June 18 – July 6, 2002
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Following a light breakfast of raisin bran cereal and toast with peanut butter, Betty and I drove north on U.S. Highway 101 about 150 miles to Cambria, a very pretty beach town with a thriving art colony and a population of 6,100. It is south of Big Sur and approximately halfway between
|Lewis & Betty at Cambria beach|
|Click Colored Type to Enlarge Photo
We checked into the White Water Inn (nothing to do with Arkansas or the Clintons), an older but extremely well cared for property that faces the ocean. The manager, Ellen, was most hospitable, offering us our choice from a bookcase of videotapes to play at no charge in our room’s VCR. We found the room to be huge, sparkling clean and tastefully decorated. It was equipped with a king bed, two easy chairs, table, working fireplace with gas logs and a surprising quantity of quality amenities. An armoire hid a big TV and the VCR.
Ironically, I chose “True Colors,” the lightly disguised John Travolta flick that pokes fun at former President Clinton’s 1983 campaign for the White House. It was written by Joe Klein, author of my current vacation book, “The Natural.”
A boardwalk perhaps a mile long is on the beach and directly in front of the Whitewater Inn. Scampering around and under the boardwalk are surprisingly tame, odd-looking squirrels that dart in and out of the stands of blooming wildflowers. From the wooden walkway, one can watch the waves and catch sightings of sunning sea lions and harbor seals. Ever present is the heavenly fragrance of the California seashore and its briny kelp and wrack that remind me of my youth. The shoreline offers a spectacular view of the Pacific, with golden sand, clear blue water and, at least on this day, mild surf. Kelp beds spread their stalks and long leaves over the sea life beneath, providing both protection and habitat. Here and there are ragged, black rocks that look to be volcanic in origin.
We were captivated by a dozen Harbor Seals. They had hauled their fur-covered, rounded bodies onto the rocks to bask and doze in the sun. They must have known they were protected since they allowed camera-equipped tourists to get within 30 feet. Only a narrow ribbon of tidal water separated the seals from the photographers. In climbing down some steep stairs to the rocky beach, I further injured my already sore leg. Nonetheless, my binoculars and Betty’s two cameras got a good workout. We stood around the beach and rocks for more than an hour, watching the seals swim and maneuver for optimum positions on the rugged rocks. The early afternoon sun was warm. But I was glad of my golf jacket and Betty glad of her sweatshirt in the face of a chilly breeze coming across the cold water.
|Betty at Hearst Castle's Neptune Pool|
|Click Colored Type to Enlarge Photo
San Simeon is on Highway 1, well north of L.A. and south of San Francisco. There is no population center for 100 or more miles; the property is many miles off the Interstate Highway traffic flow. Hearst chose the wild, remote spot to build his showplace because he loved that section of California coastline. Young Hearst spent much of his boyhood there exploring 40,000 acres of prime ranchland his father had acquired. Hearst’s father had struck it rich with his discovery of a silver lode that made him one of the richest men in the world. By the time the son – William Randolph Hearst – inherited the land in 1919 it had grown to 250,000 acres.
The Hearst family deeded the castle and substantial acreage to the State of California in the 1970s, retaining much acreage and one or more residences on the property for their own use. I speculate that the huge expenses of keeping up the estate – plus looming estate taxes – provided a powerful incentive for the gift. The Hearst Castle is now reverently run by California State Parks as a State Historical Monument.
From San Simeon, Hearst ruled his publishing empire. His DC-3 airplane flew in the chain’s newspapers for him to pore over and critique everyday. The plane also provided transportation for his guests. The private landing strip serving the baronic estate is still there. A mile or two away, a long pier Hearst had built juts into the ocean. It once providing dockage for the ships that brought in marble and other building materials and furnishings collected from around the world.
Several hundred thousand tourists drive way off the main highways to visit the Hearst Castle ever year. Some knowledgeable state employees and volunteers make the tour quite informative. Today’s paying guests hear about how Hearst hob-knobbed with his yesteryear’s non-paying guests. The famous free riders were the newsmakers of the 1930s and 1940s that Hearst summoned to the Castle. They included many of the big names of the day, like Winston Churchill, Clark Gable, Johnny Weismueller and other celebrities.
