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Head for the hills ... or the beach.


Drifting in a canoe on a mountain lake, a fishing line dangling half-forgotten over the side, warm sunshine and cool breezes in perfect balance . . . Strolling along an uncrowded beach, wet sand firm and soothing underfoot, the occasional breakaway wave tugging at your ankles as it slips back out to sea . . . These almost archetypal images of bygone summer pleasures have a way of working themselves into our reveries at this time of year. To help you relive those gloriously lazy days of summers past, we've rounded up 10 great spots in California where you can get away from it all for an old-fashioned vacation. The first five we describe are high-country hideouts in the Sierra; the others are low-key coastal retreats. All are places where you can have a good time doing as little or as much as you want. At most of them (with a few notable exceptions), lodging tips toward the rustic end of the scale. You should still be able to make reservations at any for this summer, though you might have to settle for midweek or late-season dates.

LAKES BASIN: Still lazy after all these years

The first time we visited Lakes Basin we stayed at an old lodge near Gold Lake. Two of our fellow guests were a pair of sprightly sisters from San Francisco, well into their 80s, who had summered in this part of the Sierra Nevada for more than 50 years. They sat on the lodge's porch sipping martinis, recalling vanished San Francisco pleasures like the Key System ferries and the City of Paris department store. So many things had changed, they agreed. How nice it was that Gold Lake had not changed.

It is nice. The 30 deep blue lakes set in granite that make up Lakes Basin, an hour northwest of Lake Tahoe and 2 hours northeast of Nevada City, seem very much holdovers from an earlier, calmer California--which is why people keep coming back here year after year.

Just as the lakes are the focus of the scenery, the lakeside lodges are the focus of visitor activity. The catch is that the lodges book up far in advance. Still, you can often take advantage of last-minute cancellations, especially if you want to stay just a night or two. September and early October (lodges close by mid-October) are also good bets.

Elwell Lakes Lodge (916/836-2347) has nine housekeeping cabins that rent from $284 to $480 per week. At Gray Eagle Lodge (836-2511), 15 cabins rent from $145 per night, including breakfast and dinner. The 11 cabins at Gold Lake Lodge (836-2350) go for $100 to $125, with breakfast and dinner. Packer Lake Lodge (862-1221) has 14 cabins from $51 per night to $694 per week. Salmon Lake Lodge (842-3108) has cabins and tent cabins from $400 to $1,000 per week. Gold Lake, Gray Eagle, and Packer Lake all have dining rooms that are open to the public.

Campers should stop for maps and other information at Plumas National Forest's Mohawk Ranger Station (836-2575), on State 70 in Blairsden. The forest's Lakes Basin Campground has 24 sites on Lakes Basin that fill on a first-come, first-served basis.

DONNER LAKE: An alternative to Tahoe

You can walk through pine-darkened forests and over glacier-scoured granite domes in the footsteps of California's ruggedest pioneers--then relax, at day's end, in a comfortable cabin just minutes from Interstate 80. Compared with nearby Lake Tahoe, Donner Lake is a sleeper, a convenient but uncrowded destination to discover in a weekend- or week-long summer getaway.

Stunningly situated in a U-shaped glacial basin at an elevation of about 6,000 feet, the lake's cobalt waters shiver with reflections of ancient conifers that both sheltered and confounded the snowbound Donner Party in the winter of 1846-47. The area has plenty to see and do, from hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding on emigrant trails to swimming, fishing, and boating in the lake to rock climbing, flower finding, and cloud gazing near boulder-strewn Donner Pass. And it's just 3 miles to Truckee, a walkable, railroad-focused town with boardwalks and several good restaurants in history-laden buildings.

Hikers can get wilderness guides and topo maps in Truckee at Sierra Mountaineer (916/587-2025). For cycling rentals and routes, check Mountain Bikes Unlimited (587-7711). To arrange a guided horseback ride, call Donner Ski Ranch (426-3635) or Squaw Valley Stables (583-7433). To swim, play, picnic, or pedal boat along a lifeguarded beach, try West End Public Beach.

Donner Lake Village Resort (587-6081) rents paddleboats, fishing boats, and water-ski boats, as well as accommodations ranging from studios to two-bedroom townhouses ($90 to $205). Other good lodging options are Donner Country Inn (587-5574; $85) and Loch Leven Lodge (587-3773; $66 to $136). The Truckee-Donner chamber (587-2757) has additional suggestions and can refer you to local real estate offices for house or condominium rentals.

