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Active Outdoors: Hiking, Biking, Water Play
These California places are perfect for a getaway if you want to be active, with lots of places to hike, bike and run around.
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- Catalina Island: Very popular for diving, snorkeling, hiking and backcountry camping.
- Death Valley National Park: Lots of interesting valleys for hiking (in winter when it's cooler), sand dunes to climb, back roads to explore or go horseback riding at Furnace Creek Resort.
- Half Moon Bay: Plenty of beaches for all kinds of activities, ocean kayaking, hiking, horseback riding along the coast.
- Healdsburg: Wine country back roads around Healdsburg are especially popular for bicycling.
- Lake Shasta Houseboat Getaway: You can take your house with you anywhere on the lake and use it to go fishing, swim and just hang out.
- Lake Tahoe: Snow sports in winter, water sports, mountain biking and hiking the rest of the year including the Tahoe Rim Trail.
- Mono County: Great, uncrowded backcountry for hiking, good lakes for boating, fishing, winter snow skiing at Mammoth.
- Morro Bay: Great for kayaking in the protected bay, especially for beginners.
- Point Reyes and West Marin County: A big park with lots of varied terrain for hiking, good beaches, birding.
- Russian River: Great water play along the river
- Sacramento Delta Houseboat Weekend: The delta near Stockton is one of the best places for a weekend on the water.
Santa Monica: Lots of sun and sand - and an oceanfront path that's 25 miles long.
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks: Mountain trails for hiking and a couple of caves to explore.
- Sequoia High Sierra Camp: Luxury camping and hiking - and easy to get to.
- Shasta Country: Mountain climbing is popular but not for the casual climber. Boating and fishing on Lake Shasta and lots of places to hike.
- Yosemite: Go hiking, climb El Capitan or Half Dome (if you know how), float in the Merced River. Snow skiing in winter.
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A beach getaway needs sand and not a location on the coast, looking down on a crescent-shaped, windblown seashore. In any of these locations, you can make your own proper, California-style Surfin' Safari.
California's Best Beach Getaways
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- Big Sur: It may be better known for its mountains-plunging-into-the-sea views, but Big Sur also has one of the state's most scenic (and unusual) beaches.
- Cayucos: Cute, small and peaceful with a pretty pier.
- Half Moon Bay: Lots of pretty beaches - and some great tide pooling spots
- Los Angeles: City meets sand at the Los Angeles beaches, with a busy beach scene and plenty of places to play or people-watch.
- Laguna Beach: Main Beach is right in the middle of town.
- La Jolla: A pretty town with a long, sloping beach and also some excellent tide pools.
- Malibu: Beautiful beaches and a great places for a scenic drive, but with a few surprises, too.
- Newport Beach: You'll find the best bodysurfing here and a nice pier to watch the fun from.
- Pismo Beach: It's so stereotypically California that you won't believe it.
- Point Reyes and West Marin County: Besides its famous lighthouse, the national seashore also has some excellent beaches, one with a rare tidefall (a waterfall that flows onto the beach).
- Redondo Beach: A city beach with lots of waterfront attractions and a fun pier filled with shops and places to eat.
- Santa Monica: Lots of sun and sand, an oceanfront path that's 25 miles long and nearby restaurants and shopping make Santa Monica one of LA's most popular beach destinations.
- San Diego: San Diego boasts California's warmest water and you'll find all kinds of beaches to choose from.
- Santa Barbara: The beach is right in town, ringed by an easy path and framed with palm trees.
- Santa Cruz: One of California's few surviving oceanfront amusement parks and surfing in season
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You'll Love California's Unique and Travel-Worthy Towns
You know what I'm talking about — those little towns that are so cute you just want to hug them. The ones you don't want to tell anyone else about to keep them from getting too crowded.
Cute Towns for California Getaways
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- Calistoga: Napa's least-visited town has an Old West feel
- Carmel: A grown-up artist's colony with unique architecture and hidden gardens
- Catalina Island: A quirky place that looks like a Mediterranean village.
