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101 x 1 - Central California
By John Poimiroo

Author’s note: United States Highway 101 is one of the nation’s oldest and most historic roads. At a time when many of Great Britain’s eastern colonies were still unconnected, California settlers started a royal highway that would eventually link 21 mission churches and travel 905 miles (1457 km) from Baja to Oregon. In the Summer 2005 edition of California, we explored the route from San Diego to Los Angeles. This, the second in a three-part series, describes the central, 383 mile- (616 km) section of the El Camino Real between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Within a mile of it are some of California’s most storied locations.

As U.S. 101 travels north from the sprawling city of Los Angeles, one senses the excitement that Fr. Junipero Serra and his missionaries must have experienced in 1769 as they blazed this route to settle California.

Unlike Interstate 5, the state’s principal north/south commercial route which was carved from the landscape in great swaths, U.S. 101 hugs the terrain much as the native foot paths it followed must have. Motorists on 101 don’t pass by towns, they pass through them at a pace that invites exploration. Many of the towns along the way haven’t changed much over the years. So, for travelers seeking California as it was, taking the road less traveled means driving central U.S. 101.

As the Ventura Highway (one of several names given U.S. 101) approaches Ventura, the best preserved example of California’s primordial landscape is seen 14 miles offshore on the Channel Islands. These eight, large islands, reached by boat from Ventura and Oxnard, are the “American Galapagos,” populated by 2000 species of plants and animals, many of which are found nowhere else on Earth. The Channel Islands provide untrammeled refreshment and recreation that is timeless.

As timeless as the Channel Islands is the tiny community of Carpinteria. Old fences weather gracefully in the sea air, while garden flowers and herbs sprout near well-tended, well-loved homes. The Carpinteria Salt Marsh is a micro-glimpse of how the coast appeared when industrious Chumash Indians made tomols (sea canoes).

Though only minutes up U.S. 101 from low-key Carpinteria, Santa Barbara is a world apart. Much like France’s Cote d’Azure in landscape, climate and culture, this “American Riviera” provides a paradisiacal setting of the purple-hued Santa Ynez Mountains rising behind sun-drenched, south-facing beaches. This is so precious a place, that Santa Barbarans began protecting it more than a hundred years ago. Rigid regulations dictate that homes and public buildings adhere to the “Santa Barbara Style” of architecture, typified by white stucco or adobe walls, red tile roofs, and courtyards influenced by Spanish, Mediterranean and Morrocan design.

Santa Barbara’s downtown reflects this style with its pedestrian-friendly shops, many gardens and historic sites. Principal among the latter is Mission Santa Barbara, begun by Spanish friars in 1786 and rebuilt by Chumash Indians in 1815. Today, the well-worn tile floors confess the thousands of worshipers and travelers who have visited it. It is the only California mission to have been in continuous use since its founding. Many of the restored rooms and chapels include artifacts from the Spanish colonial era. Though visitors to Santa Barbara are as fascinated with the town’s near-history born of Hollywood.

Celebrities have long been attracted to Santa Barbara. It began in the 1920s, when Charlie Chaplin constructed the Spanish revival Montecito Inn to accommodate his Hollywood friends. Today, actor Kirk Douglas, singer Kenny Loggins, entertainer Michael Jackson, actor Tab Hunter and comic actor John Cleese are among many Hollywood celebrities who call Santa Barbara County their home. For guaranteed celebrity viewing, attend the Santa Barbara International Film Festival in February to catch a glimpse of such luminaries as Jeff Bridges, Kim Basinger, Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Dustin Hoffman, Mimi Rodgers or Martin Scorsese.

Occasionally, movie makers turn their cameras on Santa Barbara County, as they did with the recent release of the movie, Sideways. Before then, Santa Barbara’s vintners made great wines in relative obscurity, but that changed after the motion picture revealed a secret known by California wine enthusiasts… Santa Barbara County’s big, buttery chardonnays and complex pinot noirs. Now that the word is out, tour guides lead travelers to the Firestone, Fess Parker, Sanford, Kalyra and Foxen wineries seen in Sideways. We’ll let you in on another secret… there are 82 other great wineries yet to be filmed, here. It was in Buellton where the movie’s principle characters, Miles and Jack, stayed and ate at the Clubhouse Sports Bar, though even before the film, the town was better known as the hometown of Andersen’s Restaurant, famous for its split pea soup.

