THE VALUE OF VACATION
At a time when the economy is taking a beating and gas prices and unemployment rates are running neck-and-neck, you might be tempted to jump on the “staycation” trend or simply forego altogether the exquisite joy of visiting new, exciting places.

Call us optimists (or naysayers) but we’re bucking the trend. We’ve done our homework, taken overly stressed pocketbooks into consideration and visited a handful of must-see destinations that are sure to please any travel lover — while keeping their bank accounts in the black.


PALM SPRINGS | SAN DIEGO | SAN FRANCISCO | SANTA BARBARA | SANTA YNEZ | TEMECULA


BUELLTON
By Stacy Davies

BEST WESTERN PEA SOUP ANDERSEN’S INN
51 E. Hwy. 246, Buellton, (800) PEA-SOUP,
peasoupandersens.com. Per-room rates
from $71-$113. AAA discount.

Cost: $-$$


Why You Must Go:
Referred to as the “Gateway to Wine Country,” Buellton is a quiet little town on the western edge of the Santa Ynez Valley. While it’s not nearly as heavy on atmosphere as its neighbors, it does offer one of the most affordable overnight spots — Best Western Pea Soup Andersen’s Inn. The rooms are immaculate and come with a refrigerator, cable TV, Internet and private patio. They also have exceptionally comfortable beds and pristine bathrooms; a continental breakfast is served each morning in the gazebo by the pool.

Where To Eat: Andersen’s world-famous Pea Soup restaurant is right next door to the inn, which means you absolutely must stop for their “Traveler’s Special”: all-you-can-eat pea soup, a bread basket and a drink, all for $8.95 (additional toppings of ham, real bacon bits, cheese and onions can be had for another $2.50). If you’re looking for something heartier in the evening, the Hitching Post Restaurant (made famous in the film “Sideways”) is just down the street, so be sure to drop in for one of the best oakwood-fired barbecue steaks you’ll ever sink your teeth into. Also try the mouth-watering grilled artichoke appetizer, and do not leave without having a glass of the Big Circle Syrah ’06 and the Pink Dry Rosé. In fact, have several.

What Else To Check Out: Take a drive down Santa Rosa Road where you’ll become positively breathless over rolling ranches of Icelandic horses and acres of blooming vineyards. Stop off at Andre Organic Lavender farm (run by one of Rona Barrett’s protégés) and pick up some lavender oils, soaps or even mulch for your garden. Then drive up to the Alma Rosa Winery (also featured in “Sideways”) and have a $10 wine tasting with Mel Lewis — or any of the helpful staff manning the bar — who’ll be happy to tell you all about wine clones and cuttings. Don’t worry that you know absolutely nothing about wine (it’s better than being a snob), and definitely try the ’06 Pinot Blanc from Rita Hills, and the 667 and Mt. Eden ’07 Pinot Noir clones. And please pet the fat cat on the floor.

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CATALINA ISLAND     
By Amanda Gettinger

PAVILION LODGE
513 Crescent Ave., Avalon, (310) 510-1788, pavilionlodge.com
rooms from $271 weekdays, $324 weekends; Golf or dive too.
 
Cost: $$

Why You Must Go: Located only 20 miles off the coast of Long Beach — or about an hour away in boat-time via the Catalina Express — the island’s main community of Avalon is a blissful, quaint town that offers peace and relaxation or an abundance of activities. The Pavilion Lodge, located only a few feet from the beaches’ lapping waves, is a peaceful retreat. The Pavilion’s rooms showcase marine color schemes, beautiful furniture and many modern conveniences. Location, location, location applies here as you’re only steps from the water, restaurants and everything else.  

Where To Eat:
The Catalina Country Club offers intimate, exceptional dining. You are treated to a panoramic ocean view while sampling outstanding fare. The club can boast about offering only organic vegetables, fruit and meats, which Chef Kathleen Vojkovich-Bombard channels into a superb menu. Each dish, from the simple cheese and wine flights to the French onion soup, from the Angus filet to the Maple Leaf duck breast, is delicious, perfectly seasoned and beautifully presented.  

What Else To Check Out:
You must tour the world famous Catalina Casino, which isn’t really a casino anymore but a spectacular grand ballroom and movie theater. This massive structure not only dominates the Avalon landscape, but holds an interesting and intriguing history. To fully appreciate the island above and below the water, you can take a ride on the Starlight and Emerald semi-submersible vessels and come face to face with Catalina’s abundant marine life without even getting your toes wet. For a more athletic, adventuresome exploration of the island, equipment rentals abound, including bikes, kayaks, scuba and snorkeling gear.

