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Best Downtowns: Vacation Cities

The city with the best vacation downtown is the Rodney Dangerfield of beach towns. It gets no respect, and it is often overshadowed by its more glamorous neighbor.

Still, Carpinteria has the best downtown for a vacation in California. We'll tell you why.

Summer vacation season is officially upon us. People have very different concepts of what makes for a great vacation, although "getting away from it all" is a common thread. But even when you're headed to the middle of nowhere, it's often nice to find a town with a number of conveniences. And, of course, plenty of people seek out big cities across the globe for their vacations.

With this in mind, we have chosen the best vacation city downtowns for our next installment in CP&DR's ongoing best downtowns series. (Earlier, we ranked the best big-city downtowns, mid-sized city downtowns, small downtowns in the Central Valley, and convention city downtowns.)

What makes for a great vacation city downtown? Obviously, it has to have bread and circuses, as well as lodging. Variety is essential: greasy spoons and white tablecloths; dive bars and jazz clubs; T-shirt shacks, art galleries and unique shops; motels, hotels, B&Bs and condos.

You can get all of that in most vacation areas. But a great vacation city downtown must also be walkable and/or bikeable. Good public and quasi-public spaces are crucial for vacationers in need of places to linger. Most of all, the downtown needs to be a place where you want to spend time, because who wants to waste precious vacation hours navigating traffic from attraction to attraction?

We Californians are lucky to have so many great vacation destinations close-by. People come from all over the world to enjoy our coastal cities and vacation hamlets. This makes our job of choosing the best particularly difficult. But, for the benefit of our loyal readers, we're only too happy to take a vacation.


The best downtowns for a vacation in California:

Overall Winner:

Carpinteria. This beach town of 14,000 people is only 15 miles down Highway 101 from the much more famous Santa Barbara. But what makes Carpinteria a great vacation downtown is this: It's dead flat, and the beach is connected to the downtown in a seamless transition � interrupted only slightly by the railroad tracks � down Linden Avenue, the main drag.

On the beach side of the tracks lie a variety of pretty typical beach-town attractions: Beachfront condos and houses for rent by the week; a nice state park facing the beach; a wonderfully groomed beach, perfect for lazing around; and the requisite burger joint, The Spot (flip-flops required). On the landward side, there are a number of slightly-more-upscale restaurants such as The Palms (where you cook your own meat) and, a little closer to the freeway, the inevitable Starbucks. There are also a few souvenir shops. There is also a supermarket, a drug store, and other places you might actually need in real life. Because Carpinteria so small, walking everywhere is easy; because it's so flat, biking everywhere is even easier.

In other words, it's an old-fashioned, functioning downtown with a beach attached. Best of all, you can leave your car at home. Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner provides five trains a day in each direction. Step off at the station, and it's three blocks in one direction to the beach and three blocks in the other to the heart of downtown.


Best in the wine country:

Healdsburg. We'll concede that Healdsburg is an upstart among wine country destination cities, but that's part of its appeal. Healdsburg is an old farm town that has not been completely consumed by the chi-chi wine-and-brie set.

Downtown centers on a classic town square park, which is frequently the site of festivals and art exhibits. Lodging ranges from mom-and-pop, 1950s-style motels to $500-a-night, ultra-hip hotels. Likewise, restaurants vary from order-at-the-counter Mexican places popular with field hands to four-star dining experiences. Buy a T-shirt for $5, or browse a store where items on the sale rack start at "only" $100. Suck on a Coors Light at a dive with a classic rock jukebox, or sip a Cosmo while a jazz trio plays on the heated patio.

And here's one thing we love: You can walk out the door of your motel, hotel or B&B and down the street to a number of comfortable places to taste world-class wine. No drinking-and-driving necessary. Plus, Bear Republic Brewing Company has a great ales and pub grub. When you want to work off all that wine, beer and food, hop on a bike (your own or a rental) and head out on any one of a number of great country roads through the vineyards and oak woodlands.

Honorable mentions:
Sonoma. A great town square and a mission are highlights in this upscale destination city.
Calistoga. Lincoln Avenue has everything for visitors and locals, and is alive from morning through night.


Best in the mountains:

Mammoth Lakes. For many years, Mammoth was a ski resort in the winter and early spring, and dead in the summertime. No more. This is a four-season town that's busy year-round.

