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Twelve Top Vacation Getaways in the West

From a quiet seaside escape for sweethearts to a high desert haven-here are twelve vacation places that have just what your searching for.

sailboat on beach in Maui, image
Photo caption
Maui's beaches consistently rate among the world's best.

A place to take the kids

San Diego, California Don't waste your summer vacation waiting in line at a certain overcrowded Southern California theme park. The best place to entertain the younger set is San Diego, where your first stop should be Balboa Park. Among the park's 32 attractions are the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, where scientists of tomorrow can discover the wonders of the universe today, and the San Diego Automotive Museum, where kids can climb into a car and pretend to drive. Next stop: the San Diego Model Railroad Museum, where little ones can play conductor in the Toy Train gallery. Don't miss the park's 1910 carousel, one of only a few in the world that still have a brass-ring dispenser. The San Diego Zoo, perhaps the best in the country, is home to rare and threatened species like the giant panda, black rhino, and cheetah. Book a Roar & Snore family campout and enjoy an overnight safari. Head to the Imperial Beach Pier July 25 to 27 for the sand-castle contest, where kids can watch world-class sand sculptors ply their craft and then try to create their own masterpieces during the kids' competition. At Legoland, just north of the city, junior engineers can design a mini-race car, watch a 4-D movie, or ride the Dragon Coaster to their heart's content.,

A place for romance

Gualala, California  The tiny town of Gualala, perched on the rugged Mendocino coast, provides the perfect setting for a rendezvous. Book a night or two at the Old Milano Hotel and ask for the caboose, a restored train car tucked into a cypress grove. Lovebirds can snuggle together in the two brakeman's seats to watch the sun go down. Or reserve a room with a fireplace at the North Coast Country Inn and enjoy its secluded outdoor hot tub. The innkeepers provide guests with a picnic basket full of wine, cheese, and other goodies for a rustic feast on the beach at nearby Gualala Point Regional Park. For a swoon-inducing dinner, take a drive 2.5 miles north to the Saint Orres, an opulent inn with a Russian design and a restaurant that offers such sumptuous dishes as pheasant breast with wild mushroom risotto cakes and steamed mussels atop saffron fettuccine.

A place to step back in time

Nevada City, California  In 1850, the streets of Nevada City buzzed with the risky business ventures of Gold Rushers, outlaws, and ladies of the night. Today, the entire downtown—93 buildings in all—is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Take a tour in a horse-drawn carriage and stop by the Firehouse No. 1 Museum for a look at exquisite Maidu baskets and eerie relics of the Donner party. The Nevada Theatre was built in 1865 and regularly featured Mark Twain as a lecturer; it's now home to the excellent Foothill Theatre Company. Check into a 19th-century bed-and-breakfast such as Grandmère's Inn, or reserve yourself a room at the National Hotel, which claims to be the oldest continuously operating hotel west of the Rockies. Tuck into a fine meal in its Victorian dining room, or have a drink at the saloon, more polished now than in its pre-Prohibition heyday.

A place to see the trees

Big Basin Redwoods State Park  California California's oldest state park boasts 20,000 acres of towering redwoods, numerous waterfalls, and 80 miles of trails. The Berry Creek Falls Trail, an 11-mile round-trip through old-growth forest and past three lovely cascades, is rated the No. 1 hike in the Bay Area by the authors of California Hiking. The tamer Redwood Loop passes some of the taller and more unusual trees (look for the "curly wood"). Situated about 40 miles west of San Jose, Big Basin offers a coastal alternative to other redwoods areas such as Sequoia National Park. Reservations for campsites and tent cabins are a must in the summer. Ask for the Hassle-Free package and leave your gear at home: your tent cabin will be furnished with a propane stove, sleeping bags, cooking pots, firewood, and other supplies. You can even arrange to have the makings of a hearty breakfast—muffins, pancakes, bacon, orange juice, and coffee—included. Who knew roughing it could be such a breeze?

A place for Southwestern scenery

Zion National Park, Utah  Zion's red rock canyons, magnificent sandstone cliffs, and river-carved gorges provide some of the most jaw-dropping scenery in the world. In summer, a free shuttle transports visitors along the spectacular Zion Canyon Scenic Drive past such regal rock formations as Great White Throne and Court of the Patriarchs. Follow Kolob Terrace Road up to 8,000-foot Lava Point for panoramic views of the entire park. At day's end, kick back at one of the many local B&Bs. Some of the rooms at Harvest House, less than a mile from the park entrance, have decks overlooking Watchman Canyon. Or relax in an outdoor Jacuzzi at the Red Rock Inn and watch a fiery sunset over Zion Canyon.

