Three of California's most scenic weekend getaways
From the mountains to the seashore to the deserts, the state of California offers some of the most majestic scenery in the country. If it's a spectacular setting you are looking for then check out the breathtaking scenery at these three California destinations:
Springtime is prime time at Death Valley, where the wildflowers drip splashes of color on Nature's vivid canvas. The sun and sand combine with unforgettable rock formations to make you feel like you're visiting a different world. While it can get hot in the summer, springtime temps are warm but comfortable.
Headquarters for our visit was the Furnace Creek Inn, an upscale, historic hotel that was opened in 1927. Originally just a small resort, the adobe bricks were hand-made by local Native Americans, and the resort was built on a hill with panoramic views of Death Valley and the 11,000-foot mountains nearby. By 1935, the hotel had 66 rooms altogether and was on its way to attracting larger numbers of tourists to this unusual destination.
After a restful sleep in our well-appointed suite, we awakened to Death Valley at its finest. Rays of peek-a-boo sunshine added warm colors and sparkle to what clearly was a magnificent desert landscape. It was as if Nature was illuminating the desert, the rock formations and the surrounding mountains with a set of stage lights that changed the coloration with each passing cloud.
Experiencing this for the first time, we could understand why Death Valley has captured the hearts of so many visitors who sense an almost spiritual connection with this land. If someone suggests you should get your head examined for going to a place called "Death" Valley, the truth is this just might be a place to get your head straight. It's completely unique.
There is a lot to see up and down the valley — after all, Death Valley National Park consists of 3.3 million acres. Just in case you wondered, there are 900 species of plants, six types of fish, five amphibians, 36 reptiles and 51 mammals that are native to the region. And that's not counting the 346 species of birds that migrate through the area.
In between drives to explore the valley, we made time to just relax and enjoy the Furnace Creek Inn. With spectacular, carefully manicured grounds and an expansive swimming pool that is heated year-round, the inn could be located anywhere and be an attraction unto itself. We enjoyed the many meandering pathways through the groves of palm trees, as well as the many different viewpoints the property has of Death Valley. Tennis courts were at the ready. Horseback riding was nearby. Just about everything you need for the perfect California vacation.
The rooms and suites at the Furnace Creek Inn include high quality furnishings and antiques that seem to mirror the historic and ornate hotel lobby. A fine dining room and restaurant are on property and the feeling you take away from the resort is one of elegance and charm.
For more information on Furnace Creek Inn and Ranch, phone (760) 786-2345 or visit www.furnacecreekresort.com.
When the producers of TV's Murder She Wrote were looking for the perfect stand-in for the fictional New England coastal village of Cabot Cove, they found it about 3,000 miles this side of the East Coast in the Northern California community of Mendocino. So it's no mystery that, with all of the TV exposure, Mendocino has become one of the most popular getaways on the California coast.
When you visit this town for the first time, the seascape just reaches out and touches your spirit. It's not just Mendocino — the entire stretch of coastline heading north into Mendocino yields view after view, each a little more spectacular than the last one. Driving this part of Highway 101, you really do have to make an extra effort to focus on your driving, lest you be lulled into some sort of meditative trance.
Mendocino is perched high on a bluff overlooking the vast Pacific. It's not a big town — it's just what you might imagine a New England fishing village to look like. A mixture of Cape Cod architecture and historic storefronts gives the town an almost theme-town kind of appearance. Windswept trees, rolling grassy hills and steep cliffs are footsteps from the Village by way of several miles of coastal trails that are perfect for hiking and photography. Down below are remote beaches and the cragged, rocky shoreline.
In the Village you'll find a variety of eclectic shops — unusual records, one-of-a-kind musical instruments, vintage toys, you name it -- mingled with historic homes, inns and fine restaurants.
We spent the night at the popular MacCallum House bed and breakfast inn, which has a strong connection with Mendocino history. The home was built in 1882 by Alexander MacCallum, whose father-in-law was one of the town's earliest settlers. Our stay at MacCallum House was quiet and restful, and gave us a great chance to just walk down the block to visit the local merchants or to hike on over to the headlands where the trails offer breathtaking views of the coastline and the town itself.
We stayed in the "Upper Barn Suite," a second-floor unit in a building across the lawn from the main house. This is the largest room on the MacCallum property and enjoys views of the ocean. The unit features a private deck as well as a stone fireplace, wet bar, refrigerator and a large living room in addition to the bed, bath and kitchen areas. Furnishings are generally antique — or approaching antique.
Of course, dining at MacCallum House is a big part of the treat and, fortunately, we elected to have dinner there in addition to the breakfast that normally comes with your room. Both meals were well up to expectations. Breakfast, for example, might include a Butternut Squash Omelet or Red Potatoes with Cremini Mushrooms or, the entree we tried, Lupe's Breakfast Burrito, a delicious combination of apple-turkey sausage, scrambled eggs, white cheddar, onions, peppers and salsa on a fresh tortilla. Most of the dinner menu items highlight entrees that are regional and fresh.
For more information on MacCallum House, go to www.maccallumhouse.com or phone 800-609-0492.
California is blessed with several top-notch ski resorts and, so often, we just don't think about them once we get past ski season. But for those who love alpine scenery and the fragrance of a summertime forest, ski areas are even more appealing in warm weather.
A case in point is Squaw Valley, a former Olympics ski venue known for heavy snows throughout the winter months and seemingly endless terrain to challenge every kind of skier or boarder. But in summer, those same mountainsides turn into lush green meadows and colorful flower fields where scenic trails take vacationers just about as far away from everyday city life as they'll ever get.
It's almost a shock to the senses to visit Squaw Valley in the dead of winter and then return on a glorious summer day. The buildings look about the same but everything else has changed. What was covered in a blanket of deep snow has now emerged to offer a vibrant mountain panorama that is painting-perfect.
The cross-country ski area we visited during winter at the Resort at Squaw Creek was now transformed into a world-class golf course. No ice skating rink this time of year - just swimming pools and hot tubs to rival the best resort on the Mexican Riviera. And behind it all, the scenic splendor of the mountain that Squaw Valley skiers have come to know and love.
We stayed at the Resort at Squaw Creek, a high-end but reasonably priced resort hotel comprised of 238 condo units of various sizes. These totally upgraded accommodations have more the feeling of a vacation home than a hotel room.
We can attest to the upgrades and luxury condo feel - amenities like flat screen televisions and fireplaces are included along with fully furnished modern kitchens with granite counter-tops. Our condo was stylishly decorated in brown and beige tones with everything in it brand-new. And, like many of the units at the resort, ours included a stunning view of the mountains that are part of the Squaw Valley ski area.
For information on accommodations at the Resort at Squaw Creek, visit www.squawcreek.com or phone 1-800-327-3353.
Photos, from top: Furnace Creek Inn; Mendocino is perched above the ocean; view from Resort at Squaw Valley
Photos by CARY ORDWAY and courtesy Furnace Creek Inn