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Unusual getaways

For something a little different, try these

By CARY ORDWAY

We all get a little bored at times with the usual vacation or getaway fare — lots of shopping, dining, sightseeing — and the best cure for that is to keep your eyes open for the unique and unusual, which you´ll have no trouble finding in the state of California.

Included here are three of the more unusual activities we´ve experienced on our California getaways. Whether you´re going north, south or to the middle part of the state, you´ll find something here to put on the list for your next tour through the Golden State.

Duffy boats

For a unique on-the-water experience, check out the Duffy boats that you can navigate around Southern California's Balboa Island. The island is located in Newport Beach where accommodations, restaurants and shopping are all top-drawer.

The island itself has a tiny, but busy Main Street — actually it's called Marine Avenue — which is just a few short blocks with about 70 shops and restaurants to explore. This little example of Small Town Americana offers a wide selection of shops in all price ranges as well as several boutiques and galleries. The visitors who browse this street are a combination of couples and families with an unusually high percentage of style mavens — which is what you expect in Newport Beach and other nearby beach communities where expensive clothes and fancy cars are just part of the lifestyle.

One of the best ways to enjoy Balboa Island is to get out on the water. If you're not familiar with them, Duffy boats are made locally and are specifically designed to take a group of people out on the water in total comfort and luxury for simple harbor cruising. The 21-foot boat we rented could accommodate 10 adults with plush bench seats on each side of the boat with table tops available in the middle for drinks or snacks. The boat was entirely shaded — which came in handy on this hot summer day — but had plenty of open areas on the sides to enjoy the view.

Visitors with little or no boating experience needn't worry — like our Duffy attendant told us at the dock: "This will be like driving a golf cart." The convenient forward/reverse throttle made it easy to go just the right speed for docking or any other maneuvers that might be necessary out on the calm waters of the harbor.

When we pushed away from the dock, our Duffy opened up a whole new panorama that offered picture-postcard harbor views in every direction. As we made our way down the channel we observed the "best of the best" Balboa homes — the ones that were out on the water, often with 60 or 80-foot luxury yachts moored at their own private docks.

After a couple of hours it was time to return our boat to the dock where the attendant was on hand to grab our boat as we glided effortlessly into the reception area. The experience had given us a new look at Balboa Island, and a fun afternoon on the water.

For more information on renting a Duffy boat, call (949) 645-6812 or visit www.duffyboats.com.

San Francisco Segways

If walking or driving the streets of San Francisco is not quite enough adventure for you, try joining the growing number of people who are seeing Bay area sights while balancing on board a Segway, that two-wheeled electric vehicle that was once hailed as the future of all personal travel. Not only will you see tourist landmarks, but you'll learn a new skill and face just enough of a challenge to keep you, well — on your toes.

The Segway resembles in some ways an old two-wheel push lawnmower, except this device allows you to step right onto it. What makes it work are five virtual gyroscopes that sense what way you are leaning and then "tell" the wheels to turn in the direction and speed you want to go.

The San Francisco and Sausalito Electric Tour Company offers two-hour tours to various tourist sights leaving from their Fisherman's Wharf location.

Understand you don't just show up, hop on a Segway and head out for the nearest attractions. Before you fly solo, there is 30 to 45 minutes of instruction, including a brief check-out to make sure you really do know how to go forward, turn and, most importantly, stop. The good news is your training time is not deducted from your tour time.

Segway riders are taught how to power up the Segway, how to read the display lights to make sure the vehicle is in balance, and then how to step on board, one foot at a time. From that starting point, we learned how to lean forward slightly to go forward and lean back to bring the Segway to a stop. Then it was lean left or right on the handlebars to turn — which, by the way, the Segway does on a dime.

Most people in our class of 20 were picking all of this up quickly, and soon there we were, with our helmets and very unfashionable yellow safety vests, following our instructor in a single-file line out onto the street like so many baby ducks following their mother. Soon we were off the road in Aquatic Park where we stopped on an open, wide concrete pathway to practice our maneuvering. After a few minutes of that, it was time for graduation -- "Momma Duck" (aka Carla Plante) told us we now could change our speed governors from five miles per hour to 10, which was not too far from the Segway's top speed of 12.5 miles per hour.

Soon, our group of about eight riders was traveling single-file not only along paths and walkways, but on major roadways with real cars and trucks. Carla carefully led the way through all kinds of traffic, up and down hills and to several famous San Francisco waterfront locations. From Aquatic Park we rode to Marina Green, then over to the Palace of Fine Arts and the Exploratorium. Our route back took us through the Marina District.

The sights and views in this part of San Francisco are great, but if you're like us, you'll be focusing as much on mastering the Segway as viewing the scenery.

For more information on touring the Bay area by Segway, phone 415-474-3130 or visit www.electrictourcompany.com.

Underground California

We love to explore the many historical attractions near Sonora, Angels Camp and other small towns along Highway 49. Between Angels Camp and the Columbia State Historical Park we came across a unique diversion for those who want an unforgettable experience. We stopped to visit Moaning Cavern, about four miles east of Angels Camp, where you have the chance to walk 100 feet down a spiral staircase into one of the largest caverns in the state. At one time, it was just a hole in the ground that was first discovered by local Indians who would hear a moaning sound coming from the opening. Some would accidentally step into the hole and plunge to their deaths.

When Moaning Cavern was later discovered to be a giant underground cave, many human remains were found. A new opening was cut to allow for the insertion of the staircase and, today, visitors have the choice of taking the staircase or a more adventurous 165-foot rope rappel. If that's still not enough for you, guided tours are offered into the undeveloped and unlighted portions of the cave using lighted helmets and ropes. We chose Option A - the staircase - but there is still something unsettling about being underground in a natural cavern that would be big enough to place the Statue of Liberty inside.

The steep descent and climb back out of the Moaning Cavern have not deterred the thousands of visitors who are only too anxious to explore the mysteries underneath Calaveras County. In fact, there are several other opportunities in the area to go underground, including the California Cavern near Mountain Ranch and Mercer Caverns near Murphys.

While at Moaning Cavern, you might want to check out the new 1,500-foot zip lines. These twin zip lines allow visitors to "race" each other at speeds up to 40 miles per hour over the treetops.

Visitors cross a 60-foot long sky bridge to get to the launch tower, and then they are strapped into a full-body climbing harness and rigged to the cable. You just step off the platform and you're speeding to the landing tour a quarter mile away. For more information on Moaning Cavern, call 209-736-2708 or visit www.caverntours.com.

Duffy boat photo by Cary Ordway; Segway photo courtesy Electric Tour Company

OTHER DESTINATIONS: Be sure to check out other California Weekend articles on Laguna Beach, La Jolla and Coronado.



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