- Cayucos: A nice little beach town that's "just right."
- Ojai: It settles into its valley like eggs into a bird's nest, giving credence to some people's contention that its name means "nest" in the Chumash Indian language.
- Pismo Beach: This is the quintessential beach town that we all wish we'd grown up in.
- Russian River: You'll find some of the cutest little towns in all of California along the backroads here
- Santa Ynez Valley: It's got great scenery and not just one but two cute little towns, Los Olivos and Solvang.
- Sonoma Backroads - Sebastopol and Occidental: Almost too cute for words. Sometimes we just want to hug them.
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They're fun for people of all ages, but these spots are especially good if the whole family is trying to take a break.
Ideas for a Family-Oriented Weekend Getaway
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- Calistoga: It's Napa Valley's most laid-back town and the kids will love visiting Safari West.
- Catalina Island: The kids can play on the beach, see an honest-to-goodness wild buffalo or a flying fish.
- Disneyland: Everyone's a kid at Disneyland.
- Gold Country in the Sierra Foothills: The kids love panning for gold at the old mines and puttering around the cute little towns.
- Half Moon Bay: Beaches, tide pools, family-friendly hotels and a visit to the farm.
- Hollywood: Movie stars, studio tours and a day at Universal Studios.
- Lake Shasta Houseboat Getaway: As long as everyone in the family is comfortable on the water, a weekend in a floating house on the lake is a lot of fun.
- Lake Tahoe: A great escape for the outdoorsy family who likes skiing, water sports, and hiking, with lots of vacation rentals where you can spread out and be comfortable.
- Los Angeles Beach Cities: The beach scene is fun for everyone.
- Monterey: Monterey Bay Aquarium, beaches and Dennis the Menace Playground.
- Napa Valley: Besides the obvious wine and food-related activities, you can have fun getting muddy (with or without the kids).
- Newport Beach: Stick to the Balboa Peninsula and harbor islands for an old-fashioned time in a quiet beach town.
- Pismo Beach: Lots of sand to play in, on the beaches or in the dunes.
- Sacramento Delta Houseboat Weekend: Active families who enjoy water sports can have a ton of fun in their own floating house on the river.
- San Diego: Our southernmost city has the most family-oriented attractions, good beaches and lots of great parks.
- Santa Cruz: The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is great for families - and costs less than the big theme parks.
- Santa Monica: The beach and the pier (with an amusement park on it) are great for kids of all ages.
- Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks: A good choice for active families who enjoy the mountains.
- Yosemite: Another good mountain getaway spot.
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Food and Wine
California is renowned for its fresh produce, innovative cuisine, and world-class wines. These are a few of the best places to enjoy them.
Ideas for Weekend Getaways to Enjoy Food and Wine
Besides the places listed below, many California cities have annual (or semi-annual) special dining weeks and others host food and wine festivals.
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- Berkeley: In Berkeley's "Gourmet Ghetto," you'll find not only legendary Chez Panisse, but also a host of gourmet shops and other great places to eat.
- Healdsburg: Top-rated restaurants and award-winning chefs cluster around Healdsburg, and there's plenty of great wine, too.
- Lake County: Their annual summer wine festival is laid-back and inexpensive - and lots of fun, too.
- Los Gatos: This homey little town at the foot of the Santa Cruz Mountains is a good base for exploring Santa Cruz Mountain wineries.
- Napa Valley: Besides the obvious wine and food-related activities, you can have fun getting muddy (with or without the kids).
- Paso Robles: Over 100 wineries surround this small town.
- Pebble Beach: Their annual food and wine festival is a must-do event if you like either one.
- Russian River: Wineries are unpretentious, lots of farm stands and some wonderful restaurants
- San Francisco: The City by the Bay has more Michelin-starred restaurants per capita than New York City, but we've also located some of its most charming neighborhood dining spots for a taste of local life.
- Sonoma Valley: It's all about wine and food in and around the town of Sonoma and the area boasts some great cheesemakers, too.