Donner Memorial State Park's campground ($14) fills every summer weekend, though its day-use area ($5 per car), scalloped by small patches of sandy beach, is pleasant and uncrowded. For information on other area campgrounds, call 587-3558.

CARSON PASS: Hikes to heather, frugal fishing

Strung along State Highway 88 between Silver Lake and Carson Pass are a handful of friendly, old-fashioned mountain resorts. Any one of them makes a good base for enjoying the High Sierra's summer pleasures. Fishing, hiking, and thick summer flowers are nearby and easily accessible.

Just west of the pass, a new Forest Service information station is a good place to make a basic acquaintance with the area and pick up a map of trails immediately south of State 88--including a newly created path to Winnemucca Lake, mecca to Sierra wildflower seekers. A day-hike we sampled took us uphill from just south of the Caples Lake spillway to tiny, daylight-dazzled Emigrant Lake, where granitic lakeside ledges make for a perfect picnic amid rich patches of mountain heather.

Along the west side of Silver Lake are the rustic but clean studio ($55) to two-bedroom housekeeping cabins ($110) of Kay's Resort (209/258-8598), an inexpensive option popular with anglers and boaters. At Silver Lake's north end, Kit Carson Lodge (258-8500) has a restaurant, a general store, and old-timey cottages ($460 to $890 a week) disposed around a forested shoreline. About 7 miles northeast on State 88, Kirkwood Ski Resort (258-7000) has several restaurants and efficient condo units ($65 to $175) in an attractive setting. A mile and a half past Kirkwood and about 800 feet higher than Silver Lake is trout-stocked Caples Lake, where Caples Lake Resort (258-8888) provides rooms and cabins ($35 to $120) and a restaurant popular enough--despite relatively high prices--to require reservations nightly. A less expensive place to stoke a mountain appetite is the roadside Kirkwood Inn, an 1860s log house that now offers hearty meals from 6:30 A.M.

Woods Lake, near Carson Pass, has a peaceful day-use area at the base of Round Top (10,381 feet) and a secluded, tree-sheltered campground; for information on this and other Forest Service facilities in the area, call (916) 644-6048. A good camping option for families is the privately owned campground at Plasse's Resort (258-8814), just south of Silver Lake, which has a children's play area, a store, and its own restaurant.

JUNE LAKE LOOP: Looks like a ski boot, smells like vanilla

On the eastern flank of the Sierra near Yosemite National Park, State Highway 158 makes a 16-mile detour off U.S. 395 through a quiet sub-alpine valley carved by an ancient glacier and past four sparkling lakes. Trails lead from the road to some of the state's largest stands of Jeffrey pines where, on a warm day, the trees scent the air with a vanillalike smell.

June Lake Loop's shape loosely resembles a ski boot. The sole of the boot, around the town of June Lake, is where you'll find most of the area's hotels, restaurants, and shops. One of our favorite stops is for sweet rolls at Schat's Dutch Bakery.

Across the lake, Oh! Ridge Campground is near the only designated swimming beach on the loop and usually has sites available when other campgrounds are full. If camping isn't your style, there's a range of lodging choices, with rates about 25 percent less than in nearby Mammoth Lakes; check with the June Lake Chamber of Commerce at (619) 648-7584.

At the boot's toe, Silver Lake Resort (648-7525) has 14 rustic cabins that go for $50 to $150 a night. They're usually booked well in advance, but you can always hope for a cancellation.

The Forest Service Visitor Center in Mammoth Lakes (934-2505) has hiking maps of the area indicating each trail's difficulty. Near Silver Lake is Frontier Pack Train (648-7701), where Dink Getty and his wranglers lead guided rides around the Eastern Sierra.

KERN CANYON: Big trees and big water

Kernville and Upper Kern Canyon offer the classic elements of a summer vacation: clean air, water, and pretty country.

We've often used the canyon as a jumping-off point for Sierra hiking. In an hour or so, you can get up to giant sequoia country, where one short and easy-to-reach hike is Trail of a Hundred Giants, just off Western Divide Highway, about 45 miles north of Kernville. Another hiking destination near Kernville is Big Meadow, which serves as a hub for several trails, including access into Dome Land Wilderness. In the canyon itself, you can hike above the roaring waters of the Kern River along the River Trail, 19 miles north of Kernville. For more information on local trails, stop in at Sequoia National Forest's Kernville Ranger Station (619/376-3781).