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DANA POINT     
By Arrissia Owen-Turner

St. Regis at Monarch Beach
1 Monarch Beach Resort, Dana Point, (949) 234-3200, stregismb.com.
“Seaside & Starlight” midweek package starts at $475.
 
Cost: $$$$$

Why You Must Go:
The St. Regis at Monarch Beach is all right, if by “all right” you mean “absolutely awesome.” It’s a little on the pricey side, but the private beach access alone is worth the splurge. From the moment you walk through the gilded doors, you feel like you’re walking out of suburbia and into a Tuscan-like retreat. Be sure to book a Mediterranean Massage at Spa Gaucin, and take in a good soak afterward in the waterfall spa while sipping on your complimentary glass of organic Chardonnay. Then it’s back to your suite, which is pure luxury. As you get ready for dinner, take in your surroundings: the fine Italian leather furniture, the spa tub for two, the flat screen TVs in each room.

Where To Eat: Try wining and dining at Stonehill Tavern, where Managing Chef Michael Mina’s lip-smacking four-star creations are as delightful to the eye as they are delectable. Savor the three-course tasting menu. Go for the Hawaiian blue shrimp with butternut squash crepes and coconut-curry broth, prime beef short rib and the chocolate pudding duo. Then it’s off to the lounge before heading back to your room for better things.

What Else To Check Out:
Catch the tram to the Monarch Bay Club, an overnight resort-guest-only restaurant overlooking the pristine blue sea, before taking advantage of the surf butler service available. You can’t come back to Pasadena without a hands-on surf lesson, and your surf butler will hold your hand — literally, or at least your board — until you’re ready to hang ten. But if you just want to hang back, they can help with bodyboarding, too. And then it will definitely be time for a cocktail at the beach club. After all, you have a designated tram driver.

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ENCINITAS
By David Silva

INN AT MOONLIGHT BEACH
105 N. Vulcan Ave., Encinitas, (760) 944-0318,
innatmoonlightbeach.com.
Rooms from $129 to $269.

Cost: $$-$$$

Why You Must Go: With so much to do and see in San Diego, it’s easy for weekend visitors to overlook the seaside charms of unassuming Encinitas. And of all the many charms Encinitas has to offer, one of the most charming is the Inn at Moonlight Beach bed-and-breakfast. Hidden away on scenic Vulcan Avenue, the inn affords all the amenities of an English country B&B without the fuss and bother of transcontinental travel and, well, English people. It’s clean, unpretentiously elegant, homey and laid back — and has suites priced at about $75 less than comparable B&Bs in the region. The only drawback to the place was trying to stay awake long enough to enjoy it. We took one look at our suite’s cozy, fluffy bed (down duvet, big feather pillows), climbed in and were out for the next two hours. Later, we hot-tubbed in the private spa, climbed back into the bed to watch TV — and were out for the night. Something about the warm greeting you receive from innkeeper and co-owner Ann Dunham, the inn’s subtly Asian landscaping and interior décor and the cool Pacific breeze causes your cares and worries to drift quietly out the door. It was, in short, the most relaxing weekend we’ve had in years.

Where To Eat:
Unlike so many B&Bs, where you have to get up impossibly early for a hurried meal in a room full of strangers, the inn’s breakfasts are brought right to your suite. Dunham spends about 21/2 hours every morning preparing the fare for her guests: Homemade muffins and hardboiled eggs, fresh-baked oat-bran bread, yogurt and homemade granola, seasonal fruit and Starbucks coffee(!) — all of which my wife and I enjoyed on our private patio while reading the morning paper and looking out at a gloriously overcast view of the ocean.

What Else To Check Out:
There are six miles of beaches to enjoy or you can learn how to ride the Big Blue at local icon Kahuna Bob’s Surf School.

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LOS OLIVOS
By Stacy Davies

FESS PARKER WINE COUNTRY INN AND SPA
2860 Grand Ave., Los Olivos, (800) 446-2455,
fessparker.com. rooms from $295-$395 weekdays,
$395-$525 weekends.

Cost: $$$-$$$$$

Why You Must Go: The entire Santa Ynez Valley is fairly breathtaking — driving up the 101 you can stop off before the 246 exit and pick your own blueberries. Further on, past rusted roofs, lavender fields and sprawling vineyards, you’ll find miniature horse ranches and Solvang, the capital of Danish America. However, you must make time to soak up the classy little village of Los Olivos. Nestled in the northern part of the valley among peach and apple orchards, the town’s main drag is lined with dozens of wine tasting shops, galleries and sundry boutiques. You can always get a room at Fess Parker’s Wine Country Inn to truly steep yourself in the charming Zen-ness of the region.

