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At Home with the Constant Traveler
January 26, 2016
WATER TANKS FOR PROSHYAN SCHOOL
FUNDED BY WATER CHARITY, CRESTLINE, CA
Susan Spano, U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer
Ashtarak is a town of about 20,000, located in central Armenia about 30 miles north of the capital. It sits on the southern flank of Mount Aragats—the tallest mountain in the country—and (more…)
July 14, 2015
I hear there’s a drought in California. The worst in recorded history.
Don’t blame me. I used to suck up a lot of California water, never could train myself to turn off the faucet while brushing my teeth. But last year I joined the Peace Corps and moved to Armenia, where I (more…)
April 12, 2014
Smart travelers headed for Big Sur book their weekend getaways early, because
hotels are few and far between—especially in terms of price, ranging from $800
for a double at the ritzy Post Ranch Inn to $80 for a tent cabin at Fernwood. So I
count myself blessed to have snagged a room at the last minute (think Friday night
at 6 p.m.) at Glen Oaks for the in-between price of $275.
Up until a couple of years ago, Glen Oaks was an old motel on Highway 1 next to the one of the coast’s only gas stations. It’s still next door to the Big Sur Shell, but
a recent renovation transformed the place into a stylish midcentury modern, Asian-
redwood fusion hideaway. Most desirable are the cabins in the redwoods alongside
the Big Sur River, but I got number 16 just up from the road. Peace and quiet
descended once I entered through a big wooden door leading to my own private
walled patio. The room had a low platform king bed with a Pendleton throw kept
toasty-warm by a glowing gas fireplace. I also appreciated the mini-frig with a
pitcher of filtered water, yoga mats, heated stone floor in the bath and copy of Big
Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, by Henry Miller, thoughtfully provided
I had dinner at Deejen’s Big Sur Inn just down the road from Glen Oaks. It’s one of my favorite places on the California coast and this meal didn’t let me down: a nice glass of pinot noir with a crazy-good cabbage and peanut salad, followed by seared duck breast that made think of France ($65). I doubted I’d want much to eat the next morning, but at the stylish Glen Oaks restaurant—a.k.a. the Big Sur Roadhouse—I couldn’t resist the special house breakfast: an egg with grits on a bed of long-cooked greens, accompanied by two handmade sausage patties ($11). It’s a beautiful thing, the way grits soak up butter. Lunch followed, made up of leftovers from both meals—free and even tastier picnic-style on a Big Sur headland.
Actually, the whole reason why I went to Big Sur was to hike to Soberanes Point in
Garrapata State Park. I didn’t do the whole 7-mile loop that mounts 1,200 feet to a knock-out overlook in Santa Lucia Mountains and then returns to the coast by way of the Soberanes Canyon Trail. I just went straight up and back, rendering my legs wobbly and my inner self joyful.
I’m left contemplating several questions. Should you plan ahead to make sure you’ll have a roof over your head when you travel? Yes, by and large. But there are special existential benefits that come from winging it. I’d never have found Glen Oaks and grits at the Big Sur Roadhouse otherwise.
And why do I only have to say the words Big Sur to break out in poison oak?
August 20, 2013
The 100th birthday of the Asilomar Conference Grounds is being celebrated this year with a full slate of events, including lunch and lecture series, guided walks, chef-led cooking demonstrations and holiday guest packages.
All are designed to welcome back folks to the historic meeting grounds designed by architect Julia Morgan in 1913 as a YWCA summer camp on the Central Coast between Pebble Beach and Pacific Grove.
The old girl has great bones thanks to Morgan, the first female architect licensed in California and best known for designing Hearst Castle. She put her rustic, Western Arts and Crafts signature on 11 buildings at Asilomar (a National Historic Landmark), with its creaking wood floors, weathered shingles, overhanging roofs and yawning stone fireplaces, all set in a gnarled Monterey pine forest and bordered by 25 acres of rolling sand dunes.
Asilomar has completed restoration to rid the dunes of non-native invasives and eradicate a disease that threatened to lay waste to the woods.
During the last few years Aramark, which manages the center, has spent more than $20 million to upgrade some of Asilomar’s architectural crown jewels.
That includes Morgan’s signature Social Hall, where guests check in, play pool and sit in rockers by the fireplace. Wheelchair accessible stone walkways are being laid.
The center has a cellphone tour and Wi-Fi.
“You won’t find another California state park with that amount of improvement and no state funding,” said Scott A. Wilson, sales and marketing director at Asilomar.
