Sunday, August 9, 2015

For Whom the Bell Tolls: California’s El Camino Real

As you drive Highway 101 from Ventura up through Paso Robles and beyond you will notice a re-occurring sign on the side of the road. It looks like a shepherd’s crook with a bell on it and a brown sign that only says El Camino Real, “The Kings Highway.” They are peppered along a nearly 600-mile route in California. Why?

At the same time that our early forefathers, the American colonists, were rebelling against England on the East Coast, here on the West Coast a handful of Spaniards and Mexicans established a series of churches (missions) and forts (presidios) up the California coast which was at that time part of Spain. The first was in 1769 at San Diego where they established a fort and the very first California mission – though there were many others already in New Mexico and Texas. A footpath, called the El Camino Real was created to connect each of the subsequent missions as they were constructed. Each mission was situated in areas where large populations of native Indians lived and where the soil was fertile enough to sustain crops, typically near water sources. As time progressed and more missions were built the footpath became a roadway wide enough to accommodate horses and wagons. It was not, however, until the last mission in Sonoma was completed in 1823, that this little pathway became a real route. Each mission was designed to be a day’s travel from the next, well at least in theory, all linked by El Camino Real. Ultimately El Camino Real linked all of California’s 21 missions, pueblos and four presidios from San Diego to Sonoma.

Installing one of the early bells
So when California was just 52 years old (it became a state in 1850) a plan to mark the original route was developed in 1902 by the General Federation of Women’s Clubs in Los Angeles – I guess they had some free time. The design, chosen by Mrs. A.S.C. Forbes, used a mission bell supported by a staff in the shape of a Franciscan walking stick. In 1904 the El Camino Real Association was formed in order to preserve and maintain California’s historic road. The first bell was placed in 1906 in front of the Old Plaza Church in downtown Los Angeles and it was made of cast iron, weighed 100 pounds and stood 11 feet off the ground by iron tubing. Eventually, there were approximately 158 bells installed along the Camino Real by 1915. As I mentioned, the bells were made of cast iron but all that did was encourage theft and the number of original bells plummeted to about 75, therefore new bells of concrete were made and installed and frankly who wants to steal a hunk of concrete? 
Mrs. Forbes
At any rate, Highway 101 loosely follows this original footpath so as you make your way to Santa Barbara, Ventura, Monterey or any place else along the Central Coast, you’re driving a piece of history. You may not remember the King of Spain for whom the road was named, or Mrs. Forbes who designed the bells, and certainly you have no idea of the names of all the volunteers who cast, created and installed the bells, but you are nonetheless a continuum of the historical chronicle of people using the King’s Highway. For more stuff on California and the Central Coast check out either of my travel books, Moon California Wine Country, and California Road Trip.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Reaching for the Peak- Figueroa Mountain Brewery Continues to Climb

If you're ever in the Santa Ynez Valley the dominating feature against the lithe blue skyline is always Figueroa Mountain, peaking at 4,500 feet. It was under the shadow of this geographical landmark that the father and son team of Jim and Jamie Dietenhofer decided it would be a good idea to start a brewery and in 2010 the Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co. (or just Fig Mountain as we locals call it) was born. For years of the dominant brewery on the Central Coast has been the powerhouse Firestone-Walker. Sure there have been smaller microbrews popping up here and there including Telegraph Brewing, Island Brewing, and a handful of others but really that was like comparing apple to oranges, or hops to grapes. You had the really big guy, and the many smaller guys. And you now have Fig Mountain. 
What’s impressive about Figueroa Mountain Brewery is not only their selection of beers, obviously, but also that they have doubled in size every year since their inception and kept the quality level high. Craft beer is nothing new, but what Fig Mountain has done is to create a huge step up from mass marketed beer (like Bud and Coors) and found a sweet spot for true local craft beer lovers on the Central Coast. They have multiple taprooms in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties and I recently visited the newest taproom with an attached restaurant in Arroyo Grande (locals call it “AG”), just south of San Luis Obispo. They have a solid selection of their core beers including personal favorites of mine the Danish Red Lager, and Lizards Mouth IPA - so named for a great hiking place on the San Marcos Pass. In fact all of their core of beers have names and hand-drawn labels that are reflective of Santa Barbara. What's great about their core, seasonal and specialty beers is not only the clean fresh crisp nature of them, but they are wonderfully balanced and work ideally with food.
The Fish Tacos!
The AG taproom food is a mix of full entrées and more traditional bar pub food like salads, soup and burgers. I was partial on my visit to the fish tacos with crispy cod, cabbage and a cilantro cream, the surprisingly crispy baked beer pretzel, and the earthy and spicy carnitas nachos. The food side of this particular partnership in Arroyo Grande is with a family who started in the restaurant business in 1954 and wisely the Dietenhofer’s turned that portion over to people who know what they're doing so they could focus on what they are doing. Smart move. The AG spot also has live music, both indoor and outdoor seating and is ideal for families even though it will run loud inside. 
And for those who want to explore more beers, from micro-micobreweries to Fig Mountain and Firestone Walker there’s a service called Hop On Beer Tours, which hits up breweries from Paso Robles to Buellton. Owner Brant Myers is, shall we say, obsessed with beer always on the lookout for seasonal, short-term and specialty offerings, whatever may be of interest and unique. “I go geocaching for beers,” he tells me.

