Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Very Steinbeck Day

January 10, 2012
Our vacation reading has been focused Steinbeck—we both have downloaded a collection of Steinbeck novels on our Kindles, and have read a lot of Steinbeck, including Cannery Row and  Tortilla Flat, both set in Monterey, as part of our vacation enhancement program.

Before leaving town this morning we drove by the Steinbeck family cottage in Monterey, where John vacationed when he was growing up, and where he and his first wife Carol lived after they were married in 1930.  (It is now a private home, with no sign of its literary history, and no visible house number, probably to discourage fans like us from poking around .)  Steinbeck’s father gave him a $25 a month allowance and the young couple struggled to make ends meet.   They had to sell their two pet mallards to buy writing paper for John’s manuscript of To a God Unknown.  This cottage is also the infamous site where his dog Toby chewed up his nearly finished manuscript for Of Mice and Men.

Artichoke field
Our next destination was Salinas, where Steinbeck grew up, but before we got there, we made an unexpected detour into Castroville, after passing miles and miles of beautiful artichoke fields, then reading the town sign declaring Castroville to be “Artichoke Center of the World.”  Castroville supplies 75% of the artichokes we eat, and it celebrates its artichoke abundance every year with an artichoke festival.  Marilyn Monroe was their first Artichoke Queen in 1947.

The town also has the world’s largest artichoke—a 20 foot whopper in front of the Giant Artichoke Restaurant.

Salinas is the town where John Steinbeck was born and lived until he was 17 and went off to college.  His house is owned by a Guild of civic-minded local women who raised over $80,000 in 49 days to buy and renovate the house back in the 1970s.  They now operate a luncheon restaurant and gift shop in the house, with Guild member volunteers helping their professional chef in the kitchen, waiting on tables, working in the gift shop, and acting as docents.  Profits are used for maintenance of the house, with any extra money going to local charities and scholarships.

We had lunch there and learned many stories between bites.  John was born in the front parlor in 1902.  He wrote his first short stories and the novels The Red Pony and Tortilla Flat in the front room upstairs.  He lost the manuscript to The Red Pony, and rewrote the book.  (What bad luck—this is now two books we have learned that he had to rewrite.)  When his parents moved out of this house many years later, the lost Red Pony manuscript was discovered wedged behind a desk.  Our docent claimed that when that manuscript was compared with the rewrite there were only seven words different!

Lunch at The Steinbeck House was a most unique dining experience.  And, we hasten to add that the food was really good—the goal of the Guild is to showcase produce grown in the Salinas Valley, and they do it very well.

Speaking of Salinas Valley produce, shortly after we left Salinas, we passed thorough Gilroy, “Garlic Capital of the World.”  We smelled it before we saw the sign—they don’t grow the most garlic in Gilroy, but garlic is heavy in the air, thanks to Gilroy Foods, the largest garlic processing plant in the world.  At Gilroy’s annual garlic festival you can try garlic ice cream.  Unfortunately, Gilroy does not have the world’s largest garlic statue—we pulled out our I-Pad to search for one, but came up empty.  They are missing a real tourist draw there.

We weren’t done yet—our final attraction of the day, and of our trip, was the Winchester Mystery House.  It was a particularly fitting way to end our travels, as the house combines the over the top elegance that we enjoy in homes like the Hearst Castle with the wackiness of a bizarre larger than life roadside attraction.

The roughly 160 room house was built by Sarah Winchester, widow of Winchester Rifle heir William Wirt Winchester, but it was designed by spirits, or so they say. 

A little background:  Sarah married Winchester in 1862, their infant daughter died in 1866, and Mrs. Winchester fell into an unending deep depression, and then when her husband died of tuberculosis fifteen years later she went off the deep end.

How else could you explain what happened next?  She was living in New Haven Connecticut, and went to a spiritualist in Boston for some guidance.  The spiritualist told her that the Winchester family was haunted by the spirits of people killed by Winchester rifles, which explained the deaths of her child and husband.  The way Sarah could appease the spirits and buy herself eternal life was to move west and build a big house for the spirits.  As long as she continued construction, she would be safe.

