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California Travel Tips

California gets so much glory that we tried, oh so very hard, not to be impressed, but failed. It's simply too beautiful, too magical. Can't beat it for natural beauty, agreeable weather and abundant activities that please and tease all five senses. Here, in one state, lies all the beauty of the world: mountains, beaches, islands, ports, parks, farms, orchards, vineyards, hills, valleys, forests, deserts, lakes, eucalyptus trees, palm trees, redwoods, exotic flowers and yes, glamour, too. Even its highways are trimmed in brilliant blossoms. It's a colorful, temperate, pleasant state, and pleasant state-of-mind, with a population of friendly, fun-loving people who warmly welcome shy New Englanders.

CALIFORNIA TOURIST INFORMATION: (800) 862-2543

LOS ANGELES

El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles (the Village of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels) was founded in 1781 by Governor Felipe de Neve and 11 Spanish families. Serving intermittently as the capital of this northern Mexican province, it was the last place to surrender to the United States during the US-Mexican War. Over the ensuing decades the pueblo agricultural lifestyle, anchored by Spanish missions, branched out into ranching and other industries, and as the population and wealth grew, the importance of the missions diminished and the buildings fell into decline. Today, Los Angeles is the film capital of the world, and movie producers now gain the reverence once reserved for Catholic padres.

Hollywood
Like tinsel clinging to a curbside Christmastree put out to trash after the holidays, old "Tinsel Town" retains some glitter and sparkle despite its surrounding decay. Rundown buildings cast long shadows over kids in baggy jeans smoking pot on the street corner, while tourists lock their cars and dart in and out of movietime souvenir shops. Much of the excitement is gone, but some things, like Mann's Chinese Theatre, with its sidewalk of stars' handprints and footprints -- from Marilyn Monroe's tiny little fingers, to Tom Hank's big feet, and even George Burns's cigar print and Jimmy Durante's schnozz -- still evoke the thrill of Hollywood's glamorous past and current glory.

Griffith Park (213) 913-4688
Griffith Park is one of America's largest urban parks. Stretching along the eastern Santa Monica mountains, it offers an unusual combination of attractions, such as a huge observatory and planetarium, a Greek theatre, a zoo, a golf course, a merry-go-round, a bird sanctuary, a museum of western art and culture, pony rides, and more than 53 miles of bridle paths and hiking trails. Throughout the park, the famous white lettered "Hollywood" sign appears from time to time peeking through a clearing in the woods.

Yorba Linda
Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace
(714) 993-5075
The self-guided tour begins with a movie of Nixon's political life, then meanders through a gallery of old photos, to Nixon's actual Presidential limo, a display of the White House Lincoln Room as it was when Nixon was in office, and Nixon's study, preserved exactly as it was the day he died. You can watch some of Nixon's televised speeches playing on various period television sets all along this indoor walking tour. For example, Nixon's famous 1950's "Checkers" speech airs from an old 1950s TV set; the 1960 Nixon/Kennedy debate airs from a 1960's TV blaring from a "living room" of 1960's furniture; and Nixon's China visit airs from a 1970s TV set. The Time Magazine Section displays all the covers that featured Nixon, from his position as a congressman to his position of the highest office in the land. Nixon was on the cover of Time more than any other person on Earth. Something like 57 separate occasions. Once outside the building, the tour takes you past the Pat Nixon Rose Garden to the humble home where Nixon was born. In 1912 Nixon's father built the house from a kit ordered through a mail-order catalog. More than 85% of the furniture is original, making Nixon's birthplace the recordholder for the most complete set of original furnishing in a Presidential home.

SACRAMENTO

In 1839 while California still flew the Mexican flag, Captain John Sutter, a Swiss immigrant received a 50,000-acre land grant at the confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers. Nine years later, while erecting a sawmill, Sutter's partner, John Marshall, saw gold shining through the river bottom. Walking back to his workmen, he remarked, in possibly the understatement of the century, "Boys, I believe I found a gold mine." But when Sutter heard Marshall's report, he feared ruination for his sawmill and flour mill businesses. His fears were not unfounded. The scent of easy money attracted thousands of desperate people who flooded the new territory, launching one of the greatest gold rushes in American history, and building a new city, Sacramento, to serve the influx. But as Sutter suspected, mill workers deserted their jobs in search of gold, while invading goldseekers tore apart Sutter's fences to build their ramshackle housing on his land. Both Sutter and Marshall died penniless. Sutter later wrote, "By the sudden discovery of gold, all my great plans were destroyed . . . I should have been the richest citizen on the Pacific . . . Instead of being rich, I am ruined."

Tip: The original gold nugget that Marshall found is now at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C.

Statehouse (916) 324-0333
The California Capitol was constructed and furnished between 1860 and 1874 during a period of US cultural history known as the American Renaissance, a time when artists, artisans, architects, craftsmen, and philanthropists set out to equal, or perhaps exceed the greatest achievements of preceding civilizations. The pristine white Capitol building looks like something straight out of the Holy Roman Empire. Eight Roman Corinthian columns on the front portico lead the eye to the elaborate rooftop sculptures, beyond the shining copper dome punctuated by a glittering 30-inch gold ball set against a sapphire sky. Inside are beautifully restored, massive wooden doors, magnificently carved stairways and a fabulous Carrara marble statue of Queen Isabella and Christopher Columbus. Other features include a circular room of murals depicting early California life, and completely furnished rooms of the restored turn-of-the-century Governor's Office, Secretary of State's Office, and Treasurer's Office. In the Secretary of State's Office are old files tied in red ribbon, showing the origins of the governmental term, "Red Tape." The Legislative Chambers borrow themes from the British Parliament from which the United States bases its two-house system. For example, the Senate Chambers are decorated in red as in the British House of Lords, while the Assembly Chambers are decorated in green, as in the House of Commons, and both chairs for each head of the chambers are symbolic of the British Monarchy.