So if you're a visitor to the Central Coast, or if you're local, and you haven't tried Figueroa Mountain Brewery you need to do yourself a favor and check out one of their locations in Santa Barbera (the Funk Zone), Buellton, Santa Maria, the newest addition in Arroyo Grande and coming soon will be Westlake Village and San Luis Obispo. The Central Coast has a long history with wine, but the beers are coming on strong. And check out my Moon Travel Book California Road Trip for all sorts of wines and beer up and down the state.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Bliss of De-Stressing

It’s no surprise that people are feel stressed. Life is a series of ups and downs. Stocks sink, retirements plans plummet, even interest bearing savings accounts cam take a swan dive into a shallow pool. Friends and family get sick, we have grievances with neighbors, our health or the health of loved ones declines. Money, or lack of it, is one of the biggest stressors in our lives. While the economy is something we can’t do much about, our spiritual health is. In Santa Barbara, there are spiritual retreats, which will help you detox, refocus and energize. Even a walk at Leadbetter Beach is better than bemoaning our fate (at least as we perceive it) and spiraling into a depression. Sometime we need a day or two to unplug, to have time to reconnect with yourself, free from the constraints of day-to-day routines. Taking care of the spirit, mind and body are essential to weathering the uncertainty we all face. These Santa Barbara area retreats offer a wide range of options, pricing and locations to enable anyone to face their stress without getting buried by it.

La Casa de Maria in Montecito has been hosting retreats for 55 years. The drive into the hills above Montecito will begin to relax you even before you leave your car. The old oaks, some more than 300 years old, have withstood every economic downturn. The Immaculate Heart retreat house and neighboring Hermitage are the ideal choices for individuals, couples, even a small family seeking time away. The original manor house, built in the 1920s feels more like a B& B than a Spartan monastic experience. The Hermitage house is more sedate with fewer amenities. Either way, as Juliet Spohn Twomey, associate director who oversees the ecumenical approach to the center says, “People come here to discern their next step.” The current economic crisis however is not current at all. “The economy wasn’t working long before this crisis, it was driving mother earth into the ground,” she says. They offer vegetarian and vegan meals, as well as meat and fish for the spiritual carnivore. Three acres of orchards and organic gardens allow for the physical to be nourished in concert with the spiritual. A large formal dining room utilizes some foods grown in the garden. Like every retreat center, the goal is, “restoration through silence,” and there is a 10 p.m. noise curfew throughout the entire 26 acres. There is also a pool, volleyball court, even massage services, and lodging for larger groups.
The Views from White Lotus
The White Lotus Foundation, formed in 1983, has been dedicated to the principles of yoga ever since. Founder Ganga White has been involved with yoga for 40 years and sees the current situation in America as a blessing in disguise. “Everything’s in flux right now and we have an opportunity to change our lives,” he says. “What’s needed is a transformation in consciousness.” The Personal Retreat Program allows you to stay in a yurt surrounded by bay laurels and oak trees where you can meditate and do yoga, all with views to the islands. Meals are not included, but with the proximity to upper State Street you have an abundance of choices, or you can bring your own food. Natural swimming holes, a 30-foot waterfall and two miles of hiking trails are located less than eight miles up Highway 154. “We have everything we need on this planet to feed everybody, to take care of everybody,” White says. “We have to shift our perspective. There’s definitely a light at the end of the tunnel,” he believes.

