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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