Escape city life with a winter weekend escape on less than a tankful of gas from the San Francisco Bay Area. Pack a corkscrew, a kite, a bike, binoculars, golf clubs, and hiking shoes, but leave your laptop behind. Consider whale watching in coastal Mendocino; surfing and a chowder fest in Santa Cruz; wine tasting, fine dining, plus golf in Livermore; a blast from the past in historic Winters; or scenic drives and aquarium escapades in Monterey.
Mendocino in March
Mendocino is on the National Register of Historic Places and much loved for feeling more like 1850 than 2013. Three 31st Annual Mendocino Coast Whale Festivals take place the first three weekends of March. Concerts, whale watching, wine, beer, chowder tasting, even kayaking through sea caves are on the agenda. Climb steps inside the 1909 Point Cabrillo lighthouse to meet a docent and get a better lookout.
Stay in a historical house with beach views from $189, or request the Master with a four-post bed and fireplace ($279) at the 1879 Joshua Grindle Inn. Owners Charles and Cindy offer a homemade breakfast on the wrap-around porch and can pack guests a picnic basket for a walk to the beach. If you'd like to bring Rover along, check out the pet-friendly historical Mendocino Hotel & Garden Suites in the village overlooking the Pacific (doubles from $261).
Santa Cruz Surfing Story
Santa Cruz Surfing Museum at Steamer Lane marks the spot where in 1885, three cadets from royal Hawaiian families decided to paddle out on a plank of redwood. Surf City was born. Even if you're not a surfer, the history of the sport and the boards, as revealed inside Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse, is a fascinating one. Open winter weekends 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
With 300 sunny days a year, there's more to do. Chefs descend from all over Northern California for the 32nd Annual Clam Chowder Cook-Off & Festival on Saturday, February 23, 2013. They'll come dressed as mermaids, clam fairies, scuba divers, and goodness knows what, competing for the best costume and chowder in both Manhattan and New England categories. The event raises funds for local parks and recreation, so help the judges out; your tasting ticket is $9. Bring the kids.
The famous Beach Boardwalk rides, including the Giant Dipper since 1924, are open in winter every Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., with mini golf, laser tag, bowling, and arcade games open later.
Stay at the stylish and classic new Hotel Paradox (doubles from $125) with its inviting outdoor pool beside the redwoods. Or walk to town from an absolute hidden gem, The Adobe on Green Street, a charmingly tranquil B&B (from $189).
Longing for Livermore
Only 40 miles east from San Francisco, you're in for a weekend of food and wine indulgence. Check in at family-owned and operated Purple Orchid Resort & Spa, a pretty Lincoln-Log build of 10 guest rooms (from $150) with a spa and small outdoor pool surrounded by acres of olive groves.
Most of Livermore Valley's 40 wineries participate in the Livermore Valley Winegrowers Fifth Annual Barrel Tasting Weekend on March 23-24, 2013, where visitors can meet winemakers and taste releases before they're bottled. On Sunday, to work off that dinner by chef Matt Greco and sommelier Jorge Tinoco of The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards, head for the fun 18-hole, par-72, Greg Norman-designed Course at Wente Vineyards.
Alternatively, chose the weekend of March 9, 2013, for the opening of "La Traviata" at downtown Livermore's Bankhead Theater, joining in a culinary experience with Uncle Yu's at the Vineyard, where Nick Liang is another of the East Bay's top sommeliers.
Winter in Winters
Near Lake Berryessa at the edge of Yolo County, Winters is 60 miles from San Francisco. Make your first stop in its charming restored downtown at the Main Street Visitors Center, where they'll point you to family-run wine tasting rooms and the newest addition, the 20-barrel craft Berryessa Brewery Co. with tap room.
Embrace a simple country stay at pretty Park Winters, browse Briggs Art Gallery and iron works farm, visit the historical train trestle bridge over Putah Creek, go fishing or cycling (rentals from Mike's Velo City), and try the wood-fired pizza at Putah Creek Café. You'll find no fast food, but here are a surprising number of super restaurants for a town of under 7,000 folks.
The wacky musical "Nunsense" is performed weekends between March 8 and 17, 2013, at Winters Community Center (tickets are $10), and live music is performed upstairs at the historic Palms Playhouse. Downstairs, Cloth Carousel, a quilt-making shop, offers first Saturday of the month walking tours through historical downtown WInters.
Monterey and Carmel Combo
Unquestionably posh and with a dense poodle population, Carmel-by-the-Sea has one of the prettiest in-town beaches you'll see, a virtual country club for Fido at sunset. Pet-friendly lodging and dining establishments number in the dozens.
Drive uphill to Pebble Beach and the 17-Mile Drive. Following red dashes painted on the road to stay on course, hug the Monterey Peninsula's dramatic shoreline as you go. Check out the links at Pebble Beach, stop at the 250-year-old Lone Cypress for a photo op, head for Steinbeck country at Monterey's Cannery Row for a dose of American literary history.
Make a point of visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium to learn more about oceanic preservation, where Shark Days are held on February 23-24, 2013. Dine beneath the moonlight or book the aquarium package with an ocean-view guest room at Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa, perched on the peninsula for far-reaching views and a close-up look at the amusing seals. Double accommodation begins at $209.