Downtown may be a little difficult to discern, but it is essentially an L that runs along Mammoth Road and Main Street. It's arguably a little too spread out for walking, but when there isn't 6 feet of snow on the ground, the place is a joy for cyclists because of the all the bike trails. In fact, proximity is everything at Mammoth. The village gondola will carry you from the top of Main Street to the resort. Ambitious cyclists may walk about the door, clip into their pedals and ride forever through the mountains. There are golf courses and parks right in town (and plenty of trout in Mammoth Creek), and there's even a skate park along Main Street. Lodging and restaurants span the gamut, although everybody seems to end up at Roberto's at some point.

Add to this mix a growing artists' community, a touch of nightlife and a seemingly endless series of events and festivals.

Honorable mention:
Mount Shasta. A downtown oriented toward outdoor adventure sits at the base of the 14,000-foot mountain.


Best on the beach (besides Carpenteria):

Laguna Beach. This Orange County town is a quintessential California artists' enclave and is often called the California Riviera. The city has many art galleries and hosts three summer-long art festivals. The city is most famous for its Pageant of the Masters, in which actors "reenact" famous paintings and sculptures on stage. �

The dozens of coves and warm seasonal water temperatures make the beaches some of the best anywhere. Laguna is a mecca for scuba divers and surfers, as Laguna boasts the best water clarity in mainland California. The south-facing nature of most beaches make them great for picking up end-of-summer south swells from hurricanes off Mexico.

Here's the part we particularly like: The sand, surf and festivals are located within walking distance or a free electric tram ride of the beachfront downtown, which is a charmingly manageable scale for pedestrians. Heck, Main Beach Park (a popular� beachfront gathering place full of public art) and Heisler Park (a two-mile-long greenway) are across the street from downtown shops. This proximity is essential because Pacific Coast Highway gridlock makes driving a total drag; besides, you don't want to give up a parking spot once you've found one.

Honorable mentions:
Santa Barbara. An easy place to see and do things without a car. You could spend two or three days simply exploring State Street.
Santa Cruz. Although locals may have mixed opinions, downtown Santa Cruz is more inviting to visitors since it was rebuilt following the 1989 earthquake.


Best big city:

San Diego. We have to be careful, because downtown San Diego could win just about any category we think up. Still, the place is ideal for a long weekend or even a week.

Take a cab from the airport or, better yet, ride into town on Amtrak. You won't need a car, as you may get everywhere you need by walking, grabbing one of those bicycle rickshaws or hopping on the trolley. There's the Gaslamp Quarter's dining and nightlife, the renewed waterfront, the baseball stadium, shopping at Horton Plaza, Little Italy's eclectic India Street, some spectacular architecture, decent museums, etc. If you can't find something to do in downtown San Diego, you're not trying very hard. And the weather's always perfect.

Honorable mention:
San Francisco. Downtown is dominated by the financial district, which isn't very interesting if you're not wearing a suit. But vacationers don't have to go far to find endless food, drink, culture and entertainment. Just don't go to Pier 39.


Best for alternative lifestyles:

Guerneville. Best known for nearly getting washed away by the Russian River every few years, this Sonoma County getaway has long been popular with both gays and straights from the Bay Area. Main Street is packed with galleries, working spaces for artists and artisans, restaurants and watering holes. Naturally, there is great access to the river, where beaches and the shallow waters of summer and fall provide an ideal place to laze away the afternoon. Hop on your bike, and in about 10 minutes you'll be at Korbel, where Champagne, beer (seriously), a deli and gorgeous grounds await.

Honorable mention:
Palm Springs. Palm Canyon Drive is rocking at night.


Best chi-chi vacation:

Carmel. In the last couple of decades, Carmel (technically Carmel-By-The-Sea) has evolved from quaint to cloying. The locals, including the regular visitors, are pretty smug about how precious it is. But generally speaking, they are right to be so smug: Carmel is one of the best tiny downtowns to visit for a vacation. It's compact, not too dense, and has lots of great shops and restaurants, as well as some extraordinarily expensive B&Bs. There's topographic interest � it's hilly, but not overly so � and the ocean is down at the end of the street. The place is so pedestrian-friendly you never notice all that money leaving your wallet as you walk down the street.

Honorable mention:
St. Helena. Yountville may have a greater number of renowned restaurants, but St. Helena has plenty of its own, and the downtown is fun whether or not you can afford a $100 bottle of wine.


Most disappointing:

South Lake Tahoe. Lake Tahoe is one of the most beautiful places in the world. The City of South Lake Tahoe is not. There is no real downtown, just a few jam-packed arterials on which walking and bicycling (let alone driving) are no fun. Things are too spread out for walking anyway. Old motels with lots of deferred maintenance, cheesy souvenir stands and fast food drive-throughs predominate. The locals know this, which is why redevelopment is a high priority for the city. We're all for it.


- CP&DR staff

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