretty little hillside towns you come across traveling through the Alps. With the cragged snow-topped mountains in the distance, Highway 158 winds its way along the gorgeous blue-green lake where anglers spend considerable time in summer persuading good-size cutthroat trout to jump aboard their boats.

The Best Vacation Surprise for 2006 was the city of Eureka — fairly far north, but well worth the visit if you're in Northern California. In some ways, time has stood still in Eureka, an outpost of Victorian architecture and magnificent scenery. In fact, surrounding Humboldt County will give you a history lesson as well -- and treat you to some of the most fascinating natural attractions anywhere in the West. Still just a small city with just 40,000 residents in the immediate area, Eureka's downtown is a collection of historic Victorian buildings, many of which have been restored to reflect their mid-19th Century splendor.

And finally, the Best Theme Park Value this year goes to Universal Studios Hollywood, which has come up with something called the Front of the Line Pass. It is a bit pricey — at $99.95 it's about double what you'll pay if you buy a regular pass online — but it totally changes the experience. Instead of waiting in long, hot lines all day (typical of most Southern California theme parks) we were quickly zipping between the best attractions, never standing in line more than five minutes. We felt we saw everything we wanted to see in one day, but were not nearly as exhausted as we might have been standing in lines that each appeared to be 45 minutes to an hour long.

Photos: Town of June Lake; Morton Peak Lookout provides plenty of solitude; special bus provides thrill ride into Catalina's interior

Photo credits: Cary Ordway, Sandi Ordway

OTHER DESTINATIONS: If you're looking for other California vacation ideas, be sure to check out other California Weekend articles on Yosemite National Park, Idyllwild, Julian and Kernville.