Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Carmel and Monterey

We’re going to race through the time we spent in Carmel-by-the-Sea. What can you say about a town with hyphens? That its quaintness is over-rated, that its obsession with pets is weird, that its faux little Hansel and Gretel cottages are twee. I’m sure Carmel is a lovely place to live if you are over 65, drive a 4X4 and play golf but for visitors looking for Carmel’s quirky, artistic past, our advice is to just keep driving. If you stop, however, we recommend the Dolphin Inn, a quiet, well appointed, reasonably priced hotel close to the center of town. Carmel City Beach is quite nice also.

If you are driving through, we do recommend that you stop at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Despite the aquarium’s reputation for being crowded and expensive, it was Eloise’s turn to have some fun. After all, she had done the courthouse, the mission, the castle and the library with good grace and a sense of NoCrowds adventure. But this time we were going to see something that is at the top of every family’s “to do” list in central California. And that’s the problem. No matter what day of the week, and we were there on a Thursday, the place is filled with marauding children, thousands of them it seemed. Plus it’s expensive, $40.90 for the two of us. And it is located in a tragically awful tourist redevelopment of Cannery Row (Steinbeck devotees look away now) filled with chain restaurants and souvenir shops.

But for all that, we loved it. Despite the cost, the crowds and the sad surroundings this is an awesome, world class aquarium which combines American showmanship with the enormous educational challenge of getting us to understand and care about what is happening to our oceans.

All the exhibits offer a winning combination of entertainment and education. The exhibit on jellies (I used to call them jelly fish but I now know they are invertebrates) was a psychedelic experience. The sea otters were beyond adorable. The three story, 343,000 gallon Kelp Forest tank was, well, huge and mesmerizing. We learned a lot about what is threatening our oceans and what is and isn’t being done about it. There is a great little exhibit set in a 1950’s American diner about how to make smart seafood choices and an historical exhibition of what Cannery Row looked like in the days when Steinbeck described it as “a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.” Ironically, we found more of that feeling inside the aquarium than outside in what’s left of Cannery Row.

For the record, we decided to pass on Monterey’s famous 17 Mile Drive, the only private toll road west of the Mississippi, which connects Carmel and Pacific Grove passing through Pebble Beach, one of America’s grandest gated communities. I really couldn’t see the point of giving the Pebble Beach Company $9 to drive through a safari park for rich folks. Instead, we pushed straight on to San Francisco into the welcoming arms of my cousin and her family.

The Facts

The Dolphin Inn
Corner of 4th & San Carlos Street
Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA 93921
Tel: 800-433-4732 toll-free
Local: 831-624-5356
Email: dolphin@innsbythesea

The Monterey Bay Aquarium
886 Cannery Row
Monterey, California 93940
Tel: 800-756-3737
Local: 831-648-4937
Hours: 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. Daily
Photo courtesy of the Monterey Bay Aquarium website

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Big Sur: Nirvana with NoCrowds

Day 3 San Luis Obispo to Big Sur
Wake up early. No time for breakfast. Jump in the car. Race to Hearst Castle. This was not the leisurely meander up the PCH we had in mind but I was worried about making our 9:00am non-refundable, non-exchageable tour reservation.

“Mom, why are we doing this? We’ve got way better castles back home and it’s going to be crowded. This is going to make you crazy, I can tell.”

Eloise had a point. Even making the reservation the day before had made me a little crazy. To see anything at Hearst Castle you must reserve one or more tours at specific times and even though it was off-season, it was hard to find a convenient slot. Still, the advice I had been given by everyone was “Whatever you do, don’t miss Hearst Castle.” In the end, there was nothing to do but submit to the process, pay the $36, get up early and head for La Cuesta Encantada ( the Enchanted Hill) as William Randolph Hearst liked to call his 90,080 square foot castle in the clouds.

