Golden State Sampler

Hotels & Destinations

More challenging, however, is selecting a host destination in this sprawling state that boasts 1,264 miles of coastline, 265 state parks, 800 commercial wineries and countless meeting alternatives.

Do you want classic California, with salty Pacific breezes, swaying palm trees and soaring coastal cliffs? Perhaps chic California, where attendees can follow an afternoon meeting with lavish spa treatments and celebrity spotting? Or maybe charming California, where locally grown ingredients grace menus and cozy inns face vineyard-wrapped hills?

Happily, meeting professionals find it all on the Golden State’s central coast. At once relaxed and refined, this scenic corridor, which runs from Monterey County south to Ventura County, showcases California’s multifaceted appeal and offers options to please any group.

With the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, rugged Big Sur, Salinas Valley’s wine and agriculture and a cluster of cities on the Mon-terey Peninsula, Monterey County provides fitting venues and activities for any interest. In fact, attendees here often extend meetings into family getaways and romantic escapes.

“In this destination, there are so many neat little things you can do for a short afternoon or a long weekend. You can kayak among sea otters and sea lions. You can drive the 17-Mile Drive. There’s wine and golf and dining and historic tours and more,” says Bruce Skidmore, director of sales for the Monterey County Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Conveniently located in downtown Monterey, the Monterey Conference Center is connected both to the Portola Hotel & Spa and the Monterey Marriott. The center itself can accommodate up to 2,500 attendees for events and meetings.

Connected by the Portola Hotel’s atrium lobby, the hotel and Monterey Conference Center together offer 50,000 sq. ft. of flexible event facilities. The Monterey Marriott recently renovated its 10th-floor event space, where guests mar-vel at 270-degree views of historic downtown and Monterey Bay. Also nearby is the Hotel Pacific, an Inns of Mon-terey property that is refurbishing its 105 suites. The hotel group offers a blindfolded kayaking package in partnership with Adventures By The Sea that tests participants’ trust—an intriguing team-building opportunity.

Monterey’s newest hotel opened this summer on Cannery Row. The 208-room InterContinental The Clement Monterey features a business center, spa and fitness facilities, waterfront dining and a 3,500-square-foot outdoor court-yard with fire pits for foggy nights.

Many of the area’s hotels are renovating and refurbishing. The Monterey Plaza Hotel, perched above Monterey Bay on Cannery Row, recently finished an upgrade to guest rooms and meeting space. After completing room, restaurant, fitness center and pool renovations, Hyatt Regency Monterey Resort & Spa will open their spa in February 2009. A remodel of the four-bedroom President’s House, an exclusive venue with a full kitchen, formal dining and living rooms, private pool and high-tech amenities, also is finished.

Ten miles north of Monterey, beachfront rooms at the former Marina Dunes Resort have been refreshed, and the property is now Sanctuary Beach Resort. To the sun-drenched south, Carmel Valley Ranch updated its meeting space and reception areas, enhanced its 18-hole golf course and clubhouse and tapped James Beard-winning chef Michel Richard for the new Citronelle restaurant.    

Monterey features an eclectic mix of options for planners. An art gallery and café are housed in the Cannery Row Imax Theatre complex that opened this summer. Nearby, the Culinary Center of Monterey offers exciting team-building ac-tivities for foodies (and nonfoodies as well), and the Monterey Bay Aquarium hosts receptions and din-ners for 30–3,000. In 2009, the aquarium will celebrate its 25th anniversary and open a new seahorse exhibit.

Victorian B&Bs line the town of Pacific Grove’s rocky coastline. Near the entrance to Pebble Beach is Asilomar Conference Grounds, a Julia Morgan-designed landmark with 31,000 sq. ft. of function space surrounded by sand dunes and forests. Along the 17-Mile Drive, the Pebble Beach Resorts present world-class golf and amenities.

Celebrities frequent the galleries, beaches and inns of enchanting Carmel-by-the-Sea, a one-square-mile enclave once the home of a bohemian group of artists and writers. Local wines and live jazz set the tone for strolling receptions in the garden courtyard at Carmel Plaza, the village’s retail hub. Inland, the 14-mile-long Carmel Valley has several resorts, wine tasting rooms and the Land Rover Experience at Quail Lodge, a fun option for your rugged outdoor incentive groups. Over the hill in Salinas, the National Steinbeck Center accommodates up to 600 in several event venues.

Spirited San Luis Obispo County is home to Hearst Castle, with grand architecture, European antiques and the iconic Neptune Pool (private events can be arranged here). SLO also encompasses California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, renowned for its engineering program; the Madonna Inn, a fun hotel with quirky themed suites and a collection of beach communities blessed with warm sun and big waves.

