Maybe you dream about a weekend on the coast, snuggling with your sweetie on a cliff and soaking up the glorious fall sunshine. (It’s always nicest on the coast in early fall.) Perhaps it’s the mountains that invade your thoughts—towering pines, pretty vistas, bright foliage that smells good. You might not be able to imagine a weekend away without the kids, or could be that a few days at the spa, just the girls, would take your mind off real life. Whatever your wishes, don’t just dream about it. Plan it. And go.
* SAUSALITO: The Ultimate Stay-Put Escape
Where to Stay: Cavallo Point Lodge—Between the Marin Headlands and the San Francisco Bay, Cavallo Point is Fort Baker, a former U.S. Army post, turned into luxurious lodging. With historic rooms created from former Army officers’ quarters—pretty, whitewashed homes with hardwood floors, pressed tin ceilings and clear windows looking out at the bay—and contemporary rooms up on the bluff with views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Cavallo Point has been open just over a year. 301 Murray Circle, Sausalito; (415) 339-4700; cavallopoint.com; $240–$650
Dream Weekend: Park the car and yourselves—the headlands, a beach, a spa and a truly magnificent restaurant lie within walking distance. Hike the headlands, binoculars in hand, and watch for birds, dolphins and deer. Take a complimentary yoga class, join a hands-on class at Cavallo Point’s cooking school, or hear a park ranger’s fireside chat. Sit side-by-side in Adirondack chairs that face the Parade Ground and the bay, wiggling your toes in the pillowy grass that ruffles in the breeze.
Take the Bridge: It’s a half-mile hike from Cavallo Point to the Golden Gate Bridge. Walk along Moore Road and the Bay Trail up to the bridge, and cross the bay on foot into San Francisco.
Enraptured With Raptors: Hiking the headlands affords the best views of the bay and the birdlife. Hawk Hill, just a couple miles from Cavallo Point at Battery 29, teems with hawks during September and October.
102 Degrees: Slip into the meditation pool at the Healing Arts Center & Spa. More than 100 degrees and set against a wild headlands hillside, it’ll set your mind to lull and soothe hike-tired muscles.
Get Sauced: At Cavallo Point’s Murray Circle restaurant, prepare for a lengthy and phenomenal dining experience that will ignite your interest in sauces and disrupt any preconceptions about hotel dining. The menu reveals chef Joseph Humphrey’s sources: of local, organic and sustainable ingredients, that is. Wild seafood, grassfed beef, local lamb, duck, rabbit and quail made the summer menu, and most are sauced tableside by servers who know exactly what they’re talking about.
Marine Mammal Medicine: A few miles away in Fort Cronkhite, the new Marine Mammal Center nurtures local seals and sea lions back to health. Meet these patients and you’ll have new disrespect for plastic grocery bags and six-pack rings.
Tourist Treat: Bridgeway Street in Sausalito lures tourists who come to explore its galleries, shops and restaurants. Indulge in an omelet at Winship Restaurant or a burger at the well-named Hamburgers, admire the artworks at local galleries or shop for souvenirs in this quaint waterfront town.
Avoid a Nightmare: Bring sturdy shoes. The headlands’ wind-beaten and uneven trails are a broken ankle waiting to happen if you head up there in flip-flops.
* NAPA VALLEY: Girls’ Spa Getaway
Where to Stay: The Meritage Resort—This property feels a bit out of place adjacent to a bleak industrial section of Napa. But its bare-bones location—behind Highway 12/Highway 221, just downhill from the metal grape-crushing guy that signifies you’ve arrived in the Napa Valley—also affords it its greatest attribute: a wine cave that’s been dug beneath the hillside vineyard and transformed into a spectacular spa and tasting room. 875 Bordeaux Way, Napa; (866) 370-6272; themeritageresort.com; $149–$399
Dream Weekend: Gather a group of girlfriends and while away the weekend bonding over spa treatments and wine tasting. With The Meritage as home base, the group can venture deeper into the wine country, or stay put for in-the-cave pampering and wine tasting, and sunbathing by the pool.
Go Underground: Let The Meritage’s Spa Terra lure you beneath the vineyard to swaddle you in its dim, cool, rich-toned interior. Relax with friends in the candle-lighted blue room while awaiting pampering treatments—facials, massages, body scrubs. (The Oliva body scrub will leave middle-aged skin as soft as a baby’s butt.) Then, stew in the whirlpool before hitting the decadent multi-directional showers.