For those who aren't content to merely watch the river, several companies offer rafting trips into the raging Kern, ranging from an hour to three days; try Kern River Tours (379-4616) or Sierra South (376-3745).

When it comes to eating in these parts, expect hearty meals. McNally's Fairview Lodge and Restaurant (376-2430), and Road's End Resort and Tender House Restaurant (376-6562), both about 15 miles north of Kernville, are good bets, especially if you're returning from some of the hiking areas. Closer to Kernville, try Ewing's On The Kern (376-2411) or Cheyenne's Stage Stop (376-6175). In town, we enjoyed the breakfast at Whitewater Cafe (376-6823), on Kernville Road.

For lodging, Whispering Pines Lodge Bed & Breakfast (376-3733) has a knotty-pine ambience and rooms from $79. Another good spot for river views and country style is Kern River Inn Bed & Breakfast (376-6750), also with rooms starting at $79. Finally, the Lazy River Lodge (376-2242) has cabins along the river starting at $52. Camping is available along the river, but check with the Forest Service, because spots can get scarce on the weekends.

SOUTH MENDOCINO COAST: Gorgeous Gualala to excellent Elk

This stretch of southern Mendocino County serves up the main ingredients visitors love about the town of Mendocino--craggy coastline, Victorian architecture, cozy inns. All the recipe lacks are the crowds drawn to the more famous village up the coast.

Gualala, once a logging mill town, now has a burgeoning art community. The Gualala Arts Center shows members' and others' works in its gallery in the Sundstrom Mall. We also liked Woodbridge Gallery, run by a pair of escapees from the hectic Los Angeles art scene; it features oil paintings and watercolors from Western artists.

It's a short drive north on twisty State Highway 1 to Schooner Gulch. This new state beach is undeveloped and not well marked--pull over where Schooner Gulch Road comes in and park by the sign reading "Park facing south." A short trail leads to a secluded driftwood-strewn crescent of sand.

You'll find some interesting shops along the short main drag in Point Arena, about 15 miles north of Gualala; we particularly liked Bookends bookstore. Detour out to the pier, rebuilt after being destroyed by high waves in 1983. Another local landmark, the 1907 Point Arena Lighthouse and Museum, sits on the long finger-like point; for a workout, climb its 145 steps to the top.

Elk, a former lumber port, poises artistically along tall bluffs 19 miles north of Point Arena. You can buy sandwiches at the Elk Store and walk across the street to Greenwood Creek State Beach for your picnic. The Country Store and Garden Shop at Greenwood Pier Inn has some unusual pots and garden artwork.

For dining in Gualala, the 1903 Gualala Hotel (707/884-4840) serves a tasty, rib-sticking meal. Reserve ahead to dine at St. Orres (884-3303), 2 miles north of Gualala, or Harbor House (877-3203), in Elk--both offer excellent prix-fixe dinners and splendid scenery. In Point Arena, The Galley at Arena Cove has good seafood.

The broad array of lodging here includes more than a dozen inns and B & Bs, as well as beachside campgrounds, rustic motels, and vacation home rentals. For a free list, call the Fort Bragg-Mendocino Coast Chamber of Commerce at 961-6300.

CAPITOLA: Set up camp on Monterey Bay

Capitola's pedigree as a summer retreat is a long one: beachgoers started coming to German immigrant Frederick Hihn's family-oriented spa here back in 1876, making it perhaps the oldest seaside resort in California. Fortunately, the town has managed to retain much of its early charm. With people coming here for almost 120 years, though, it's hard to claim that Capitola is undiscovered. It can get crowded enough on weekends that we suggest you visit midweek.

Cupped between West and Depot hills, along a gentle curve of Monterey Bay, this is one of the best walking towns in California. Every turn seems to lead to a view of beach, bluffs, or a prettily restored Victorian. Your first stop should be the chamber of commerce, at 621-B Capitola Avenue, for a city map with suggested walking tours.

Because Hihn's Camp Capitola catered mainly to working- and middle-class families, Capitola isn't a village of grand mansions but of small, often nicely restored cottages. Among the most venerated landmarks are The Sisters, a line of turn-of-the-century homes on San Jose Avenue. Walk west along Stockton Avenue toward the Capitola Wharf and you'll see another beachside gem: Capitola Venetian Court, brightly painted 1920s beach lodgings as charming in their own way as anything you'll see along the Grand Canal. Be sure to walk out on Capitola Wharf, where you can rent boats and fishing equipment, and get a fine view of Capitola and Monterey Bay.