“This area is ideal for groups of 10–2,000,” says Sarah Gomez, sales and marketing coordinator for the San Luis Obispo County Visitors & Conference Bureau. “Since we’re midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, ‘meet in the middle’ is our motto.”

San Simeon, situated below Hearst Castle, and quaint town of Cambria anchor the county’s north coast. Driving south on Highway 1, visi-tors pass Morro Bay and its iconic,  576-foot volcanic peak before winding through the city of San Luis Obispo and on to Pismo Beach. North of SLO, and inland along Highway 101, is Paso Robles, the center of the county’s burgeoning wine industry.

The county harbors a variety of properties with meeting space, both on the coast and inland. For example, The Cliffs Resort is located on a bluff overlooking the ocean and its own beach. Fresh from a recent multimillion-dollar renovation, the resort offers 10,000 sq. ft. of flexible meeting space, along with a spa and fitness center.

Also in Pismo Beach is the Mission Inn of Pismo Beach.Planners appreciate the breakfast buffet, wireless Internet, business center and 1,600 sq. ft. of function space. Banquet rooms at Pismo’s Spyglass Inn seat up to 150 and some of the property’s 82 guest rooms overlook the ocean.

At San Luis Obispo’s Apple Farm Inn, the Creekside Lawn seats 80. Four other indoor meeting rooms and outdoor patios are ideal for retreats and board meetings with 20-50 attendees.

Inland, the new 80-room Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites Atascadero seats 10–12 in its executive boardroom and 80 in its dining space (available afternoons only). The hotel is situated 20 miles from the San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport and 13 miles from Paso Robles.

“San Luis Obispo has the college and a downtown area with lots of shopping and dining. Our south coast beach communities have great outlet shopping, while the north coast beach communities offer hiking, biking trails and whale watching,” says Gomez. “Inland, Paso Robles and Atascadero have many different wineries and tours available.”

Two venues ideal for large groups are the 2,600-person capacity Alex Madonna Expo Center at the Madonna Inn and the Paso Robles Event Center, an expansive facility that hosts the California Mid-State Fair.

For tasty team-building activities, try Marcove Executive Training. Culinary Institute of America graduate Jeff Marcove and his wife, Kathy, a management and training consultant, use cooking competitions and culinary adventures to boost groups’ communication and problem-solving skills.

You’re in another wine country, one that may surprise as well as delight your group. For a taste of the area, try Vina Robles Winery, which completed its 14,000-square-foot hospitality center this spring. Highlights include vaulted ceilings, a library and lounge area, outdoor fountains and large, vineyard-view windows. Groups have access to five indoor and outdoor spaces; the Signature Room seats 257 theater-style or 120 for dinners.

The new Cass Café at Cass Winery is available for private parties, and catering options extend to dinners in the vineyards. The winery’s barrel room also seats 80, while 16 can dine in the cellar storage area.

Like its neighbors, Santa Barbara County claims wide, white-sand beaches, rough-and-tumble agricultural land and inland valleys ideal for grape growing. Three California missions are within the county’s borders, and Spanish influence is particularly evident in Santa Bar-bara’s white stucco structures.

From the Santa Barbara Surfing Museum to the celebrity playground of Montecito, this destination is rich with unique group attrac-tions. Santa Barbara Conference and Visitors Bureau communications director Shannon Turner Brooks sug-gests booking events between October and May, when off-season values abound. “There are better prices and it’s not as crowded. We have 300 days of sun per year, so there’s typically good weather then, as well,” she says.

Several Santa Barbara meetings properties have wrapped up renovations in recent months, including Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara. A new restaurant, a 10,000-square-foot spa and 207 refreshed guest rooms were part of the hotel’s six-year, $240-million project. Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort revamped its meeting facilities, restaurant and 360 guest rooms; a tiled courtyard and several ocean-view banquet rooms are among its 45,000 sq. ft. of conference space.

Steps from State Street in downtown Santa Barbara, the former Hotel Andalucia has taken on a hip new existence as Canary Hotel. The property’s 97 guest rooms and 5,000 sq. ft. of function space are redecorated in Spanish style, and “The Perch,” a rooftop terrace with 360-degree ocean and mountain views, continues to be a favorite for special events.

Seeking a tranquil executive retreat venue? Figueroa Mountain Farmhouse accommodates small groups in a secluded lodge tucked above the Santa Ynez Valley. The property sleeps just 14 but accommodates 200 for outdoor events. Wireless Internet and catering are available.

