- Riding a Cable Car: It's the quintessential San Francisco experience, taking the Powell-Hyde cable car down to Fisherman's Wharf. When you reach the top of Nob Hill, grab the rail with one hand and hold your camera with the other, because you're about to see a view of the bay that'll make you all weepy.
- Exploring Alcatraz Island: Even if you loathe tourist attractions, you'll dig Alcatraz. Just looking at the Rock from across the bay is enough to give you the heebie-jeebies -- and the park rangers have put together an excellent audio tour. Heck, even the boat ride across the bay is worth the price.
- Hot-Air Ballooning over Napa Valley: Sure, you have to rise at dawn to do it, but drifting over the Napa Valley's vineyards in a balloon is the best way to view the verdant, undulating hills, meticulously striped with vines and bordered by mountains. Flights run in the morning on clear days, when the air is calm and cool. You can book a trip through your hotel or with Bonaventura Balloon Company (tel. 800/FLY-NAPA [359-6272]) or Adventures Aloft (tel. 800/627-2759).
- Wine Tasting in Napa or Sonoma: You don't have to be a connoisseur to appreciate the wine trail. All you need is a decadent streak and a designated driver. Sniff and sip at a few wineries, take in the bucolic views, and see why this region is one of the hottest destinations in the country -- a place to sample some of the world's best wines right at the source.
- Taking a Train Ride Through the Redwoods: Where else on this planet would you get an opportunity to ride a historic steam train through a remote coastal redwood forest? The Skunk Train (tel. 866/457-5865), in Fort Bragg, once lugged logs and now takes tourists on an all-day outing through a redwood forest, an 80-mile journey that crosses over 31 bridges and trestles and through two deep tunnels. They even offer a Sunset Dinner Barbecue excursion.
- Rafting Scenic Northern California Rivers: You can white-water raft through cascades of raging Class 4 waters or float under blue skies, through deep forests, past all sorts of wildlife. Depending on the river and the time of year, some trips are okay for children over age 6.
- Spelunking a Real Gold Mine (Sutter Creek): Don your hard hat, "tag in," board the mine shuttle, and experience what it's like to be a gold miner. The Sutter Gold Mine tour (tel. 866/762-2837) takes you deep into a mine that's loaded with gold deposits. You'll have the chance to sluice for some real gold.
- Panning for Gold in the Gold Country: In southern Gold Country, you can dig into living history and pan for gold. Several companies, including Gold Prospecting Adventures (tel. 800/596-0009) in Jamestown, offer dredging lessons and gold-panning tours. You'll quickly learn that this is backbreaking labor, although an adventure. And who knows? You might get lucky and launch a new gold rush.
- Taking a Studio Tour (Los Angeles): Studio tours are opportunities to see actual stage sets for shows, past and present, such as Desperate Housewives and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and you never know who you're going to spot emerging from his or her star wagon.
- Learning How to Surf: What could be a better experience during your California vacation than learning how to surf on the same breaks that the Beach Boys surfed? Surfing schools, such as Learn to Surf L.A. (tel. 310/663-2479), in Manhattan Beach, will guarantee you'll get up on a longboard and be surfing the easy waves in one short lesson.
- Cruising Sunset Boulevard: It's a must for first-time visitors because you'll see a cross section of everything that is L.A.: legendary clubs, studios, hotels, and zip codes that you'll instantly recognize from the silver screen and TV shows. The journey ends with a trip to Malibu's fabled beaches, where those classy Baywatch episodes were filmed (how perfect).
- Skating Venice Beach: You haven't visited Southern California properly until you've rented some skates at Venice Beach and taken in the human carnival around you. Get a head start on people-watching from your seat at the Sidewalk Cafe; buy some cheap sunglasses, silver jewelry, or ethnic garb; and relish the wide beach, blue sea, and performers along the boardwalk.
- Flying a World War II Fighter Aircraft: Strap yourself into a vintage 600-horsepower fighter aircraft and prepare to blow your mind as you (yes, you) perform aerobatic maneuvers -- loops, rolls, and lazy-eights -- above the San Diego coastline, accompanied (but not flown) by a pilot from Barnstorming Adventures (tel. 800/759-5667). It's an experience you'll never forget.
- Explore Wreck Alley: Several scuttled vessels sit on the ocean floor, about 1 mile off Mission Beach, providing certified divers the chance to investigate a nautical graveyard teeming with sea life. The artificial reef includes a 366-foot Canadian destroyer, the Yukon, as well as the remnants of a research station toppled by a storm in 1988.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.