Food is important to Californians and no where is that more evident than up 101 in Santa Maria, home of California barbecue. Formal barbecuing began here in the mid 1800s when rancheros would gather each spring to brand calves. The host would prepare a barbecue to thank his vaqueros (America’s first cowboys). Santa Maria Barbecue grew out of this tradition. Either a top block sirloin or the triangular-shaped bottom sirloin, known as "tri tip," is rolled in a mixture of salt, pepper and garlic salt just before roasting. It is then barbecued over red oak coals, giving the meat a hearty, smoky flavor. Several restaurants along Main and Broadway Streets in Santa Maria serve barbecued dishes, particularly on Friday and Saturday afternoons. Just follow your nose.

If Santa Maria is old California, then Pismo Beach is classic. 23 miles of flat beach (much of which can be driven on by off-road vehicles) and eight miles of sand dunes within the Oceano Beach State Vehicular Recreation Area make the Pismo Beach area the extreme-fun capital of the Central Coast. Any mode of transportation needed to be part of the fun is rented in Pismo Beach: from ATVs, to dune buggies, to Hummers, to riding horses, to mountain bikes, to ocean kayaks, to motorcycles, to kite surfboards, to biplane rides, to paragliders, to scuba gear, to...

It wasn’t long ago that folks visited Pismo Beach for what didn’t make much noise… digging for Pismo’s famous clams, fishing from shore, building a sand castle, hiking along ocean cliffs, sun bathing, touring art galleries, appreciating a Pacific sunset or – with its average annual temperature of 72 degrees [22º C] – just enjoying Pismo’s temperate climate.

As reliable as are Pismo Beach’s conditions, you can count on there being a Farmer’s Market each Thursday night in downtown San Luis Obispo. From six to nine p.m. (except Thanksgiving Day), area farmers, ranchers and artists bring their best to America’s best farmer’s market, a long-running celebration that’s seasoned with the aromas of barbecued ribs and freshly picked flowers. And, if you can tear yourself away from the fascinating displays of locally grown luffa sponge gourds, stop by “TASTE,” a wine bar and tasting room operated by the San Luis Obispo Vintners to test its “Enomatic” system which dispenses samplings of up to 41 different wines at a time!

After all that wine, you’ll need a place to stay and “SLOtown” is the home of the world’s first “motel.” The original Mo-tel Inn is being renovated by the nearby Apple Farm Inn, an indulgent Victorian gem on Monterey Street. San Luis Obispo has more than its share of one-of-a-kind places to stay, the most outlandish of which is the Madonna Inn. There, each room is themed in ostentatious fashion, from the American Beauty room with its rose theme to the Yosemite Rock room whose walls are granite monoliths. Each of the 108 guest rooms, bakery, restaurants and shops at the Madonna Inn is outrageous, but none creates a bigger fuss than the men’s restroom which gets a steady stream of escorted giggling women who enter to view the urinal, a rock waterfall that’s activated when you, ahem, break a beam of light.

Another must stop, at the halfway point between L.A. and San Francisco, is Paso Robles, which was originally called Agua Caliente for its mineral baths to which 20th century railroad passengers traveled to soak in their “mystical and curative powers.” Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner trains still stop in Paso, though their passengers are more likely to detrain to sample the area’s wines, than its hot baths.

Paso Robles has been making wines since 1797. It’s now California’s third-largest wine producing region. Yet, despite its size, the Paso Robles wine tasting experience remains personal. You might actually be served one of the region’s famous Zinfandels by one of its vintners or owners at any of Paso Robles’ more than 100 tasting rooms.

It’s that kind of welcoming, early California hospitality that makes the good life in Paso Robles as enduring as nearby San Miguel’s 1846-era Rios-Caledonia adobe and circa 1878 Estrella adobe church, off U.S. 101 at Mission St. Though made of the most fragile material (mud and straw bricks) and set upon a young land that is still growing, they are lovingly maintained, reflecting a brief period when Spanish colonial Dons and their ladies oversaw vast California ranchos.

Just off U.S. 101 north of Paso, the land looks much as it did 200 years ago. There you pass through Camp Roberts, an Army training facility whose museum tells the stories of the many infantry, tank and artillery units that trained there in World War II and the Korean War including actors Robert Mitchum, Van Heflin and Steve Reeves. You’ll see numerous tanks and displays of uniforms, historic photos and weapons.

Beyond Camp Roberts the highway travels northwest through the abundant Salinas Valley described by California novelist John Steinbeck in The Long Valley, East of Eden and others. On reaching Salinas, visit the Steinbeck Center with interactive exhibits and dioramas that retell Steinbeck’s accomplishments and bring his stories to life. Steinbeck would have demurred the elaborate attention given him here, as evidenced by what he said after winning the Nobel Prize, “This prize business is only different from the Lettuce Queen of Salinas in degree.”