Where To Eat: You must stop off for dinner at Sam Marmorstein’s legendary Los Olivos Café, where you’ll enjoy California-Mediterranean cuisine and more than 500 wines in a sophisticated yet relaxed atmosphere. Chef Nat Ely offers up a mix of exotic and down-home cooking: the Squash Blossom appetizer is hands-down the best starter I’ve ever had in my life, and the Baked Brie is a favorite with a twist — port wine reduction sauce! All the while you should be drinking the Café’s own Bernat Chardonnay or Syrah — or both.

What Else To Check Out:
Be sure to stop off and feed the ostriches and emus at Ostrichland and then head straight to my favorite wine room, Coquelicot, for some of the finest Bordeaux (Mon Amor), Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc in town. Then walk around the corner to Global Gardens for a $3 olive oil tasting. Titillate your taste buds and dip your bread in the grassy, peppery oils and fruity vinegars.

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OJAI
By Nancy Powell

THE LAVENDER INN
210 E. Matilija Street, Ojai, (805) 646-6635, lavenderinn.com, $115-$300. seven rooms plus one private cottage; “Foodie” and “Bed, Breakfast and Bikes” specials at 10 percent off the room rate.

Cost: $$-$$$

Why You Must Go:
Located just 15 miles from the ocean, in a tranquil valley ringed by mountains and oak groves, Ojai is small town Mayberry with a bite of sophistication. Ojai boasts the world’s largest outdoor bookstore in Bart’s Books and a biblical garden at the Ojai Presbyterian Church. Let’s not forget the plethora of museums and art galleries along the main drag (Ojai Avenue), more health and organic food stores than one can count, plus world-record bass fishing at Lake Casitas. Right in the middle of all this is The Lavender Inn, a converted schoolhouse that is both modern and sophisticated, yet retains the antiquated charm of a traditional B&B. Most rooms have terraces that open out into the town square or the quaint gardens below. You can treat yourself to an evening of quiet contemplation beneath the oaks with the calming scent of lavender in the air, or curl up in the garden hammock. Every day, the innkeepers start mornings off with a hot breakfast (usually a quiche) and an assortment of fruits and not-your-continental-variety pastries, and end busy afternoons with a blessing of wine and cheese to restore your chi.

Where To eat: Jim and Rob’s Fresh Grill serves up a mean achiote burrito, enough for two, and a rajas con crema quesadilla that really hits the spot. Bonnie Lu’s at the Arcade dishes up old-fashioned breakfasts with a smile that’ll brighten any day.

What Else To Check Out:
Shareen Prashanthi Torres of 52 Weeks of Peace offers a 90-minute integral yoga class for only $15 that will leave you in balance with the Force.

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PALM SPRINGS
By Jeremy Zachary

OLD RANCH INN
220 S. Patencio Road, Palm Springs, (760) 778-8900, oldranchinn.com. rooms from $84–$119 weekdays, $99–$129 Friday and saturday.

Cost: $$

Why You Must Go: A great way to roll back the decades and experience the Palm Springs of the ’60s. A quaint boutique stay, this cozy hotel is a brief five-minute walk from the city’s cultural mainline, Palm Canyon Drive, and its extensive array of shops, restaurants, pubs and galleries. Old Ranch Inn is centrally located in the Tennis Club District, a revival area chock full of boutique hotels and throwbacks to Palm Springs’ architectural heyday. The Inn has eight spacious rooms with separate living and sleeping areas, some with fireplaces, and all facing the courtyard’s centerpiece — the pool. If you’re lucky enough, you can catch the occasional wine tasting and special events at the poolside bar.

Where To Eat:
Considering the plethora of dining options all around, there is no shortage of great places to spend your restaurant dollars. There are, however, a few standouts in the crowd. Maracas Restaurant serves up traditional Mexican with possibly the best salsa ever savored. Something about their fire-roasted chili flavor screams authentic and fresh. Another must-experience gem is Spencer’s, a local hideaway nestled at the foot of the San Jacinto Mountains on Baristo Road. Modernistic design and an outdoor patio set the mood of all moods, while the live pianist completes the package.

What Else To Check Out:
A short walk away is the Palm Springs Art Museum — check out its current “Modern Moments” exhibition of post-Word War II American photography. And you can’t go wrong with the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. This uplifting (literally) destination is a great way to view the desert floor below by climbing nearly 6,000 feet skyward. Keep in mind, there’s typically a 30 degree difference between the valley floor and the top of the tramway, so you might want to bring that sweater.

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SAN DIEGO
By James Abraham

OMNI SAN DIEGO HOTEL
675 L St., San Diego, (619) 231-6664, 1-800-THE OMNI, omnisandiegohotel.com. “Take Me Out to the Ballpark” package starts at $249.
 
