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This Christmas, consider gift of California travel

By CARY ORDWAY

When you're trying to buy gifts for the husband, wife or partner who has everything, one of the best solutions is the gift of travel. The new experiences and their memories will last a lifetime, well beyond the useful life of a kitchen appliance or high-tech gizmo.

And besides, you'll never have to sell them at a garage sale to get rid of them.

The really smart shopper — or some might suggest the really "cheap" shopper — will have a gift certificate under the tree this Christmas for a romantic getaway already scheduled for early February. There's no way you're going to get a good room at a fancy resort this Christmas because those are all booked well in advance. But why not make it for sometime around Valentine's Day?

That's right — two gifts for the price of one.

There are lots of romantic choices here in California, whether you like beaches, islands or wine country. Here are a few of our favorites.

Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn

The rolling hills and vineyards of the Sonoma Valley are just part of a natural tapestry that has beckoned art-lovers and wine connoisseurs to this region for decades. Today, the Sonoma Valley and the nearby Napa Valley are the cornerstones in a winery industry that continues to grow well beyond Northern California.

Stately inns and luxurious resorts have sprung up alongside the hundreds of wineries in those regions today, each accommodation offering a getaway experience that becomes almost spiritual in the way it transports the visitor to a completely different way of life.

The Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa is one example. Driving into the Fairmont Sonoma is like arriving at your French country estate for the weekend. The ambience and grandeur just make this seem like a larger-than-life experience as you make your way into the circular driveway and are immediately greeted by the helpful hotel valet. You notice at once that the grounds of this stately hotel have been impeccably manicured, not a blade of grass out of place. Walkways weave around the main inn and into the forest behind the inn where the hotel has dozens of stylish new suites.

In fact, the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn has just spent $62 million upgrading the inn to make it one of the most prestigious spa resorts in Northern California. Built in the style of a mission in 1926, the hotel has a rich history of beckoning travelers even before the present structure was built. The inn's Mission-style architecture has been maintained, but enhanced. Rustic woods and wrought iron are used in the restored lobby to fit in with the feel of the surrounding wine country. French antiques adorn the lobby.

We were shown to a suite that was tastefully decorated with furniture featuring the most stylish fabrics, carefully color-coordinated to look like a scene out of Architectural Digest. A little breakfast nook looked out the shuttered windows to the lush landscaping, trees and gardens found throughout the resort's eight acres. A fireplace was at the ready with a small couch positioned nearby for total relaxation.

One reason the Sonoma Mission Fairmont Inn has long been popular with travelers is the natural hot springs that provides thermal mineral water for soaking. This goes hand in hand with the spa services offered at the resort — more than 50 such treatments in all, making the inn a hit with guests seeking a little renovation of their own.

For information on the Sonoma Fairmont Resort and Spa, phone 707-938-9000 or visit www.fairmont.com/sonoma/.

Montage Resort and Spa

The Montage Resort and Spa an incredibly elegant enclave built on one of the most scenic stretches of coastline in Southern California. Located in Laguna Beach, this two-year-old resort has quickly risen from obscurity to the kind of international prominence enjoyed by only a few properties of distinction. Montage Resort and Spa already has climbed onto Top Resorts lists for many well-known travel publications.

Just south of the art galleries, restaurants and designer boutiques of downtown Laguna Beach is a section of coastline that seems as if it was created for a hotel. Situated on those 30 acres — and, yes, right on the beach -- is Montage Resort and Spa, a 262-unit hotel whose designers have obviously paid close attention to period elements such as stonework, dark woods and a shingle-style roof.

The staff of this Gatsby-like resort hotel is put through a two-day training seminar that focuses just on service — and we noticed the results throughout our stay. Our suite was a treasure trove of special touches and it seemed as if we were making little discoveries from the time we checked in until the time we checked out. For example, how many hotels have you stayed in where the hotel has a catalogue for you to order take-home towels, linens, robes and even mattresses just like the ones you just used during your stay?

The rooms are done in muted colors — ours had a kind of key lime green and white trim motif — and walls are abundantly adorned with artwork from local artisans. Complete DVD/CD entertainment centers were in each of our two rooms and this particular suite included two walk-in closets. As one would expect, the king bed, the 400-threadcount bed linens, the goose down pillows — well, frankly, everything in the room -- were of the highest quality. The main bathroom featured marble on the vanity counters, the bathtub enclosure and in the walk-in shower. Awaiting the new guest was an array of toiletries, oils, soaps and even candles to light while soaking in the oversize bathtub.

All of that is well and good, but one of the biggest reasons this resort is worth the expense is the dazzling, panoramic waterfront view. Our suite's balcony was larger than most hotel rooms and offered a secluded sitting area to relax on wicker furniture and enjoy the views of the ocean and beach area below.

For more information on Montage Resort and Spa, phone 888-715-6700 or visit www.montagelagunabeach.com.

Glorietta Bay Inn

If there is one place where Southern California charm, history, style, beaches and sun all converge, it has to be on the 7.4 square miles of ground you'sll find at the west end of the sweeping, skyscraper-high Coronado Bridge.

Just 2.3 miles across the bay from downtown San Diego, Coronado Island is an island retreat in every sense you can imagine — it's still relatively quiet, studded with swaying palm trees, blessed with some of the best beaches in California, and adorned by some of the most magnificent and historic buildings in San Diego County.

A visit to Coronado is like appearing in your own episode of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," if only for a few days at a time. Stroll through the famous Hotel del Coronado and marvel at fine jewelry and designer clothing, or visit the fashionable downtown boutiques and trendy restaurants. Sit at an outdoor café and people-watch to your heart's content, carefully distinguishing between the everyday tourists and the tony CEO's, families in tow, everybody stylized to the hilt.

We enjoyed our stay at the Glorietta Bay Inn — just across the street from the Hotel del — where we had an opportunity to experience a historic San Diego mansion. Built by John Dietrich Spreckels, a famous figure in San Diego history, the mansion is an impressive piece of architecture — Italian Renaissance style, all white, multi-story with dramatic lines.

Inside, the wide marble staircase was our pathway to Room 126 — the Albright Room, a spacious second-floor with an open, airy feel and views to the yacht harbor, the Coronado Bridge and, in the distance, the mountains east of San Diego. Decorated in a French Country motif, the room featured flowers, tasteful paintings and floral bed quilts with matching drapes. Almost the size of a suite, this room was furnished with classic furniture reproductions befitting the era in which the house was built.

Downstairs, the Glorietta Bay Inn features a music room, with grand piano, in which guests can enjoy their complimentary breakfast of pastries, cereal, breads and juices.

The beach is just across the street from the inn and, if you follow Orange Avenue just a few steps east, you'll find Coronado's colorful downtown where it's easy to spend hours getting a feel for life on the island.

For more information on the Glorietta Bay Inn, phone 619-435-3101 or visit www.gloriettabayinn.com.

OTHER DESTINATIONS: If a romantic getaway is your idea of a California vacation, also check out our articles on San Luis Obispo County, a romantic Central Coast getaway, Dana Point and Napa Valley.



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