Here’s the thing. Even though it’s a hassle and crowded, it’s worth it. Don’t be put off by the Visitor’s Center with its pedestrian gift shops and food courts. The fun begins when you climb into “the magic school bus” that takes you up the 1,500 foot hill overlooking the Pacific. As you drive along, the crazy, medieval, gothic, Moorish monster mansion, built over the course of 30 years by Berkeley architect Julia Morgan, looms larger and larger. Finally, you are deposited at the entrance where you meet your tour guides. The tour lasts for a little over an hour and does a great job of telling the story of all the people who played a role in creating the world’s grandest showplace. The tycoon, the architect, the mistress and the celebrities all come to life through the impressive narrative skills of the guides. Yes, the whole thing is a scandalous monument to material excess but just like the original Hearst guests, we were having too much fun to care.

Back in the car, Eloise and I began to make our way along the most spectacular section of the PCH, the 90 mile Big Sur coastline which stretches from San Simeon to Carmel. The winding road shoehorned precariously between the Santa Lucia Mountain Range and the Pacific Ocean is as wild and untamed as the magnificent craggy coastline. There are no traffic lights, no signs, no fast food and only three places to buy gas along the entire stretch. Guide books point out that rock slides, road closures and traffic accidents are common occurrences although we experienced none of that. The Big Sur Chamber of Commerce (what commerce?) calculates that there are less than 300 hotel beds in the entire area. I was in a state of NoCrowds nirvana.

“Look Eloise, is this not the most gorgeous, undeveloped, uncrowded stretch of road you have ever seen in your life?”
“It’s great Mom. How long until we get to our hotel?”
“Not too long, but first I want to stop at the Henry Miller Library.”
[Silence from the back seat.]
Don’t worry, it’s not a real library. It’s more like a Henry Miller experience. He was a really interesting writer who lived around here and a friend of his turned his house into a memorial to Henry Miller except he didn’t like memorials so it’s kind of a cultural happening. You can get a cup of tea and we don’t have to stay too long.

As it turned out, we stayed all afternoon. Eloise played ping pong in the garden with anyone who found it hard to tell a little girl “no”. We chatted with fellow travellers. Eloise met a teacher from New York and they discussed schools. I read “Travels with Charley”. We looked at books, the Paris and Beat Generation memorabilia, the crazy, larger-than-life crucifix made out of computer monitors. We sat in the sun and drank tea. On the way out, I asked Eloise what she thought of the whole thing. “Mom, Henry Miller was one wacky guy.” As we got back in the car, I imagined a much older Eloise, sitting in a literature class and holding forth on the Tropic of Cancer’s place in the American literary canon. Right then I made a wish that she would remember that once, when she was small, she spent a perfect afternoon hanging out with her old Mum at Miller’s anti-memorial memorial. I really hope she does remember.

Late in the day, we finally made it to the Big Sur River Inn, just down the road from the library and the most northern of the lodging possibilities. We had intended to stay at Deetjen’s, built by a Norwegian immigrant in the 1930s and now on the National Register of Historic Places which is run on a non-profit basis by the Big Sur Inn Preservation Foundation, but we way underestimated the demand and tried to score a room late in the day with no luck. I also considered booking into the Esalen Institute, home of the Human Potential movement where Hunter Thompson was once the caretaker, but I was sure this hippie camp for boomers would be wasted on Eloise. Ditto for naked bathing in the Esalen hot springs baths which is open to the public from 1am to 3am. We couldn’t afford the upmarket Ventana and Post Ranch Inns (a pity since Playboy Magazine voted the Post Ranch the sexiest place on earth) and all the other mid-range options were booked.

In the end, the Big Sur River Inn suited us fine. Besides, we didn’t have a choice. Dating back to 1888, tucked under towering redwoods and overlooking a picturesque creek, the main building is a rustic place with a laid back vibe. Our room, which was in the motel-like section across Highway One, really wasn’t great – poorly lit, Spartan bathroom, interesting odors, close to the road – but imbued with the bonhomie that comes from amazing surroundings and good company, we didn’t care. And there were some nice touches to offset our disappointing room: funky Adirondack and willow chairs were placed in the creek (yes, IN the creek) which was a popular place to read. We had a pleasant dinner and even better American breakfast in the atmospheric dining room. We loved the old fashioned General Store next door where guys in pick-up trucks would pull in to buy their coffee. With all that said, the next time we’re in Big Sur, we’re reserving three months ahead and going to Deetjen’s.

