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Virginia giving away 40 free trips

By Sean O'Neill
October 3, 2012
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Courtesy <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/markschurig/2771459879/" target="_blank">Mark Schurig/Flickr</a>

The great state of Virginia announced today a sweepstakes in which it will give away 40 free trips in 40 weeks to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the "Virginia Is for Lovers" tourism campaign. Starting today and for the next 40 weeks, you may enter to win a trip to a destination in Virginia, such as Virgina Beach and a one-on-one basket weaving session with artisan Gary Carroll. You'll find the rules and entry form at Virginia.org/40.

(Some of the fine print: "Prize trips range from two to seven nights for two to six people. Virginia will award one trip a week, starting February 20, culminating in a grand prize awarded November 23. The contest is open to U.S. citizens 21 years and older.")

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Road Trips

New York City: A clever new trip planning website and tourist info center

This morning Mayor Michael Bloomberg debuted two new initiatives to help tourists plan their visits to New York City. A new website, nycgo.com, will make it easier to plan a trip to the city&mdash;and a new tourism information center will use high-tech touch screen maps to let tourists print out personalized trip plans. Nycgo.com replaces nycvisit.com as the best place for consumers to use. Travelocity will offer a select number of vacation packages for booking exclusively on nycgo.com. You'll also be able to read restaurant reviews by Time Out New York and the New York Observer and then, if you find a restaurant you like, click through to see if tables are available at the time of your choosing via OpenTable. The website also has a calendar of New York City’s cultural events. Not ready to book now? Then create a profile for yourself and save your favorite bits of info. The biggest news is that within the next few months, Google will unveil a "send map to phone" feature. Find a neighborhood map you like at nycgo.com and you can have it zapped to your mobile phone. The itinerary highlights on the map, such as the location of key museums and restaurants, will be intact on your phone's version of the map. If successful, this tool will likely be adopted by many other websites. New York City's main tourism information center&mdash;a few blocks off Times Square at 810 Seventh Avenue by 52nd Street&mdash;has been completely redone, too. Gone are the walls of racks with paper brochures. Now the room is full of touchscreen monitors on which you can find suggested tourist attractions overlaid on Google city maps. Create a personalized trip itinerary, which can be either printed out for you or sent electronically to your cell phone or PDA. In a nice move, the screens are wheelchair accessible and can be used in nine languages. (Bloomberg repeated his announcement about the tourism initiatives in Spanish, too, as another effort at outreach.) The two initiatives were funded by private companies. For example, the billboard operator at JFK airport will give the city's tourism office $9 million worth of free advertising on its airport billboards for the new website, nycgo.com. MORE FROM BUDGET TRAVEL Hotels: New York City at a Price That's Right Broadway Tickets News

Road Trips

Helpful websites to plan your India trip

India's rush of color, noise, and people will take you by surprise, no matter how much you try to prepare for it all. But I can recommend a few websites that ought to give you a handle on what you're in for when you visit. I've spent much of the past two years in Delhi, Chennai, Bangalore, and elsewhere in this fascinating country, and these sites were quite helpful. IndiaMike: With its super-detailed coverage and sometimes overly opinionated contributors, this homage to all things Indian can be infuriating to newbies. But spend a bit of time here, and you'll be well rewarded. The site's exhaustive guides to the byzantine ways of the India's train system and its domestic airlines are incredibly useful. What Am I Eating?: A good site to head to before leaving for just about anywhere in the world, this guide to the world's dishes and ingredients give equivalents in lots and lots of different dialects and languages. In a place as diverse as India, this site is a godsend. Another Subcontinent: Written by current and former Indian residents as well as those with Indian heritage, this well designed website is tops in my book for information about food and many other essential parts of the region's many cultures. Outlook Traveller: The web presence of a good travel magazine (keep an eye out for the paper version when you reach India). Because the places covered are meant to appeal to a middle-class Indian crowd, the selection is great for those travelers who want to wander off a bit from where most foreigners go. Inspiring pictures, too. Incredible India: Although many of India's tourism sites remain out of date and frustratingly sparse, the country's main site is lush and full of good info. The site's Youtube page makes a good escape.

