POINT REYES NATIONAL SEASHORE, CALIFORNIA
Only an hour's curvy drive north from the Golden Gate Bridge, this place often entices Bay Area residents and visitors for picnics and hikes. But the exquisite peninsula deserves more than a day trip from San Francisco. Its beaches, forests, mountains, and valleys offer such diverse experiences―and seasonal variations―that exploring them can lead to a lifelong adventure among its 72,000 acres and some 150 miles of trails.
On clear autumn days, take the 10½-mile Sky-Bear Valley walk through forest, mountain, and beach; the 1½-mile trail to Abbots Lagoon to spy migrating favorites, including hawks and peregrine falcons; or the easy walk to Drakes Estero, where shorebirds wade. Into November, watch herds of once-imperiled tule elk, protected here, from bluffs above McClures Beach.
January into April, gray whales swim north past Point Reyes. Chimney Rock and Point Reyes Lighthouse make great viewing spots. So everyone sees the cetaceans, not SUV bumpers, the park provides a seasonal shuttle to whale-watch vantage points.
From winter into spring, there's a whole lotta breeding going on beneath Elephant Seal Overlook. February through August, wildflowers reign. Coastal summer fog makes inland trails and Tomales Bay-side beaches good choices for hikers wanting vistas and picnickers and kayakers seeking warmth.
Such a kaleidoscope of sights and sounds renders the expression "been there, done that" an oxymoron.
Point Reyes Info: Call 413/464-5100 or visit www.nps.gov/pore/home.htm.
• Historic Olema Inn & Restaurant, where the restaurant welcomes nonguests; 415/663-9559 or www.theolemainn.com.
• Newer Point Reyes Seashore Lodge; 415/663- 9000 or www.pointreyesseashore.com.
• The Station House Café, serving scrumptious regional fare for 31 years; 415/663-1515 or www.stationhousecafe.com.
LA CONNER, WASHINGTON
Visitors to Seattle, Vancouver, or the San Juan Islands could come and go a dozen times and miss this tiny town (population 800, give-or-take). But close to all three lauded neighbors, it rolls out a welcome mat that defines the Pacific Northwest.
Set along the Swinomish Channel against snowy Mount Baker, La Conner is also embraced by the lush Skagit Valley. Here, verdant summer plantings yield autumn-hued harvests. Winter brings flotillas of snow geese and tundra swans migrating across these inviting fields. Each spring, neon-bright tulips, irises, and daffodils pop up from the fertile ground for miles. In the midst of it all, La Conner mingles its historic texture with Internet-era pizzazz.
Explorers (those in the know come for the April-long Skagit Valley Tulip Festival) arrive by car via scenic roads off Interstate 5. Or they come by boat, docking in the town's narrow channel. Founded in the 1880s and an artist's colony since the 1930s, La Conner hosts the Museum of Northwest Art, quality galleries, and a bevy of art and literary doings. Locally owned cafés and shops keep the place authentic, rather than touristy.
Best time to come? Year-round―for fall biking, Christmas-season shopping, winter birding, spring tiptoeing-through-the-tulips, and summer kayaking.
La Conner Info: Call 888/642-9284 or visit www.laconner.net .
• La Conner Channel Lodge, with fireplaces and waterfront balconies; 360/466-1500 or www.laconnerlodging.com.
• The vintage Hotel Planter, for preservation buffs; 800/488-5409 or www.hotelplanter.com.
• Museum of Northwest Art; 360/466-4446 or www.museumofnwart.org.
• The Next Chapter, for bookworms; 360/466-2665 or www.nextchapter.com.
• Calico Cupboard Café and Bakery, for yeasty treats; 360/466-4451.
• Kerstins Restaurant, for elegant dining; 360/466-9111.
• Viking Cruises; 888/207-2333 or www.vikingcruises.com.
Matthew Hillery, manager of venerable Cook's Lobster House, loves September on Bailey Island. "It's no longer blaringly hot, like August. The lobsters are starting to change from shedders to hard shells, and things slow down," he says.
An hour north of Portland, the ½-mile-wide and 2½-mile-long isle evokes an armchair traveler's Maine. Here is the rocky coastline. Here are the summer cottages for generations of Maine families. Here are fishermens' buoys strung like multicolored charms across weathered sheds. And here are the lobsters. During the summer, much of the catch consists of soft-shell lobsters, which locals and vacationers flock to buy.
The glorious swath of fall color adds to the checklist, and local property manager Lynn Reid alerts leaf-peepers that the "fall change happens a bit later on Bailey Island than in the mountains and on the mainland." Leaves begin to glow in September, and they're in full display by mid-October.
The island offers home rentals and seasonal inns with postcard settings and regional charm, including a few with a decided lack of luxury that showcases classic Maine frugality. Note to the many Driftwood Inn guests who fed coins to manager Alice Burpee's "Hawaii-bound" glass jar: She finally made her dream trip.
Bailey Island Info: Call 888/624-6345 or visit www.visitmaine.com.
• Log Cabin Island Inn (open April through October); 207/833-5546 or www.logcabin-maine.com.
• Drift wood Inn (open mid-May until Columbus Day), humble cabins and rooms with a breathtaking setting and home-cooked food; 207/833-5461 or www.thedriftwoodinnmaine.com.
AMELIA ISLAND, FLORIDA
Savory aromas awaken guests at gracious Victorian inns. Golf club thwacks punctuate the swoosh of surf at sumptuous resorts. Sunbathers sprawl on 13 miles of sand. Kayakers glide by wary, stilt-legged herons.
Amelia Island, on the Atlantic just north of Jacksonville, grants those experiences and more―from spa treatments to horseback riding on the beach. Despite the resorts, high-rise condos, and other tourist trappings, the mood remains lazily low-key.
Time seems to have stopped about a century ago in Fernandina Beach, the island's only real town and one of America's great bed-and-breakfast destinations. Immense old Victorian mansions, holdovers from bustling seaport days, have proven perfect for conversion into charming inns.
Fernandina Beach also harbors a significant fishing fleet, so visitors know what's freshest on every menu. At Fort Clinch State Park, rangers dress as 1864-vintage soldiers, blacksmiths, and other workers, staying in character to tell the inside story of Civil War-era military life. It's safe to say visitors to the island these days have a lot more fun.
Amelia Island Info: Call 800/226-3542 or visit www.ameliaisland.org.
• Elizabeth Pointe Lodge, a beachside inn; 800/772-3359 or www.elizabethpointelodge.com.
• Amelia Island Williams House; 800/414-9258 or www.williamshouse.com.
• Bailey House Victorian Bed and Breakfast; 800/251-5390 or www.bailey-house.com.
• The Addison; 800/943-1604 or www.addisonhousebb.com.
• Amelia Island Plantation; 888/261-6161 or www.aipfl.com.
• The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island; 800/241-3333 or www.ritzcarlton.com.
• Down Under Restaurant; 904/261-1001. Beech Street Grill; 904/277-3662 or www.beechstreetgrill.com.
• Fort Clinch; 904/277-7274 or www.floridastateparks.org.