Learn your lesson
Historic locations make fun getaways

So many getaway choices, so little time. This winter season why not consider taking advantage of the rich history the Golden State has to offer and visit a historical destination that will be both fun and informative? Take the kids along and give them a weekend history lesson or, if you want to travel as a couple, visit a classic hotel where you and your Significant Other can study each other in between your visits to nearby historical attractions.

Here are three excellent choices right here in California:

Monterey Bay

If you hadn't noticed, California has a decidedly Spanish influence and the city of Monterey is like the epicenter of that early culture. It was way back in 1602 that the Viceroy of New Spain – a guy named Monterey, not so coincidentally – asked Sebastian Viscaino to explore the western shore of California. Viscaino landed in what is now Monterey Harbor and named his new discovery after the viceroy.

Fast forward to 1770 and the city of Monterey was founded. Until 1822, California remained under Spanish control with Monterey as its capital. Today visitors can tour some of the original buildings which are clustered around the marina and the old Fishermans Wharf, footsteps from busy downtown Monterey.

Checking into the Portola Hotel and Spa, we were pleasantly surprised that our hotel choice had landed us right next to the historic district. A quick trip to the room to drop off bags and change clothes and we were on our way, exploring California history on foot using a well-designed tour map of historic Monterey and the many buildings that have survived since the city's earliest inhabitation.

The Monterey History and Art Association has laid out what they call the Path of History that is marked by brown and yellow round disks appearing on the sidewalks. There are several museums along the way and a good place to start is the Pacific House where you can glimpse what life was like here for the American Indians. The museum is part of a broad plaza-like park called Monterey State Historic Park, where you'll also find the Monterey History and Maritime Museum.

The Maritime Museum holds over 50,000 artifacts, textiles, costumes, photos and historic documents. Exhibit areas highlight the Rumsien/Ohlone Indians, Spanish explorers, the shipwreck of the USS Macon, the area's military presence and the Hotel Del Monte which was the major tourist destination of its day. Nearby you'll find the Custom House where international goods once awaited inspection. Also along the walking path are Colton Hall, the first civic building and where they held the constitutional convention for California, and the Presidio of Monterey Museum.

Of course this historic area adjacent to the Portola Hotel is just part of the history that seems to be waiting around every corner in this city by the sea. Who doesn't recall, for example, the Cannery Row of John Steinbeck's novel by that name that detailed so completely the area's historic fishing industry. This place was once the Sardine Capital of the World and visitors to Monterey can still get a sense of it today in a few places where run-down buildings give this place the feel of a fish factory. But today the area is known for its shopping, restaurants and oceanfront hotels and has become something of a tourist mecca.

To learn more about the Monterey Peninsula, phone (831) 626-1424 or visit www.gomonterey.org. For more information on the Portola Hotel and Spa, phone 888-222-5851 or visit www.portolahotel.com.

Historic Mission Inn

If you're like many California people, the most you know about Riverside is that it's a seeming metropolis that passes underneath the I-215 freeway in that vast extension of back-to-back cities that stretch eastward from Los Angeles. If you try to think about one distinguishing characteristic, you probably can't.

But get on down off the freeway and you'll find one of the most unique getaway experiences in the state -- an experience that transports you to Early California through architecture and through the efforts of city fathers to preserve Riverside's past. Smack in the middle of it all is an inn so grandiose that presidents have married there, honeymooned there and even planted trees there.

It's always a good sign when the place you'll be staying has a street named after it -- and so locating our destination was especially easy when we took the Mission Inn Road exit off the freeway and found ourselves instantly surrounded by historic Spanish architecture on every street corner. We noticed that churches, museums and historic storefronts are all within walking distance of one another and, towering above it all, was our weekend getaway -- the Historic Mission Inn.

Just inside the ivy-covered adobe archway, we walked through a courtyard of lush landscaping before getting our first glimpse of the majestic lobby area. Spectacular chandeliers and giant wood beams complemented the elegant flower-patterned carpet to create a sense that this building was at once luxurious and historic. The lobby's grand piano is the only piano made by Steinway for the1876 Centennial. But this was only the beginning -- the Historic Mission Inn is like a fun house for those who marvel at historic and creative architecture. Around every corner there is something unique or fascinating.