Road Trips

Road Trip: The Arkansas Ozarks

In the Arkansas Ozarks, every new place you come to seems to be the capital of something. Newton County is the state's elk capital; Mountain View is its folk-music capital. Even most non-capitals have a claim to fame. (See: Altus, Ark., "Home of the First Season of Fox'sThe Simple Life.") But don't make too much of all the big talk-one look and you can tell that these are tiny towns from another time. To my mind, however, it's the meandering roads between them that deserve all the acclaim. The mountains are crisscrossed with two-lane roads-most of which weren't paved until after World War II-that wind through oak forests to uncover sweeping views along ridges, and then dip into valleys along the Buffalo and White Rivers. Sleepy and slow, they force you to take your time getting from one town to the next, which is truly the point. 1) Little Rock to Jasper I met my sister Maggie, who flew in from Savannah, Ga. We set out for lunch at one of Little Rock's famous hamburger joints, the Purple Cow. The burger was good, the milk shake better; the combination, in hindsight, was probably not the best way to start a long road trip. Our first real stop was the town of Altus, capital of Arkansas wine country. You probably didn't know that Arkansas has a wine country. Neither did I. About 115 miles from Little Rock-and not en route to our evening's destination-Altus required a little detour. But I thought it was worth it, since the town has four of the state's five wineries. (A majority of counties in Arkansas, I was told, are Baptist-and therefore dry.) To my delight, I was informed by a welcome to altus sign that this was also "Home of The Simple Life," the Fox reality show featuring Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie. There's the Sonic where the girls "worked"! There's the bar where Nicole poured bleach on the pool table! And yet Paris and Nicole didn't leave too much wreckage in their wake. Altus is still a small, quiet town. We stopped in at the visitors center on Main Street to pick up pamphlets about the wineries, half of which are a short drive up a mountain. My favorite was the first we saw, Post Familie Vineyards and Winery, which is run by the 12 Post children. A fellow named Zack (not a Post) poured us reds, ros}s, and a grape juice. The wine was just OK, but the place was wonderfully unfussy. I particularly liked the Altus Grape Juice. Leaving Altus, we entered the Ozark National Forest, heading toward Jasper. Still recovering from our earlier burgers, we got snow cones at the Ozone Burger Barn. Up to this point, the drive hadn't revealed much more than oak trees and the occasional farm, and I was a little worried that we might get bored. (The Paris-and-Nicole rush passed quickly.) At that moment, however, I heard a rumbling sound in the distance, and a spunky 60-something couple pulled up on a pair of four-wheelers. In a matter of minutes, they'd peeled off their goggles, downed a couple of Cokes, and hopped back on their ATVs. As the duo rumbled away in a cloud of kicked-up dust, I was transfixed. The best part of the day's drive was the last 15 miles south of Jasper on Highway 7, called Scenic 7. Essentially, the road to Jasper had been a gradual climb. We finally got an unobstructed view of the valleys off the side of the ridge we'd been ascending, known as the Grand Canyon of the Ozarks. There isn't much more to the town of Jasper than an ice cream parlor, a Christian bookstore, and a little shop selling rocks and minerals. But Newton County, of which Jasper is a part, bills itself as the Elk Capital of Arkansas. In 1981, to encourage tourism, officials trucked in 112 elk from Colorado. The herd has grown to 550, and they roam free all over the area. Which is not to say that we saw any. The Ozark Caf}, a '50s-style diner, was still open when we got there just before 8 p.m. (Everything closes early in these parts.) Black-and-white photos of early settlers covered the walls. Maggie and I both had the fried catfish special, and then we split a piece of peach cobbler with ice cream. We found a nice room down the road from the town square at the Arkansas House Bed &amp; Breakfast. The place reminded me of my grandparents' house: soft colors, floral wallpaper, and old, wooden bed frames. 