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Backyards to investigate in '08

Our region is a vast playground. See it with fresh eyes and you'll never lack for a weekend getaway.

January 06, 2008|Donna Wares | Special to The Times

When you decide to vacation in a distant or exotic locale, if you're anything like me, you investigate, you plan, you drive your spouse nuts with all the research.

But for getaways close to home, I've always tended to go for the easy and familiar. Over and over. It's just so effortless to say, "Let's go to Palm Springs," which invariably means checking into the same Rancho Mirage resort my family always visits, with comfortable, airy rooms and a twisting water slide that keeps the kids entertained. Enjoyable, yes. But after the umpteenth trip, hardly exciting.

Then last year, I was asked to write a travel book of great weekend escapes in Southern California. Goodbye, travel rut. Suddenly I began looking at Southern California through fresh eyes.

Nearly every week I went someplace different. Date nights. Day trips. Weekend treks to my favorite places and places I'd always meant to visit. My husband, teenage daughter and 9-year-old son often came along, and they had a blast kayaking, horseback riding, swimming, snorkeling, hand-feeding emus and roaming luscious nature spots from San Diego to the Gaviota Coast, Catalina Island to the California desert.

I sampled my way through two wine countries, played blackjack in the afternoon, cooked alongside a great chef, savored amazing farmers' markets and swam with schools of bright, teeming fish.

Here are five of my favorite SoCal road trips to help jump-start your travel adventures for the new year.

ECO RESORT AND S'MORES

Next time you're thinking about a Santa Barbara weekend, consider heading up the coast 20 miles farther, and standing on the bluffs at El Capitan State Beach. You'll see a wild, unspoiled stretch of California. And across U.S. 101, the rustic El Capitan Canyon campground has become an eco-friendly resort in the backyard of Los Padres National Forest.

El Capitan Canyon is a hideaway where you can enjoy campfire s'mores along with hot-stone massages. Tucked into a seaside pocket, the 300-acre resort offers camping for those who want some amenities too. Guests stay in cozy cedar cabins surrounded by leafy stands of giant sycamores. There are kitchenettes, full bathrooms, hardwood floors and bed linens that feel as though they belong at a fancy hotel. Some cabins have Jacuzzi tubs; many come with lofts accessible by ladders, one of many kid-pleasing touches.

Visitors can ride bikes, hike miles of hilly trails, trek to a nearby llama farm or play on the nearby beach. Another option: Use El Capitan Canyon as a quiet base of operation for exploring Santa Barbara or the Santa Ynez wine country.

Where to stay: El Capitan Canyon, 11560 Calle Real, Santa Barbara; (866) 352-2729, www.elcapitancanyon.com. Nightly cabin rates: December through March, $125 to $310, and April through November, $145 to $350. Rates for safari tents are $125 to $145 nightly.

Eating out: Canyon Market at El Capitan Canyon. The market serves sandwiches, pizza and other simple, tasty fare and carries a selection of Santa Ynez Valley wines. You'll also find provisions if you want to grill at the fire pit outside your cabin. On Saturdays during summer, there are barbecue dinners and evening concerts in the canyon.

PALM SPRINGS RETRO ESCAPE

Sink your toes into the deep ivory shag of a retro hideaway in the new/old Palm Springs. The former Rat Pack hideaway is ground zero for the style known as "Desert Modern," and its treasure-trove of Midcentury Modern architecture is being restored and polished to a vintage high gloss. The city's new breed of tourists come to marinate in the desert's history, culture and kitsch along with spa treatments.

While you're strolling downtown, stop by designer Trina Turk's hip boutique, 891 N. Palm Canyon Drive, (760) 416-2856; get your java at Koffi, 515 N. Palm Canyon Drive, (760) 416-2244, a friendly, retro-style coffeehouse; and detour a block off the city's main drive to browse the Palm Springs Museum, 101 N. Museum Drive, (760) 325-7186, www.psmuseum.org, where you can pick up a copy of the Palm Springs Modern Map ($5) to navigate the city's architecture. Or take Robert Imber's Palm Springs Modern Tours, (760) 318-6118 a three-hour minivan tour ($65) exploring the city's architecture and history.

Where to stay: At the heart of downtown, the old Marquis Hotel has been reborn as the chic Hotel Zoso, 150 S. Indian Canyon Drive, (760) 325-9676; www.hotelzoso.com, and welcomes guests with a faux-snakeskin couch and backlit onyx lobby bar.

The 16-room Movie Colony Hotel, 726 N. Indian Canyon Drive, (760) 320-6340 or (888) 953-5700, www.moviecolonyhotel .com, is an island of calm and cool. The wildest place is the Parker Palm Springs, 4200 E. Palm Canyon Drive, (760) 770-5000, www.theparkerpalmsprings.com, an ultra-mod hideaway surrounded by tall privacy hedges and safeguarded by doormen in hot-pink blazers. Think Frank Sinatra meets James Bond meets Austin Powers. Even if you don't stay at the Parker, stop by to have lunch or to sip a drink.

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