West Coast Wander, Day 8: Carmel to Santa Barbara, California

This turned out to be a quirky day.

We had a two-week vacation, and decided that it would be fun to drive down the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and California and then drop off our rental car and take a train back home. I’m calling this journey the West Coast Wander, and plan to blog about it every other day so as not to totally alienate those who have no interest in travel, and yet allow those who do to travel vicariously with us. Here’s the first in the series, if you want to start at the beginning.  I hope you enjoy it, dear reader.

We got a bit of a late start this morning, mainly because we were reluctant to leave our cozy little cabin. But we were looking forward to driving around Carmel-by-the-Sea before we left it behind. It’s a beautiful town full of delightful homes ad quirky alleyways.

A fascinating fact about Carmel is that, to avoid becoming “citified”, they don’t have street addresses. Everyone is required to pick up their mail at the post office. And if you want pizza delivery, you tell them you’re three houses south of the corner of Lincoln St. and Ocean Avenue, on the left, for example. That must make it awfully hard to fill out an online form for food delivery.

And try as I might, I never caught a glimpse of Clint Eastwood, the former mayor. He hasn’t been in charge for over 30 years, and only served one term. It’s not like he sits on a lawn chair on Main Street, waiting to greet all visitors. I don’t even know if he still lives here. But a girl can dream.

We drove by Tor House, which was made entirely of rocks dragged up from the beach. It was smaller than I expected, but, hey, rocks are heavy. Sadly, it’s closed to the public. We also dropped some books off at a little free library that not only promotes literacy, but also supplies readers with big blue marbles. I helped myself to one. A unique souvenir.

And as we were leaving town, we came across yet more succulents that were the size of my head. I can’t get over that. Why can’t we get them that big in the Seattle area? (Too wet and cold, probably.)

Our next stop was Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, which is purported to be the greatest meeting of land and sea in the world. I don’t know how one can make such a sweeping judgment, or what the criteria would be to do so, but I will say it was spectacular, and I was very grateful to have seen it. I would have loved to go horseback riding in Andrew Molera State Park, but there wasn’t time.

I was excited about the next unexpected treat: Big Sur. The reason we had all but written off this leg of the journey was that a section of Highway 1 had been washed into the ocean back in January, and if it was anything like past disasters in this area, we expected it to be closed for about a year. But miraculously, the road was back open again. Yay!

Big Sur is a region of natural, cliffy, watery beauty, and it comes with a lot of overlooks, which we appreciated. We were looking forward to having lunch at Nepenthe, a restaurant perched on a cliff with a spectacular ocean view, but the lines were incredibly long.

Instead, we ate at the much more affordable Café Kevah, which is right down the stairs from Nepenthe, and shares the same vista. We got the best table on the patio because I was willing to be a bit pushy. I’ll never see those people again. I wanted to enjoy my Cobb Salad with views of horses grazing by the sea. So sue me.

On a future trip we should stop at Julie Pfeiffer Burns State Park (not to be confused with the nearby Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park) to see the one waterfall on the west coast that pours directly into the ocean. Unfortunately it requires a hike, and as per usual, time was against us.

We’d have also loved to tour Hearst Castle in Saint Samuel, but it was closed. Rats. If you ever get to see it, though, I’m told that Tour #1 gives you the biggest bang for your buck. You heard it here first.

As we headed ever southward, we came around a curve to see a bunch of elephant seals lounging on the beach. The parking lot was full up so we were unable to stop, but they were quite delightful to glimpse.

Next we made a quick stop in Cambria to gawk at a place called Nit Wit Ridge. This three story house was built single-handedly by Art Beal, a trash hauler, from scavenged materials. To call it unique is putting it mildly. It’s full of terraced gardens, buildings, arches, and fountains, all made from junk. He lived there until 1989. After that, it remained vacant and crumbling for more than 10 years.

The current owners, Michael and Stacey O’Malley, bought the place in 1999, but no one will ever be able to live there as the water rights had been sold in 1997 to pay for back taxes. Normally this would mean the building would have to be torn down, but in this case, it’s a California Historical Landmark. The O’Malleys had hoped to give tours and have a gift shop. But since it’s zoned residential, the gift shop is not allowed.

They do still give tours, though. We didn’t take one. Seeing it from the street, with its front yard toilets, was plenty. The website, with its cool video, and very, uh, strange artwork for sale, will give you an idea of the place. I think it’s cool as things like this go, but most of the people in town seem to treat this place as an embarrassment. They’ll often tell you it’s closed. It isn’t. It just makes me happy that a place like this exists in the world, and also, selfishly, that it isn’t next door to me. I wouldn’t be surprised if the place was rat heaven.