2) Jasper to Eureka Springs Our B&amp;B offered free breakfast at the Boardwalk, a restaurant next door. We loaded up on biscuits and gravy, sausage, bacon, and hash browns. Then we set out to walk it off. Up the street, Emma's Museum of Junk was one of the better junk shops/thrift stores we visited. Maggie bought two old scarves for a dollar apiece. There wasn't much else to do in town, so we took a half-hour side trip down the mountain toward Boxley to hike the Lost Valley Trail. The trail is a gentle climb along a riverbed leading to a deep cave. I was feeling adventurous, so I decided to try spelunking. To get more than 20 feet in, you need a good flashlight or headlamp. I borrowed a small one from a couple we met on the trail, but the cave still got very dark-quickly. At the back, it narrowed to a twisting, single-file passageway that led to a long, low, dripping room. I shimmied around, crouched under a ledge, and then turned back. A sign at the bottom of the trail explained that a little farther in there's a high-ceilinged cavern; during the wet springtime, it's the source of an underground waterfall. After hiking down the trail, Maggie and I returned to Jasper, buying groceries, lures, and weekend fishing licenses at Bob's A.G. Supermarket and Do-It-Best. The Buffalo River is known for manageable water, great smallmouth bass fishing, and dramatic limestone bluffs above the shores. Both Maggie and I love to canoe and fish, and we planned to do a long stretch of the river, camping out overnight. (In preparation, we'd brought our own fishing rods, sleeping bags, and a tent.) We stopped at Dillard's (now closed), an outfitter where we rented canoes, life jackets, and paddles for $40, and left our car out back. A fellow named Bobby drove us to the river, and showed us on a map where he'd pick us up. The Buffalo was slow, so we admired the bluffs. We caught a couple of small fish (which we threw back), and the day was pleasant enough. But the water was so low that we had to keep getting out to push the canoe over shoals. By the halfway point, we were ready to bail. We happened to arrive in Eureka Springs at exactly the same time as a classic-car convention. The town's more affordable spots up the hill-like the Stonegate-tend to fill up early. Book ahead if you're planning to get in late. 3) Eureka Springs to Mountain View Sunday morning I drove over to see the site of the Great Passion Play, a reenactment of Christ's last days. Performances take place five days a week from late spring through early fall in an outdoor amphitheater, located on a hill overlooking town. The full-blown affair sounded like more religion than I usually enjoy on vacation, so I checked out the site at 8 a.m., when it was sure to be deserted. A 67-foot-tall concrete Jesus was planted near the amphitheater, and soft organ music floated out from speakers on nearby pine trees. The historic section of Eureka Springs is one of Arkansas' biggest tourist destinations. The town used to be known for the healing power of its springs; there's still a quaint, 19th-century feel here. A bus built to look like an old-fashioned trolley runs a loop through the historic part of town. It's a quick way to see what's worth coming back to on foot. First we navigated the steep, winding roads through the busy town center, which felt like a well-behaved Bourbon Street. Then, the trolley began to climb a hill through the leafy neighborhoods where the locals live. Twenty minutes later, we got off and walked up to the Palace Hotel and Bathhouse, Eureka Springs' only remaining baths. The best deal here is the eucalyptus steam and the clay mask treatment ($12 each), recommended as a pair. For the steam, I sat inside a wooden box that enclosed everything but my head, which poked out the top. I felt like a prisoner in a medieval torture chamber. The experience was anything but painful, however; it was a refreshing half hour. The only thing left to do in Eureka Springs was walk around and eat. By this point, we were tired of southern food, so we went to New Delhi, an Indian restaurant run by Bill Sarad, a Mumbai native. We split a meal of lentils, vegetarian meatballs, and basmati rice. We got into Mountain View around 8:30 p.m. The town is Arkansas's Capital of Folk