So that is what Sarah did—she moved to California, built a massive house, and kept building and rebuilding and remodeling it day and night for 38 years.  She was only 4’ 10” tall, which explains why the ceilings are claustrophobically low for a house of this size.  The rest of the design details can only be explained this way--every evening she would summon the spirits at midnight, and the next morning she would give her construction supervisor new instructions for what to add or rip away. 

Neither she nor the spirits had any architectural training, which explains why there are doors and stairs that lead to nowhere, a chimney that stops just inches short of the roof, windows that open into walls, and mazelike hallways throughout.  Maybe she was nuts, or maybe she was just bored and found perpetual home remodeling to be an amusing way to spend what in today’s dollars would be $22,000 a day—her income from her Winchester stock. 

Damage from the earthquake of 1906 trapped a terrified Mrs. Winchester in her room and shook up some other part of the house.  She took that as a warning from the spirits that she had spent too much money on the front of the house (which was beautifully finished with many Tiffany glass windows, intricately patterned parquet floors, massive chandeliers, and lots of other ostentatious ornamentation).  So, she closed off the entire front portion of the house—thirty lavishly furnished rooms—and no one ever entered them again until she died sixteen years later. 

Actually, no one but construction workers, servants, and a favorite niece entered the house at all. Mrs. Winchester was a recluse who did not entertain, even though she had a grand ballroom and a dining room table large enough to seat at least twenty people.  Teddy Roosevelt once tried to visit, but it was after the earthquake, so when he approached the impressive front doors (beveled and stained glass made by Tiffany in France for a sum that could buy three normal houses), a servant told him he had to go around to the service door.  He refused and left.  No one ever walked through those Tiffany doors except the carpenters and Mrs. Winchester—the earthquake happened shortly after they were installed.

Now a private corporation owns the place and gives regular tours and ghost tours, and of course there are people who claim to have communed with the spirits there.  We didn’t see evidence of any otherworldly phenomena (no surprise), but Dick was very disturbed by the evidence of lack of maintenance on the place—quite a contrast with the meticulously maintained Hearst Mansion (which, by the way, was also unfinished after 28 years of constant building and renovation).

We don’t know how we could have squeezed any more exciting adventures into a couple weeks in California.  We are officially ready to go home and rest up from our vacation!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Cannery Row

January 9, 2011
“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, nostalgia, a dream.”
John Steinbeck

 We spent most of a day along Cannery Row, searching for remnants of the place John Steinbeck wrote about in his novel. 

Precious little of it remains.  The canneries closed down when the sardines disappeared, and now the row is filled with souvenir shops and restaurants, which would be appalling to Steinbeck.  No more stink or grating noise, but the nostalgia and the dream still linger on.

I think John Steinbeck would find this photo op to be a particularly inappropriate way to capture the spirit of the canneries, though we find it to be irresistable in its irreverance.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is the gem of the Row.  It immortalizes the cannery it replaced, while making its case for only eating sustainable seafood.  It has a little section devoted to Steinbeck and his friend the marine biologist Doc Ricketts.  But mostly, it has big beautiful displays of marine life in California’s coastal waters. 

We found much to fascinate us, but realize that it is not so fascinating in the re-telling.  We will say merely that we spent more time than you would believe (1) watching thousands of sardines swim together in a shining ever changing stream of silver, and (2) enjoying the antics of three sea otters at play in a tank where we could see them both above and below the water surface.   We also took pictures of some of the most photogenic of the sea creatures—jelly fish and sea nettles, and sea horses. 

Watching jellies and sea nettles pulsate to slowly to move through the water is hypnotic--and the best way to watch them is through glass, since close encounters are painful.

This sea dragon is so lacy that it looks like floating kelp.  