The Historic Mission Inn at first gives the feeling it might have been a real mission or monastery, what with its 239 guest rooms, including 28 suites. But upon closer reading of its history, this palace-like inn was actually built by Riverside town father Frank Miller, who had taken the original Glenwood Tavern, built in 1874, and converted it to a small inn that opened in 1903. Over the years Miller continued to expand the inn using the popular Mission Revival architecture so prevalent in California, but blending architectural styles and ornamental details from the Southwest U.S. as well as several Mediterranean countries -- and of course the California missions.

The inn closed for seven years in the late 80's for a $55 million renovation and then reopened in 1992 to rave reviews. Today, the inn is situated on an entire city block and has a total of 320,000 square feet. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a State of California Historic Landmark. President Nixon was married here, President Reagan honeymooned here and President Teddy Roosevelt planted a tree on its grounds. There is even a chair still on the property that was built for 300-pound William Howard Taft, also a visitor to the inn. Of course, dozens of movie stars and other dignitaries also have spent time at the inn, and its unusual architecture has served as the backdrop for a string of movies dating back to 1913.

For more information on the Historic Mission Inn, call 800-843-7755 or visit www.missioninn.com. For more information on the city of Riverside, phone 909-683-7100.

USS Iowa

If you're looking for a chance to walk through history, you could hardly do better than Southern California's latest tourist attraction – the battleship USS Iowa, a vessel with a World War II pedigree as well as a rich history fighting America's enemies for many decades.

Visiting a warship like the USS Iowa is a perfect family adventure and appeals to Dad's fascination with all things military yet has enough wow factor to please the kids. Even Mom can appreciate the ship's contribution to history and will grow more and more fascinated as she gets an up-close look at how our fighting men live when they are on the high seas. The USS Iowa was built in 1940 and had a long tenure serving our country – 50 years in all. It was once called the “World's Greatest Naval Ship” mainly because of her big guns, speed, armor and the modern components.

The USS Iowa is in San Pedro, practically next door to the Los Angeles cruise ship terminals. It's a floating museum that has been carefully planned to give visitors a good look at many of the ship's features including the interior living and working spaces and the weapons systems.

Along the tour route, you'll have museum representatives giving you information on what exactly you're seeing and they'll answer any questions you have. There are also descriptions and explanations posted in the various areas of the ship as well as a number of displays for you to review at the end of the tour. And the tour exits through a gift store with lots of interesting merchandise related to the USS Iowa.

Be forewarned this is not a tour for someone who has mobility problems. There are many stairs -- most of them straight up and down -- that connect the various decks of the ship. We noticed one senior citizen having to literally be pushed up the first set of stairs and then offered a seat where one of the tour representatives advised against continuing any further. But if you can climb a 10-foot ladder you'll be okay – there are plenty of things to hang on to and, while there are many different sets of stairs, none of them has a lot of steps.

The tour also is linear in the sense that once you start on the tour you're either going to go all the way through it or all the way back to get off the ship. You can't pick and choose sections you want to see although you can spend a little longer time in some areas if you prefer. When we were there it was a busy Sunday so it was like following a line of people through a building with many rooms, nooks and crannies – and stairs.

One of the most interesting spots we noticed was the ship's bridge and command center where it's fascinating to see that even back in World War II, the ship's designers had designed a safe room with thick steel armor where the captain and other officers could retreat and still operate the ship while being protected from enemy fire. The line slowed down quite a bit in this area where visitors took their time to observe the controls and enjoy the forward view from the tower.

Another highlight was where the tour route takes visitors to the forward section of the bow, past two of the ship's three incredibly big gun turrets, each housing three long 16-inch guns. If you're taking pictures, the money shot is right from the bow looking back at these guns. It's also interesting to note that one of these turrets was involved in a 1989 explosion that killed 47 sailors – an event that was big news all over the world.

For more information on the USS Iowa, please visit www.pacificbattleship.com or phone 1-877-446-9261.

Photos, from top: Historic building on Cannery Row; Historic Mission Inn unique arhitecture; gun turret on USS Iowa

Photos by CARY ORDWAY

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