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Unique Getaways

Three California trips for long-lasting memories


With hard-earned vacation time often in short supply, travelers want to make the most of every weekend or vacation they get. Sometimes that means trying something completely different - a getaway so unique that it will become Topic A around the Monday morning water cooler. California is blessed with many such unique vacation adventures, and here are three of our favorites:

Luxury tent camping

If your memories of tent camping are crawling into a pup tent, zipping yourself into a sleeping bag, and then writhing all night on a hard piece of ground, we have good news: You can now get the back-to-nature tent camping experience but with a twist that is sure to appeal to all those who swore off tents back in their early 20's.

About 17 miles west of Santa Barbara a place called El Capitan Canyon offers safari-style tents that have been outfitted with real beds, electricity and other conveniences you would expect in a hotel room. The tents are real tents, all right, and zip up just like the ones from your younger years, but they're set up on a permanent wood deck that makes them feel more cabin-like, except that this still is a canvas tent.

There are 26 such tents at El Capitan Canyon — along with dozens of small cabins and yurts — and each one measures 12 feet by 14 feet and is furnished with either one queen bed or two double beds. You'll get bed linens and towels, a small desk, chairs, a bedside table, heating, lights — in other words, considerably more amenities than you probably remember taking with you on that backpacking trip into the Sierra Nevada.

The setting at El Capitan is quite woodsy with groves of sycamore and oak trees, although there are large open areas of grass where the kids can play as well as barbecue pits and picnic tables for each of the tents, cabins or yurts. Just a mile or so down the road is the gorgeous Pacific Ocean and El Capitan State Beach where you can picnic and swim. There are also scenic hiking trails nearby including the Bill Wallace Trail.

We should note the word "luxury" here is a relative term — compared with your every-day garden-variety campground, El Capitan is definitely a couple of notches better and the tents are much more comfortable than any tent you would set up on your own. The cabins and yurts looked cozy as well. But this is still a campground experience and reminded us in some ways of the feel you might have in one of the better RV resorts, with modern, clean bathrooms in a separate facility about a two-minute walk from most lodging units. A heated swimming pool also is available.

Besides the comfortable accommodations, a big plus for El Capitan Canyon is the on-site Canyon Market that includes an excellent sandwich shop, light groceries and other provisions for your stay. The market has "barbecue kits" available for purchase that include all the meat and fixings for hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken, fish or even tri-tip. If you do decide to do your own cooking, you'll need to pack kitchen supplies from home.

We found El Capitan Canyon to be quite enjoyable and quite different from many of the hotels and resorts we often visit. It was a way to return to our roots — that is, enjoy an outdoors experience but do it in a more civilized way with no sore backs in the morning and shower facilities close at hand to freshen up after a night in the "wilderness."

For more information, go to or phone 866-352-2729.

Fire lookout

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 have we got the place. The Morton Peak Fire Lookout books overnight stays for people just like you.

The U.S. Forest Service views the lookout rental program as a way to generate a little good PR at a time when they have to keep telling people that services may be more limited or more expensive due to tight budgets.

We reserved our night by calling the Big Bear Lake Resort Association, which handles bookings for the Morton Peak Lookout, the only such facility in Southern California that is available for rentals. The lookout actually is just at the edge of the San Bernardino Forest and, if you're coming from the Los Angeles area, it will save you about 45 minutes off the normal two-hour drive to Big Bear.

We noted that the last three miles are on a steep, rutted road but it wasn't long before we came to a small clearing on a mountain top with, as advertised, a 30-foot tower and a 14X14 "cabin" on the top. Maybe a more apt description would be an aircraft control tower on stilts, as the cabin had windows running the length of every wall, offering views in every direction.

This particular tower, elevation 4624 feet, was built in the 1930's, then burned down and rebuilt in 1960. It eventually went out of service and into disrepair as the Forest Service cut back on its paid lookout program, but was rebuilt in 2001 with a $5,000 government grant and a volunteer work force.

Soon we were ready for our night at the edge of the world. As the sun dipped slowly, the nearby mountains darkened while, at the same time, the city lights below us came alive. The juxtaposition seemed unusual — here we were perched on a mountainside all by ourselves, yet below us were the lights of nearly the entire Los Angeles basin.

The lookout is small, but comfortable for a couple or perhaps a couple with one or two small children. There are just two twin beds, but space enough to roll some blankets out onto the floor if you need to. There's no running water in the cabin, no refrigeration, no power. Cooking is restricted to the picnic table outside and you must haul in your own gas stove because fires and charcoal briquettes are not allowed.

For more information on reservations at Morton Peak Lookout, call the Big Bear Resort Association at 1-800-4-BIG-BEAR or visit

Historic paddle-wheeler

Who can resist the charm of an early 20th-century riverboat — a true paddle-wheeler that once offered prohibition-era drinking, jazz bands and gambling for its fun-loving passengers? Fortunately there's no need to travel to the Mississippi — and no, we're not talking Disneyland. The Delta King awaits your exploration dockside in Old Sacramento.

Just like passengers back in the 1920s, today's guests enjoy enchanting river views, great food and drink and a cozy stateroom unlike any other accommodation you may have experienced. But unlike those early passengers, you will have to be content with scenery that remains pretty constant. The Delta King isn't going anyplace anytime soon.

But then it doesn't need to. This historic 285-foot boat is docked along the Old Sacramento riverfront which, today, has been turned into a hip collection of good restaurants, eclectic shops and trendy night spots that draw millions of tourists and local residents alike.

The Delta King and her identical twin, the Delta Queen, were christened in 1927, the same year that the vessels began voyages between San Francisco and Sacramento. The elegance and craftsmanship are apparent the moment one enters the lobby area where the rich red oak paneling and fixtures create an impression of opulence. The dining room, too, has that feeling of classic comfort, and a wide stairway and oak banisters bring to mind those images of the grand stairway in the Titanic.

We found the rooms to be small, but no smaller than expected for a stateroom on board an authentic riverboat. Our room had a queen bed on one side, a single bed on the other, and a tiny bathroom — with an unusual six-foot high toilet tank -- in the middle. Color TV with cable was available on the queen bed side.

For history buffs, Old Sacramento also has a number of museums including the California State Railroad Museum, the California Military Museum, Discovery Museum History Center, the Old Sacramento Interpretive Center, the Old Sacramento Schoolhouse Museum and the Wells Fargo History Museum.

For more information on the Delta King, phone 1-800-825-5464 or go to

Photos: Safari tent at El Capitan Canyon; Morton Peak Fire Lookout; Delta King riverboat

Photos by Cary and Sandi Ordway, except for tent photo courtesy of El Capitan Canyon

OTHER DESTINATIONS: If a Southern California beach city is your idea of a great California vacation, be sure to check out other California Weekend articles on Laguna Beach, La Jolla and Coronado.

Click here for more great California vacation ideas!

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