What with all this walking, you've earned a good meal. The Sea Bonne Restaurant (408/462-1350) specializes in seafood, Antoine's Inn (474-1974) in Cajun food, Balzac Bistro (476-5035) in, yes, bistro fare. A few blocks north of the village, Gayle's Bakery & Rosticceria (504 Bay Avenue) is deservedly popular for its croissants, pastries, and sandwiches. The most glamorous and famous restaurant in town is the Shadowbrook (475-1511). Perched among gardens on the banks of Soquel Creek, it's probably the only restaurant in the nation whose patrons reach it on an inclined railroad.

Where to stay? The Inn at Depot Hill (462-3376), a beautifully restored Southern Pacific Coast Railroad depot, now has eight tastefully luxurious rooms that start at $155. On a lovely bluff overlooking the Pacific, the century-old El Salto Resort (462-6365) has 4 acres of gardens with 12 cottages renting for $100 to $185. One of the larger of the resort's Victorians is operated as the Monarch Cove Inn (464-1295), with 12 rooms for $165 to $215. For atmospheric beachside lodging, rooms at the Venetian Court (800/332-2780 or 408/476-6471) rent from $110 and up.

SAN LUIS OBISPO COAST: Monterey's pines without its polish

Not as touristy as Carmel or as developed as Monterey, the San Luis Obispo coast from Morro Bay to Cambria is a mixed bag of crowded waterfronts and wide-open beaches, fish-and-chip stands and trendy restaurants, run-down motor courts and charming bed-and-breakfasts.

Keep in mind that the Monterey pines that grow around here thrive in cool, foggy climates; this isn't a place for sun worshippers. But the beach offers other joys, such as a long walk along the 4-mile-long sand spit stretching from Montana de Oro State Park north to Morro Rock that is often photographed but less frequently visited.

North of Morro Bay, State Highway 1 takes you on a scenic route through the tiny towns of Cayucos and Harmony and up to artsy Cambria, a popular stopping off point for visits to nearby Hearst Castle.

Cayucos was once a prosperous shipping port with a pier almost 1,000 feet long. Today you'll still find a pier, though it's just long enough these days to get the anglers past the surf line.

Midway between Cayucos and Cambria is Harmony, a one-block town that boasts a population of 18. In its heyday back in the 1920s, a creamery flourished here and William Randolph Hearst used to stop by to purchase cheese and butter for his guests up at the castle. Part of the old creamery is now the Old Harmony Pasta Factory, a good place for a fireside dinner on a foggy evening.

Cambria is actually two different villages. The old town, called East Village, centers on the intersection of two old wagon trails, now Main and Bridge streets. The more interesting shops and restaurants are clustered around nearby Burton Drive, including the three best restaurants in town: the venerable Brambles Dinner House, the ethnically diverse Robin's, and the upscale Ian's.

Most of the lodging is in Morro Bay and Cambria. We liked The Inn at Morro Bay (800/321-9566; rates $110 to $210) for its proximity to a blue heron rookery. Most of Cambria's larger motels are out of town along Moonstone Beach, including the recently opened Fog Catcher Inn (800/445-6868; $80 to $135), a sister property to Cambria Pines Lodge (same telephone; $60 to $100), which is situated in a forest of Monterey pines on a hill overlooking town. The simple Cambria Palms Motel (805/927-4485) can accommodate a family of four for around $65 per night. For other options, call the Cambria Chamber of Commerce at 927-3624.

CARPINTERIA: A hideout for top bananas

Growing up in Southern California, we considered Carpinteria and Summerland our secret: two pretty beach towns that tourists ignored because they were in a hurry to get to Santa Barbara. So last November, when Bill Clinton spent his post-victory holiday here, we got worried. Dateline Carpinteria? Summerland a photo opportunity?

We are relieved to report that neither Summerland nor Carpinteria has gone Hollywood, Washington, D.C., or even Little Rock. This is still an endearingly self-effacing stretch of coast where polo players and celebrities coexist with surfers and oil workers.

Start your tour near the Ventura-Santa Barbara County line, where, in Mussel Shoals, The Cliff House Inn (800/892-5433) looks like a spot to which Philip Marlowe might have tailed an errant heiress. The Shoals Restaurant here has a knockout pool-and-Pacific view, and the food lives up to it. Rates for the 24 simple rooms run from $70 to $155.