Things have changed in 100 years, but not the important ones. If you walk into Dodge Chapel where a window above the altar looks out on the dunes, you may still see a sparrow flying from beam to beam.
June 12, 2013
Just relocated to Monterey, California, I was beguiled to find a series of WPA murals on Central Coast subjects at the historic Stevenson House museum downtown. They date from 1934 and include The Artichoke Pickers by Henrietta Shore (pictured to the left), Fishermen by August Gay and Trailing/Cattle Drive by Will Irwin. As if this place wasn't already beautiful enough....
May 28, 2013
By Susan Spano
May 26, 2013
Wild and lonely, on the Central Coast about 45 minutes southwest of Lompoc, Jalama Beach County Park is one of those places that puts the golden in the Golden State. Getting here over mounded hills and through moss-bearded oak thickets is glorious enough, and then you see the beach stretching for miles from Point Arguello to Point Conception. The 23.5-acre park, donated to Santa Barbara County in 1943 by the Richfield Co., has a small restaurant and store, a handful of cabins and camping sites, but nothing more to break the spell of clashing coast and ocean. Swimming is allowed, but the surf is often rough, better for body and kite surfing, fishing and beachcombing. The tab: Two nights in a prime tent-camping spot, $86, plus a $6.50 reservation fee. A cooler full of beverages and snacks, $50. Two dinners and breakfasts for two at the grill, $75. Plus the cost of gasoline to get here.
Campsites 53 to 64 ($43 a night) are prime, directly overlooking the beach. There are seven cabins ($110-$210 a night) and 109 sites for tent campers and RVs ($23-$43), each with a grill and picnic table; 31 of the sites have electrical hookups ($38-$43). Reservations are accepted no more than six months in advance; there are minimum stays for weekends and holidays (www.sbparks.org/reservations,  736-3504).
Sure, you can cook out; that's what the fire pits are for. But for my money ($5.95), if I never eat another hamburger in my life, let my last be a "World Famous Jalama Burger," served at the Beach Store & Grill. McDonald's empire builder Ray Kroc once called it the best burger he'd ever eaten but was rebuffed when he asked for the top-secret sauce recipe. The grill also serves tasty fries, halibut burgers, homemade clam chowder and a variety of breakfast burritos. Open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.
When the tide goes out, a Whoville of sea creatures is revealed among the rocks and reefs that punctuate the long stretches of empty beach. The fascinations are endless, including living sea urchins and stars, clam colonies, sand dollars and the occasional beached baby seal. Consult a tide chart first to make sure you don't get stranded by incoming waves.
The lesson learned
Spring is the windy season, drawing deliriously happy kite surfers. But camping, I had to pile boulders in my tent to keep it from blowing away; to sleep, ear plugs and a sedative were required. For reference: Summer is the busy high season, winter sometimes inclement. Best time to visit? September and October.
May 24, 2013
When I started reading River Town, by Peter Hessler, I little expected that I’d get hooked. But after finishing his first book about serving with the Peace Corps in Sichuan Province, I went on to Oracle Bones which weaves deep Chinese history together with the author’s experiences living in Beijing, covering the dramatically-changing PRC for The New Yorker. His greatest gift is the way he tells the stories of average people—from students he taught in Sichuan to migrant workers—upending many assumptions proliferated in news reports about the lives and feelings of contemporary Chinese. Country Driving,Hessler’s third book, depicts the automobile revolution in China, with millions of newly-middle class people now buying cars and highways unfurling all across the country, a phenomenon that mirrors what happened in the U.S. some 60 years ago.
Now Hessler latest, Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West, published earlier this month, is on my list, too. Required reading for China-watchers.
April 18, 2013
Stopped for a night at Jalama Beach County Park, about 30 minutes southwest of Lompoc, CA. One of my favorite places on the California coast. But April is windy season and it howled all night. I had to put big rocks in my tent to make sure I didn't blow away and couldn't sleep without Ambien. Oh, the joys of camping!
April 15, 2013
Just saw Sicily: Art and Invention between Greece and Rome, an extraordinary new show at the Getty Villa in LA. It's a special joy for Sicily devotees, not least because it includes the exquisite Motya Charioteer (pictured to (more…)
April 6, 2013
Here's a Geo Quiz derived from National Council for Geographic Education curricula and questions devised for the National Geographic Bee. The bee, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, will draw the winners of state contests to Washington, D.C., to compete May 20 to 22 in the nationals. First prize includes a $25,000 college scholarship and a trip to the Galápagos Islands.
No prizes given for correctly answering these geography-related questions, just bragging rights.