The California Parks department offers a variety of tours, which is good because the place is far too big to see all at once. We opted for the “Experience Tour,” one of five offerings. During the two-hour tour, we walked through a portion of the Hearst Castle with a middle-aged, woman guide who was a devout and protective Hearst devotee. We toured the Casa del Sol, which is an 18-room guesthouse; the magnificent esplanade and gardens with sweeping views of the distance Pacific; and 5 rooms on the first floor of the main house.
We learned that Hearst had lived openly and notoriously with his mistress – actress Marion Davies. The castle and its ring of guest quarters and recreational facilities the two shared is – in my opinion - a monument to bad taste and showy extravagance. Hearst and his estranged wife – who lived elegantly in New York on an annual allowance of $1 million – had five sons. Between them, the sons had a total of 16 wives. That is hardly a testament to Hearst’s child-rearing abilities.
The Castle was designed - and repeatedly redesigned and rebuilt as his ideas and whims were rapidly replaced by new ideas and whims – by San Francisco architect Julia Morgan. He hired her in 1919, making her one of the first if not the first female in America to design and oversee the construction of a major project. By 1947, “La Cuesta Encantada,” or The Enchanted Hill as it was known, had become a hilltop estate of 165 rooms and 127 acres of gardens, terraces and walkways. The Neptune Pool and its gargoyles
|Betty at castle's visitor center|
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The main house, called the Casa Grande, and three guesthouses are described as Mediterranean Revival in the tour brochures. I’d call it a hodgepodge of imitation Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Medieval Cathedral architecture mixed in with Hollywood set design.
The front door opens onto an entry floored with a mosaic from the Third Century that may have been looted from a Roman ruin generations ago. The rooms we passed though included the Assembly Room, where guests gathered and socialized. It is decorated with centuries-old tapestries and other medieval/Renaissance objects collected by Hearst on his periodic European buying/pillaging tours. I found it to be oppressively dark and heavy. Another mind-boggling room was the dining room, with its wooden table 30 yards long.
Indicative of Hearst’s manipulation, the guests were sometimes tricked into revealing embarrassing information about their personal lives while reporters eavesdropped. Their private conversations with other guests were then printed in Hearst’s 26 newspapers in major cities across the U.S. Among those so duped were the media-shy Charles Lindburg and Amelia Erhart, whose social chat was surreptiously taken down by gossip columnist Louella Parsons.
In my view, the Hearst Castle is a fascinating but yet repelling celebration of ego. It is a mishmash of real and copied statuary and decorative artwork from ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. There is a crashing juxtaposition of important and obscure work from later periods. The Chief liked carved wood and much of his Castle’s furnishings have the gloomy feel of a Medieval Cathedral. Many were acquired for a song during the Great Depression, when Hearst’s fortune allowed him to take advantage of other collectors around the world.
Hearst was an undiluted bully. He destroyed the acting and movie-producing career of Orson Welles, whose fictional portrayal of The Chief in “Citizen Kane” was critically acclaimed but was practically DOA at the time. Hearst claimed to have never seen the movie. But Welles’ name and works were banned from all Hearst-owned and controlled newspapers, magazines and movie theaters. This was back in the glory days of newspapers, long before TV and other media offered an alternate point of view.
Castle guests were expected to at least give the appearance of observing Hearst’s code of conduct during their stay. The “rules” included no drunkenness (cocktails preceded dinner and wine was served with the meal) and no blatant bed hopping (despite the example of the host flaunting his actress-mistress Marion Davies as the first lady and hostess of the castle). Hollywood’s original bad boy, Errol Flynn, only lasted one night before being asked to decamp.