Cost: $$$

Why You Must Go:
While this seaside city’s allures are many — fabulous climate, the zoo, the beaches — the Gaslamp Quarter in the downtown area certainly needs to get its props. And if you’re gonna pay a visit to this bustling district, book a stay at the Omni San Diego Hotel located right next to PETCO Park. The accommodations are sterling and the views — the city skyline, the ball field or the unbelievable sight called San Diego Bay — are stunning. This is a four-star place so we’re talking amenities like a heated spa and swimming pool, an outdoor terrace with a stone fireplace and — for you sportos — the  hotel’s sky bridge lets you into the Park easy-peasy, so you can bypass the long lines and get right into the game (Home run!). Valet service here is top-notch — they didn’t skip a beat on repeated requests to retrieve items we absentmindedly left inside our car — and for someone who judges places by their bathrooms, the facilities here are elegant and refined.

Where To Eat:
McCormick and Schmick’s Seafood Restaurant has an awesome breakfast buffet. Make friends with the omelet chef because his creations are off the yolk. Or, since you’re adjacent to the Gaslamp, you can easily hit up Fred’s Mexican Café for their Cabo Carnitas or Mister Tiki Mai Tai Lounge if you want to throw back a Good Lei (Absolut Mandarin, mango, lime and orange juice, mint) and get your pu pu platter on.

What Else To Check Out:
You’re right next to PETCO so catch some Padres action while you’re here. Or you can swing by the William Heath Davis House Museum and learn about the area’s 19th century reputation as Prostitution Central — it wasn’t called the “Stingaree district” back then for nuthin! Old Town San Diego State Historic Park is about four miles up the 5 and recommended (it’s free!) for a dose of local lore and the chance to sample the peanut clusters at Cousins Candy Shop.

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SAN FRANCISCO
By David Jenison

HOTEL DEL SOL
3100 Webster St., San Francisco, (415) 921-5520, (877) 433-5765, jdvhotels.com/del_sol. Rates from $129; 57 rooms, including 10 suites.

Cost: $$

Why You Must Go: Do you regularly TiVo “I Love the ’‘70s?” If so, the Hotel Del Sol is the place to stay for your next San Francisco treat. Located in the picturesque Marina District, this former motor lodge has been transformed into a banana-colored retro flashback with hippie-themed suites like the Love Shack, Groovy Geeks, Sandy Beach and the Dream Factory. The budget-priced hotel also offers family-friendly perks like fresh cookies in the afternoon, Friday barbecues in the summer and a swimming pool filled with beach balls. And for those Griswold dads who still vacation by car, Del Sol even provides free parking. The hotel, which allows pets but not cigarettes, offers the best ’70s-style family fun since “The Brady Bunch.”  

Where To Eat: San Francisco overflows with overpriced eateries, but you can head to Pasta Paradiso for an exceptionally fresh, reasonably priced Italian meal highlighted by homemade pasta and exotic salads.

What Else To Check Out: On the local tip, stroll down nearby Union Street for the best window-shopping in the city, and then check out the Exploratorium at the Palace of Fine Arts (3601 Lyon St.) where more than 650 hands-on exhibits display the wonders of the universe.

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SANTA BARBARA
By Waleed Rashidi

OLD YACHT CLUB INN
431 Corona Del Mar Drive, Santa Barbara,
(805) 962-1277; oldyachtclubinn.com.
Rooms from $99 per night.

Cost: $

Why You Should Go: The Old Yacht Club Inn, located in the East Beach portion of the city, is perfectly situated for those seeking a relaxing getaway that’s steps away from the shoreline and minutes from the downtown area via the MTD electric bus lines that provide rides for a quarter (plus free transfers — such a deal!). The inn itself is a gorgeously appointed, expertly managed Craftsman-style home and was the first bed and breakfast in the city, opening its doors nearly 30 years ago on a quiet street just off shoreline-hugging Cabrillo Boulevard. The rooms — comfy enough to make you want to take up permanent residence — are understatedly elegant, with charming touches to make a supreme stay well worth the nominal charge. Oh, and the breakfast is eons better than any Denny’s Grand Slam. Getting to Santa Barbara without a car involves Amtrak  (which will bring you right into Santa Barbara’s beach zone).

Where To Eat:
There are countless reasonably priced lunch spots downtown along State Street, including Enterprise Fish Co. by the Amtrak station. The Bay Café (131 Anacapa Street) off Cabrillo offers tasty shellfish specials and doubles as a seafood market, in case you want to throw something on the barbie at the beach. Living a dreamy Santa Barbara weekend can definitely be had for a lot less than one may realize, making it real hard to come home after it’s all over.