Before leaving Big Sur, we wanted to check out the beach. I had read that the Pfeiffer beach was hard to find so that sounded perfect. According to the Big Sur Chamber of Commerce, the trick is to locate unmarked Sycamore Canyon Road, which is not so tricky once you know that it is the only paved, ungated road west of Highway One between the Big Sur Post Office and the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. The drive down the single lane winding road was slightly exciting and the beach was wild, gorgeous and freezing. What a contrast from the well behaved and accessible beaches of southern California. Pfeiffer Beach with its funky access, roaring wind, crashing waves and towering boulders is a beach for rebels and bandits. We climbed rocks and wrote in the sand but finally, it was so cold we couldn’t stand it anymore so back in the car and off to Carmel-by-the-Sea.

The Facts

Hearst Castle
750 Hearst Castle Road
San Simeon, CA 93452
Tel: 800 444 4445
Advanced reservations strongly recommended

The Henry Miller Memorial Library
Highway One ( a quarter mile south of Nepenthe and a quarter mile north of Deetjens)
Tel: 831 667 2574
Open every day except Tuesday from 11 to 6

Big Sur River Inn
Highway One at Pheneger Creek
Big Sur, CA 93920
Tel: 831 667 2700
Toll Free: 800 548 3610
Fax: 831 667 2743
Pfeiffer Beach
Mile 63.2N (1 Mile South of Big Sur State Park)
Access via (unmarked) Sycamore Canyon Road
For more info call 831 667 2315

Thursday, May 08, 2008

On the Road with Cavemen

Day 2 - Santa Barbara to San Luis Obispo

The next morning, we headed for the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, often described as the most beautiful public building in the United States. Eloise was suspicious. Is this a museum? I could honestly say that it wasn’t. This historic building, with exceptional Spanish-Moorish palace architecture, fabulous Islamic tiles, some impressive and instructive murals of California history and an 85 foot clock tower with awesome views over Santa Barbara, is still a functioning courthouse and you are free to wander around the large and elegant public building and gardens and sit in on the court proceedings.

While in the courthouse, we had our first Steinbeckian moment when Eloise began to focus on some of the people wandering the halls who were either homeless or in some kind of trouble with the law. She wondered about practical things. Why is that woman missing so many teeth? Do homeless people have enough money to feed their dogs? By their own estimates, Santa Barbara, one of the richest communities in the US, has as many as 4,000 homeless individuals on any given night and a chronic homeless population of 945. Panhandlers (an American expression for beggars) are another feature of the street life in Santa Barbara, operating where tourists congregate. For all Santa Barbara’s considerable charms, it is unsettling to see so many people who have lost their way in this land of plenty. Eloise continued to wonder about how such things happen.

Mom, doesn’t America have plenty of money?
Well, yes darling it does but …..
But Mom, what I really want to know is, will these people be OK? What will happen to them?
I don’t know Eloise, I just don’t know.

After our visit to the courthouse, we spent the rest of the morning wandering around town. We had a groovy Thai lunch seated beside a portrait of John Lennon
(or maybe Che Guevara) at Zen Yai on State Street. On our way out of town, I was able to convince Eloise that it would be lots of fun to visit the Old Mission Santa Barbara.

Is it a museum?
Well, no, it’s more like a church.
OK, churches don’t take too long. Let’s go.

Sitting perched on a hill half a mile north of downtown, the Old Mission Santa Barbara has been continuously occupied by the Franciscans since its foundation in 1786. The original purpose of the mission was the christianization of the Chumash Indians. After Spain lost California to Mexico, the mission was secularised and Indians came under civil jurisdiction. While missionaries were able to conduct services in the church, control of the real estate went back and forth until Abraham Lincoln returned the mission to the Catholic Church in 1865.