Down the road in Solvang, the Royal Scandinavian Inn is planning a restaurant redesign and menu updates emphasizing regional flavors. Groups are welcomed in 133 rooms and 4,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

All that sunshine inspires visitors to head outside. Santa Barbara Adventure Company leads group excursions and team-building activities ranging from kayaking to surfing to cycling tours. For an overview of Santa Barbara’s history and architec-ture, download a free Red Tile Walking Tour map or watch the podcast on the bureau’s website. And, for receptions with a cultural flair, consider the picturesque Old Mission Santa Barbara or the outdoor courtyards at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum.

Thirty miles inland, the slow-paced Santa Ynez Valley combines pastoral beauty and old-world charm. Discover art galleries, bou-tiques and wine tasting rooms in tiny Los Olivos. Stroll cobblestone streets in the Danish village of Solvang. Or, sample vintages along the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail. Gainey and Firestone Vineyards accommodate up to 500 for events, while several oth-ers welcome smaller groups.

“Culinary tourism is also really popular here, with interactive cooking classes, guided tours and wine-blending seminars, even painting with wine,” says Turner Brooks. Small groups sample the region’s organic and biodynamic blends with Sustainable Vine Wine Tours and explore culinary hotspots with Market Forays. Customized outings include field walks, fruit picking, con-versations with local producers and gourmet cooking classes.   
“The big attraction here is being right on the ocean and having a cute little downtown area within blocks,” says Kathleen Fitzgerald, di-rector of sales for the Ventura Convention and Visitors Bureau.

She credits investors for bringing exciting eats and renewed energy to the city’s center: Kevin Costner recently threw a screening party for his latest movie at Watermark, which opened in August. Housed in a meticulously restored early-1900s bank building, the three-story restaurant boasts character-rich dining rooms and a glass-enclosed rooftop lounge with retractable ceiling.

An events coordinator at nearby San Buenaventura State Beach assists planners with on-site functions and beach parties, and Wi-Fi service is available in the park.

“Ventura has four major hotels with substantial amounts of meeting space, all on the same street,” Fitzgerald says. Four Points by Sheraton is a modern option on Ventura Harbor, while the historic Pierpont Inn has 10,000 sq. ft. of function space.

Marriott Ventura Beach opened its 4,800-square-foot Las Brisas Ballroom, which includes a 1,400-square-foot outdoor courtyard, late last year. Also capitalizing on Ventura’s sunny climate is the Crowne Plaza Ventura Beach Hotel. With fire pits and tables, the new wrap-around deck off the lobby’s Aqua Bar is a prime spot for luaus and casual din-ners.

Oxnard’s affordable accommodations and proximity to Los Angeles (just 60 miles south) also appeal to groups on a budget. Housing many of the city’s 1,800 guest rooms are major hotel brands such as Embassy Suites, Courtyard and Residence Inn by Marriott, Hilton Garden Inn and Best Western.

Away from the ocean, the Ojai Valley Inn and Spa received its second consecutive AAA Five-Diamond award this year, and the spa topped TripAdvisor’s 2008 list of the world’s best. Two ballrooms, four flexible meeting rooms and 13 breakout rooms are among the resort’s 20,000 sq. ft. of function space. Recreational activities range from golf and tennis to swimming and Channel Island sailing excursions.

In addition to Ventura’s downtown and oceanfront attractions, Fitzgerald recommends Fillmore & Western Railway Company, about 15 miles out in Heritage Valley. Groups hop aboard vintage train cars for murder mystery events, margarita tours with an open-air dance car, western barbecue trips and other themed outings. Further inland, Limoneira Tours sets up ranch-style and formal dinners for up to 200 in fragrant lemon and avocado orchards.

Another area draw is Channel Islands National Park, where half- and full-day outings offer picnicking, hiking, bird watching, fishing and scuba opportunities. Several vendors depart from Ventura and from Oxnard’s Channel Islands Harbor. Island Packers operates whale-watching trips, island excursions and dinner cruises, as well as private theme parties, catered tours and floating receptions for up to 140 passengers.

In Oxnard, Jim Hall Kart Racing School is a best bet for auto enthusiasts. Tea-building options and driv-ing classes get attendees out on the track; catering and on-site meeting space are also available. Minutes away, the Murphy Auto Museum showcases more than 70 gleaming classic cars and welcomes group events.

Renee Brincks is a freelance journalist who covers travel, lifestyle and wellness topics. Her recent outlets include Carmel Magazine and Sustainable Industries.