What Else To Check Out: Getting around the Santa Barbara area without your wheels is a total cinch: Travel via the aforementioned bus, rent bikes (the inn provides them free of charge to its guests), hitch a taxi or just walk to your destination; everything you’ll need is within a few miles radius. Our suggestions? The Santa Barbara Zoo, in walking distance from the inn, is inexpensive ($11 for adults, $9 for kids), clean, well organized and makes for the perfect daylong outing. Renting surreys, a popular item along East Beach (starting at $25 for two hours via Wheel Fun Rentals), allows you to take in the entire length of the shoreline at your own pace.

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SANTA YNEZ
By Stacy Davies

SANTA YNEZ INN
3627 Sagunto St., Santa Ynez, (805) 688-5588, santaynezinn.com. Rooms range from $285-$495.
 
Cost: $$$-$$$$$

Why You Must Go:
On the eastern rim of the Santa Ynez Valley lies the region’s namesake — an antiquated western town situated on a historic stagecoach route just north of pristine Cachuma Lake. If staying overnight, the spot to hole up in would certainly be the Santa Ynez Inn, a posh, Victorian-themed hotel that serves a gourmet breakfast (brie and apple omelet!), wine and fancy hors d’oeuveres around dinner time, and evening desserts — all included in your stay. The rooms themselves are an elegant dream, with a fireplace and Jacuzzi hot tub with heated tiles across from your heavenly cushy bed. You’ll also enjoy the six-headed shower that can instantly turn sauna, and the giant HD flat screen — with complimentary DVDs. Excellent wireless reception and an iPod-compatible alarm clock mean you’ll probably never want to leave your room — but you really should.

Where To Eat:
Take a quick stroll through the hotel gardens (and beneath the enormous creaking weather vane) over to The Vineyard House for a swanky but casual lunch or dinner. For evening fare, you can’t beat their famous Gabe’s Salmon, a filet perched atop warm spinach and crispy red potatoes, drizzled with a lemon beurre blanc sauce. Have a glass of the Alma Rosa Chardonnay to complement its myriad flavors, and top off the meal with some smooth Oreo Cookie Cheese Cake in Tahitian sweet cream.

Where Else To Eat:
It’s all about seducing your taste buds, really, so make sure you also step into Dos Carlitos just up the street from the hotel. Only a few months old and run by Carlos Lopez of the famed Montecito eatery Cava, this upscale Mexican hotspot with snappy orange umbrellas specializes in tequila tastings — and serves up some killer rock shrimp tacos with papaya salsa. After the tasting and the bowls of chips dipped in over-the-top Quemada Salsa (verde with smoked jalapeño, cilantro and onions), you may not have room for their already legendary Banana Taquitos (in white chocolate!), but you better try.

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TEMECULA     
By Nancy Gettinger

TEMECULA CREEK INN
44501 Rainbow Canyon Road, Temecula, (951) 694-1000 or (877) 517-1823, temeculacreekinn.com.
“Welcome to Wine Country” starts at $139 per night.
 
Cost: $$

Why You Must Go: Tucked away amid the green rolling hills, a stay at the Temecula Creek Inn will make you feel as though you have been transported to a distant resort with hardly a quiver from your gas gauge. A beautifully landscaped 27-hole championship golf course, dotted with rushing creeks and distant trees, can be seen from each balcony. Rooms are comfortably decorated with authentic Native American artifacts actually excavated while the inn was built. If you want a relaxing getaway with minimal travel costs, the Temecula Creek Inn is a gem of a find. A variety of getaway packages include tours of the surrounding wine country, golf classes and in-room massage. Overall, this is a fantastic place to relax with a round of golf, fantastic food and a million-dollar view.

Where To Eat:
With its wall of windows, The Temet Grill shares the same stunning views as the guest rooms. Executive Chef Sal Giuilano has created beautifully presented dishes of delicious fare, from the tapenade and cauliflower soup to the perfect filet mignon, paired with just the right wine. The view at breakfast is even better with the added attraction of the morning golfers.

What Else To Check Out:
If you’re not into golf or one for just kicking back for a day or two, not to worry. You can spend time strolling through Old Town Temecula’s specialty boutiques and antique stores, catch a performance at the Old Town Temecula Community Theater, or brave an early morning balloon ride before touring one of the many local wineries. If this still isn’t enough excitement, just a short drive can bring you to either the Pechanga or Pala casinos to play some slots. Pocket that plane fare and take an 80-mile trip down the 15; you’ll be delighted to see what’s grown up in our back yard.

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