The best, most interesting getaways

It’s the end of the year and you know what that means – time to roll out the annual Cary Awards, our sixth consecutive year of reviewing the best and most interesting getaways we’ve found in California over the course of the past year.



Sorry, recipients, we have not planned a big, fancy banquet to announce these, so no need to dress up. No need to check your mail either because we don’t send out plaques or certificates. All we do is share with our readers our favorite experiences from the past year and pass along a big thank you to our award-winners for making our visit memorable.

So, without further delay, let’s move on now to the winners of the 2009 Cary Awards:

The Best Educational Getaway hands-down this year goes to the Seven Sycamores Ranch, near Visalia, which is a chance to show your youngsters a little about farm life and, in particular, the importance of California’s agriculture. Agri-tourism is what they call it – the blending of tourism with California’s vast farmlands and orchards to offer city folk an up-close view of how an orange, for example, gets from the tree to your dining room table. Bob McKellar, host of Seven Sycamores, offers visitors overnight stays in an authentic farmhouse – a kind of bed and breakfast experience except that McKellar lives down the road and not in the house, and the breakfast comes in the form of fresh groceries that guests cook up themselves.

Our Best Luxury Getaway was our stay at the Montage Beverly Hills, footsteps from Rodeo Drive and the newest luxury hotel in the area. Sister property to its famous Laguna Beach hideaway, the Beverly Hills version is just as swanky but built with Spanish Revival architecture that matches the Mediterranean styling you see throughout the city. It’s not quite the Hearst Castle, but the flavor’s the same and the opulence just as pronounced. Our first clue was that our garden-variety SUV was outclassed the moment we eased onto the Montage circular driveway and took our place right between the Bentley and the Maserati.

Contrast the Montage with our Best Family Resort, the Lazy Z Resort in California’s Gold Country. About 11 miles from Sonora, Twain Harte is where you start to see the signs for the Lazy Z Resort. Set apart from everything else in the area, the Lazy Z is a group of about a dozen cabins spaced nicely around several dozen acres of trees and trails. There is a main resort area with a clubhouse, lots of games, reading materials and a pool with spectacular rock landscaping to make it seem like it’s really part of a mountain stream. The trees and topography make the resort feel much more remote than it actually is, and provide ample separation between the cabins. If you are looking for the “cabin in the woods” experience, this is it – many of the cabins feel like they’re out on their own, yet they are only a short walk from pool and other guests.

Now the Best Family Getaway this year is not a resort but an experience – a houseboat experience. And it’s not just one lake, but two different lakes we experienced this year: Lake Berryessa near Napa and New Melones Lake in the Gold Country area east of Fresno. In each of these trips, we spent several days cruising the calm, clear waters of these freshwater lakes finding secluded places to beach our boat at night, and fishing, swimming and sunning during the day. On one trip our group included two couples and three kids. On the other we took our daughter and seven grand-kids. In both instances, the experience could not have been more rewarding. If you’re looking for the perfect family getaway – and you don’t have to have boating experience to do this – houseboating is a vacation you won’t soon forget.

If the city is more your style, our Best Big City Getaway was a stay on the San Diego waterfront. There are several excellent hotels in this area but we booked a two-room suite at the Manchester Grand Hyatt San Diego, a four-star urban resort that is a fixture on the San Diego skyline. On previous visits we’ve cast glances skyward at the hotel’s two towers (33 and 40 stories), always wondering what it would be like to stay at the top of the city so close to the San Diego waterfront. We finally got our answer – and it was just as exhilarating as we imagined it would be. From our 20th floor suite we opened the curtains to a southwest view of Coronado Island, San Diego Harbor, the gleaming waterfront area near the city’s Convention and Visitor Center, a major boat marina and, just below, a fun grouping of shops and restaurants known as Seaport Village.

Just northeast of California’s Gold Country, the roadways heading toward Lake Tahoe reveal a wonderland of outdoor scenery and recreational opportunities. Closed to cross-mountain travel in winter, Highway 4 opens in summer to connect with Highway 89, completing a mountain-lover’s route to remember – which is why it’s our Most Scenic Drive for 2009. This route will take you from the well-known Gold Country destination of Angels Camp through the charming town of Murphys, right by Calaveras Big Trees State Park, the recreation-oriented town of Arnold and then up through heavily wooded mountain areas where you’ll find Bear Valley Ski Area, the quaint little berg of Markleeville and then another world of recreational possibilities in Hope Valley.

Our Most Fun Weekend was the World of Wine Barrel Tasting Weekend held in Temecula each March – an event that is marked indelibly on the calendars of many locals and visitors alike. During the two-day event, most of the area’s wineries set aside special areas in their tasting or barrel rooms for visitors to taste one or more select wines as well as sample a specially prepared food dish. Barrel Tasting Weekend is a little like Halloween for adults – minus the witches and goblins, of course. For one flat price, participants are given a special wine glass that they take from winery to winery to see what special treats – read that wine and appetizers — are in store.

If California theme parks conjure up images of long lines for attractions and food, visitors to the San Francisco Bay area will find nirvana with a stop at California’s Great America, a Santa Clara sister park to famous Knotts Berry Farm, and winner of this year’s Best Theme Park award. It’s not that it’s bigger than anyplace else – it’s because of shorter lines for really great rides. On a pleasant sunny Monday in August we sampled most of Great America’s rides spending no more than five or 10 minutes in any one line.

The Most Decadent Meal of the year was at the Westin Verasa in Napa where we got dinner and an education we would not soon forget. We dined at La Toque, the renowned French restaurant right on property and feasted on such items as Seared Artisan Foie Gras with Bacon-Wrapped Medjool Dates and Toasted Brioche (the best foie gras we’ve ever had), and West Texas “Nilgai” Antelope with Leek and Black Trumpet Potato Terrine and Roasted Root Vegetable Red Wine Reduction. We also ordered wine pairings with each of several courses and the sommelier gave us a detailed explanation of where each wine came from and why it was being paired with the particular entrees.

The Best Wine Country Hotel is the La Bellasera Hotel and Suites, not so much because it is the biggest or best-situated but because it packs an unusual amount of luxurious detail into every square inch of the property. Perched on a hill near Highway 101 in Paso Robles, La Bellasera might look from the freeway like it’s just a nice, modern hotel at an easy exit point – a place on the way to someplace else. But get a little closer and you realize somebody has spent a lot of money creating a true luxury hotel. Using a blend of Mediterranean and Italian architecture, it’s one of those hotels that almost overwhelms the senses as you enter the lobby with its rich marble floors and Roman columns — and it just gets better from there.

Photos, from top: San Diego waterfront; houseboat vacation on Lake Berryessa; California’s Great America; Lazy Z Resort

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