Bring Your Appetite: Try the black mussels in saffron sauce or the duck confit risotto at The Meritage’s onsite Siena Restaurant. Or head up the road to Napa’s Main Street for a truly inventive vegetarian dinner at Ubuntu.
Sip, Sip, Sip: Stay in the cave to visit Trinitas Tasting Room. Sample some of the Napa Valley’s most famous export.
Road Trip by Bike: Join the Napa Wine Tours’ “Winery Bike Tour From Calistoga.” The trip costs $160 per person (online) and includes bike rental, all cycling paraphernalia, a 10- to 17-mile excursion along quiet valley lanes, visits to wineries and a wine-country lunch beneath shady oaks.
Chat by the Water: Poolside at The Meritage, chat with your friends over lunch—the chicken Caesar salad hits the spot after a massage—then jump into the pool for a few jubilant handstands.
Road Trip by Car: As you head north on Highway 29/128, make a few key stops: 1) Oakville Grocery, a store crammed full of wine, cheeses, deli specialties, jams, baked items, breads, olives; 2) St. Helena, where the window shopping’s great fun and Gillwoods Cafe is a must-stop for a high-calorie breakfast; and 3) Silver Oak Winery’s Alexander Valley tasting room, located 16 gorgeous miles past Calistoga and promising some bracing samples of the famous Cabernet.
Avoid a Nightmare: Swirl and spit, or designate a driver.
* BERKELEY: Cool, Classic Charm
Where To Stay: The Claremont Resort—The gorgeous white landmark, set into the Oakland/Berkeley Hills, has since 1915 operated as a haven of class and sophistication. With sweeping views of the San Francisco Bay, it beckons guests to perch before picture windows, or simply lie back on a feather bed and dream of days gone by. 41 Tunnel Road, Berkeley; (510) 843-3000; claremontresort.com; $169 and up
Dream Weekend: Spend it Bay Area style—drinks in a classy bar, shopping on a sophisticated avenue, dinner somewhere that’s been around forever—or not. Educate yourself at the Lawrence Hall of Science museum and, by all means, stroll alongside the bay with the wind whipping your hair.
Hang With the Pretty People: Come late afternoon, the expensive cars start filling up the lot at The Claremont and beautifully dressed young adults descend on the bar. Join the crowd on the deck, where heat lamps keep the martini-sippers warm while they watch the sun drop behind the bay.
Dine at an Institution: Delve into a traditional crab Louie at Spenger’s Fresh Fish Grotto, a Berkeley institution that is really a McCormick & Schmick’s but still feels chain-free. It’s old school in a dark-wood nautical way.
Walk on the Water: No trip to Berkeley would be complete without a bayside walk in the marina. Admire the boats, laugh at the rookie windsurfers or remember your childhood when you walk past the Adventure Playground—a free-spirited play area where kids can paint and saw and pound nails, or just ride the zipline into a pile of sand.
Browse and Buy: Cruise the Fourth Street shopping district and discover bargains, one-of-a-kinds and exactly what you didn’t know you needed. Great spot to find innovative candles, fancy tapenades, organic bedding, hand-carved salad bowls, sea salts and stuff for your spoiled dog.
Take It With a Grain: Sea Salt, a small restaurant in a gritty section of Berkeley, takes seafood and turns it into such fun as an ahi slider or a bacon, lettuce and trout sandwich. If you’re into raw oysters, this is your spot.
Avoid a Nightmare: Bring a sweater. At least one.
* CARMEL: Luxury, Any Style
Where to Stay: Quail Lodge—With 97 guestrooms adjacent to a championship golf course, Quail Lodge, located about 5 miles inland from Carmel-by-the-Sea toward Carmel Valley, lures couples, families and groups seeking first-class service, luxury accommodations, good golf and an ideal location for experiencing the Monterey-Carmel area’s variety. 8205 Valley Greens Drive, Carmel; (888) 828-8787; quaillodge.com; $199–$570
Dream Weekend: Make it a family vacation. Teach the kids to play golf, tennis and bocce ball, and set them free in Quail Lodge’s pool while you lie under an umbrella and read magazines. Wear them out on hikes and drive the few miles into Monterey to check out the newest exhibits at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Learn the Game: Get the kids started early by signing them up for golf lessons at Quail Lodge. If professional instruction doesn’t appeal, just shoot the ball around the putting course.
Bring the Dog: Quail Lodge graciously accepts the canine member of your family. Dog bed, doggie bowls and a toy (to keep) will be provided.