Music, and this time the label fit. We saw several groups playing bluegrass in the town square. People were casually strolling around with instruments, moving from one ensemble to the next. Most of the instruments were stringed-guitars, banjos, mandolins-and the voices were flat and high. The entire town seemed to be out enjoying the festivities. The only place still open for dinner was Kin Folks Bar-B-Q, a tiny building at the edge of the square, and that's where I ate my first Frito pie. It came in a French-fry tray, with three layers: Fritos on the bottom, chili in the middle, cheddar and onions on top. I still can't get over the incredible, disgusting genius of this idea. Plus, it happened to be quite tasty. 4) Mountain View to Little Rock After my success with Frito pie, I was feeling lucky, so I made one final southern-food stop in Greenbriar, at Nelson's Wagon Wheel Restaurant. The sign had fallen down outside, the place was shabby, and the clientele was intimidatingly local. But the chocolate pie was a towering wonder of buttery greatness. It was one of the best-and biggest-slices I've ever had. I can see it now: Greenbriar, Arkansas's Capital of Chocolate Pie. Finding your way Both Maggie and I flew in and out of Little Rock, the airport with the most affordable flights. The best time for this trip is in spring, when the rivers run high and the caves are wet. 1. Little Rock to Jasper via Altus, 205 miles For the direct route, take I-40 west from Little Rock to Russellville. Then catch Scenic 7 north to Jasper. That trip is 142 miles and should take about 2 hours and 45 minutes. If you want to see Altus and the wine country, which is 115 miles from Little Rock and adds another hour and a half, take I-40 west past Russellville to exit 41. To get up to Jasper, backtrack a little on 40 east, and then get on 64 east for three miles to 21 north. After about 30 miles on 21, you meet 16 east and then Scenic 7 north to Jasper. 2. Jasper to Eureka Springs via Yellville, 135 miles Here's the prettiest way to get to Eureka Springs: 74 west to Boxley, then 21 north to Berryville, and then 62 west to Eureka Springs. If you want to go canoeing out of Yellville, that trip is about 62 miles and takes an hour and a half. From Jasper, go north on 7, east on 62/412, and south on 14 to Dillard's. Yellville to Eureka Springs is a straight shot west on 62. 3. Eureka Springs to Mountain View, 140 miles Take 62 east to Mountain Home, then 5 south toward Mountain View. If you happened to miss the scenic stretch on 21 and 74, however, take 62 east to 21 south to Boxley. From there, take 74 back through Jasper to Hasty, where you'll meet 123 north, then 65 south, and then 66 east. One warning: On the map, 74 may look as if it connects to 65, but the road dead-ends after Mount Judea. Don't miss the connection from 74 to 123, which leads to 65. 4. Mountain View to Little Rock, 105 miles Take 9 south to Clinton, and then 65 south. Follow that to Conway, and I-40. Signs will lead to the airport. Day one Lodging The Arkansas House B&amp;BHwy. 7, Jasper, 870/446-5900, thearkhouse.com, from $49 Food The Purple Cow8026 Cantrell Rd., Little Rock, 501/221-3555, burger $4.75 Ozone Burger BarnHwy. 21, Ozone, 479/292-1392 Ozark CafeHwy. 7, Jasper, 870/446-2976, catfish $6 Post Familie Vineyards1700 St. Mary's Mtn. Rd., Altus, 479/468-2741 Day two Lodging Stonegate 2106 E. Van Buren, Eureka Springs, 479/253-8800, from $39 Boardwalk CafeHwy. 7, Jasper, 870/446-5900 Attractions Lost Valley TrailHwy. 43, north of Boxley, nps.gov/buff Shopping Emma's Museum of JunkHwy. 7, Jasper, 870/446-5865 Bob's A.G. Supermarket and Do-It-BestHwy. 7, Jasper, 870/446-5164, fishing license $11 Day three Lodging Red Bud Inn428 Sylamore Ave., Mountain View, 870/269-4375, from $40 Food New Delhi2 N. Main St., Eureka Springs, 479/253-2525, buffet $8 Kin Folks Bar-B-Q123 Washington St., Mountain View, 870/269-9188 The Great Passion Play935 Passion Play Rd., Eureka Springs, 800/882-7529, greatpassionplay.com, $23.25, kids $10 The Palace Hotel and Bathhouse135 Spring St., Eureka Springs, 479/253-8400, palacehotelbathhouse.com Historic trolley ride137A W. Van Buren, Eureka Springs, 479/253-9572, tickets $2 Day four Food Nelson's Wagon WheelHwy. 65, Greenbriar, 501/679-5009, chocolate pie $1.75