In the tiny beach town of La Conchita lies Seaside Banana Garden, California's first commercial banana plantation, offering such exotics as strawberry-flavored Mysore. A mile above La Conchita, surfers congregate at world-famous Rincon Point, while nearby Rincon Beach County Park makes a better choice for swimmers and sunbathers.

Carpinteria is best known for its beach, whose broad offshore shelf has led local boosters to proclaim it "the world's safest." You can reserve campsites at Carpinteria State Beach through Mistix (800/444-7275), but, like most California beach campgrounds, it gets crowded in summer. Otherwise, accommodations in Carpinteria consist mostly of basic motels; for more information, call the Carpinteria Valley Chamber of Commerce at (805) 684-5479.

Hungry? The Palms (684-3811) has let customers grill their own steaks for 40 years; Chuy's (684-2444) is popular for fajitas and other Mexican fare. And though Carpinteria garnered fame as a Democratic vacation spot, it gives the G.O.P. equal time: Robitaille's Fine Candies (684-9340) is the home of the official mint of Ronald Reagan's 1984 presidential inauguration.

Four miles up the coast, Summerland was founded in 1883 by H. L. Williams as a center for Spiritualism, a sect that believed in communication with ghosts. Today Lillie Avenue is lined with antiques shops, while the steep hills above hold prettily restored Victorians that gaze oceanward like pensioners catching the sun.

Summerland is blessed with two good bed-and-breakfast inns. Rates for The Summerland Inn (969-5225) run from $65 to $140. The Craftsman-style Inn on Summer Hill (800/845-5566) is more opulent--rates here run from $160 to $275. As for restaurants, seekers of haute cuisine tend to drive over the hill to Montecito. But you can get a good omelet at Summerland Beach Cafe (969-1019). And the new first couple apparently enjoys the burgers at The Nugget (969-6135)--Bill and Hillary are shown smiling in the photos displayed on the walls.

NORTH SAN DIEGO COAST: Family fun in the flower fields

La Jolla, with its curvaceous coastline and glittering shops, is the Grace Kelly of north San Diego County. Del Mar, with its famous racetrack and stately groves of Torrey pines, is Prince Rainier. So what does one make of the three stepchildren--Cardiff-by-the-Sea, Encinitas, and Leucadia--just up the road? Some of the charm is there, certainly, but the three coastal siblings are definitely a little rougher around the edges--which just may be part of their appeal. Families vacation here because the beaches are great, the atmosphere is casual, and the price is right.

Though best known for its flower fields and greenhouses, this 5-mile strip of Old Highway 101 also supports a mixture of surf shops, flea marts, hole-in-the-wall eateries, and funky motels. Some of the flower fields have been built over with new shopping centers, and a few classier hotels, such as The Cardiff-by-the-Sea Lodge (619/944-6474; rates $105 to $250), have recently sprung up, but institutions like Cap'n Keno's in Encinitas, where surfers attracted to a menu that has "39 meals for $3.95 or less" hang out in the morning, are still there.

For a free map and lodging information, or for directions to the many local nurseries and gardens that welcome visitors, stop at the Encinitas Chamber of Commerce (753-6041), in Moonlight Plaza, on the southeast corner of Encinitas Boulevard and First Street. Across the way, Moonlight Beach Motel (753-0623) is typical of the more modest lodging in the area. The motel's proximity to its popular namesake and room rates of about $85 for a family of four are its main draws.

There's a wide range of eateries, most along Old Highway 101. The Lumberyard, a mall on H Street in Encinitas, is a collection of restaurants serving Japanese, Italian, Indian, and Mexican food. Cardiff's restaurant row, just south of town, has several beach-view eateries. For breakfast, try Pannikin's (510 Old Highway 101) in Encinitas, a bustling cafe that was once the town's train depot, where you can sit outside and watch cyclists cruise by along this popular coastal route. If that puts you in the mood to do your own pedaling, you can rent bikes from Coast Schwinn Cyclery (753-5867) in Encinitas. For beach rentals, including chairs, fins, and surfboards, check out 101 Sports (942-2088) in the Leucadia Plaza just south of Leucadia Boulevard.
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Title Annotation:10 great summer retreats
Author:Fish, Peter; Williamson, Marcia; Lansing, David; Jaffe, Matthew; Finnegan, Lora J.
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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