Today, you can take a self-guided or docent lead tour of the site which includes a small but interesting museum with Indian and colonial artifacts, the lovely 19th century neoclassical church and the mission grounds which contain a cemetery where approximately 4,000 Chumash Indians are buried. Eloise quickly picked up on the next Steinbeckian question.

So what happened to all those Indians anyway?
Oh, Eloise, a lot of them got sick, It’s a long story. Can we talk about it in the car?
Sure, Mom, where to next?
Next, Eloise, is the Madonna Inn and you are NEVER going to believe this place.

Of all the descriptions of the Madonna Inn which caught my attention in planning our trip, my favourite came from Umberto Eco in his book Travels in Hyperreality where he described the hotel as “Let’s say that Albert Speer, while leafing through a book on Gaudi, swallowed an overgenerous dose of LSD and began to build a nuptial catacomb for Liza Minnelli.” Huh? Whatever that means, I’ve got to see this place.

When we arrived at the Madonna Inn, located just off Highway 101 half way between LA and San Francisco in San Luis Obispo, we were ready for an over-the-top, parallel universe experience and that’s exactly what we got. There are 109 individually themed rooms such as the Caveman and Jungle Rock complete with waterfall showers and the Old Mill which has a genuine watermill that propels “life-like figurines in and out of a miniature mill structure.”

The public rooms are equally over-the-top with a pink and gold steakhouse where a little girl doll (wearing the outfit of the season) swings over your head. But the piece de resistance is the sensor operated men’s urinal waterfall which the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce considers a major tourist attraction for the city. It’s so great it has its own website. And of course, Eloise and I went to see it.

What I appreciated most about the Madonna Inn is that it is completely sincere in its delivery of perfect, unadulterated Americana kitsch. This is a hotel that believes that hospitality is about exuberance and fun. You can plow through the 116 reviews on Tripadvisor and see for yourself that it’s not to everyone’s taste, but if I had to name the one hotel on our trip that Eloise and I will never ever forget, it is the Madonna Inn. And one last word from Eloise who was very cross with me for taking the relatively inexpensive Dutch Holland room. “Even if you are not a caveman, you’ll love this place. Take the caveman room.”

The Facts

Santa Barbara County Courthouse
1100 Anacapa Street
Tel: 805 962 6464
Open: Monday through Friday 8am to 5pm and weekends 10am to 4:30pm
Admissions free

Zen Yai
425 State Street
Santa Barbara, CA 93101
Tel: 805 957 1193
Lunch Tuesday – Friday 11:30 – 2:15
Dinner – Every night start at 5:00 and 5:30 on weekends

Old Mission Santa Barbara
2201 Laguna Street
Tel: 805 682 4713
Open daily 9am to 5pm
Admission: $4 for adults, children free

Madonna Inn
100 Madonna Road
San Luis Obispo
Tel: 800 543 9666 or 805 543 3000
Email: info@madonnainn.com
Our room cost $153/£80.75/€

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

What's the Most Fun You Can Have in a Car?

There is a saying that a well-loved child has many names. The same can be said about one of America’s best loved highways, State Route 1 in California, aka Highway 1 or Pacific Coast Highway or, as locals call it, the PCH. No matter what it is called, this 655 mile stretch of tarmac, which starts south of Los Angeles in Orange County and ends north of San Francisco in Mendocino County, is the most beautiful, dramatic and inspiring coastline in the United States. That’s a bold statement but I doubt anyone who has driven this road will argue.

Eloise and I spent 4 days travelling north on the PCH from LA to San Francisco. We drove a total of 577 miles in a red Chevy Impala, a most uncool car which was perfect for our Thelma and Louise purposes. Eloise insisted, against all my cheap instincts, that we add a GPS system to our rental agreement and never has a gadget that I knew nothing about, and trusted less, proved more useful. Our new talking companion ended up being the third girl in the car – “turn right, turn left, turn around now”. She and Eloise got along like houses on fire, she always knew where she was going and never complained when she was ignored.