On the way back to Seven Gables we climbed down the rocks along the waterside path and searched the tide pools to find a few of the creatures we saw in the artificial tide pools at the aquarium. 
Our favorite tide pool treasure

We also watched harbor seals clumsily dragging themselves around the beach and gracefully swimming in the waves around a place they call Seal Beach.  We are finding that there are many Seal Beaches and Seal Rocks along the California coast.

I finished off the afternoon with a shopping binge in a great fabric store just a block up the street from Seven Gables.   It had an eclectic selection of fabrics I haven’t seen anywhere else, so I couldn’t resist—now I just have to figure out how to pack it in my already bulging suitcase.

Then it was time for wine and cheese back at the Inn, where we watched surfers riding the waves and dodging the rocks around Lover’s Point as we enjoyed a flight of four different Monterey wines paired with gourmet cheeses, including goat cheese layered with wild porcini mushrooms, and provolone with a balsamic sun dried tomato orange zest marinade.  (I think I can replicate that one at home.)

We wandered up the hill to a Mexicali Restaurant—because we couldn’t leave California without a Mexicali meal!  

Tomorrow is our last full day in California, and we can feel ourselves winding down, but not slowing down, because, as always, we keep finding more things we would like to see and do, so no matter how long we stay anywhere, it never seems to be long enough

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

California Coastal Living: Luxury Edition

January 8, 2012
After our big breakfast at the Sandpiper, we decide to wander down to the waterfront, since we got in too late last night to see it.  The aptly named Scenic Road traces the shoreline, and is quite a lively spot this morning, with dog walkers, joggers, cyclists, photographers, and other early morning strollers like us enjoying views of a seemingly endless white sand beach and dramatically designed ocean-front homes.  

Continuing our odyssey as spectators on the lives of the fabulously rich, we drive from Carmel to Monterey via the famous Pebble Beach 17-Mile Drive.  Pebble Beach is a gated community and resort, but for $10 anyone can get through the gate and drive around at will (although they hand you a map of the 17-Mile Drive at the gate, and have painted a red line down the center of the road along the drive to help keep visitors from “getting lost” in the exclusive neighborhood.)  

 The map has about 20 marked sights of interest along the route, and we stop for them all.  Here are our favorites.

It costs $495 for a round of golf at The Pebble Beach Golf Links (plus a cart fee if you are not a guest at the resort), and the cheapest hotel at the Lodge at Pebble Beach goes for $715 a night, but we walked around inside the Lodge, used the fancy rest rooms, and got this great view of the 18th green for free.

The Lone Cypress is the most photographed tree in the world, and one of the few trees that is trademarked.  So, this picture is for our personal use only.

Seal Rock is covered with what we estimate to be nearly a thousand sea lions, and an abundance of birds floats and flies about all around the rock and the beach picnic area there.  We add two new birds to our life list at this stop (black oystercatcher and surf scoter). 

The beach at China Rock is full of Inukshuks.  While Dick photographs them, I make one.

We have lunch with a view at the Links at Spanish Bay.  The food is almost as good as the view.

Our first stop in Monterey is the Monarch Grove Butterfly Sanctuary, where 9,500 butterflies are now wintering over.  It is not so big a crowd as we saw back in Pismo Beach, but it is a warm and sunny day, and there are more butterflies fluttering about and spreading their wings, so the atmosphere here is a bit more colorful, light and festive.

We visit Point Pinos Light, the oldest continuing operating light on the West Coast (including Canada and Mexico), with 156 years of non-stop service.  An enthusiastic volunteer tells us many stories and shares a lot of information about the light.  Our favorite keeper is Emily Fish, a widow who served as keeper for 21 years, starting in 1893 at age 50.  She was popularly known as the socialite keeper, because she loved to entertain, but she also went through 30 assistants in her 21 years, because she set rigorous perforrnance standards that few could uphold. 

Despite all this activity, we manage to get to the historic Seven Gables Inn with time to spare before the afternoon wine and cheese reception begins.

Continuing our theme for the day, we are treating ourselves to luxury living—our waterfront room has a wall of windows looking out over Monterey Bay.