The theme of the day seems to have been quirky stuff, because next we went to San Luis Obispo, not to visit the mission, but instead to check out the completely weird Madonna Inn. This place puts the broke in baroque. I loved it, despite its overwhelming pink and gold decor. Whether it’s the over-the-top dining room, the funky gift shop where you can buy a different post card for each one of the inn’s uniquely themed rooms, or its odd stained glass, you’ll be fascinated. But the one thing you absolutely must do when going to this place is visit the men’s bathroom nearest the gift shop.

You weren’t expecting me to say that, were you? But it’s truly not to be missed. I couldn’t go in. (Believe me, I would have if it had been empty, but it never seemed to be.) So dear husband went in, took pictures, and came out looking stunned. The urinal is a continually flowing waterfall. The sinks are made of enormous, vaguely shell-like things. It’s an experience.

What can I say? The place just made me smile. But our next stop was one that I had been anticipating for years, so off we went to Solvang, California. En route we saw our daily deer.

If you’ve ever visited the Bavarian-themed Helen, Georgia or Leavenworth, Washington, you get the idea. But Solvang is larger than both, and completely and totally Danish. Well, I happen to be of Danish descent. I’m 2nd generation American on my mother’s side, and apparently I spoke Danish before I spoke English, even though I have no recollection of that, and the only phrase I still know is “glædelig jul”. So yeah, of course I had to go to Solvang. It was my ancestral duty.

As was typical on this journey, we arrived at Solvang after hours, and much of it, including the museums, was closed. But I enjoyed wandering the streets, window shopping, and admiring the public art. I had hoped to feast on traditional Æbleskiver (oh wow, I do know another word!) but there were none to be had at this hour.

I did learn something. Windmills aren’t just a Dutch thing. Fascinating.

I know that this place is more like a Danish Disneyland, but I’ve never been to Denmark, so this is kind of the closest I’ve ever come. It made me a little emotional. I did manage to buy some postcards and Danish Christmas ornaments, and left feeling quite satisfied.

Next, we stopped at a place that had almost caused us to drive off the road on the way in. It was an ostrich farm. We sat on the side of the road and watched dozens of them cavorting in a bushy field. It was quite fun. I’ve heard that you can order an ostrich egg on line, but I just did a quick and lazy search and I’m discovering it’s more difficult than I thought. What a shame.

We were getting hungry, and decided to stop at Pea Soup Andersen’s, a Danish restaurant in Buellton that has been serving pea soup to the masses since 1924. Currently they estimate that they serve 2 million bowls of pea soup a year. They also sell it online by the can. So we decided we should take part in the tradition. Now I can say I have.

I’ve never been a huge pea soup fan, so I can’t say if this was excellent pea soup or not. It was thick and green, as expected. And kind of bland, if I’m honest. But judge for yourself. We had the entire restaurant practically to ourselves, which might account for the neglectful service, but it doesn’t excuse it.

Having gotten our pea on, we then headed to the Harbor House Inn in Santa Barbara. I think this was our favorite resting place to date. Very cozy, very welcoming, with a nice kitchen. I could live there, if I got rid of 95 percent of my stuff. (Yeah, ’cause that will happen.)

Since exploring at night had worked out so well for us up to this point, we decided to do so in Santa Barbara as well. We visited Stearns Wharf, which gave us a lovely view of the city, and seeing the courthouse and the mission lit up at night was amazing. What a gorgeous, romantic place we were in! I couldn’t wait to see it by daylight!

Here’s where you’ll find Day 9.

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West Coast Wander, Day 7: San Francisco to Carmel, California

A day of historical exploration.

We had a two-week vacation, and decided that it would be fun to drive down the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and California and then drop off our rental car and take a train back home. I’m calling this journey the West Coast Wander, and plan to blog about it every other day so as not to totally alienate those who have no interest in travel, and yet allow those who do to travel vicariously with us. Here’s the first in the series, if you want to start at the beginning.  I hope you enjoy it, dear reader.

It’s amazing how refreshed one can feel after a good night’s sleep. I had a leisurely morning, which was most welcome after the breakneck speed at which we’d been traveling for the past 6 days.

Eventually we did get around to checking out of our hotel, though, and we embarked on a day of historical exploration. First, we headed out to San Jose to see the Winchester Mansion, also known as the Winchester Mystery House. I’ve always been intrigued by this place, which was owned by Sarah Winchester, the widow of the firearms magnate William Winchester. Now I would be seeing it for myself.