A place to play cowboy

Elko, Nevada  Discover your inner wrangler in Elko's high desert. The Northeastern Nevada Museum boasts an 1860 pony express cabin and an exhibit on renowned saddle maker Guadalupe Garcia. Basque heritage is celebrated July 3 to 6 during the National Basque Festival, which features a downtown running "from" the bulls. The Western Folklife Center, dedicated to preserving the cowboy legacy, sponsors the annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering in January (make reservations now for next year). Or let Elko serve as home base for a horse-packing trip into the majestic Ruby Mountains, known as "the Alps of Nevada."

A place to ride the rapids 

Lewiston, Idaho  Gateway to the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area, Lewiston sits at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers and boasts some of the most thrilling white water in the West. Join one of the local outfitters for a rafting or high-speed jet boat trip through North America's deepest river gorge, which plunges roughly 8,000 feet from its highest point. Enjoy the scenery—steep volcanic walls and black basalt formations—and keep an eye out for bighorn sheep, river otters, and bears.

A place to visit the past

Aurora, Oregon  In 1856, a group of German settlers founded the Aurora Colony, a utopian society that flourished for the next 25 years. Today, this town of 637 promises a utopia for antique hounds, who can browse 26 antique shops, and history buffs, who can admire notable buildings like the Kraus house, with its handmade 19th-century furnishings. The Old Aurora Colony Museum displays such artifacts as the Schellenbaum (tree of bells), a musical instrument carried by the colony's band. Stop by the Pacific Hazelnut Candy Factory, where copper kettles bubble with toffee featuring locally grown hazelnuts.

A place to take the kids

Salem, Oregon  At the capitol, visit the observation deck for views of the city and (on a clear day) the Cascade Range. Drop by A.C. Gilbert's Discovery Village, where tykes can surround themselves with a giant shimmering globe in the Bubble Room. The Mission Mill Museum offers Family Fun Saturdays during the summer, with pioneer-era activities like butter churning and ice cream making. Plunge down a 40-foot-high log flume and see fairy-tale characters come to life at the nearby Enchanted Forest theme park. Or head to Thrill-Ville USA for bumper cars and water slides. Don't miss the hand-carved horses at Salem's Riverfront Carousel.

A place to get back to nature

Reedsport/Winchester Bay, Oregon  The neighboring towns of Reedsport and Winchester Bay are smack in the middle of the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, a haven of coastal sand hills, forest, and wetlands. Explore the state's tallest dunes, some nearly 150 feet high, or head to the Dean Creek elk-viewing area, home to a herd of majestic Roosevelt elk. Hungry? Rent a crab pot at Winchester Bay Market and catch your own Dungeness crab. If you snare one with a tag on it in August or September, you could win up to $10,000 in the Crab Bounty Hunt. Or pick up a bucket and shovel at the Reedsport Outdoor Store and go clamming. Budget hotels abound in Reedsport; you can also pitch a tent at the Umpqua Lighthouse State Park.

A place to eat

Vancouver, B.C.  Long known for its great sushi, Vancouver is emerging as the capital of the new Pacific Northwest cuisine. And with the exchange rate hovering at U.S. $1 to Canadian $1.43, it's pleasantly affordable. At Bishop's, the 98 percent organic menu features grilled beef tenderloin. Head over to C Restaurant for ultrafresh seafood, like wild sockeye salmon and Kagan Bay scallops. The sushi-phobic should try Hapa Izakaya, where the tapas menu reveals the homier side of Japanese cuisine. Or pick up your own fresh ingredients at the Granville Island Public Market.

A place to hit the beach

Maui, Hawai  Maui's beaches consistently rate among the world's best. Maximize your time on the sand by taking advantage of Hawaiian Air's direct flights from Portland (for assistance, call AAA Travel at 800-529-3222 or visit You can splash about family-friendly Kapalua Beach or snorkel at Kahekili Beach Park. Loll away the day at Kaanapali Beach, then stroll the coastal path at sunset. Want to try surfing? Stick to the gentle waves at Lahaina or take a lesson at one of the local surf schools.

Photography by Ann Cecil

This article was first published in July 2003. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.