We see the full moon rising just after dusk., while enjoying our wine and cheese (four Monterey wines served, with a baked brie with apricots and a blue cheese ball, plus three cheese wedges, some vegetables and dip, and the inn’s signature fudge drops). 

Goodnight moon. 

Monday, January 9, 2012

Wind, Rocks, Water

January 7, 2012
We start the day with the Creekside Inn’s complimentary continental breakfast--tasty Italian pastries fresh from the bakery down the street, served with a smile and some great travel tips by the owner who checked us in last night.  This is why we love old style family owned motor court motels—timeless treasures of personal care and service.

 We take Highway 1 up the coast to Carmel, squiggling up and down the sides of Santa Lucia mountains that crowd the coast most of the way.  It takes us eight hours to travel seventy miles, because we can’t resist a scenic view turn-out, and there are many along this stretch of Highway 1, popularly acclaimed as one of the ten most scenic drives in America.

(That's the famous Bixby Bridge in the background.  One of the most photographed bridges in America, it was built in 1932, and has appeared in many movies and car commercials since then.)

Here are some highlights of the drive:

 First we revisit our elephant seals, but you already saw them, so no more pictures.   I was worried about the pup that couldn’t figure out how to nurse yesterday, but when I tried to find him today, I realized that the elephant seal females and pups look so similar that I couldn’t identify the pup and his mom in the crowd.

Here is our zen question of the day:  Why are we drawn to scenes where rock, wind and water converge? 

Gas is $5.30 a gallon at Ragged Point, but the views from the trails around the property make it almost worth the investment.

Ragged Point view

At Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park we hike to this waterfall, which is the only major waterfall on the coast that pours into the ocean.

We lunch cliffside 300 feet above the ocean at Lucia Lodge, which was established in 1930, and is still being run by descendents of the founders.   This is our lunchtime view.

Many people consider Point Lobos State Preserve to be the best state park in California.  We hike around an ancient Monterey Cypress grove and enjoy great coastal views—more rocks, water and wind.

(The rangers assured us that the rusty red growths on the oceanside trees are a form of algae that does not harm the tree--they have a symbiotic relationship.)

We end our day at the Sandpiper Inn, a charming Carmel bed and breakfast so near the ocean that the sound of waves breaking on the shore lulls us to sleep.  We feel like we are in a medieval castle with raw wood rafters above us lit by the flickering flames of the fireplace.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

California Zen

Friday, January 6, 2011

We begin the day with a visit to Morro Rock, the volcanic peak focal point of Morro Bay.  I watch birds, Dick watches waves pounding and frothing on the rocky shore, and we both agree we could stay here for hours more, but we have to get breakfast and drive on to the Hearst Castle, today’s main event.   

We find a little breakfast spot on the waterfront with a Morro Rock view, then head north. 

Now the zen phase of our day begins.  We realize that our experiences are falling into a pattern of balance and harmony, when we chance upon the perfect counterpoint to Hearst Castle along the way. 

This is Nitt Witt Ridge, a rambling folk art estate built high on a hill using recycled materials.  It took 51 years to reach this stage of completion.

This is the Hearst Mansion, a rambling castle built high on a hill using materials recycled from many European cathedrals, castles and estates.  It took 28 years to reach this stage of completion, and it is far from finished.

See what we mean—two parallel universes, ridiculous and sublime, viewed back to back.  Zen!

Hearst Castle is worthy of a closer look, so here are a couple more glimpses of grandeur:

William Randolph Hearst owned 250 square miles of land around the Castle, where he maintained one of the country’s largest cattle ranches.  Hearst cattle still graze in fields around the castle, but the ranch area has shrunk considerably.  The family donated thirteen miles of shoreline for state parks, for example.  Which brings us to another zen moment.