According to Wikipedia, After Sarah’s “infant daughter died of an illness known as marasmus, a children’s disease in which the body wastes away, and her husband died of pulmonary tuberculosis, a Boston medium told her (while supposedly channeling her late husband) that she should leave her home in New Haven and travel West, where she must continuously build a home for herself and the spirits of people who had fallen victim to Winchester rifles.”

Because of this, much of the building seems to have been added on haphazardly, with doors that go to nowhere, and stairs that are dead ends. I was really impressed by the high quality construction and the beautiful stained glass, though. And Sarah had excellent, albeit not the most logical, taste.

What I wasn’t expecting was how claustrophobic much of it felt. The ceilings were low, and many rooms that had started off with windows had them blocked off by new additions, so it was rather dark. I wouldn’t want to live there, not only because I’d get lost trying to get to the kitchen for a midnight snack.

I didn’t get any kind of creepy feeling that would spur my imagination into believing that the place was haunted, as many claim. But you can’t avoid the sense that Sarah was very lonely after the death of her husband and daughter, and this must have been a sad place for as long as she lived in it. In fact, when they opened up her substantial safe after her death, all that was found there was their ashes, clearly indicating that her husband and child were the most precious things in her life. It just goes to show that even earning $1,000 dollars a day (equivalent to $27,000 a day in today’s money) can’t buy you happiness.

From there, we headed back toward the coast to the little town of Pescadero, in order to have lunch at Duarte’s Tavern, which has been in business since 1894. I was so happy to see that this pandemic hasn’t slowed them down. But of course all businesses have to be flexible these days. Instead of eating indoors as people have been doing here for generations, we had our artichoke soup, crab sandwiches, onion rings and a salad on widely spaced picnic tables in the parking lot, all while being entertained by a live band and several couples dancing on the sidelines. It was a pure delight. We also enjoyed some quirky art as we left town.

Next, we stopped to visit Pigeon Point Lighthouse, which was first lit in 1872. Its 8000 pound light could be seen as far as 24 miles away. You can still see the original Fresnel lens in the foghorn room. Now the lighthouse is fully automated by an electronic light. Sadly, the public hasn’t been allowed inside the actual lighthouse since 2001, as the tower is no longer structurally sound.

We wandered along the bluffs, taking in the gorgeous view. I was doubly intrigued by this place because the little cabins on the grounds have been converted to a Youth Hostel. So now you can (sort of) stay in a lighthouse. Very cool!

We then drove south along the coast, and at one point saw dozens of kite surfers frolicking above the ocean waves. Naturally we stopped and took some pictures. And for the first time in my living memory, I passed artichoke farms.

We stopped at yet another little free library and put in some books. I’m finding that these stops along the way make for a great break, a chance to see a part of town we wouldn’t have otherwise, and a great excuse to stretch one’s legs. I hope we incorporate these visits into all our road trips.

By now it was starting to get late, and we stopped in Monterey for a much-needed visit to a laundromat. Not the most exciting part of our trip, granted, but the little chores of life don’t go away simply because you’re on vacation.

I was really crushed to find out that the Monterey Bay Aquarium, only the best aquarium in the entire world, was booked solid for many months. I’ve wanted to see this aquarium since childhood, and we drove right past the front door. I longed to press my nose to the glass and beg to be let in, but it also happened to be after hours by the time we got there, so it was sort of a double curse. Maybe we’ll come back someday just to see Alcatraz and the aquarium. Fingers crossed.

While in Monterey, we did take the time to visit the famous Cannery Row, and also drove past the Customs House. The historic section of this town is beautiful. That was fun.

We arrived in Carmel-by-the-Sea after dark, and immediately settled into our little cabin, complete with fireplace, in the middle of the Hofsas House Hotel. The hotel surrounds 4 such little cabins, which was the extent of the hotel in the 1940’s. It was run by Donna Hofsas, whom the brochure describes as “a woman known for her strength and her unwillingness to sit idly by.” I just love that.

In 1957, the main hotel was built, adding 25 rooms and a swimming pool. (Throughout this trip, all the hotels we stayed in that had pools had taken the step to close them due to the pandemic. Needless to say, we didn’t get the pool experience.) Another wing of the hotel was added in the mid 1960’s. The hotel is now run by Donna’s granddaughter.

It was a warm and cozy place to settle into for the night, as the fire crackled away, and we were excited to explore the quirky town of Carmel in greater detail in the morning.

Here’s a link to day 8.

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