Road Trips

Classic Road Trip Down the Pacific Coast Highway

Day 1: San Francisco to Carmel Shortly after we married, my wife and I discovered that the drive down Highway 1, California's coastal route, is much like young love: romantic, impractical, and filled with dizzying twists and turns. It was also crowded. Sara and I made our first trip together one summer on a day-and-a-half jaunt from San Francisco to L.A., a clip too quick to appreciate the views, but not fast enough for the leadfoots tailgating us. Over the next seven years, on subsequent trips south, we forsook Highway 1 for I-5, the big inland interstate, the highway of pragmatic middle age. But the beauty of the coast always beckoned. Sara grew restless (the seven-year itch?) for a scenic road trip. So we waited for winter, the sleepy season. We would be more mature this time around. When other cars breathed down our bumper, we'd pull aside instead of flipping them off. We'd hold hands. We'd watch the sunset. This highway--unlike most--was never meant to be hurried. It took 15 years to build, and even today, a lifetime after it opened during Franklin Roosevelt's tenure, it remains in a steady state of reconstruction--stretches of it buried under winter mudslides, or worn down by the ocean's constant kiss. The sky was clear and so was the road as we eased our way south of San Francisco. On the right side of the highway, waves frothed white against empty beaches. On the left, farmland formed a carpet of emerald green. We passed the crescent coastline of Half Moon Bay and then, 18 miles south, took a short detour to the town of Pescadero, known for its artichoke harvests. A friend had told us we wouldn't want to do without a slice of artichoke bread at Arcangeli Grocery Co. More bread than artichoke, it wasn't worth the side trip, but it tided us over as we cut back to the coast. Outside of Santa Cruz we shot north on Highway 9 to the mountainside town of Felton, where a local artist named Michael Rugg runs the free Bigfoot Discovery Museum. A cheery, bearish man, Rugg stood behind the counter when we walked in, relaying tales of Bigfoot sightings to a young, wide-eyed believer. Catching us eavesdropping, Rugg waved us over and showed us a term paper he wrote in 1967 as a Stanford undergrad: "A History and Discussion of the Abominable Snowman Question." It was more persuasive than some of his other exhibits, like the Milton Bradley yeti board game, or the tabloid headline, complete with doctored photo, hanging on the wall: "World's First Bigfoot Hooker." The museum is barely larger than a woodshed, but we managed to stay for an hour. I was delighted, though not entirely convinced, by a Roger Patterson film, a significant snippet from the canon of Bigfoot studies, which shows a large ape-man ambling along a wooded stream. "A lot of people say it's just a guy in a gorilla suit, but I know it's real," said a visitor, a man in his 40s with a dreamy stare. Like Bigfoot, Santa Cruz has a reputation for attracting plenty of eccentrics--a reputation promoted by the city, whose residents buy bumper stickers that read keep santa cruz weird. The Gelatomania Café downtown(now closed) is odd, all right. Run by Buddhists, it's an Italian ice cream shop that doubles as an oxygen bar. Sara got a scoop of chocolate gelato, while I shelled out five bucks to inhale air scented like the sea. That fragrance grew stronger when we got to Steamer Lane, one of the best surf spots on the West Coast. Dozens of surfers bobbed in the water, waiting for a fleeting shot at glory. The sun was hanging low by the time we arrived at the 17-Mile Drive, the famous gated loop that winds past landmark golf courses and zillion-dollar mansions. We paid $9 for the right to drive it, and left an hour later with a much clearer sense of how the other 0.001 percent lives. For dinner, we split a wood-fire pizza at Cafe Rustica, a homey restaurant in Carmel Valley, the inland stepsister to Carmel. It's a 15-minute detour off the highway, a small sacrifice for a good pizza. Food Arcangeli Grocery Co. 287 Stage Rd., Pescadero, 650/879-0147, loaf of artichoke bread $5 Cafe Rustica10 Delfino Pl., Carmel Valley, 831/659-4444, pizza $12 Activities Bigfoot Discovery Museum5497 Hwy. 9, Felton, 831/335-4478 17-Mile DrivePebble Beach exit off Hwy. 1 south, pebblebeach.com, car fee $9 Day 2: Carmel to San Luis Obispo We awoke at daybreak to visit Earthbound Farm in Carmel. An all-organic operation, Earthbound sells its own produce and freshly made foods from a quaint storefront. I got a Like-a-lada smoothie (made with pineapple, coconut, and