Friday, October 30, 2009

Shipwreck: the haunting of the Queen Mary

I love wandering the decks of the graceful Queen Mary, permanently moored in the Port of Long Beach. The lovingly restored ship is rich in maritime history and loaded with authentic Art Deco period decor. The views of the Pacific Ocean and Long Beach city skyline make you feel as if you're just setting out on a romantic sea voyage (albeit on very calm seas).

Today, it's a grand hotel, with 314 suites that harken back to the ship's glamour days. Their Sunday Brunch is to, ahem, die for. For others, the main attraction of the Queen Mary are the tales of ghosts who wander the bowels of the ship to this day—lost souls permanently shipwrecked. (Check out the YouTube videos of recent sightings.)

Which is why their Annual Halloween Terrorfest, SHIPWRECK! is such a big draw, now through November 1. They've put together five mazes both on and off the haunted vessel: Vampire Village; The Graveyard; the Isolation ward (paging Nurse Slasher); Blackbeard's Revenge (a Pirate Maze, AAAAAARRRRGGG); Paranoia's House of Horror (sounds like my last job). And if you're already afraid of clowns, don't go through the Psychedelic Krazy Klown Maze. Scarey fun.

Details:1126 Queens Highway, Long Beach, 800/ 437-2934 or 562/ 435-3511. Shipwreck run from 7 PM- midnight.; open later on weekends. Admission - $29; VIP Fast Pass - $40 (includes cut-the-line privileges); Month Pass - $69; VIP Month Pass - $99 (includes cut-the-line privileges); Prices Subject to change. For more info, click here.

Photo credit: Queen Mary/Delaware North Companies Parks & Resorts

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Halloween fun in the Bay Area

As a kid, when my sister wanted to scare me witless, she'd button her robe over her head, stick her arms straight out and moan like the Headless Horseman from the Legend of Sleepy Hollow. And then spend the next hour explaining to my Mom how much her little sister actually enjoyed having the poop scared out of her (truth is, I did).

At Fremont's Ardenwood Historic Farm, you can take a ride on their Halloween Train (Thursday and Friday this week), tour the semi-spooky Patterson Home, or roam the Pumpkin Patch to pick up a pumpkin from the field. (It all may not scare the kids as much as the Headless Horseman, but maybe that's a good thing.)

Or join one of Ardenwood's educational programs where you can see/ participate in many activities common to a turn-of-last-century farm. Beyond Halloween, there's plenty to see here: Board a horse-drawn train and ride into the park with docents dressed in period costumes. Roam a Victorian Garden or the 1857 Patterson House with its turreted Queen Anne addition. See sheep, pigs, turkeys, chickens, rabbits, goats, and cows or poke your head into the Blacksmith Shop.

Details: Pumpkin Patch hours are 1 to 7, Monday – Friday; 9 to 5 Sat. The pumpkin patch will close at 5:00 p.m. on Halloween (October 31st). Weekdays, naturalists provide programs for school classes and other groups by reservation; call 510/ 544-2797. Parking is free but there's a modest entry fee for the park.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Oktoberfest in Disney's downtown district

In Anaheim, the Downtown Disney® District is slated to host its first Oktoberfest celebration this weekend: October 23-25. The streets of the Disney District will be alive with the sound of Bavarian music, as three different live acts stroll through.

The Downtown Disney District, a lively Orange County promenade with unique shopping and dining, is set just outside the theme parks and adjacent to the Disneyland® Resort hotels. The bands—in full costume—will be performing throughout the nightly (and yet, family-friendly) festival, so pull on your lederhosen and head on down. Ask about Give Me a Break discount packages.

Details: The "Give Me a Break” deals include discounts to several OC hotels – including free night stays, food and beverage credits and savings on spa treatments. A number of hotels are helping to ease the “pain at the pump” by offering gas cards, as well as mileage and fuel credits. As an added benefit, those who book a three-night stay or more at participating hotels receive a $50 Disneyland® Resort Gift Card. For more Anaheim fall festivals, check the Anaheim calendar.
PHOTO CREDIT: Disneyland® Resort

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Off season wonders of Point Reyes, California

Ahh, off-season at Point Reyes National Seashore. Swirls of fog wrap around twisted cypress and deer dart amongst the trees; offshore, seabirds circle, seals surf the waves, and gray whales migrate along the coast.

In a past article for Sunset, I wrote: Point Reyes is a poem; complex, untamed and raw, yet elegant. That’s still true today. I love a Point Reyes fall/winter trip; days are spent on the park’s vast network of trails, looking for wildlife like tule elk and fallow deer; evenings usually end luxuriating in a quiet inn, with a hearty Zin by the fireside.

The waters of nearby Tomales Bay and Drakes Bay are home to some of the most productive oyster growing spots in the country, and on sunny days my favorite thing is to get a beach bonfire permit at the Bear Valley Visitor Center (its free), then grab some fresh local oysters and grill ‘em up on Limantour Beach.

Three commercial oyster operations are open to the public: Drakes Bay Family Farms Oysters
Hog Island Oyster Company and Tomales Bay Oyster Company .

Now, there’s added incentive to visit, with Point Reyes Lodging’s Whales and Wildlife promotion (November 15, 2009 —Wednesday, March 31, 2010). Stay two nights midweek (Sunday through Thursday) and get the third night free at any of the Point Reyes Lodging bed and breakfast inns.