Another rule seems especially odd today; sleeping late was frowned upon and guests were expected to actively use the extensive swimming pools, riding trails, tennis courts and other sports facilities. A rigid rule was participation in the mandatory, pre-dinner assembly in a great room at 7:30 p.m., where the great man himself and his hostess would make an appearance to informally mingle with his guests. On some evenings there might be a dozen guests, on others as many as 97.
Each guest had his or her own, private bedroom that was opulently decorated in the fashion of the day and equipped with a spacious bathroom. Breakfast and lunch foods were available buffet style until 4 p.m. Dinner was served promptly at 9 p.m. Guests were seated at the long table in the dining room, a banquet-at-Camelot looking room that is paneled with dark wood. People Hearst wanted to talk to were seated near him; the longer a guest stayed, the farther away he or she was seated from the Chief. But once invited to enjoy Hearst’s much sought-after hospitality, a guest was welcome to stay for as long as he or she liked. One man stayed more than a year.
Hearst personally directed seating arrangements at the nightly dinners for his guests. He delighted in putting opposites together and goading them into spirited arguments, i.e. passionate Republicans versus Yellow Dog Democrats. Following dinner there was a mandatory movie viewing at 11 p.m. Guests watched the latest Hollywood films that the Chief approved of (Citizen Kane was never shown or mentioned) in a plush, baroque screening room filled with velvet chairs. A frequent star of the films shown was his stuttering girlfriend, Marion Davies. She evidently really loved the man and not just his power or money. At the end of his life, after he had moved to L.A. with her to be closer to medical attention, she deeded him her own mansion so he could die in his own bed; his children totally snubbed her afterwards despite the generous donation to the estate they inherited.
All in all, it was an interesting outing for us. I was reminded of Coleridge’s poem, Ozmandias, “king of kings” whose lonely statue in the desert sands was all that remained of his once great empire.
I well remember a visit in the early 1960s to the then-little known elephant seal breeding island and beach of New Years Day Island near Santa Cruz 100 or so miles up the coast. My late friend Pete Siller (killed in Vietnam while serving in the Marine Corps) had a local buddy who
|Young elephant seals on breeding beach|
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He was able to dance and dart away before the enraged bull could crush him with a lunge of his body and tusks. Had he slipped in the sand, I doubt he would have survived.
Today, such daredevil displays are probably illegal. And rather than hide the elephant seals away by forbidding casual access to the breeding beaches, the State is using the protected areas to educate the public. They are well marked, protected by cyclone and barbed wire fences and equipped with parking lots and explanatory signs. The stories of the elephant seals are told in photos and graphics posted around the parking lots.
On this day, there were at least three groups of sub-adult males basking on the beach. Many were almost full grown. A few were the size of females, with pointed snouts that had yet to develop into the long, proboscis of mature males, which resemble the trunks of elephants, hence the name.
We learned from the educational signage that the adult males are still out at sea to the north and will not return here to molt for several more weeks. For countless generations, they have migrated to this warm beach every year to shed their fur and old skin. They forego eating in favor of basking in the sand and flipping dry sand onto their sloughing backs. The sand must speed up the process and relieve some of the itching.
There is a free, electronic newsletter available for those who want to know more about these magnificent animals and their migratory patterns. Published by Friends of the Elephant Seal, the newsletter as well as information about the seasonal activities arrivals and departures newsletter is at the website www.elephantseal.org.
We learned that the big males are still out at sea to the north and won’t return here for several more weeks, arriving for their annual love-in, or mating season. We watched a dozen young males from a distance of 50 feet for about an hour. They didn’t do much other than flip sand onto themselves except when one would pass too close. Then, the offended male would lunge at the interloper with a slug-like movement, setting off noisy protests from the others.
A dinner recommendation from the Whitewater Inn’s manager proved to be a good one. We enjoyed a delicious, modestly priced meal at Linn’s, one of Cambria’s oldest family-owned restaurants. It evidently does a busy business. Betty had beef in a sauce with polenta (cooked in milk and heavy cream) and I had halibut in a wine and mushroom sauce. After dinner, we walked around the center of the town/village. Most of the dozen or more art galleries and gift shops that cater to tourists and the area’s affluent retirees had closed for the day.