 After our tour of Hearst Castle, we stop just a few miles up the road at a state beach covered with over a thousand grunting, bellowing, squealing elephant seals. These huge creatures—males weigh up to 5,000 pounds and females up to 1,500—return to this beach every year, just as the delicate butterflies we saw yesterday return to their eucalyptus grove.  And, just like the butterflies, their life story is an amazing one.

The female seals come to the beach to give birth, and when their babies are born (no multiple births—you will see why as you read the rest of the story), they weigh sixty to eighty pounds.  The mothers stay with their babies on shore, nursing them for about a month.  In that time the pups gain weight fast—they weigh 300 pounds by the end of the month.  The mothers then abandon their pups and head back to sea—they are hungry, since they have not eaten since they gave birth, and they have been nursing for a month.  But before heading to sea, they mate with one of the males on shore.  The way things work out, the peak of mating activity is right around Valentine’s Day—go figure!

Meanwhile, the pups are on their own to learn how to swim, and they figure it out by about the age of 2 ½ months, which is a good thing, because they have to eat, and the only way to get their food is to swim for it.  At four months they have to be strong enough swimmers to migrate to Alaska, and then they will be back around here next year, hanging out with their pod, which numbers about 17,000 now (at any given time, only a small fraction of the group is on the beach).

It is cold and windy on the observation boardwalk, but it is hard to tear ourselves away from the drama of the seals below.  One mother had given birth at noon, and the pup still has not found her nipple four hours later.  The juvenile males are engaged in wrestling matches.  Gulls are gathering around a female who is sounding pretty uncomfortable and frantically flipping sand on her back—all signs that she might give birth soon.  Should we wait around to see it? 

 We leave, but we don’t go far--we find a great little family run hotel nearby, and we will go back to visit the seals again tomorrow.  

Saturday, January 7, 2012

A California Sampler

Thursday, January 5, 2012
We begin the day with a very hearty breakfast at the Cajun Kitchen, voted “Best Breakfast” in Santa Barbara for the past ten years (jambalaya with two poached eggs on top—can’t beat it).  

Then we head to the harbor for a quick check of the local waterfront.  Dick is surprised to see the UC Santa Barbara Stadium right across the street from the harbor marina.  The sight instantly catapults him back to 1960, when he was pole vaulting in a track meet there--three world record holders competed, and the first 16 foot outdoor pole vault was achieved (unfortunately, not by Dick).  It was a propitious day in track and field history.

On the road heading north again, our next stop is Solvang, a community settled in 1911 by Danish Americans.  After the town was featured in Life magazine in 1947, tourists began visiting, and the townspeople started remaking the place as a pseudo-Danish village, to give the tourists more of what they came for.  Today, it is a very picturesque caricature of a Danish village. 

We stop there long enough to sample the local culinary specialty—aebleskiver.  Best described at a pancake shaped like a tennis ball, the aebleskiver is served with a syrup of warmed raspberry jelly and dusted with powdered sugar.  It tastes a lot like a jelly donut, but the folks in Solvang are quick to say that it is much healthier than a donut, since it is not fried, but cooked in a stovetop mold. 

Just a couple miles north of town we stop by Quicksilver Ranch, a miniature horse farm.  After seeing the miniature horses in the Rose Parade, we are interested in learning more about them.  A ranch staffer tells us that the 65 miniature horses grazing in the fields at this farm are the same breed as the ones in the parade—they just look different because the horses on the ranch are in their natural shaggy winter coats, and the ones in the parade have been shorn to look pretty. (The maximum height for a miniature horse is thirty inches at the base of the mane—they are very cute).

Quicksilver Ranch Miniature Horses

Rose Parade Miniature Horses
Kitty corner across the street from the horse farm is Rideau Winery, one of the ninety wineries in the Santa Ynez valley that offer wine tastings. The reason why there are so many wineries in the valley is that the coastal mountains here run east to west, funneling cool Pacific Ocean air inland in the late afternoon and evening.  Hot sunny days + cool evenings = a winning combination for wine grapes.  We sample seven Rideau wines, and are once again on our way along the road lined with miles and miles of naked grape vines.  They don’t look like much when all the leaves and grapes are gone and they are trimmed back for the winter.

