icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

People, Places, Stuff


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  Read More 
Post a comment

Big Sur on the Fly

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
for insomniacs.
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? Read More 
Be the first to comment

Asilomar at 100, LA Times, 7/7/13

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. Read More 
Be the first to comment

WPA Murals in Monterey

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....  Read More 
Be the first to comment

Jalama Beach, LA Times

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.

The bed

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, [805] 736-3504).

The meal

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.

The find

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.

 Read More 
Be the first to comment

Camping in the Wind

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! Read More 
Be the first to comment

Lotusland, CA

To drive the back roads of Montecito--a quiet, polished little community immediately east of Santa Barbara--is to wonder what’s behind the walls screening estates owned by the reclusive rich and famous. Oprah Winfrey lives there; JFK and Jackie honeymooned at San Ysidro Ranch at the edge of town and scads of who’s whos have checked in at the historic Biltmore Hotel, now a Four Seasons, on the Montecito coast.

Recently, I discovered that there’s a way to experience the Montecito lifestyle by touring Lotusland, an estate and garden created by the opera singer Ganna Walska. You have to book a tour in advance; groups are small to preserve the quiet residential character of the neighborhood; and tickets don’t come cheap at $35 per person. But for those of us in the hoi polloi who yearn for a peek through Montecito gates, touring Lotusland is a golden opportunity.

The estate dates back to the late 19th century, the pink Mediterranean Revival style mansion to 1919 when then owners engaged Biltmore architect Reginald Johnson to design it. But Walska, who bought the property in 1941, put the deepest stamp on the place by creating its remarkable gardens featuring everything from topiary dinosaurs to Boojum cacti (or Fouquieria columnar, native to the Baja peninsula in Mexico).

Beside being a passionate plant collector, Walska was a character. Born in Poland--with the far less glamorous name Hanna Puacz--she grew up in St. Petersburg, Russia, then studied voice in Paris. Her real talent, though, seems to have been finding rich husbands--5 of them in a row, followed by an impecunious guru 20 years her junior, for whom she bought the estate, originally called Tibetland. When they divorced Walska turned her attention to her garden, expanded and now managed by the Ganna Walska Lotusland Foundation.

It takes a good two hours to see the whole thing, beginning with an Australian garden set in an old eucalyptus grove, featuring plants from down under equally at home in the Santa Barbara climate. A mature Japanese garden follows, with a pond and small Shinto shrine; then dense enclaves of bromeliads, ferns, succulents, aloes and cacti, all dramatic and showy, to suit Madame Walska’s nature. She preferred large, unusual, tropical specimens, not pretty flowers, though there‘s a colorful horticultural clock and nothing can stop springtime azaleas in the Japanese garden.

Lotusland’s stars are towering, thick-trunked bottle trees (Brachychiton, native to Queensland, Australian); a massive old Monterey pine; and rare, cone-bearing cycads, including Encephalartos woodii, thought to be among the oldest plants on earth, a delicacy for dinosaurs, now extinct in the wild.

The house is closed to visitors, but when I was there in April the pavilion next door had a special display of opera costumes, hats and jewelry owned by the remarkable Madame Walska. It’s fun to imagine her presiding over a cocktail party on the lawn in a bedizened evening gown, maybe crooning a few bars from La Traviata. Read More 
Be the first to comment

A Tale of Two Swimming Pools

Among the many blandishments of Santa Barbara are two remarkable beachfront swimming pools that book-end the town’s long, lush stretch of Pacific Coast. One, the Coral Casino on East Beach, is the very private province of the California Riviera rich and elite; the other, Los Banos del Mar on West Beach, has been a glorious public facility, operated by the city, since it opened in 1937.
In town recently--and as constant about swimming as about travel--I went looking for a place to do laps. I stopped first at the Coral Casino just across Channel Drive from the Four Seasons Biltmore Hotel, a Spanish Colonial beauty shaded by tall Monterey cypresses that opened in 1927. Marked by a graceful white Art Deco tower, the 51-meter pool--famously one meter longer than Olympic size--became a haunt for movie stars like Lana Turner and Clark Gable when it was added to the hotel in the mid 1930’s. It overlooks Bonnymede Shores where surfers challenge roiling breakers and chat up pretty co-eds at work on their tans between classes at UC Santa Barbara.
By the front door I looked yearningly at the pool’s glistening water, wide lap lanes, Jacuzzi and cabanas where waiters were delivering drinks. But you have to be a hotel guest or club member to enter and the front desk clerk wouldn’t even let me take a picture. I stopped a nice lady with plenty of jewelry on her way in who told me she paid big bucks for membership although she didn’t even swim.
Then, leaving behind the land of BMW’s, I drove along the waterfront to West Beach where I found Los Banos del Mar near the harbor at the foot of Castillo Street. Honestly, it’s almost as gorgeous as the Coral Casino and arguably more historic. The first swimming facility on the site opened 1901 with segregated steam-heated pools for men and women.
Now there‘s one big 50-meter pool with 7 lap lanes, heated to 80 degrees and open year round. The young woman at the front desk said I could do laps there for $5 and invited me to stay on for an afternoon pool party. The women’s locker room was immaculate, the pool deck surrounded by tall palms with an adjacent weight room for the most dedicated members of the Santa Barbara Swim Club, which makes Los Banos del Mar its home.
I dove right in. The water was delightful and the lanes so long that there’s never a traffic problem. Aquatic bliss for populists, grace à the bountiful and charming city of Santa Barbara. Read More 
Be the first to comment