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04/06/2011
By Alison Brisnehan | 04/06/2011
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Travel Buzz
California's Greatest Hits
By Alison Brisnehan

From natural treasures to Hollywood glitz, the "Golden State" has everything a traveler could ask for...and so much more!

Glamour, sunshine, wine-fewer words better or more appropriately describe the allure of California than these. In our quest to truly discover the "Best of California," my husband and I signed up for a 9-day insight vacations tour showcasing the golden state's greatest offerings.

Our adventure began in the heart of warm and sunny San Francisco when we arrived at our hotel just outside Chinatown and met up with our tour group. Following an informative reception, we enjoyed the evening to ourselves with dinner and a night out on the town. The hotel concierge directed us to Belden Place, a French Quarter-style alley located a few blocks from the hotel.

Many fine dining restaurants lined the alleyway and we joined the many diners packing the tables and soaking up the cool evening air.

Awe-Inspiring Views

The next morning found us up bright and early ready to tour more of the city with our group. Lucky for us, San Francisco's notorious fog decided to take the morning off, so we took advantage of the clear air and ventured up to the Twin Peaks area to get beautiful views of the city's famous skyline. The vistas of the Transamerica Pyramid Tower and surrounding skyscrapers was majestic, as was the panorama of the San Francisco Bay Bridge shining brightly in the early morning sun.

Our tour of San Francisco continued on to Union Square and Alamo Square where we managed to get a glimpse of the city's famous Painted Ladies homes and the Golden Gate Bridge. At the bridge we had the option of walking across, which most people chose, or riding the bus across to the artistic town of Sausalito. However, we chose to take the ferry across the bay back to Fisherman's Wharf to see a side of the Golden Gate Bridge not seen on land.

After a quick stop back at the hotel to catch our breath, we were whisked away on a walking tour of Chinatown, one of the focal points of San Francisco's cultural diversity. There we had a chance to stop by the famous Chinese Cookie Shop before dinner with our fellow travelers at an authentic Chinese restaurant.

Sampling the Wine Country's Luscious Harvest

The morning after our visit to Chinatown, we boarded the historic and restored Napa Valley Wine Train for a trip to the lush and scenic Napa Valley. Onboard we lounged in overstuffed chairs facing out huge windows showcasing the passing landscape. Waiters served various vintages while explaining their profiles, how to drink them, and the foods that ideally complement each wine. Afterwards, a sumptuous lunch was provided. The overall experience of food and scenery make the train ride a fantastic experience, even for those who rarely savor a glass of wine. Napa Valley is a playground for both devout wine connoisseurs and those who simply enjoy an occasional glass (or two). Here we spent a relaxed afternoon exploring and learning how Buena Vista, the first winery in Napa Valley, grows its grapes and makes its own wines.

Gem of the Golden State

Yosemite National Park is unquestionably the Golden State's most precious natural treasure. With a beauty unrivaled by any other park in California, Yosemite is an amazing sight to behold. Day four of our journey was spent here and the transition from city to wine country to national forest was quite remarkable. Spectacular waterfalls, rock formations, and abundant wildlife greet your entrance into the park. We spent the afternoon hiking to different waterfalls and dipping our feet into Mirror Lake before returning to our lodge. There are many activities here for everyone, from hiking to riding bikes or just sitting on your porch looking for the wildlife. If you happen to be lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of a bear like we did. After a busy day in Yosemite we were ready for a laid-back day in the tiny whimsical town of Carmel By the Sea. Clint Eastwood once called this offbeat town his own and was its mayor for a short time. Beautiful art galleries, quiet coffee shops and restored bed and breakfasts lined the main street of Ocean Avenue, the soul of Carmel by the Sea. In the heart of downtown, beautiful homes have been restored and given names such as Rose Garden or Love House as their addresses.

After spending some time strolling the nearby beach, we toured the famous 17-mile drive dotted with multi-million dollar homes, the Pebble Beach Golf Course, and the home made famous in the Alfred Hitchcock movie "The Birds." The day ended with an evening exploring the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium and watching sea lions play from the outside view decks. Dinner was later served at the aquarium in a spectacular dining room overlooking the pristine ocean.

Searching For Stars

On our tour's sixth day we headed out on the bus to Hearst Castle, the grandiose estate of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst. Set high on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Hearst Castle is one place you do not want to miss. Walking around the estate, you could almost imagine the famous people that once gathered-Amelia Earhart, Winston Churchill, and Charlie Chaplin to name a few. There is no way to put this home into words; rather, one must really see it in person to understand the beauty that it holds. That afternoon we continued on the bus to Santa Barbara. There we checked into our beach-front resort, where once again we were able to slip away and touch the ocean and sand. Dinner was served at a wonderful seafood restaurant, where we made a new group of friends.

The next day we headed to one of the oldest missions in California, Mission Santa Barbara, and enjoyed a tour of its gardens, chapel and graveyard. We then moved on to Malibu and the famed Santa Monica pier. A short walk from the pier is the Third Street Promenade, a great place to look for celebrities. From roller coasters and carnival food to shops and fine dining, the Promenade holds a little something for anyone. Our day ended with a visit to the JP Getty Center, one of the most visited art museums in the United States and home to art dating back to the Middle Ages, as well as more modern pieces.

Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous

My husband and I were looking forward to our final day of the trip: a grand tour of Beverly Hills and Hollywood. We toured Bel Air and Beverly Hills, seeing the homes of Nicholas Cage, Nancy Reagan, Robin Williams, Hugh Heffner and Tom Cruise. Not only does the tour show you the homes, but it also takes you to all the hot spots where famous people are seen on a regular basis. The tour took us through Rodeo Drive, pointing out all the best spots and ended with a fantastic view of the Hollywood sign. While the morning was fun, the afternoon was outstanding. Our group went down to Grauman's Chinese Theater where time was spent putting our hands in the cement hand impressions of celebrities such as Brad Pitt, Marilyn Monroe, Tom Hanks, and Harrison Ford. We were then treated to a private tour of the Kodak Theater, where we were allowed to go up and stand on the stage to experience what it might be like to accept an Academy Award. This was a wonderful way to wrap up our tour of California. From San Francisco to Los Angeles, and everywhere in between, our Insight tour guide did an excellent job of making sure we saw the "Best of California".

 

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