With the sun setting to the west over the ocean, we bundled up as best as we could with layers of warm-weather clothes and walked along the boardwalk for a mile or two. We met an interesting couple from Bath, England, who seemed to personify intrepid British tourists. They were riding around the Western U.S. on a motorcycle on this trip. They visit the States twice yearly – frequently on cycling vacations – and have traveled all around the world.
It seems there are two kinds of people we meet on trips. There are those who travel a lot: gray hair and relaxed demeanors often denotes globe-girdling veterans. Then there are those who only rarely get more than a few hundred miles from home: they frequently wear local tee shirts/cap souvenirs and often stay with relatives in or near familiar spots. Compared to nearly all our friends and acquaintances back home, Betty and I are experienced travelers. But compared to the Brits we’ve met in out-of-the-way places, we are total novices.
Once the sun was down, the temperature on the beach and boardwalk became uncomfortably cold. So we repaired to our spacious room and cranked up the gas logs. Our room had a large bathtub, which I put to good use with a long, hot soak of my injured left thigh. It’s been increasingly bothering me for two weeks and today’s stumble on a beach rock further aggravated it.
I suppose it is one of those unfair aspects of life than when you finally have the time and resources to travel, the body’s aging process sometimes limits your mobility. It seems like I’ve had to contend with a bad back, or shin splints, or heel spurs or strained muscles and sometimes all at once on most of our major trips in recent years.
I got into re-watching a borrowed tape of the comedy “True Colors” on the VCR and stayed up until midnight, well past my usual bedtime.
Checkout from the Whitewater Inn wasn’t necessary until 11 a.m., so we took our time to decamp. An included breakfast of breads, muffins, orange juice, fruit and coffee was delivered to our room by the guest-pleasing staff. They also washed the salt spray off Sally’s windows gratis. Nice touch. We took a final stroll on the boardwalk to have one last look at the harbor seals; they had already hauled out on the rocks at low tide even though it was a little foggy.The White Water Inn's website is at www.whitewaterinn.com. (Subsequent to our visit, I was somewhat distressed to learn that a larger motel has set up shop nearby, unfairly flying similar, knockoff colors. Potential patrons of the White Water should look for the distinctive Stars and Stripes and British Union Jack flags flying proudly outside.)
On the way out of Cambria, we made a brief stop at one of the town’s many art galleries and crafts shops, a place called Moonstones. Locals and visitors pick up the agate rocks from the beach. The agate is milled and flattened by the ocean’s wave movement on the rocky shoreline. Some final polishing on a jeweler’s wheel makes the best of them into distinctive semi-precious stones. However, the store’s inventory included only two pair of earrings made from local stones and they were not particularly attractive to Betty. Oddly, the store had quite a few Moonstones from Sri Lanka and other lands. While they were much prettier than the lumpy locals, we decided we didn’t come to Cambria to buy imports from Asia.
It was a nice day to drive Sally down the coast. But so what else is new on Highway 1 during the California summer?
We stopped for lunch at the seaport of Morro Bay. The bay is a prime spot on the Pacific Flyway; it is a winter stopover for thousands of migrating birds. Its seaside industrial area and commercial fishing harbor gives the place the feel of a blue-collar beach town. The harbor is notable for a giant mound of a rocky formation that was once a volcano, one of seven in the area.
The mound presents an arresting, strange sight that rises out of the flattish, golden brown colored sand beach. The beach attracts many surfers with its long, regular break of waves marching to their doom. There was a surfing class underway when we visited, consisting of perhaps 50 young students wearing wet suits.
Unlike at Cambria or Santa Barbara, local government at Morro Bay evidently has done very little to improve the aesthetics of what could be a scenic view. The harbor and its fishing boats are scenic enough, but a power generating plant on the shore is ugly. Overlooking the beach is a trashy parking lot, made worse on this day by lots of fresh litter and even the carcass of a dead rat. It’s no wonder that our guidebook made no attempt to steer tourists to Morro Bay.
