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
Our room cost $153/£80.75/€

1 comment:

  1. Hi Kate,

    You're steadily moving closer toward a precise, poignant memory of California. Your Santa Barbara exchange with Eloise, hurriedly shrugged off, approached transcendence. You've a strong, binding theme here; come to America, baby. Come see, hear, touch a once-in-a-lifetime, unfolding economic, political,cultural enigma. Come see a beautiful, fabulously rich, mythic land, in all its post-zenith glory. Come see a nation wrestle with both its domestic extroversions and equal committment to global introversion. Come see a country so colossally out-of-touch with itself, it can't even begin to equitably reconcile its sharp ethnic, religious, class divisions.

    Come to America, baby.

    Kommen Sie nach Amerika, Baby.

    Venez en Amérique, bébé.

    Venga a América, bebé.

    Keep up the good work.

    The Travel Yente