Steinbeck’s similarly pungent descriptions of mid-20th century agricultural life resonate as you drive north along U.S. 101 past Mission San Juan Bautista and into the Santa Clara Valley where garlic perfumes the air. The strong scent declares your arrival in Gilroy, the self-proclaimed Garlic Capital of the World whose annual Garlic Festival draws hundreds of thousands to enjoy garlic-flavored delicacies, from calamari to ice cream. The nearby Bonfante Gardens family theme park even has a garlic themed children’s ride among many attractions set among fantastic topiaries, a greenhouse so massive that a train passes through it, spectacular floral displays, waterfalls, and the Circus Trees, bizarre sycamores that were grafted into shapes so bewildering that even the geniuses of Silicon Valley haven’t figured out how to duplicate them.

Silicon Valley begins here and flanks U.S. 101 north (50 mi/80 km) to Stanford University in Palo Alto. The business of the end of the valley has evolved over the years as landscaped industrial parks containing high tech engineering, design and manufacturing have replaced plum and apricot orchards. The highest number of high tech companies in the world is now concentrated here, generating equal concentrations of science and technology museums and sites. Among them, the Intel Museum (off U.S. 101 at Montague Expressway in Santa Clara) is the only one operated by a Silicon Valley high tech company. Computerized audio handsets, in seven languages, provide self-guided tours of brightly colored, interactive exhibits which describe how Intel silicon chips are made, how they function and how Intel technology has evolved.

Fortunes may be made in Silicon Valley, but they are spent on the San Francisco Peninsula, where tony communities have housed the region’s intellectual, commercial and cultural intelligencia, since the late 1800s. Polo grounds, riding stables and estate homes are hidden among the Peninsula’s wooded hills. Gentrified villages spur from 101 as the road nears its 400-mile journey to San Francisco. Travelers often speed past, not realizing that within a mile of the “Bayshore Freeway” are many charming authentic villages, like Burlingame Avenue with its one-of-a-kind shops and excellent restaurants. But then, the stunning beauty of cosmopolitan San Francisco beckons. Glimpses of this glistening “City by the Bay” are seen from U.S. 101 as it winds the last few miles through San Mateo County to San Francisco.

Many Californians drive the mother road in a day, though to truly appreciate its attractions, a week’s exploring would not be enough time. There are three parts of the route to explore: the south coast, central coast and north coast. This article only covered one of them, but each has different landscapes and diversions to be found within a mile of U.S. 101.

Linking 101 by 1 Visit these Web sites to find more information about traveling U.S. 101.

Andersen’s Restaurant – www.peasoupandersens.net
Apple Farm Inn – www.applefarm.com
Bonfante Gardens – www.bonfantegardens.com
Camp Roberts Museum - www.militarymuseum.org/CampRobertsMuseum.html
California Missions – www.californiamissions.com
Carpinteria – www.carpcofc.com
Channel Islands National Park – www.nps.gov/chis
Gilroy VB – www.gilroyvisitor.org
Gilroy Garlic Festival - www.gilroygarlicfestival.com
Intel Museum – www.intel.com/museum
Island Packers (boats to Channel Islands) – www.islandpackers.com
Madonna Inn – www.madonnainn.com
Mo-Tel Inn - www.historyinslocounty.com/Motel%20Inn.htm
Oxnard – www.oxnardtourism.com
John Steinbeck – www.steinbeck.org
Oceano Dunes – www.ohv.parks.ca.gov/default.asp?page_id=1207
Paso Robles – www.go2paso.com
Pismo Beach – www.classiccalifornia.com
San Francisco CVB – www.sfvisitor.org
San Luis Obispo County CVB – www.sanluisobispocounty.com
San Luis Obispo County Wineries – www.slowine.com
San Mateo County CVB – www.sanmateocountycvb.com
Santa Barbara CVB – www.santabarbaraca.com
Santa Barbara County Vintners Association – www.sbcountywines.com
Santa Clara CVB – www.santaclara.org
Santa Maria Barbecue - www.santamaria.com/section_visitor/barbecue.html
Sideways Wine Tour Map – www.santabarbara.com/winecountry/images/sideways-tour-map.pdf
Tab Hunter – www.tabhunter.com
U.S. Highway 101 Web Site - gbcnet.com/ushighways/US101/index.html
Ventura CVB – www.ventura-usa.com
Ventura Highway Lyrics – www.kingbiscuit.com/america/song/song013.htm

John Poimiroo is a freelance travel writer, editor and communications specialist based in California. http://www.californiafun.us

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