Dinner at the Club: Cruise up to the golf club for dinner at Edgar’s, a lively and upscale sports bar atmosphere that’s absolutely appropriate for kids. Steaks and seafood dominate the menu; do not hesitate over dessert: Have the chocolate molten cake.
Party With the Locals: Across the street from Quail Lodge, Baja Cantina Mexican restaurant hops with live music and dancing locals on weekend nights. Indulge in a few margaritas—you’re not driving.
Prettiest Hike on Earth: Hike the oceanfront trails of Point Lobos State Reserve, quite possibly the most gorgeous place on Earth. You’ll see cypress trees, pounding surf, sea birds, seals and otters.
Pick Your Vegetables: Earthbound Farm’s Farm Stand, within walking distance of Quail Lodge, runs “harvest walks” every Saturday at 11 a.m. through October. A reservation earns you the right to walk the fields with a farmer, learn about organic farming and fill a basket with bounty to take home.
Side Trip to Big Sur: See for yourself the recovery since last year’s devastating fires—whole hillsides are sprouting again, and the mood in town is good. Stop at the Coast Gallery to admire local artworks, then head south 9 miles past the entrance to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park for a hike down to Partington Cove. Park by the metal gate on the ocean aside of Highway 1 and head down the steep trail, through a verdant forest, over a creek, through a dark tunnel to the secluded cove.
To Avoid a Nightmare: Don’t count on cold coastal weather. Bring shorts and tank tops, especially in the fall, when temperatures regularly climb into the 80s.
* SANTA CRUZ: The Dreamiest Name
Where to Stay: Dream Inn—This famous beachside hotel recently reopened after an extensive remodel, which brought it up to four-star standards. Book a balcony room overlooking Cowell State Beach and the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. If the sun is out, take advantage of the pool and whirlpool on deck. 175 West Cliff Dr., Santa Cruz; (866) 774-7735; dreaminnsantacruz.com; $299–$499
Dream Weekend: From the Dream Inn, walk to the wharf (clam chowder!) and the Boardwalk (roller coaster lovers unite). Take day excursions to the redwoods, stroll the verdant grounds of the University of California, and find a way to get out on the sparkling Pacific Ocean.
Butterfly, Butterfly: Mid-October through early March, monarchs roost at Natural Bridges State Beach, a designated preserve. Take a docent-led tour of the butterfly-filled eucalyptus grove and view the demonstration milkweed “maternity ward.”
Age of Aquarius: Dine at the Dream Inn’s onsite restaurant, Aquarius, where local, organic produce and sustainable seafood grace the menu. Go at sunset to fully appreciate the glorious view, and order the ahi.
Kiss at the Top: Share a smooch with your sweetie atop the Boardwalk’s Ferris wheel, which affords limitless views of the Pacific Ocean, the taffy-colored Boardwalk attractions and the beachcombers below.
Sail the Sea: For $52, join an excursion onboard the Chardonnay II out of Santa Cruz Harbor. Choose from a variety of charters, including Sushi Sunday and Brewmaster Saturday, or something more educational—like a nighttime astronomy sail—or adventurous: the Wednesday night races, where some 80 local boats compete.
First Friday Art Walk: Visit galleries and other art hotspots in downtown Santa Cruz during this monthly event, which always promises free snacks and drinks along the way.
Solve the Mystery: For $5, tour the Mystery Spot. Why is it so hard to walk? Is the cabin floor level? It’s a mystery, for sure. Another conundrum: Why the Mystery Spot bumper sticker has become such a collector’s item.
Among the Tall Trees: Take the Sequoia Trail hike at Big Basin Redwoods State Park. This trail winds through towering redwoods and meadows, and passes creeks and a redwood tree that caught fire in 1904 and smoldered for 14 years—and still stands today. Pick up the trail by park headquarters.
To Avoid a Nightmare: Wear sunscreen, even if it’s foggy. Santa Cruz’s marine layer may look thick, but the sun blasts right through.
* MENDOCINO COUNTY: Way Up North
Where to Stay: The Inn at Schoolhouse Creek—With North Coast charm, this collection of rooms and cottages invites every type of traveler—romantic, family-focused, solitary. The inn rambles down a hillside toward the ocean, and two cottages perch cliffside offsite in Albion. 7051 North Highway 1, Little River; (800) 731-5525; schoolhousecreek.com; $175–$399
Dream Weekend: For romance, reserve an offsite cliffside cottage; for the family, Pacific View is perfect with two stories, a full kitchen and close proximity to the property’s donkey pen. Disconnect from the trappings of modern life—given the spotty cell and Internet coverage up here, you may have no choice—and instead spend your days exploring the windswept beaches and tiny towns along Highway 1.