Day 1 – John Wayne Airport, Orange County to Santa Barbara

Driving through LA was not fun. I suppose it is instructive to spend several hours stuck on freeways contemplating America’s dependence on cars/oil/Saudi Arabia/China. Eloise, being a London girl, was experienced in the art of zoning out in traffic and chose to play a computer game in the back seat about simulated people in a simulated suburb. At first, I thought, this was ridiculous. We’ve come all this way. She should stop playing Sims and look at LA. Then I thought about how ridiculous it would be to say “Stop staring at that screen and admire the view across 12 lanes of stopped traffic.” After that thought, I left her alone.

Once we reached Santa Monica with its wide sandy beach and beautiful bluffs, all was forgotten. The open road beckoned and neither of us was in the mood to stop. I did consider pulling into the Getty Villa off the PCH in Malibu where a reconstruction of a patrician Roman villa houses the Getty antiquities collection. Normally, you need to purchase a timed ticket in advance but this was mid-week in March and who knows, maybe we’d get lucky.

We didn’t stop, however, given the risk that we wouldn’t get in plus I did not want to spoil our newly established road camaraderie with a contentious discussion about going to museums. Instead, we went to Zuma Beach in Malibu. Long, wide and sandy, this is the California beach of every visitor’s imagination. There is tons of parking, either free off the PCH or $7 in the gigantic lots and plenty of amenities including swings, volleyball courts, rest rooms, showers and food vendors. Zuma is supposed to be busy on the weekends but on a Tuesday in March, it was deserted. We had a fine time admiring this empty mega-beach, finishing with an undistinguished lunch at Spruzzo’s, located directly across the PCH from the beach entrance. The view of the Pacific from the outdoor terrace on top of an unattractive strip mall almost justifies the mediocre food.

Back in the car, Eloise loaded the Presidio Motel in Santa Barbara into the Garmon Girl and we were off. We picked Santa Barbara for our first night for several reasons. It is blessed with everything. Only an hour’s drive from LA., Santa Barbara has near perfect weather, gorgeous beaches and an interesting history. It is also known for being opulent and expensive but just about every travel writer in the business has recently selected Santa Barbara as the counter-intuitive subject for a budget travel article. As I write this post, the New York Times just published one. The LA Times wrote essentially the same piece in January.

We had picked Presidio based on good reviews in both an LA Times article and The Lonely Planet which described it as a good value, trendy little motel. Hey, I thought, what could be hipper than a red Chevy Impala, a precocious ten year old and a more than middle aged mamma. We’ll stay there. It was a good choice. At $112 for the night, Presidio had clean, comfortable and stylish (as in cool Ikea) rooms. The location, at the northern end of State Street, is good, the proprietors are groovy, and wifi, bicycles and breakfast are included in the rate.

After a stroll around the chic Spanish style town, we stopped at Carlito’s Café Y Cantina for dinner, a restaurant recommended by the Presidio for offering good food, a relaxed atmosphere and a fair price. For serious foodies, Carlitos is nothing special but we were happy with our choice. We ate on the patio outside, which for Londoners in March is blissful. Our waiter was ultra charming to Eloise (she came home with dozens of little Mexican flags when she only asked for one), I had an impressive Halibut ceviche and the bill, with wine, came to a reasonable $42. Relaxed and contented we strolled back to Presidio for an early night.

Useful Addresses

Zuma Beach
30000 Pacific Coast Highway
Call 310-457 2525 for more information

29575 Pacific Coast Highway
Tel: 310 457 8282

Presidio Motel
1620 State Street
Santa Barbara
Tel: 805 963 1355

Carlitos Café and Cantina
1324 State Street
Santa Barbara
Tel:805 962 7117

Photo courtesy of Jeff Mason