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Central Coast

Lonely Planet Lonely Planet ePub

Too often forgotten or dismissed as ‘flyover’ country between San Francisco and LA, this fairytale stretch of California coast is packed with wild beaches, misty redwood forests where hot springs hide, and rolling golden hills of fertile vineyards and farm fields.

Coastal Hwy 1 pulls out all the stops, scenery-wise. Flower-power Santa Cruz and the historic port town of Monterey are gateways to the rugged wilderness of the bohemian Big Sur coast. It’s an epic journey snaking down to vainglorious Hearst Castle, past lighthouses and edgy cliffs atop which endangered condors soar.

Get acquainted with California’s agricultural heartland along inland Hwy 101, called El Camino Real (the King’s Highway) by Spanish conquistadors and Franciscan friars. Colonial missions still line the route, which passes through Paso Robles' flourishing wine country. Then soothe your nature-loving soul in collegiate San Luis Obispo, ringed by sunny beach towns and volcanic peaks.

AAprMay Balmy temperatures, but fewer tourists than summer; wildflowers bloom.

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Napa & Sonoma Wine Country

Lonely Planet Lonely Planet ePub

America’s premier viticulture region has earned its reputation among the world’s best. Despite hype about Wine Country style, it’s from the land that all Wine Country lore springs. Rolling hills, dotted with century-old oaks, turn the color of lion’s fur under the summer sun and swaths of vineyards carpet hillsides as far as the eye can see. Where they end, lush redwood forests follow serpentine rivers to the sea.

There are over 600 wineries in Napa and Sonoma Counties, but it’s quality, not quantity, that sets the region apart – especially in Napa, which competes with France and doubles as an outpost of San Francisco’s top-end culinary scene. Sonoma prides itself on agricultural diversity, with goat-cheese farms, you-pick-em orchards and roadside fruit stands. Plan to get lost on back roads, and, as you picnic atop sun-dappled hillsides, grab a hunk of earth and know firsthand the thing of greatest meaning in Wine Country.

AJan Bright-yellow flowers carpet the valleys during the off-season; room rates plummet.

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Disneyland & Orange County

Lonely Planet Lonely Planet ePub

Chances are that Orange County, that stretch between Los Angeles and San Diego, has seeped into your consciousness even if you've never been here.

No doubt Mickey Mouse and friends have been a part of that (Disneyland is California's biggest attraction). So too have TV series from Real Housewives to MTV’s Laguna Beach, from The OC to Arrested Development have all been set here, taking the county's image from humdrum to hip, a place of mythically (gl)amorous teens, gorgeous beaches and socialite catfights.

While there’s a whiff of truth to those stereotypes of life behind the ‘Orange Curtain’ – big, boxy mansions, fortress-like shopping malls, the overly entitled tossing Happy Meals out of their Humvees – this diverse county's 789 sq miles, 34 cities and three million people create deep pockets of individuality, beauty and different ways of thinking, keepin’ the OC ‘real,’ no matter one's reality.

AMay Visitation dips after spring break until Memorial Day. Mostly sunny days, balmy temperatures.

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San Diego & Around

Lonely Planet Lonely Planet ePub

New York has its cabbie, Chicago its bluesman and Seattle its coffee-drinking boho. San Diego, meanwhile, has the valet guy in a polo shirt, khaki shorts and crisp new sneakers. With his perfectly tousled hair, great tan and gentle enthusiasm, he looks like he’s on a perennial spring break, and when he wishes you welcome, he really means it.

This may sound pejorative, but our intention is the opposite. San Diego calls itself ‘America’s Finest City’ and its breezy confidence and sunny countenance filter down even to folks you encounter every day on the street.

What’s not to love? San Diego bursts with world-famous attractions for the entire family, including the zoo, Legoland, the museums of Balboa Park and SeaWorld, plus a bubbling downtown and beaches ranging from ritzy to raucous, and America’s most perfect weather.

AJun–Aug High season. Temperatures and hotel rates are highest.

ASep–Oct, Mar–May Shoulder seasons; moderate rates.

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San Francisco

Lonely Planet Lonely Planet ePub

Get to know the world capital of weird from the inside out, from mural-lined alleyways named after poets to clothing-optional beaches on a former military base. But don’t be too quick to dismiss San Francisco’s wild ideas. Biotech, gay rights, personal computers, cable cars and organic fine dining were once considered outlandish too, before San Francisco introduced these underground ideas into the mainstream decades ago. San Francisco’s morning fog erases the boundaries between land and ocean, reality and infinite possibility.

Rules are never strictly followed here, but bliss is. Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz are entirely optional – San Franciscans mostly admire them from afar – leaving you free to pursue inspiration through Golden Gate Park, past flamboyantly painted Victorian homes and through Mission galleries. Just don’t be late for your sensational, sustainable dinner: in San Francisco, you can find happiness and eat it too.

AJan–Mar Low-season rates, brisk but rarely cold days, and Lunar New Year parade fireworks.

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