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Romantic

Best getaways are all about the experience

By CARY ORDWAY

If you're planning a special romantic getaway anytime soon, be sure to plan well ahead. Whether it's Valentine's Day or any special occasion, don't delay -- if you do, the best getaways will already be booked and, even if you do get a room, it will be the one that looks out on the parking lot.

Most romantic inns, spa resorts and other special destinations have some type of romantic package, so be sure to ask for specials - usually they include such "free" amenities as champagne in your room, chocolates, flowers - you get the idea. Below, we focus more on the getaway experience, reasoning you can always pick up a bottle of champagne on the way. These are a few of our favorite romantic experiences:

El Encanto Hotel

What better place to spend a romantic weekend than Santa Barbara? Nestled between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, this city has scenic beauty, arts, culture, fine restaurants, historical missions and the El Encanto Hotel and Garden Villas. The El Encanto was once a retreat for Hollywood stars - the likes of Clark Gable, Carole Lombard and Hedy LaMarr to name just a few. Decades later, the El Encanto is renowned locally for its fine restaurant (voted "Most Romantic" restaurant in Santa Barbara 10 years in a row), but is still a bit of a secret hideaway for those staying overnight.

You reach the El Encanto by ascending the tree-lined roads skirting the hills above the city. One could not help comparing this with the Italian Riviera or some other seaside area where stately homes and historic architecture blend with centuries-old vegetation to create a colorful mosaic worthy of a master's painting.

From the outside, the El Encanto looks like it is all part or this neighborhood of exquisite Mediterranean-style homes, most with their tile roofs, and ornamental windows and terraces. The hotel is betrayed only by a modest 1930's-era sign pointing the way to its secluded location, but it soon becomes apparent this is one of the best Santa Barbara hotels.

The El Encanto's fragrances are striking. Jasmine is immediately noticeable as you begin to sense the care that has gone into choosing just the right botany for this location. It's a uniquely Santa Barbara mix of bougainvillea, poppies and all variety of plants and flowers including several different types of palms and flowering trees. Nearby are rose gardens, a lilly pond framed by a pergola, some small waterfalls and a wishing well.

The various floor plans include suites and units with multiple bedrooms. Our particular one-bedroom cottage was spacious, decorated in lighter tones and had an airy feeling, even though it was older architecture.

A trip to the El Encanto is all about the quiet. No freeway traffic nearby, no crowds, no need for hustle and bustle -- just contented birds, a gentle breeze and the slight ruffle of the palms or birds of paradise.

For more information on the El Encanto, phone (805) 687-5000 or visit www.elencantohotel.com.

Pierpointe Inn

Also on the Central California coast, is the Pierpointe Inn, located in the small beach town of Cayucos. Our first clue that this was a special place was the guestbook We started reading through two years' worth of entries and began to blush. Not that it was X-rated, but let's just say if those walls could talk, they'd have a few stories to tell.

The Pierpointe Inn is a bathrobes-in-the-closet, chocolates-on-the-pillow kind of place, replete with the oversized whirlpool tub that, on high speed, pounds every one of your aching muscles back into shape. Special touches include plush pillow-top mattresses with elegant duvet style bedspreads and matching decorator pillows and shams. There is a hand-painted side table and two fabric-covered side chairs as well as a Queen Anne armchair with matching ottoman. Primp yourself in the freestanding full-length mirror. If you need a fireplace, you have one.

Of course, the inn is just part of the experience here because a wide, enticing beach is right out your door. Stroll the pier where the requisite seagulls will be out in force, adding to the overall ambience. Explore the small-town main street, where you'll find many delightful shops and some excellent restaurants.

But best and foremost, you'll get the feeling here that you are pretty much alone - just the right atmosphere for those little love chats you and your significant other will want to enjoy on any romantic getaway. It will be one of those California beach vacations you will long remember.

For more information, call the inn at (805) 995-3200 or visit www.pierpointeinn.com.

Historic Mission Inn

If Riverside's Historic Mission Inn is good enough for Ronald Reagan's honeymoon, it might well deserve your consideration as a romantic getaway. The 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 an inn that opened in 1903.

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. But this was only the beginning - the Historic Mission Inn is like a fun house for those who marvel at historic and creative architecture.

The rooms and suites - which offer many different floor plans -- are almost as interesting architecturally as the inn's exterior. The sitting area in our suite was appointed with antiques -- some more elegant than others - and the bedroom featured a comfortable four-poster bed. Outside the suite there was a series of stairways, walkways and catwalks that offered a variety of amazing views of the inn's special architecture.

The inn features a year-round heated swimming pool and jacuzzi area for relaxation but, if you want the ultimate, Kelly's Spa will pamper you until you won't want to go home. A recent addition to the Historic Mission Inn, Kelly's features a variety of scrubs, polishes, body wraps, therapeutic baths, massages and facials -- making the inn one of California's most unique spa resorts.

Just outside the hotel, you can walk to several museums. Nearby are the Riverside Municipal Museum, Riverside Art Museum, California Museum of Photography and the Riverside Ballet Theater. There is even a museum right in the Mission Inn.

For more information on the Historic Mission Inn, call 800-843-7755 or visit www.missioninn.com.

Meadowood Resort

Napa Valley is another one of those idyllic locations that seems as though it was created for a romantic holiday. One of the area's most romantic places to stay is Meadowood, an impressive resort tucked along one edge of the Valley near downtown St. Helena. It's like a country estate where, once you go through the security gate, you enter a lush world of green lawns, rolling hillsides, meandering trails and forests so thick they might as well be in the Sierras. Strategically positioned here and there are attractive resort buildings that seem to add to the area's ambiance rather than detract from it.

We especially enjoyed our Meadowood suite, one of the newer accommodations at the resort, and situated on one of the forested hillsides. It gave us the feeling of being in a luxurious vacation home in the woods - cozy, yet spacious with its high ceilings and open floor plan. A full living room included a fireplace, an attractive wall case, a couch and extra easy chairs for guests. The bedroom was especially decorative, featuring a window seat and bay windows. Thick white robes, down comforters, state-of-the-art home entertainment - these and many other upscale amenities were all there.

A short walk from our suite was the recreation area - with its 25-yard lap pool, family pool and expansive lawn -- and the Health Spa, where guests can enjoy skincare, body treatments and massage therapies. Fitness trainers and private yoga instructors are waiting for your call. Fitness is never far from your mind at Meadowood, where you'll also find saunas, steam rooms, seven tennis courts, hiking/biking trails and two championship croquet lawns. It's really one of the best spa resorts in California.

For more information on Meadowood, call (800) 458-8080 or visit www.meadowood.com.

(Editor's note: CaliforniaWeekend.com is California's leading source of information on getaway travel in the Golden State. Visit the site often to find the latest getaway specials, a comprehensive list of resorts and lodgings and to use the Getaway Machine travel calculator to match up your needs and preferences with exactly the right lodgings and location.)

OTHER DESTINATIONS: If a romantic getaway is your kind of California vacation, check out other California Weekend articles on the Montage Resort, La Quinta Resort and Mendocino.


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