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Holiday Getaways

Feeling stressed out? Here are five laid-back vacation spots that are guaranteed to make you feel better.

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It's cliché, we know, but the holidays really can be a stressful time of year. So why not get away from it all this season — or next, if you've already made plans for 2012? From our perspective, spending some quality time in nature is always the best way to relieve stress. And so all the getaway spots on our list include plenty of opportunities for outdoor recreation.

Our recommendations also include a few spots that provide that "holiday feel." That way, you won't miss out on the trappings of Christmas while you're away for a weekend — or longer.

Nevada City: This liberal bastion in the Sierra Nevada is one of our favorites, especially in winter. At 2,500 feet in elevation, it's close to snow country for those who are into skiing, sledding, or snowshoeing. It's also breathtakingly beautiful, nestled amid a thick pine forest and mountain streams. Plus, it's just plain cool. Populated by a bunch of aging hippies and back-to-the-land types, it feels almost like a mini-Berkeley, with health food stores, cute shops, art galleries, and great bars and restaurants. Oh yeah, it's also a historic gold rush town that still features gas-powered street lamps. In fact, the entire downtown district, just off of Highway 49, is a national historic landmark.

But what's best about Nevada City this time of year is that the town really knows how to do Christmas. It seems like every storefront and shop is decorated with lights, and on Wednesday nights and Sundays in December, the downtown transforms into Victorian Christmas, featuring carriage rides, Christmas carolers, and plenty of libations. There are also several great bed-and-breakfast spots in town and in nearby Grass Valley — another old gold rush town that's worth visiting as well.

Mendocino Coast: If you'd rather go for long walks on the beach than be in the mountains, then get thee to Mendocino. The entire coast of Mendocino, in fact, from Fort Bragg on up, is a great place to get away from city life and spend some quiet moments in nature. There are several gorgeous parks in the region; one of our favorites is MacKerricher State Park. It's an old Native American reservation along the Pacific Ocean, featuring beautiful beaches, tidepools, and large sand dunes.

In town, Mendocino Village features some terrific restaurants and historic inns and B&Bs. And did we mention the artists' colony and all the art galleries? They're a must-see. Although Decembers on the Mendocino Coast can be rainy and cold, spending time on the beach in winter somehow seems to recharge your batteries. There also tends to be a lot fewer tourists this time of year.

Big Sur: On Highway 1, about 45 minutes south of Monterey, Big Sur is perhaps the most picturesque spot in California. Steep, rocky cliffs; huge redwoods; the big blue ocean: Big Sur's got it all — plus funky little shops, roadhouse-style bars, and a few getaway spots that will make you forget city life completely. One of our favorites is Deetjen's Big Sur Inn. It's rambling, rustic, and very romantic, and features one of the best restaurants anywhere. Breakfasts are unreal. It's probably too late to book reservations this year, but seriously think about it for 2013.

Don't let that stop you, however, from checking out Big Sur this December. There are several other getaway spots in town. (Check out Treebones; it's got yurts!) Plus, there are fabulous hiking trails in the area (Julia Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is a must-visit in winter). The Big Sur River is also a can't-miss, especially when it roars following heavy rains. Pro-tip: On the way down or coming back, stop for a few hours at Point Lobos State Reserve, and check out the sea lions and sea otters.

Santa Cruz: If you're not into driving three or four hours to reach a great getaway spot, then why not spend a weekend in Santa Cruz? Surf City, as the locals call it, has some of the best beaches in California. Plus, there are some terrific nearby parks. One of our favorites is Big Basin Redwoods State Park in the Santa Cruz Mountains. If you're feeling adventurous, and you really want to get out in nature — away from everything — then try the long hike to Berry Creek Falls. Be forewarned: It's a strenuous ten-mile trek, and it'll take at least five hours to complete. In wintertime, you should also pack raingear and waterproof hiking boots. But the payoff is more than worth it: towering waterfalls, massive redwoods, banana slugs galore, and giant ferns that look like they belong in Jurassic Park.

Wilbur Hot Springs: The last on our list is not a town; it's a spa retreat. And it may be the most relaxing place we've ever been to. Located near the town of Williams, east of Clear Lake, the mineral springs here are divided into three long outdoor flumes that range from 95 to 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Sitting in a naturally heated flume at Wilbur Hot Springs and gazing at the pretty surrounding hills will make you forget almost everything. There are also free yoga classes on the weekends. It's clothing-optional in the springs, and most people wear a bathrobe and then take it off just before they immerse. Clothing is required indoors, however. Wilbur Hot Springs, in short, is super laid-back, and not at all cultish like other hot springs we've been to around the state. Also, there is no restaurant on site, so bring your own organic groceries and cook your meals in the professionally equipped onsite kitchen.

Wilbur Hot Springs, 3375 Wilbur Springs Rd., Williams, 530-473-2306, WilburHotSprings.com

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