Rideau Winery

Our next stop is a eucalyptus grove in Pismo Beach that is home to the largest overwintering colony of monarch butterflies in the United States. The butterflies hang high above us in tight clumps with wings tucked to share their body heat.  They are the fourth or fifth generation descendents of the butterflies who spent the winter in this grove last year, and they have traveled up to 1,000 miles to get here, flying up to 100 miles in a single day.  How do they find their way?  They must have senses that are beyond our comprehension. Fragrant with eucalyptus and buoyant with a fluttery butterfly energy, this peaceful grove feels like a shrine to a small miracle of nature.  We visit with respect and awe.   

Friday, January 6, 2012

From Malibu to the Mission

From Malibu to the Mission
Wednesday, January 4, 2011
On New Year’s Day I saw my Malibu Barbie at LACMA (blond ponytail, electric blue eye shadow,  a strapless black and white stripe bathing suit and cat eye sunglasses—I’d recognize her anywhere).  I learned that my childhood toys are now old enough to be museum-worthy, and realized that I was just days away from seeing the iconic beach of Barbie, Gidget, and the Beach Boys--groovy! 

Today is the big day.  We are back on the road, and living by our Vagabond rules—drive the scenic routes and avoid chain hotels and restaurants (except Starbucks).  We are hugging the coast from LA to Santa Barbara, and the first stop is Malibu, where surfers are riding the waves at every beach, even though the water seems pretty tranquil today. 

 Houses are perched precariously cliffside in the narrow strip between Route 1 and the ocean,  and movie star mansions are perched on the hillsides above.  

The road eventually turns inland, and bisects strawberry fields stretching forever in Oxnard.

It takes us all morning to drive from LA to Santa Barbara—a distance of sixty miles.  We are back in our traveling groove of life in the slow lane. 

After lunch on the patio of a local hamburger joint, we head to the Old Mission Santa Barbara. Founded in 1786, it is the “longest continuous presence of Franciscans in the United States.”  The current church there dates to 1820, because an 1812 earthquake destroyed the original one.

As is so often the case in our travels to historic destinations, we are appalled by some of the history lessons we learn at the mission, which had the goal of converting the native Chumash Indians to Christianity.  The mission sowed the seeds of its own downfall when the missionaries (1)treated the native people as children (based on their belief in their own mental and spiritual superiority) and (2)transmitted deadly diseases to them.  

In addition to its historic significance, the Old Mission is a photographer’s paradise.  Our archive of photos from this trip grows and grows, while we spend far longer than the average visitor wandering about the mission and its tranquil gardens and grounds.  

We are staying in a gem of a hotel, The Presidio.  It is a funkily updated 1950s era Motor Court, with rooms that are all eclectically decorated with individually designed vinyl decal murals, so each has a very different personality.  Is it karma or what—this is our room—roses, roses, roses! 

The hotel was highlighted in a recent New York Times “36 Hours” feature on Santa Barbara (along with the considerably more upscale Four Seasons, with doubles starting at $425).  We feel proud of ourselves for actually remembering to pack the article and for making a reservation a day ahead of time to be sure we could get a room.

We round out our afternoon in Santa Barbara with a walk from our hotel through the historic district to the Spanish Moorish Palace style courthouse, where we have a bird’s eye view of the town from the observation deck at the top of the clock tower. 

The 1929 vintage courthouse is adorned with beautiful hand-painted tiles everywhere we look—walls, benches, floors, stairs, elevator doors, even the ceiling, which is so high and dark that photography is impossible.

I imagine that somewhere in all my many many tile pictures lie the inspirations for future quilts.

After the sun goes down, we dine on tapas, sitting at a sidewalk table warmed by a little fireplace and an overhead heater.  As we share a dessert of molten chocolate cake with raspberry sauce and both ice cream and whipped cream, we think that we have had a better day than the New York Times “36 Hours” people ever dreamed of.