My lunch at the Great American Fish Company was very good. I had fresh salmon caught just offshore. As we drove up to the restaurant on the wharf, two fishermen were carrying in the morning’s catch. Betty wasn’t pleased with her lunch, having opted for fried clam appetizers that at best amounted to only a small snack.
Under clear skies and pleasant temperatures, we continued our leisurely drive back down the coastal highway, U.S. 101. We detoured a few miles to visit one of the premier wineries in California’s Central Coast region, Firestone Vineyards. Here and there in the rolling hills are groves of olive trees, reminding me of the Provence region of France. An excellent map provided by the Santa Barbara County Vintners’ Association was a big help in mapping out the few stops we planned to make.
The association lists 39 vineyards, wineries and tasting rooms that are open to tour. It also gives suggestions on lodging, restaurants and shopping locations. On Casey’s recommendation (how times do change, when the father now follows the son’s advice) our first priority was to visit the Firestone Vineyard. It was established in 1972 by the family that made its name synonymous with tires before Japan’s Bridgestone bought the business.
Ironically, Firestone was a major employer in Memphis when we moved there from West Point, Miss., in 1970. I had covered the shutdown of
|Lewis at Firestone Vineyard|
|Click Colored Type to Enlarge Photo
The Firestone family is now out of the rubber business but still makes excellent wines. It is one of the few Santa Inez winery names I recognized as having distribution in Memphis. The winery really sets an inviting environment with its acre or so of lavender (which were in full, purple bloom during our visit, just like in the South of France when we were there almost exactly a year earlier). Right at the entrance is a garden of mature, fragrant roses and a carved, wooden sign that makes a nice photo backdrop.
Firestone specializes in our favorite, Chardonnay, and also offers some splendid Merlot and other premium varietals. We passed on the guided tour due to our time restraints and the fact that we’ve already toured several wineries.
For $7, we bought a large wine glass that entitled us to generous tastes of as many Firestone wines that we wanted to sample, as well as a limited number of selections marketed under its “value label,” called Prosperity. After trying several, we concluded that Prosperity table wines – which sell for about $6 a bottle - are more distinguished by the brand’s Thomas Benton-like, heroic, folk art label than their taste. But for cheap wine, it’s pretty good.
It’s a shame that we had so many driving miles ahead of us because Firestone’s tasting room is comfortable, its staff pleasant and the offered wines quite good. The pleasures of the grape would certainly make spending the night in a close-by inn attractive. We sampled - with little more than a small sip or two each – the following Firestone wines:
We ended up buying a mixed case to replenish Casey’s stock and for our own medicinal uses, of course.
A half-mile up the road is the Curtis Winery, a smaller vintner that is also owned by the Firestone family. I’ve never seen the brand in Tennessee so presume their distribution is limited. Curtis specializes in Rhone-style wines. A snooty clerk was so overbearingly offensive that
|Betty in Danish town of Solvang|
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Facing more than an hour of drive time back to Santa Barbara, we decided to end our tour of the Santa Ynez wine country at mid-afternoon. If we ever make it back there, I’m sure we’ll allow for more time for more stops. Heading back to Casey’s place, we did make a small detour to drive through the wine village of Los Olivos and to take a quick look at its trendy B&B’s, gift shops and tasting rooms.
A few miles south on U.S. 101 is Solvang, a charming town of strong Danish influence. It was founded by three educators from Denmark. The architecture along its immaculate, flowered, main drag suggests Scandinavian with windmills, brick and exposed beam designs. Names like Hansen, Sven and Andersen abound on the shops and business establishments. There is even a replica of Copenhagen Harbor’s Little Mermaid statue among the colorful plantings that decorate the broad sidewalks.
Betty visited a shop with a large collection of German nutcrackers, finding them to be very expensive.
Finally back in Santa Barbara after a long day of driving, poking around and tasting some fine wine, we had a light supper that evening of smoked salmon, soup and salad.