Details: To make a Whales & Wildlife reservation, visit and contact the inn or cottage of your choice. Mention Whales & Wildlife when you make your reservation. Holiday periods are excluded and advance reservations are required.
Photo Credit. Steve Wyrostock (Bear Valley Inn)

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Sonoma wine country lodging deal

Fall and winter is ideal timing for a Sonoma wine country getaway. Sipping the robust Zins at Ravenswood, sampling the fresh-pressed olive oils at B.R. Cohn, and driving quiet, leaf-strewn back roads. Want one more reason to go? This is such a great Sonoma Valley lodging package, we thought it was a misprint: $75 a night (weekends excluded) at the 16-room Sonoma Creek Inn, with the “Stay Longer, Dream More” package. Guests who want to “stay longer” get an even better deal: a two-night stay is only $145 per room ($72.50 per night for two people).

Besides amenities like free wireless Internet, in-room refrigerators and cable TV, many rooms have private outdoor patios or porches -- just the thing for relaxation after a busy day exploring the wine country. Winery tasting passes offered will vary from the well known— Buena Vista to Ravenswood, and B.R. Cohn— to the more surprising: Paradise Ridge, Charles Creek, Ty Caton, Bartholomew Park, Deerfield Ranch, Roche, Ledson, Schug and Cellardoor.

The inn is in Sonoma, on Boyes Boulevard (near the Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa).

Details: Valid Sunday through Thursday nights from Nov. 1, 2009—April 15, 2010, the package is priced at $75 (for two people) and includes one night in a queen guest room, complimentary wine tasting passes for local wineries, and an upgrade to the best available room upon check-in. The package excludes holiday and special event periods and is based upon availability. The package must be requested at the time of booking.

For reservations, call 888/712-1289 or click here.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

California's mysterious sand dunes (and its lost city)

"Sand dunes are made of light," the photographer tells me, and good light is early light, which is why we're out here at dawn. An art director (Dennis) and I are saddling up to ride through the picture frame, across an arching dune (Don wants some action in his shot). It's the late 1980s and we are at Guadalupe-Nipomo sand dunes on California's central coast, shooting my first big story for Sunset Magazine that we hope will make the cover. Soon a warm, lemony sun lights up the sand like mounds of shining crystals. Just as the morning sunlight strikes the face of the dunes, we spur our horses to crest a sand peak, casting long, elegant shadows down the opposite slopes of sand. Snap!

As the camera shutter clicks away in rapid-fire, I imagine I'm starring in some 'blood and sand' picture of the silent movie era, galloping away from the approaching hordes. Not surprising I feel that way, since we're near the site where a legendary Cecile B. DeMille movie was, indeed, filmed.

I've always been fascinated by sand dunes—their sinuous sweep of clean, white sand glistening in the sun, seeming to shape-shift with every angle of light. It's the reason that, long after that old photo shoot, I still find romance and mystery in the curve of a towering dune. So I'm thrilled to learn that the 18-mile-long Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Complex, on the Santa Barbara/ San Luis Obispo county coastline, is more accessible than ever.

Open to visitors, The Dunes Center in Guadalupe, California, (in the Santa Maria Valley) has just launched a new web site, new tour map, and enhanced educational exhibits to help visitors get the most out of their experience at the Dunes Complex. That's good, because though the dunes are easily accessible from Highway 1 in the Santa Maria Valley, this place is so big, you need good intel to get the most out of it.

This is one of the most ecologically significant and largest intact coastal dune ecosystems on the West Coast. A major portion of the nearly 22,000 acres of dunes is under public management and open for recreation; more than 1,400 species of animals call the dunes home.

The dunes are also where famed director Cecil B. DeMille filmed his 1923 silent epic The Ten Commandments (right); recent movies have filmed here, too, including The Pirates of the Caribbean starring Johnny Depp. DeMille’s massive “City of The Pharaoh” became a lost city after it was abandoned and ultimately buried by the crew and, later, by the shifting sands. A documentary about the modern search for the lost sets of The Ten Commandments—including five-ton sphinxes and giant statues—will debut next summer.

Oh, and our 1980s shot did make the cover, by the way. I saved the picture and glance at it whenever I open that box in the attic; I see a very young girl on horseback, loping across a graceful peak that glistens like sugar—and I remember learning what sand dunes are really made of.

Details: The Dunes Center offers ongoing guided walks and hikes, plus children’s activities, all on the new web site. This month, the center debuts its free new map to help visitors find their way around the dunes; a $2 charitable donation is requested when visiting. The Dunes Center is at 1055 Guadalupe Street (Highway 1) in Guadalupe, California; 805/ 343-2455. For lodging, dining, and recreation information on the Santa Maria Valley, please click here.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Luxury lodging in Death Valley National Park

It's no secret. I love Death Valley (last year, I wrote about taking a spring break vacation there). Now, the storied Inn at Furnace Creek, in the heart of Death Valley National Park, has just opened its doors for the season (through May 9, 2010).

Built in 1927 with 12 guest rooms, a dining room and lobby area, the elegant hotel now boasts 66 rooms, including two suites. The best news: all 66 units were refurbished last year. Maintaining its high quality is probably why the hotel has been awarded the prestigious AAA Four-Diamond Award since 1982. The unique hilltop setting, oasis-like garden, and hot springs-fed swimming pool have made it a lure for celebrities and vacationers alike.

For those looking for a more cost-conscious option, there's the more family-oriented 224 room Furnace Creek Ranch nearby.

While you're in the park, check out one of the largest solar photovoltaic (PV) energy systems in the United States, recently completed by Xanterra Parks & Resorts, which owns the Inn and takes environmental concerns seriously.

Details: For more information about Death Valley National Park or to make reservations at in-park lodges, call toll free at 800/236-7916 or 303/297-2757 or go to

COPYRIGHT Lora Finnegan 2008-2009

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