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Staying in Town? Travel Writer Donna Wares has Suggestions for your Staycation

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The wooden pier in Seal Beach | Photo by Kate Cohen/SealBeachDaily

Donna Wares is a travel writer, a former editor at the LA Times and most recently, a neighborhood blogger in Seal Beach. Her enthusiasm for California is evident in her projects and it was thanks to her book that we participated in Santa Barbara Car Free. With a long weekend ahead and many people sticking around instead of traveling, we decided to ask Wares her suggestions on what to do. Holiday weekend or not, these tips will work for those looking to explore the Los Angeles region any day.

1.  For many, Thanksgiving is a four or five day weekend with at least a couple days to spare.  Your book Great Escapes has many great suggestions for travels within two-hours, but do you have any more suggestions for places to check out and do this weekend on the fly?

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On most long weekends I tend to gravitate toward an action-packed getaway up the coast or a kickback retreat to the desert. But this tumultuous season of fires, storms and economic meltdowns feels like a good time to stick close to home with a few easy, go-with-the-flow day trips. I love packing a picnic lunch and spending a few hours on the wide, usually deserted wintertime shore of Sunset Beach, which is hidden away along Pacific Coast Highway just north of Huntington Beach. Free parking. No crowds in winter. The perfect reading beach.

Another choice spot for walking off Thanksgiving indulgences: the woodsy nature trails at Descanso Gardens in La Canada Flintridge. It's a botanical wonderland, tucked inside a natural bowl in the San Rafael Hills. The gardens change dramatically with the seasons. I especially like the Camellia Forest this time of year.

The Long Beach Museum of Art has a new "California, Seen" exhibit, a sweeping collection of California landscapes. When you're done browsing, there's an inviting outdoor café overlooking the water. It's a peaceful spot for meeting up with friends for brunch or a family lunch, and its convenient to Long Beach's other prime offerings - Belmont Shore's Second Street, Pine Avenue, and the Aquarium of the Pacific are only a couple minutes drive in either direction.

The Black Friday madness is my idea of shopping hell. But if you're bent on scratching off items on your Christmas list, why not head to the downtown Fashion District. instead of the mall? Park near Olympic Avenue and Santee Street and be sure to check out the freewheeling scene in Santee Alley, the place for bargains and designer knockoffs. Bring cash. Be prepared to haggle - that's the fun part. The Flower District is in the area, too, and opens to the public once the wholesalers clear out. When you're done shopping, treat yourself to the delectable organic offerings of the Tiara Café (in the New Mart Building, 127 East Ninth St.)

Temecula's Wine Country is another easy trek, no advance planning required. The Temecula Valley is about 80 miles south of Los Angeles in Riverside County along 1-15. Set out early and jumpstart the day in downtown Temecula with breakfast at the folksy Swing Inn Café (28676 Front St.) a local favorite since 1929. Warning: the hotcakes are the size of Frisbees, so come hungry. Spend an hour or so roaming downtown's historic buildings and tasting rooms - I like the Temecula Olive Oil Co, (28653 Front St.) for holiday gifts. On Saturday mornings there's a farmer market downtown, too. Then head across town to the wineries clustered along Rancho California Road. The hilltop Callaway Winery is a particularly inviting spot and its tasting bar offers sweeping views of the entire valley.

2. If you had someone traveling into town and were going to show them the Donna Wares quintessential California experience, what would you do with them this weekend?

That's easy: head to Crystal Cove. It remains a timeless, quintessential slice of old California, one of my favorite escapes. Located just north of Laguna Beach, the Crystal Cove beach and historic district is now a state park. A non-profit group has been painstakingly restoring the beach colony's vintage cottages, which are hidden from view along busy Pacific Coast Highway. Walk under the highway and emerge from the tunnel leading to the beach, and you'll feel like the Wayback Machine has brought you into a 1930s postcard of the California coast, a tranquil universe of tide pools, beach shacks and rolling dunes. Cottage reservations for overnight stays must be booked months in advance, but you can spend the day on the beach here anytime. Parking is $10.

I also like to bring visitors down the coast highway for dinner at one of my favorite Laguna Beach restaurants, Eva's Caribbean Kitchen, a cottage restaurant south of the city's touristy hub. Eva's pomegranate martinis are impossible to resist,

You've produced two great books about California, how have they done and what's next?

Thanks for your kind praise. The My California anthology has been a bestseller and, best of all, it has raised nearly $100,000 for writing programs for children throughout California. My newest book, Great Escapes: Southern California, is a collection of weekend travel trips, and it has been popular with Southern California booksellers, who have been catering to the recent "Staycation" travel trend.

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I just completed an inspiring book project with Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Rick Rickman called The Wonder Years: Portraits of Athletes who Never Slow Down, for Chronicle Books. The Wonder Years will be released in 2009. And my next project is a book about the Central Coast.

4. You've now entered the arena of hyper-blogging with Seal Beach Daily. How did you decide to start neighborhood blogging and how's it going so far? Any plans in regards to the future of the blog?

My background is newspapers - I'm a former LA Times editor. I've been blogging at for several years and have been following the rise of hyperlocal blogs in other parts of the country. These intensely local blogs provide the kinds of news that people crave -- no story is too big or too small -- and we decided to test the waters in my own very under-served community of Seal Beach. Kate Cohen and I just launched Seal Beach Daily this month. SBD is a journal, a news hub and a running conversation about life in a small Southern California beach community. And the response has been amazing.

5. For the Seal Beach uninitiated, what should one do and eat while spending a day there?

Nestled between Long Beach and Huntington Beach, Seal Beach is an unpretentious little beach town with an old-fashioned Main Street, a wooden pier, and a mile-long beach popular with families and boogie boarders. The best thing to do is to head to Old Town, just off Pacific Coast Highway, and stroll around town and down to the sand. No game plan required. You'll find some excellent restaurants (including Walt's Wharf, Angelo's Italian Deli and the new Beachwood BBQ, to name just a few), surf and skate shops, boutiques, coffee shops and the gaudy and irresistible California Seashell Company, which every child in the world insists on visiting. (Stop by Seal Beach Daily for more pointers) Seal Beach is easy to overlook as motorists race along PCH bound for tonier beach towns to the north and south. But our seaside gem is always worth a stopover - even for just a few hours -- to escape the L.A. grind.