- Town of Napa: Up-and-coming downtown Napa has a bevy of exciting eateries and lots of great tasting rooms pouring wines from places too small to have their own.
- Yosemite: Their annual Chefs and Vintners Holidays are excellent ways to learn from (and hobnob with) some great chefs and winemakers.
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Get Away From it All
Sometimes it feels like there are people everywhere you turn, cellphones ringing... noise and confusion, but there are still some places around where you can get away from it all (and in some of them, your cell phone may not work either). Try these spots for no crowds, clean air and at night, you can see the stars.
Places to Get Away From it All in California
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- Big Sur: It's popular, but limited accommodations and much publicly-owned open space keeps the density down.
- Catalina Island: They only have two towns - both small - and most of the island is preserved in its natural state.
- Death Valley: The largest national park has lots of room to spread out.
- Lake County: It's just north of Napa, but it seems like few people even know it exists.
- Mendocino Coast: Great views outnumber the visitors in California's prettiest coastal county.
- Mono County: California's high desert is one of our favorite places to go.
- Mount Lassen: Think of it as Mt. St. Helens older sibling.
- Point Reyes and Marin County: Point Reyes is a big place, with varying landscapes and ocean vistas.
- Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks: It's less crowded than Yosemite any time of the year and in summer, you drive down into a glacier-carved canyon.
- Sequoia High Sierra Camp: Comfortable tent cabins make a great base for hiking and it's easy to get to.
- Shasta Country: One of the state's most striking mountains and a lake - and you might even sight Bigfoot!
- Yosemite: It's packed in summer, but go between October and April and you'll find it much less crowded.
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Little Known California
These places are all so great that we wonder why they aren't chock-full of visitors, but we're glad they're not.
Little-Known But Fantastic Places for California Getaways
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- Cayucos: Just a few blocks long, it's possibly the cutest little beach town in the state.
- Lake County: It's just north of Napa, but few people get far enough to visit its pretty lake and budding winegrowing region.
- Mono County: Eye-popping scenery and one of the best places in the state for fall foliage.
- Mount Lassen: A sleeping volcano with some steamy thermal features, it last erupted in 1915, but it's quiet for now.
- Sonoma Backroads - Sebastopol and Occidental: A charming, very small town in a seldom-visited corner of Sonoma County.
- Valley of the Oaks: The Spanish were the first Europeans to find it, but the railroad bypassed it and it's been little-changed ever since.
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On a Shoestring - Inexpensive Getaways
If you need a break but are short on funds, we've got some ideas for you - and they don't involve sleeping in your car or dining on peanut butter and jelly.
California Getaways for Small Budgets
You can go almost anywhere on a limited budget if you know how. Find out how to plan your own low-cost getaway.
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- Mono County: It's a little far away, but with inexpensive hotels and lots of free things to do, it's still a great bargain.
- Morro Bay: Let someone else pay more to stay in Cambria. Morro Bay is nearby, with the same coastline views, less expensive lodging, and a great harbor.
- San Francisco on a Shoestring: You can leave your heart without having to leave your life savings, too.
- Valley of the Oaks: Lodging is cheap and basic, but where else can you stay in a house owned by William Randolph Hearst?
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Rest and Relax
For those times when you just need a break, these places have nice hotels, quiet ambiance, great spas and not too much to do (and that within walking distance). They're good spots to stand your head and collect your thoughts or to inspect the inside of your eyelids.
Places to Rest and Relax in California
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- Big Sur: There's not much to do here but enjoy the views, open spaces, and dark, clear skies.
- Catalina Island: We overheard a newly-arriving visitor who said it best: "I could chill here for days."
- La Jolla: As long as you don't shop until you drop, you can just relax and enjoy the seaside ambiance, stroll along the clifftops, all from the excellent hotels right in the middle of town.
- Los Gatos: Stay in a hotel in the historic downtown and you can visit one of the best spas we've visited, do a little shopping, enjoy a fine meal and join locals at the weekend Farmer's Market or for a summer evening concert.
