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.