Tip: Grab a meal at the statehouse restaurant located in the basement. The red brick, the arches, and the cool cellar gives the impression of an Italian grotto.The walls and arches are made from old bricks retrieved during the massive 1970s restoration when the building was, as our tour guide says, "carved out like a melon," then recreated to its original beauty, based on old photos and furnishings found in storage. Notice the old pictures on the restaurant walls, particularly the one of the "Insectuary," a building dedicated to "breeding beneficial insects" affectionately referred to as the "Bug House."

Check it out . . . Take a walk through the 40-acre Capitol Park and enjoy the sweet scent of rose gardens and over 400 exotic plants and trees from all over the world. Two intriguing 20th century war memorials are also on the grounds. The Vietnam War Memorial has many sculptures of men in battle, and (something we've never seen before), a sculpture of POW's. The plaque reads: "To the memory of those who died or remain missing."

Old Sacramento
Listen to echo of shoe heels clapping along the wooden sidewalks, as pedestrians stroll past shops and restaurants that once housed rowdy barrooms and gambling halls during the heyday of the 1849 Gold Rush. Today the smell of grilled steaks and homemade candy fills the air, competing with the sounds of nearby trains and laughing children carrying gigantic spiral colored lollipops of rainbow hues.

GOLDEN GATE NATIONAL RECREATION AREA (415) 556-0560

The Golden Gate National Recreation Area begins where the Pacific Ocean meets the San Francisco Bay. The park surrounds the entrance to the city's harbor, offering spectacular views of the city and the bay. Following the rocky, Pacific shoreline to the north the park opens up to a natural wonderland of rugged beaches, Redwood forests, mountains, valleys, and grassy hills covered in bright California Poppies.

Muir Woods
A stroll in the cool, hushed landscape of Muir Woods is like walking through an ancient emerald monastery. The lack of sunlight caused by this huge canopy of greenery invites very little wildlife, making the silent forest an enchantment of peace and tranquility laced in feathery peacock-green ferns. We have Congressman Kent and his wife to thank for this. In 1906, they saw Redwoods being cleared for lumber, and felt that something should be done to prevent the obliteration of these towering columns of natural history, and with their own funds, purchased this land of virgin redwoods. When Teddy Roosevelt dedicated this area as a National Monument, he wanted to name if after Mr. and Mrs. Kent, but they refused, suggesting it be named after the great conservationist, John Muir. Nearby Muir Beach offers a different kind of escape: a semi-circle cove on the Pacific with sea breezes, sea birds and rugged coastal scenery.

WINE COUNTRY

Visiting the Wine Country of California is like visiting Tuscany, Italy. Perhaps even better, because they speak English and accept American currency here. Sonoma and Napa Valley are the twin sisters of the California wine country. Side by side, they mirror each other's verdant scenery of rolling green hills, neatly parted in row upon row of new-green grapevines. Thousands of wooden crosses line up tidily behind each other -- like the crosses at Arlington Cemetery -- as bright green vines twist and curl around each cross, dripping tiny pea-sized balls of future grapes, future wine, future toasts. Dozens of vineyards offer tours and tasting rooms where you can sip and slurp through a flight of fancy to find the wine that suits your tastes.

Sonoma
As the California hotbed of rebellion against Mexico Sonoma offers a bit more than just a sampling of wine country. It's unique town square is filled with historic buildings and a monument in the park marking the site of the Bear Flag Revolt. The pleasant green park dominates the town, from which historic buildings, and quaint restaurants, shops, and cafes line the four sides of the square. A walk along the outlining edges of the square rewards the visitor with a host of historic sites, such as the Mission San Frandisco de Solano, the last of California's 21 missions; the Sonoma Barracks, restored to the Mexican era when the barracks housed General Vallejo's Mexican troops before the Bear Flag Revolt; and various 19th century hotels, furnished in period furniture. One small block contains enough historical sites, and unique cafes shops, and restaurants to fill two afternoons.

Tip: When visiting the little courtyard behind the barracks, imagine the 1800s when this was the site of Bear and Bull fights. Mexicans and Americans would chain a grizzly bear and a bull in separate corners, place bets, and then let 'em go at each other. Many times things got out of hand and spectators lost more than they gambled.

Buena Vista Winery, Sonoma (800) 926-1266

If you have time to tour only one winery, make it this one. One of California's oldest wineries, it was founded in 1857 by Hungarian Count Agoston Haraszthy, who under the auspices of the US Government, did extensive wine research in Europe to launch California's wine industry. The history of California wine-making and Count Haraszthy's struggles (a fascinating character who died a mysterious death in Nicaragua) are depicted through photos along the scenic and lovely-scented picnic area. (Definitely bring a picnic lunch!) Wine-tasting takes place in the cavernous gift shop area.

OUR CAMPSITE FOR THE WEEK:

Oak Haven RV Park, Sacramento (916) 922-0814
Few spots are available for transients like us in this tightly knit neighborhood of retirees and full-time RVers; although we did luck out with a wide, shady spot, in a somewhat private lot. The facilities are old and worn, but, our elderly host keeps the place neat and tidy. The small swimming pool area is very well-maintained with plenty of cushioned lounge chairs and picnic tables with matching umbrellas. For only $95 a week, the price is right, and the location is ideal. The park is close to shopping malls, historic Sacramento, the Capitol and State Museum, and about an hour from San Francisco and California wine country.

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