Thursday, December 30, 2010

Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom

While not one spot per se, the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont holds a special place in my heart because it’s where I spent most of my childhood summers. As an adult, I generally went up for the fall foliage, but it’s really great at almost any time of the year except Mud Season (aka late winter/early spring). While I hadn’t returned since moving out to California, this year I was lucky enough to visit during a very, very white Christmas.

This lakes region on the Canadian border is not your typical postcard picture of Vermont—or “New York Vermont” as we called it growing up. This is hard-core rural Vermont, where gun racks outnumber ski racks by a wide margin and our favorite event at the Orleans County Fair was the Demolition Derby. While there are touches of the picturesque, such as the historic green of Craftsbury Common (seen most notably in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry), and touches of the hippie-bohemian, such as the annual Bread & Puppet “Our Domestic Resurrection Circus” outdoor festival, by and large, this is a land of fishermen and hunters, with “camps” not lake houses.

You never know when you may have to
cut up a moose...
...or need snowmobile directions.

A great example of this unique atmosphere is Currier’s Market in Glover. 

Got moose?

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays
this bear from his duty.

Guns, germs, and steel. And sleds?
It's certainly worth the detour!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Mission Impossible

There are 21 missions on California’s Historic Mission trail, running from San Diego de Alcala in the south (the first mission, founded in 1769) to the Mission San Francisco Solano (1823) in the northern wine country. I don’t find the individual missions themselves very exciting, but, taken as a whole, as part of California’s living history, I find them fascinating. And, of course, since they are catalogued as a trail, I want to visit them all. Most of the missions are along Route 101, which traces the historic route of El Camino Real, the Royal Road established by the Spanish as they moved their empire northward through California. On my most recent trip to Southern California, I visited two: the Mission San Antonio de Padua, 40 miles north of Paso Robles, and the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa.

Mission San Antonio de Padua was the third mission built in California and possesses the first bell made in the state. I’m not so sure I would categorize it as worth the detour, mostly because it is a really, really long detour off of 101 (25 miles or so), on an army base, with nothing in the vicinity. But, if you are interested in missions, it is a different architectural style than the others I’ve seen, with a very pretty interior garden, and in a very beautiful setting. There are also picnic tables on the grounds that would be perfect for a picnic lunch rest stop.


Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa was the fifth mission to be built in California in 1772. It is unusual in that the chapel is L-shaped, with a very pretty ornamental archway separating the two halves. The decoration in general makes this mission a bit more inviting than others I have seen. I particularly liked the fountain sculptures outside in the plaza, which reflect the historic nickname of this area, the "Valley of the Bears." Unlike San Antonio de Padua, this mission is right in the heart of downtown San Luis Obispo, and is easy to visit if you happen to be in this very cute town, or are staying at the Madonna Inn.

Monday, December 6, 2010

National Steinbeck Center

While you might not think any museum dedicated to the work of one writer is worth the detour, the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas just might change your mind.

Back in high school, I loved Steinbeck. This may or may not be attributed to a crush on James Dean and his role as Cal in East of Eden, but I do remember insisting that we visit Cannery Row on a family trip to California (before the Monterey Bay Aquarium took over the area). Watch for future posts on Marfa, TX (where my oldest friend in the world happens to live and where Giant was filmed) and the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles (where key scenes in Rebel Without a Cause take place and where I’ve actually never been, even though I seem to be in its backyard multiple times a year).

Maybe it’s a good thing Dean only made three films.

Completely coincidentally, I re-enacted his fatal drive to Salinas on my latest trip back from Pasadena when I refueled in Lost Hills and crossed over to Paso Robles on Route 46. Unfortunately, I was not in a Porsche. Fortunately, no one ran into me head on either.

But I digress.

What was great about the National Steinbeck Center was that you could really see how the evolution of Steinbeck’s life influenced his writing, from growing up in the agricultural world of the Salinas Valley, which heavily influenced both The Grapes of Wrath (1939) and East of Eden (1952), to his time living in a cottage in Pacific Grove, where he met Ed Ricketts, the model for “Doc” in Cannery Row (1945) and with whom he traveled to the Sea of Cortez, where he heard the story he eventually transformed into The Pearl, to his time as a war correspondent in Europe, which made its way into his script for Alfred Hitchcock’s film Lifeboat.

One gets a real sense of place from the displays, which include a railway boxcar (a key element in East of Eden) and the homemade truck/camper (named Rocinante, after Don Quixote’s horse) in which Steinbeck toured the U.S., a trip described in Travels with Charley: In Search of America (1960). A number of displays were interactive and help to understand books one hasn’t read. There are also cute little touches like the bag of “frogs” from Cannery Row, designed to move and sound as if there are live frogs in it. My only complaint would be with the audio—the numerous film clips were great for making the books come alive, but you could hear too many different things at the same time.

