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One-of-a-Kind Accommodations

Hoteliers statewide have done their utmost to create accommodations that match the glories of the region's landscape, in the process creating lodgings that boast character as well as comfort. Some are unconventional, while others are genuine old-school gems.

Hotel Del Coronado, Coronado. A turreted beauty and veritable Victorian extravaganza, this spot inspired L. Frank Baum's description of Oz. Iconic architecture aside, Hotel Del Coronado is also famous as the filming locale for Some Like It Hot, and has hosted most of the U.S. presidents in the last century. Today it caters more to tour groups than Tinseltown stars, but fans remain loyal.

Mission Inn, Riverside. This sprawling Spanish Revival estate has welcomed a who's who of politicos. Ronald and Nancy Reagan spent their wedding night here; Richard and Pat Nixon were married in its chapel; and eight U.S. heads of state have patronized its Presidential Lounge.

Movie Colony Hotel, Palm Springs. Hollywood's 1930s heyday comes alive at this glamorous boutique hotel designed by Albert Frey, who created mid-century minimalism in Palm Springs. The glam now attracts a lively clientele and has a cool vibe.

Fairmont San Francisco, San Francisco. It got off to a shaky start (the 1906 earthquake delayed its opening by exactly a year), but this Nob Hill hotel has hosted groundbreaking events like the drafting of the United Nations Charter and Tony Bennett's debut of "I Left My Heart in San Francisco."

Off-the-Beaten-Path Adventures

Mother Nature has truly outdone herself in California. But at the state's most popular sites, it can be hard to approach her handiwork with a sense of awe when you're encircled by souvenir hawkers and camera-wielding tourists. Step off the beaten path, though, and all you'll be able to hear will be the echo of your own voice saying "wow."

Hiking. Steam is the theme at Lassen Volcanic National Park: especially along the 3-mile Bumpass Hell Trail, which has hot springs, steam vents, and mud pots. If you're looking for a cooler hiking experience (temperature-wise), it's hard to top the rugged beauty of Point Reyes National Seashore.

Climbing. Joshua Tree National Park is California's epicenter for climbing; within the park there are hundreds of formations and thousands of routes to choose from. No experience? No problem. J-Tree outfitters offers crash courses for beginners.

Kayaking. Paddling around the lichen-covered sea caves of Channel Islands National Park or surreal tufa towers of Mono Lake, you'll feel like you're on another planet. But kayaking in San Francisco or La Jolla proves you needn't travel far to lose the mob.

Ballooning. Wanna get high? Hot-air ballooning—whether over Wine Country, Temecula, Palm Desert, Mammoth Lakes, or Shasta Valley—lets you sightsee from a totally new perspective.

Amusement Parks

You're on vacation, so why not enjoy some carefree pleasures? For concentrated doses of old-fashioned fun, indulge in creaky waterfront amusements—like Musée Mécanique on San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf and the antique carousel at Santa Monica Pier. Or opt for a full day at an over-the-top theme park.

Disneyland, Anaheim. Walt Disney set the gold standard for theme parks, and his original "magic kingdom" (the only one built during his lifetime) remains at the top of its class due to innovative rides, animatronics, and a liberal sprinkling of pixie dust.

LEGOLAND California, Carlsbad. Dedicated to the plastic bricks that have been a playtime staple for almost 60 years, this park has more than 50 LEGO-inspired attractions (including the popular Driving School, Fun Town Fire Academy, plus get-all-wet Splash Battle and Treasure Falls) and some 15,000 LEGO models ranging from teeny working taxis to a 9-foot-tall dinosaur.

San Diego Zoo Safari Park, Escondido. Get up close and personal with lions and tigers at this huge park where animals appear to be roaming free. You can feed a giraffe, talk to the gorillas, and track herds of elk as they cross the plain. Cheetahs bound, hippos huff, and zebras zip.

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, Santa Cruz. Now well over 100 years old (its centennial was in 2007), the state's oldest amusement park is a sentimental favorite. Expect vintage rides (most notably a 1911 carousel and wooden roller coaster) alongside contemporary attractions, as well as corn dogs, cotton candy, and loads of kitsch.

Spas

Ancient Romans coined the word "spa" as an acronym for solus per aqua (or "health by water"). There's plenty of the wet stuff in the Golden State, yet California spas—like California kitchens—are known for making the most of any indigenous ingredient. The resulting treatments are at once distinctive, decadent, and most important, relaxing.

The Golden Door, Escondido. Relax and renew at this destination spa tucked into a secluded canyon north of San Diego. Serenity and simplicity rule here, where every moment reflects its Zen-like ambience.

Glen Ivy Hot Springs Spa, Corona. Forget Club Med. In the Inland Empire, it's Club Mud that counts. The outdoor bath at this historic day spa couples red clay from Temescal Canyon with naturally heated, mineral-rich water from its own thermal springs.

Post Ranch Inn & Spa, Big Sur. Like its organic architecture, this luxe retreat's spa treatments are designed to capture the tone of Big Sur. Case in point, the Crystal and Gemstone Therapy. It combines Native American tradition (a ceremonial burning of sage) with an aromatherapy massage that employs jade collected from nearby beaches and essences of local wildflowers.

Spa Terra, Napa. While other Wine Country spas often overlook vineyards, the one at the new Meritage Resort occupies an estate cave 40 feet below them. Appropriately, the facility specializes in vinotherapy treatments incorporating—you guessed it—the fruit of the vine.

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