- Ojai: They've got a walkable downtown and a nice spa nearby.
- Palm Springs: You've gotta like any place where most of its visitors say their favorite activity is "doing nothing."
- Sequoia High Sierra Camp: Hiking is the main activity here, but you don't have to - settle into your tent cabin, read, nap or just enjoy the view (excellent meals included).
- Sonoma Backroads - Sebastopol and Occidental: The most stressful part of your day will be the 10-minute drive to nearby Osmosis Spa - or tearing yourself away when it's time to go home.
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My idea of the perfect spot for a romantic getaway is quiet, with lots of time for holding hands, watching the sunset, flirting over a scrumptious dinner and time for a little afternoon delight. The places on this list were chosen with this in mind.
Ideas for a Romantic Weekend Getaway in California
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- Big Sur: Crashing waves, sunsets and lodgings from cozy cottages to world-class hideaways.
- Carmel: Its storybook architecture may inspire your own romantic story. Walk on the beach, stroll through town, cuddle at sunset.
- Catalina Island: With a cute, walkable downtown, beautiful ocean views, cozy bed and breakfasts and the amazing Inn on Mt Ada, it's our top pick for a romantic getaway.
- La Jolla: One of the most beautiful coastal settings in Southern California, fine restaurants, and a romantic cliffside walking path give La Jolla all the ingredients for a perfect getaway - just add you, sweetie.
- Laguna Beach: Stay in a hotel on the beach, watch the sunset and fall asleep counting wave crashes instead of sheep.
- Malibu: All those gorgeous beaches provide plenty of places for a romantic stroll.
- Mendocino: Wild scenery, charming accommodations and lots of time (and places) to gaze into each others' eyes in front of a roaring fireplace.
- Ojai: Cuddle like kittens in this cute little nest in the Santa Ynez Mountains.
- Pebble Beach: California's best coastal scenery... beachcombing... and a bagpiper at sunset.
- Santa Barbara: Movie stars have been planning romantic trysts here (on and off screen) for almost a century and it's easy to understand why.
- Santa Ynez Valley: Stay in tiny Los Olivos, go wine tasting in town, take a little stroll and go to bed early.
Sonoma Backroads - Sebastopol and Occidental: For romance, these places have it all: a sensational spa nearby and cute little downtowns tailor-made for strolling hand-in-hand.
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Best Weekend Getaways by Season
Some places are great all year round, but others have a particular appeal during one season. These getaways will take you to some of California's most wonderful places at their peak.Continue to 12 of 12 below.
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Best Weekend Getaways for Arts and Culture
If you're craving a dose of performing arts or a trip to a good museum, these places are just what you need.
- Berkeley: Home of Tony Award-Winning Berkeley Rep, it also boasts great architecture on the UC Campus and the fine Cal Performances series, along with lots of opportunities to enjoy ethnic dance and music.
- Beverly Hills and West Hollywood: This pair of small cities offer some of the Los Angeles area's best shopping, museums, architecture, and style.
- La Jolla: Nearby San Diego may have more museums, but we like the La Jolla Playhouse (also award-winning) too much to leave it out.
- Los Angeles: California's biggest city has the most museums of any city in the United States, dozens of great theater groups and more works of more great architects than we can find room to list here including Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank O. Gehry, Richard Meier, Pierre Koenig and many others.
- Palm Springs: If you love mid-twentieth-century modernism, this is the place to go, especially during their annual Modernism Week (held in February).
- Pasadena: A top-notch art museum, arts and crafts-style architecture and an art collection/library/garden that has something for everyone (even the kids).
- San Francisco: You probably know about its bevy of Victorian-style houses, but you'll also find more modern works including a precursor to Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim design, the Museum of Modern Art (Mario Botta) and California Academy of Sciences (Renzo Piano). You can also choose from a bundle of theater options, several world-class dance troupes and a symphony led by Michael Tilson Thomas.