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Gaze at the holiday lights on a weekend escape to the Mission Inn in Riverside

Once famed for its citrus groves, Riverside today is best known for its Festival of Lights. About 500,000 visitors will flock to the holiday extravaganza, which runs through Jan. 6. The fun centers on the historic Mission Inn Hotel & Spa and spills into the adjacent Main Street Pedestrian Mall. My family and I spent a weekend at the festival last year. Each evening we joined other revelers to gawk at the hotel’s spectacular light displays and decorations, listen to free concerts and sample seasonal treats. Another highlight: the horses that jingled and clopped around the inn, from Cinderella carriages to hay wagons filled with merry passengers. By day, we explored downtown’s shops, restaurants and cultural attractions, including the Riverside Art Museum. The tab: About $1,000 for a two-night stay at the Mission Inn and meals.

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On a weekend escape to Pacific Beach, you can party on the boardwalk and chill on the bay

San Diego’s Pacific Beach has a split personality. On the ocean side, the energy is as pumped up as the surf during a southwest swell. Play in the waves, wander Crystal Pier or join the cyclists, skaters and pedestrians who cruise the three-mile stretch of boardwalk linking Pacific Beach and Mission Beach. But cross Mission Boulevard, the main drag, to Mission Bay, and it’s a different story. Crowds are sparse, and the mood is as calm as the water. Take a leisurely bike ride on the uncrowded path that circles the bay, rent a kayak or bliss out in a paddleboard yoga class. My husband, daughter and I enjoyed both sides of Pacific Beach in the fall. The tab: $800 for a two-night stay at Tower 23 Hotel and about $250 for meals.

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Savor live music on a weekend escape to Saratoga, Calif.

Wine lovers appreciate Saratoga's laid-back sipping experience. But I wasn't hunting for a great new Cabernet or Pinot Noir on a recent visit to this peaceful town in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains. My daughter and I were lured to Saratoga to watch two of my favorite vintage '80s bands — Echo and the Bunnymen and the Violent Femmes — in concert at Mountain Winery.

The stunning hilltop venue serves up an extensive menu of alfresco concerts from late May through mid-October. The Greek-style amphitheater and complex of stone buildings, where you can enjoy a fancy sit-down or casual pre-show dinner, exude an old-world Mediterranean vibe. Like fine wine, headliners here tend to be perfectly aged. (Think Tom Jones, Pat Benatar and Steve Winwood.) But the annual lineup also includes a few contemporary artists such as Sheryl Crow and Michael Franti.

Before or after a concert, check out the shops, tasting rooms and restaurants that line Big Basin Way, Saratoga's charming main drag. Or hit a nearby hiking trail. The tab for our overnight stay: $235 for a room at the Inn at Saratoga, $180 for two concert tickets, and about $125 for meals.

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A Modern Guide to Mill Valley

As you approach downtown Mill Valley, you can't help but notice the dramatic sight of Mount Tamalpais rising in the distance. Easy access to some of Tam's most scenic trails make Mill Valley a mecca for weekend warriors. But even if you're not the outdoorsy type, this laid-back, Southern Marin enclave is an enticing spot for a weekend getaway or day trip, with renowned restaurants, cafes and upscale boutiques and galleries—many of them housed in Victorian and other historic buildings that rim downtown's Square.

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Nurture Your Soul with a Zen Retreat

Make like a monk and unplug from your hectic, always-connected life with a Zen retreat this New Year. Learn how to meditate, fine-tune your yoga practice, or just spend quiet time communing with nature. Here are five great spots to immerse yourself in a day or weekend of reflection and relaxation so you can start the new year calm and centered.

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