banana), which I liked-a-sorta, but not as much as Sara's Mango Tango. We grabbed organic chicken sandwiches for the road, strolled through the aromatic herb gardens, and climbed back in the car, feeling refreshed and pesticide-free. It wasn't long before we arrived in Big Sur, once a magnet for beatniks, now a haven for artists and wealthy spa-goers. We turned right at unmarked Sycamore Canyon Road (the first paved road past the post office) and drove two miles to Pfeiffer Beach, where the currents have carved arches in the sandstone and greenstone rocks. It was just us and the seagulls. The Henry Miller Library, set in a shaded redwood grove a short drive south, was peaceful and meditative. "Library" is a misnomer, since you can't borrow anything. But you can buy books, read letters, and gaze at watercolors by the famous writer (and less-famous painter) who lived in Big Sur for 18 years. As we progressed, the views became more dramatic; every turnout in the road was a temptation to pull over and snap photographs. Sara gazed at the rocky shoreline, while I concentrated on not steering us off a cliff. Still, by the time we arrived at aptly named Ragged Point, Sara's queasy look was a reminder that on Highway 1, it's easier to drive than navigate. I'd read that Piedras Blancas was a winter hangout for elephant seals. The giant beasts were lolling about on the windy beach, as unself-conscious as experienced nudists. Signs informed us that we had come a few weeks too late to see the real highlight: the young being born and the seagulls eating the afterbirth. Shucks. Hearst Castle, in San Simeon, is a popular stop along this drive, but we decided to continue on to Cambria, where another obsessive built a very different kind of home. Nit Witt Ridge is the anti-Hearst Castle, constructed by local garbageman Art Beal, who used tire rims, beer bottles, abalone shells, anything he could get his hands on. Beal died in 1992, but a man named Michael O'Malley owns the place now and runs entertaining tours. O'Malley showed us one of Beal's bathrooms. Lovelorn for much of his life, the garbageman never fully gave up hope: He equipped the tiny room with his-and-hers toilets. San Luis Obispo, a college town with an easygoing surf-side vibe, holds a farmers' market every Thursday evening. We arrived just in time. The main street, Higuera, is closed to traffic for the occasion, so we took a streetcar. There were fewer farmers than restaurateurs operating sidewalk stands, but we couldn't complain. Sara got a burger, and I had a sausage. That night, we checked in to the La Cuesta Inn, a clean, comfortable hotel with soft beds and bathrooms with just one toilet. Lodging La Cuesta Inn2074 Monterey St., San Luis Obispo, 805/543-2777, lacuestainn.com, from $89 Food Earthbound Farm7250 Carmel Valley Rd., Carmel, 831/625-6219, ebfarm.com, smoothie $4 Activities Nit Witt Ridge881 Hillcrest Dr., Cambria, 805/927-2690, $10, kids $5 Henry Miller LibraryHwy. 1, Big Sur, 831/667-2574, henrymiller.org, donations accepted Day 3: San Luis Obispo to Santa Barbara The Big Sky Cafe, downtown, serves all the great morning standards, plus a terrific posole, a pork and hominy stew. At our waitress's suggestion, we strolled into the parking lot across the street to see a local landmark called Bubble Gum Alley. It's a walkway between stores where, for decades, San Luis Obispans have been sticking their chewed gum. Sure enough, the alley was covered in the gooey stuff, some fresh and pink but most brown with age. Far from an example of public art, the alley struck me as a threat to public health. This part of the California coastline is still beautiful, but less rugged than up north. It's also more developed, scarred by subdivisions. We found refuge in Pismo State Beach, a winter breeding ground for monarch butterflies. They were flitting around the bushes and eucalyptus trees. In a tranquil clearing, a sign promised butterfly talks daily at 11 a.m. We waited. And waited. We watched the butterflies. No one came to talk, but it didn't matter. The butterflies were best observed in silence anyway. On the way toward Solvang, we cut inland through rolling wine country, the stunning vineyards featured in Sideways, and stopped at La Purisima Mission, founded in 1787. The Mission was destroyed by an earthquake in 1812, and it's since been faithfully rebuilt seven miles from its original location. The big, bucolic compound has low-slung Spanish-style adobe buildings and artifacts depicting life some 200 years ago. We were the only visitors in the sprawling place, and burros and horses