If you're looking for a last-minute Valentine's Day gift, don't overlook the gift of travel. The beauty of giving a trip is that you get two chances to make a lasting impression on your Significant Other: 1/ when you give the gift, and 2/ when you use the gift.
You don't necessarily have to use your Valentine's lodging on Valentine's weekend. In fact, you'll probably get a better choice of accommodations and rates by booking your getaway for a weekend that is less busy. The best places fill up fast for Valentine's Day.
Whenever you end up going, it's important to make the right choice – you want something memorable, not just something you can get a good deal on. Sometimes, if you're lucky, you get both. In any event, we've hand-picked three experiences that we think would be ideal for a Valentine's Day gift.
Dana Point is just a 90-minute drive south of Los Angeles, yet seems like a completely different world with its coastline vistas, marina, quiet neighborhoods and plenty of nearby shopping.
Our base of operations was the Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort and Spa, an impressive resort built on the cliffs overlooking the Dana Point Harbor. All of the services and amenities you would expect were there – a couple of resort-style restaurants, pools, Jacuzzis, tennis, a 2,500-square-foot fitness center and a modern spa offering a host of services including massages, body treatments and salon services.
This 376-room resort had the feel of a comfortable beach hotel you might find in Hawaii. While the beach in this instance is a 15-minute walk, the hotel's spacious rooms are done in bright, well-coordinated tropical colors. On the walls are five-foot-high paintings of boats and beaches and surfers, all reminding you just where you are. If you're fortunate – as we were – to be in one of the coastal view rooms, your private lanai will overlook a portion of the harbor and coastline. This view probably will vary quite a lot from room to room, so if that's a major reason for staying here, be sure to be specific when you make your reservations.
The grounds also are reminiscent of some Hawaii properties – lots of well manicured palm trees and walkways on a tropically well endowed 42 acres. That acreage includes a park adjacent to the hotel where you can find rolling lawns, picnic tables, walking paths and great ocean views from the cliffs.
Any visit to Dana Point will involve some time exploring the marina. It's not just a bunch of boats – a whole village has grown up dockside to offer tourist shopping and places to enjoy lunch or dinner. Some 25 shops and 20 restaurants are open in Dana Wharf, Mariners Village and Mariners Alley. But the boats are a big part of it – it's fun strolling along the docks, daydreaming about owning one of these beautiful craft.
For those not content to stay on the shore, there are charter fishing companies at Dana Point that will take you out fishing – or just out to see the annual migration of whales. If you're able to spend an extra day or two, the Catalina Express offers direct service to Catalina for a day, or for an overnight stay on the island.
For more information on the Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort and Spa, call (949) 661-5000 or visit www.lagunacliffs.com.
Napa Valley Wine Train
This Valentine's choice is not a hotel, but rather an experience you'll never forget while visiting the beautiful Napa Valley. Whether you make a day trip from the Bay area, or spend a few days at one of the local resort hotels, the Wine Train is a trip that is sure to wow your Significant Other.
It's fitting that the Napa Valley Wine Train would be one of the most popular tourist attractions in a place that is the definition of elegance. And the visitor who boards the Wine Train gets a little taste of pampered rail travel – think Orient Express – for a fraction of what it would cost for the real thing.
We stayed the night before in San Francisco, but we were still able to make our way to the Wine Train's station in Napa by about 10:30 a.m. to board the lunch train. The Wine Train also offers a dinner excursion but that was fully booked when we called for reservations weeks ahead. The lunch train, though, has its advantages: the entire three-hour ride is in daylight no matter the time of year, and it costs a little less.
Once on board, it's clear that the Wine Train has pulled out all the stops to make this as luxurious as possible. We settled down into plush chairs facing one another with a table in between. Others in our car sat in comfortable over-stuffed swivel chairs positioned side by side so that guests could constantly view the passing scenery or easily chat with one another. This particular rail car was styled in red and gold with natural wood accents, giving a sense of luxury and feeling quite different from a typical passenger car on, say, Amtrak.
This is a historic rail car and, in fact, there is quite a history behind this train and railroad. The rail line was first built in 1864 by San Francisco's first millionaire, Samuel Brannan, and was used to take visitors to his new spa resort called "Calistoga." In 1885, Southern Pacific bought the Napa Valley Railroad, which provided regular passenger service to the Napa Valley until the 1930's. It was used for freight for awhile after that, but it was not until 1987 that a group of concerned citizens founded the Napa Valley Wine train and purchased locomotives and restored 1910-era Pullman rail cars to provide the new service.
During our three hours on board, we were treated to waves of meal and beverage service starting with wine (not included in your meal price, by the way), appetizers, salad, a main course – which during our trip was a choice between salmon and a beef entrée – and dessert. Everything was exquisitely prepared and the presentations rivaled what you would find at an expensive gourmet restaurant.
To learn more about the Napa Valley Wine Train, call 800-427-4124 or go to www.winetrain.com.
Residents of both southern and northern California will find that the coastal city of Cambria is in range for a special romantic getaway.
If long walks along a driftwood-strewn beach are your idea of a trip to the sea, then Moonstone Beach in Cambria is probably a good candidate for your next outing to the California Coast. Cambria is a place where you can spend hours each day walking – on the beach, on the boardwalk and through a quaint, historic artist's colony chock-full of art galleries as well as unique shops and good restaurants.
Cambria is in San Luis Obispo County and located in an area that gives visitors several options for short daytrips. The wineries are just a few miles east, Hearst Castle just a few miles north. Some of California's best beaches are a short drive to the south. And San Luis Obispo is just a few miles south and inland.
On our most recent trip to Cambria we discovered a charming group of cottages on Moonstone Beach that seem especially well suited to honeymoons or romantic getaways. There are just three "Moonstone Cottages" built on a small lot directly across the road from some of the best areas to explore on Moonstone Beach (so named because of the semi-precious agate and jasper stones that can be found in the sand). The cottages are not part of a big resort so you won't be sharing your getaway with other travelers. Aside from seeing their vehicles parked in front of their cottages, we never even saw our neighbors the entire time we were there.
Each of the cottages is perfectly decorated with a lot of attention to detail. They're not huge, but quite adequate for a couple and have plenty of room to move around. We stayed in the Seascape, the cottage closest to the ocean with the best view, which included a fireplace and mini-kitchen with a refrigerator, microwave, sink and counter space.
Outside, a well-maintained English garden added to the storybook feel and a small patio, chairs and table were available for simply sitting and watching the ocean surf and the visitors walking the nearby beach trails. A mature cypress tree framed the cottage, completing the illusion this little lodging is straight out of Hansel and Gretel.
For more information on Moonstone Cottages, call 805-927-1366 or go to www.moonstonecottages.com.
Photos by Cary and Sandi Ordway