Best, most unique places we visited in 07

Another year in California travel has come and gone and, through raging wildfires, skyrocketing gas prices and growing economic worries, the California travelers just keep on coming.

Recent findings by one of the country’s largest ad agencies indicate that  a top travel trend for 2007 was the “staycation” — the getaway close to home that now has replaced the extended vacations of the past. In California, places like South Lake Tahoe are seeing a huge increase in page views, according to Yahoo travel, and parks like Yosemite and the Golden Gate are up by hundreds of thousands of visitors for the first nine months of the year.

This all falls in line with our own observations as we traveled the state this past year in search of interesting getaways and short vacation destinations. Hotels and resorts seemed busy every place we went, often even during mid-week. But that had little impact on the quality of service we received and we did — as usual — make several interesting travel “discoveries” this past year.

As is our custom, we’re reviewing the best of the year by handing out our 2007 “Cary Awards.” The winners don’t get much — except for recognition — but we think readers win by learning where we found the best California travel experiences for the past 12 months.

Our Best Learning Experience this year was on the Northern California coastline at Fort Ross State Historic Park, a well-preserved piece of California coastal history. One of the oldest parks in the state system, Fort Ross had its beginnings in 1812 when a party of 25 Russians joined with 80 native Alaskans to start construction of a fort including a stockade, blockhouses and several log buildings.Today, visitors can tour the buildings, some of which offer authentic displays with artifacts such as 19th Century musket rifles or household tools and other items actually used by the Russians. Out in the courtyard we noticed there were several real cannons — we know they were real because Park Service employees were firing them off in a demonstration for a group of school children.

Lake Arrowhead Resort is our Most Improved Resort for the year and, to make this assessment, we had the opportunity to visit both before and after the $17 million renovation. All of the 173 guest rooms were re-done, along with the restaurant, bar and spa. New swiveling plasma TV’s, walk-in showers and just an overall sense of luxury and class are evident in the guest rooms. Some of the rooms have gorgeous views of the lake; others look out on the alpine forests.

For a novelty sometime, plan to stop by the Calico Ghost Town on your next trip to Las Vegas. Conveniently located near Barstow, about half-way between Los Angeles and Sin City, this fun little western town takes our prize as the Best California Rest Stop for 2007. This is a true ghost town, although not the scary type and really as much an amusement park as a historical dig. Some of the original town has been refurbished, some re-constructed, and some buildings created just for tourists. The town was carved out of the colorful hills of the Mojave Desert back in 1881 and today offers a fascinating glimpse of what life might have been like for the borax and silver miners of the 19th Century. Mixed in with the history is a good deal of commerce — from eateries to crafts shops to gift shops.

Our award for the Best Resort Activities goes to the Ojai Valley Inn and Spa, tucked in the Ojai Valley just off the main coastal road north to Santa Barbara. While the resort bills itself as a “spa village,” a better description might be Getaway University, with its campus full of activities and honest-to-goodness classes in the finer points of life. Once a country club, this 308-room inn has become much more than that and was, in fact, recently awarded AAA’s five-star designation, making it one of only 15 properties in California to reach such lofty status.

Chief among those activities are the classes and experiences that can make your stay as much an educational experience as one of total relaxation. Ojai’s “university” offers “short courses in living better” that are designed to encourage guests to try new things and learn new concepts. Five short courses are presented, including such subjects as The Artist’s Path, Tasting Wine like a Pro, Golf: the Name of the Game, Horseback Riding: Life’s a Cinch; and Aromatherapy: Essential Oils from A to Z.

Everyone’s looking for a deal, and we couldn’t help but notice that Redwoods Adventures has what we think is this year’s Best Lodging Deal, especially for families or larger groups. The company went in and completely renovated some workers’ houses near an old sawmill in the heart of Redwoods National and State Parks, north of Eureka. These three-bedroom units are completely new on the inside and feature two baths as well as all the kitchen furnishings and electronic entertainment options you might have in your own house. The total price for a night is $199, or about what you’d pay for an average hotel room in the city.

Another getaway that is a ways out of the Big City is Solvang, which this year wins our Best Small Town Getaway award. If bakeries and beer gardens are high on your list of vacation amenities, you couldn’t do better than a visit to Solvang, the Danish-inspired theme community just a half-hour drive from Santa Barbara. Of course there is much more, but food is a great place to start. Few can resist the lure of Danish, German and other cuisines offered in a variety of restaurants all housed in buildings remodeled to make this look like a quaint little European village. It also doesn’t hurt that Solvang is located in one of California’s most
scenic areas — wine country that was shown off spectacularly in the widely acclaimed movie Sideways.

The Best Family Experience, hands-down, was the Greenhorn Creek Guest Ranch, an amazing way to get your kids focusing on something other than video games and baggie pants. Located northwest of the Lake Tahoe region, the ranch is all about going back to Mayberry for a weekend where kids still toast marshmallows, catch fish in a small trout pond and have frog races. As we mentioned in our article, the Greenhorn Creek Guest Ranch is where you go to get a healthier heart. Not that barbecue ribs and steaks and big breakfasts of bacon and sausage and biscuits are going to unclog your arteries. The heart we’re talking about is the one that helps you look at the world and shape your reactions to it. It’s the one that sometimes gets a little overwhelmed with the day-to-day and forgets about the big picture.

We had our Most Scenic Drive this year in Sonoma County, where we got a little off the beaten path at Petaluma and drove into the wine country for miles on winding roads that are as charming as they are scenic. Best part of this journey was Healdsburg and a little highway out of town called the Dry Creek Road, which runs parallel to Highway 101 for several miles and takes you to Geyserville, just east of 101. This town of about a thousand souls is home to some inns and is known for its location right in the heart of wine country. It’s estimated that about 70 wineries are within a 15-minute radius of town.

The Most Unusual Bed and Breakfast this year was the Coast Guard House Historic Inn, located on a hill overlooking Arena Cove on the Northern California coast. The Coast Guard was preceded by the U.S. Life-saving Service which was established in the late 19th Century as a means of providing rescue to the many mariners who lost ships or got into trouble in the fog or on the stormy seas just off the point. In 1901, the Cape Code-style building now known as the Coast Guard House was built as a “life-saving station” — a place for members of the Life-saving Service to live.

Innkeeper Kevin Gallagher has turned this historic building into an especially charming inn that offers guests a choice between rooms in the main building or separate cottages just behind the building. We enjoyed a tiny, yet unique accommodation called the Flag Room which was ideal for a couple or single person. Like innkeepers at many bed-and-breakfast inns, Gallagher — a Philadelphia native — is a gracious and affable host who makes a point of getting to know each of his guests, whether at breakfast or while they are enjoying some quiet relaxation in the reading room.

Photos by Cary Ordway, Sandi Ordway

Captions, from top: Sonoma County barn found on Best Scenic Drive; pond fishing at Greenhorn Creek Guest Ranch is like a return to Mayberry; Calico is a fun western theme town easy to stop and see on your way to Las Vegas; Solvang is a great family getaway.

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