grazed in a fenced-in pasture. Solvang is a peculiar place, a city that was settled by Danish immigrants that's now a tourist draw. It looked to me like Danish Disney World: windmills, wood-frame gingerbread houses, a store selling Christmas ornaments year-round. Even the Best Western has the chutzpah to call itself the Kronborg Inn. At the New Danish Inn Restaurant (now closed), we ordered smorgasbord, a buffet of meatballs, cabbage, and forlorn-looking salads, only to discover that smorgasbord is Danish for "lots of food we're not in the mood to eat." So we headed next door to Paula's Pancake House for delicious Danish pancakes--big, light, and dusted with powdered sugar. Late that afternoon, we started to see palm trees, nature's welcome to southern California. The Pacific Crest Inn, a no-frills motel in Santa Barbara, was remarkably inexpensive for a place only a block from the beach. An unadvertised bonus: The inn is also near La Super-Rica Taqueria. The Mexican restaurant was celebrated by Julia Child, and I'd heard so much hype about it, I was braced for disappointment. But the tamales, stuffed with chayote squash and topped with cream sauce, were the best I've ever eaten, and the salsa was hot enough to melt my teeth. Lodging Pacific Crest Inn by the Sea433 Corona Del Mar, Santa Barbara, 805/966-3103, from $59 Food Big Sky Cafe1121 Broad St., San Luis Obispo, 805/545-5401, posole $9 Paula's Pancake House1531 Mission Dr., Solvang, 805/688-2867, pancakes $5 La Super-Rica Taqueria622 N. Milpas St., Santa Barbara, 805/963-4940, tamale $4 Activities Pismo State BeachPier Ave., Oceano, 805/489-2684 La Purisima Mission2295 Purisima Rd., Lompoc, 805/733-3713, car fee $4 Day 4: Santa Barbara to L.A. As we loaded up the car, two young surfers passed us on their way back from the water. "Totally gnarly," they said, when we asked how the waves were. Our drive down toward Ventura was also pretty gnarly, skirting a coastline that seems to have sprung from a Beach Boys song. Turning inland, we merged with heavy traffic on the 405 freeway. On a hilltop in the Santa Monica Mountains, Los Angeles's Getty Center caused such a stir when it opened in 1997 that visitors had to make reservations. No longer. Still, it was crowded when we got there at 11 a.m., and the line for the tram--the only way up--was dishearteningly long. By the time we reached the top, about 40 minutes later, our schedule was too tight to tour the exhibits. But the building, designed by Richard Meier, is art enough--a gleaming modernist fortress of Italian travertine. The grand gardens are like a streamlined, modern version of those at Versailles, and a smaller cactus garden offers extensive variety--some round and squat, others tall and lanky, with arms outstretched like gunslingers. Beyond, a view of L.A. was spectacular but sobering--ocean to the west, smog to the south. Leaving the museum, we cut back west to Santa Monica. Main Street was crammed: cars, cafés, cool dudes. We stopped at Urth Caffé for prosciutto sandwiches. On our way out, a blond man in hip shades shouldered past us. "An actor!" Sara whispered excitedly. He's the one, she explained, who played the hero in that film we saw that time, the one with those chase scenes and the fate of the world hanging in the balance. "Are you positive that wasn't the sequel?" I replied. On the way to the airport, we hit apocalyptic traffic. In the course of our trip, we'd watched one of the world's loveliest highways grow into a groaning urban thoroughfare, not so much ugly as monotonous. We sat in silence, a couple on the cusp of middle age, happy and comfortable together, even if the highway we love had become a road we no longer recognize. Food Urth Caffé2327 Main St., Santa Monica, 310/314-7040, prosciutto sandwich $12 Activities The Getty Center1200 Getty Center Dr., L.A., 310/440-7300, getty.edu, parking $7 Finding your way Highway 1 runs south from the Golden Gate Bridge, cutting across the Presidio and Golden Gate Park. It also passes through neighborhoods that are usually clogged with traffic and not especially scenic. An easier way to pick up Highway 1 is to take Highway 101 south from San Francisco to 280 south, which meets Highway 1 near the coast. Mudslides and flooding sometimes close parts of Highway 1 in winter. For road conditions, call Caltrans at 916/445-7623. The Getty Center isn't on Highway 1. To get there, head east on Highway 10 and backtrack north on the 405. If Highway 1 is closed through the Santa Monica Mountains, stay on the 101 south to the 405 south.

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