Cure the Hurt in the Yurt: Indulge in a massage in the yurt at The Inn at Schoolhouse Creek and find yourself lulled to sleep by the wind rustling the canvas around you.
Dine Behind the Gas Station: Seven tables, two seatings a night, four nights a week, five courses—at La Petite Rive in Little River, you choose only your entrée (choices include innovative takes on seafood, lamb, pork, duck) and the rest (appetizer, bread, amuse bouche, soup, salad) comes with. Reservations: required. Attire: casual. Ocean view: spectacular. Food: phenomenal and relatively affordable at approximately $30 a meal.
Life’s a Beach: At Van Damme and Big River beaches, driftwood means big climbing logs. Sea-tossed rocks litter the sand and kids of all ages can find plenty of nature’s toys to occupy them.
Light Up Your Night: Through mid-September, reserve a spot on Catch-a-Canoe’s Saturday night sunset-till-dark Bioluminescence Tour. The Big River glows with green sparkles, thanks to dinoflagellate organisms’ phosphorescent defense mechanisms. Huh? Take our word: It’s very cool.
Cape Cod Charm: No trip to the North Coast is complete without spending an afternoon browsing the shops and galleries in Mendocino proper. The Gallery Bookshop, Déjà Vu Hats, Golden Goose, The Highlight Gallery, Mendocino Garden Shop, Out of This World . . .
Weird, Wild Side Trip: An hour down Highway 1 in Point Arena, B. Bryan Preserve runs feeding-time tours of its wildlife preserve. Climb in the Range Rover and bounce safari-style across grasslands devoted to housing and breeding endangered species of zebra and antelope. Owners Judy and Frank Mello charge $20 for the tour, and they make it worth every penny.
Avoid a Nightmare: Prone to carsickness? Do not attempt to access the Mendocino coast from the goat path that is Highway 20 out of Willits.
* CLOVERDALE: Romance on the Ridge
Where To Stay: Ravenridge Cottages—Two separate cottages perched on a ridge in eastern Mendocino County command guests to park their backsides for a few days, get out the binocs and dream about rural life. The smaller, Woodhaven—a spacious, concrete-floor studio with a galley kitchen—is perfect for a couple. Hillview, a one-bedroom house with a full kitchen and separate living room, would work for a family. 39975 Highway 128, Cloverdale; (707) 894-7320; ravenridgecottages.com; $225
Dream Weekend: Make it a twosome, stop in Cloverdale for provisions and home in at Ravenridge. Watch the sunset from the deck, glass of Anderson Valley chardonnay in hand. Flip through the onsite coffee table books glorifying seasonal decorating and rural life, and imagine. Cook dinner together. Talk.
Swaying in the Breeze: Climb into the hammock—a sturdy one strung between two wind-kissed trees—crack a book you’ve been dying to read and wait for the deer to amble by. Or just close your eyes, listen to the breeze, and dream.
Grocery Stop: Ray’s Food Place in Cloverdale. Pick up meat and veggies for the grill at Ravenridge, some stiff sourdough bread, salad stuff, wine and breakfast items. Why is Ray’s special? It’s the only grocery store in town.
An Invitation to Accept: If Ravenridge proprietors Gerald Reis and Kurt Feichtmeir invite you up to their home to enjoy a glass of wine in their organic garden—as they often do on weekends—take the opportunity. Their garden will inspire you to come home and farm your own yard, and Reis’ woodworking barn, with Feichtmeir’s Martha Stewartesque garden shed on one side, will prod you to reorganize your priorities. Their sleeping porch will just make you jealous. As will their awe-inspiring view across the mountains toward the coast.
Sparkly: A remote wine country, the Anderson Valley is home to vintners who pour tastes free of charge. One favorite: Scharffenberger Cellars, where generous pourings of sparkling wines will lighten your mood.
The Boonies: About 20 miles along Highway 128 toward the coast, the town of Boonville sits in the midst of the Anderson Valley wine country. Meander through the shops, grab lunch at Lauren’s Cafe, taste beer and play disc golf at the Anderson Valley Brewing Company.
Avoid a Nightmare: Bring your insect repellent to Ravenridge; otherwise the mosquitoes will eat you alive on the deck.