In short, if you find yourself driving down the 101 through Salinas, or touring the Monterey peninsula, check it out.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Madonna Inn

I really only have two things to say about the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo:
1) the pictures don’t do it justice, and 2) I can’t wait for an excuse to go back.

Almost exactly halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, where Routes 1 and 101 cross, it is the perfect stop on any trip between the two cities. While perhaps expensive for the area, you can find good deals by poking around the rates on their website. Regardless, you will get great value for your money.

When I first heard about this place—that it was kitschy, with every room having a different theme—I pictured a slightly seedy roadside inn, whose only value was the concept. What I found instead was an incredibly designed, completely modern hotel, with a friendly staff, excellent food, and fabulous rooms. Yes, it is completely kitschy, but in a good way. The closest I may get to a modern fairytale castle. If you want to get an idea of the variety of rooms, take a look at Caveman, Crazy Dazy, Vous, Wilhelm Tell, and, my personal favorite, San Francisco. There are over 100 different choices. And, while you can’t reserve a specific design, you can submit a request for any room that falls under the rate you have reserved. I submitted three choices within my rate block and got my top choice, Traveler’s Yacht.

I love nautical themes and immediately loved the room, which was quite large, with an extremely plush carpet that was a joy to walk on barefoot. The amount of detail and thought that must have gone into the room is truly incredible.

What really got me was the bathroom. I would kill for a bathroom like this, especially the tile, which was inset with anchors on the floor, and starfish and seahorses in the shower stall. Even the fixtures looked like little ship’s wheels.

I can’t wait to see what they have done with some of the other themes.

The restaurants are designed with similar elaborate care, especially the steakhouse. By the way, those banquettes you see in that picture are not red, they’re pink, the Madonna Inn’s signature color. Since I was there after they had begun putting up Christmas decorations, it was even more extravagant than usual. More importantly, although not a big steak eater, I must say that my rib-eye was delicious (the cocktails could be improved however).

Finally, don’t miss the men’s room urinal in the restaurant complex, complete with waterfall. Go ahead ladies, knock and take a peek. Everyone does.


Asilomar, or rather, the Asilomar State Beach and Conference Grounds, was designed to be a YWCA retreat by Julia Morgan, the Arts & Crafts architect of Hearst Castle. Asilomar is actually a made-up word roughly meaning “refuge by the sea.” Located in Pacific Grove on the edge of the Monterey Peninsula, the over 100 acres of beachfront land is certainly that. It is hard not to feel the quiet pull of nature while there—within moments of checking in, as I entered my room, deer ambled by my window. The ocean is just steps away and the grounds of the center connect to the beach over a short boardwalk over wild dunes.

Leaping into the yard of Scripps lodge
Asilomar is now a conference center, but, when there is space available, leisure travelers can book rooms separately. The historic buildings designed by Morgan are listed in the National Register of Historic Places and that’s where I chose to stay. Rooms of various types and sizes can be found in these lodges, all with private baths, as well as a common living room and fireplace in the center of the building (great for reading). Prices are very reasonable for the area. Guests are provided breakfast in the main dining hall and can eat other meals there, but, in general, the food is nothing to write home about. Since I had been warned not to eat there, I chose to eat other meals in downtown Pacific Grove and nearby Monterey.

Scripps lodge

View of the grounds and ocean from Scripps

Scripps room
The rustic lodges of Asilomar are probably not to everybody’s taste, especially given that there are no telephones or televisions, but I thought they were heaven. The beds were comfortable, the rooms were clean, and the setting can’t be beat.

Sunset at Asilomar Beach

Worth the Detour

I used to keep a travel journal. But, when I started making fewer and fewer “exotic” trips, and my obsessive neatness started to take over all aspects of my life, it became more difficult to keep it up. Instead, entering my many trip notes into my journal became one of my eternal projects, destined to remain forever in my project basket.

It occurred to me recently that a great way to tackle that pile would be with a blog. That way, I could do it piecemeal, which would be a great way to organize and label recommendations for later reference anyway. Also, I can keep the content separate from my Sly Wit blog, where I really want to keep the focus on culture.

I’ll cover trips as I make them, starting with my recent trip down the California coast, but also go back and write up previous adventures, with a focus on road trips, especially those involving U.S. National Parks and National Monuments.

As the title indicates, I really want this space to be less about entire trips and more about specific things to do and places to stay that are worth the detour. Going forward, I welcome comments and your own travel recommendations about stops along the way.