The Sunburst Sanctuary sits on a stunning 2,000 acres of ranch land studded with oak trees off Highway 1. They offer private retreats, a Hopi labyrinth, meditation facilities and organic food. Eight private cedar wood cabins are available for individuals or couples who desire a mini retreat, though alcohol, smoking and dogs are not permitted. Maximum stay is one week. Sunburst offers Sunday mediation beginning at 10:30 a.m. which is followed by a vegetarian brunch. “If guests just want to shut the door and be by themselves, that’s okay,” founder Patricia Paulsen advises. “I’ve been doing this for 39 years and I’ve learned to take care of your own garden, let people do what’s best for their station in life,” she says. Sunburst is a residential community of about 25 people who work the land and raise cattle. Patricia is keenly aware of the need most people feel these days to reconnect with something meaningful. “Right now people are reawakening, working with energy, being more conscious.” The suggested donation for a cabin is $65 per night. There is also the option of driving to Lompoc or Buellton for food, which is a 30-minute drive from the secluded ranch, but given the serenity of the environment, consider bringing your own food and cook on site.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Butterflies ARE Free: Monarch’s of the Central Coast

Butterflies: the wallflower of the insect world - I mean, who really notices these little floating soundless works of art? But these beautiful little creatures undergo one of the most amazing transformations from caterpillar to butterfly, something that I witness every year with the butterflies in my back yard. The Central Coast is home to three Monarch Butterfly Preserves where you can get up close, and somewhat personal with these beauties. And if you know little about them, I use this case study from my own yard in Santa Barbara, where my wife and I have specifically cultivated butterflies by planting milkweed. Eggs hatch on the milkweed plants, and the caterpillars consume, actually nearly decimate, the milkweed plant for food, all leaves and even stems. When ready the caterpillars find a place to spin their cocoon, and then form into butterflies, then return to lay eggs on the milkweed plant. It’s a cool cycle you can make happen in your yard.

In 2014 I noticed that after monitoring the caterpillars, one had decided to spin its cocoon on the doorjamb of the doorway into my garage. What astounded me was the trek this little guy made. From the milkweed plant it is 18-feet and 4-inches across my erratic, pot-holed lawn. From there he needed to climb up a 5-inch concrete rise to get to the top of the flagstone deck. Crossing the flagstone is another 9-feet and 3-inches to get to the garage door. Then he climbs straight up the door 8-feet, moves over 1-foot to settle comfortable (we hope) in the dead center of the top of the doorjamb. If you tally that up, it’s a total of 37 feet - a hell of a journey. What possess them I have no idea. Certainly some make their cocoon closer than this, but this is a reminder that nature offers a spectacular lesson if we choose to notice the small things. With a typical lifespan of a paltry 2 to 6 weeks (some live 6 months) when you see them, remind yourself of the singular beauty of life, the intense but short life stages they go through, and that the will to survive is strong. So wing on over to one of these Central Coast spots to take a closer look and be astonished by the world around you.
There he is! Smack dab in the middle of the garage door!

San Luis Obispo:
The largest butterfly preserve on the Central Coast is the Pismo Beach Butterfly Grove (Highway 1 just south of North Pismo State Beach Campground, 805/473-7220), which sees the return of butterflies each November through February when tens of thousands of Monarch’s migrate to this small grove of eucalyptus trees near the beach to mate. On average there are about 30,000 of these silent winged creatures and the trees are often transformed into brilliant shades of orange after their 2,000 mile journey to get here. Docents staff the area and give brief but fascinating talks about the butterflies and their very unique but short lives. It’s free to walk into the grove, free to hear the docents and there’s a short boardwalk that leads to the beach near a large picnic area where you hit the low sand dunes and cypress trees near the waters edge. Parking is along the side of the road so use caution when crossing as this is a busy street.
This beauty just came out in my backyard

Santa Barbara:
Monarchs are usually found in Goleta from mid-November through mid-February and docents are available on weekends from 11a.m. to 2 p.m. during these months. This is the smallest of the three groves and is available for viewing every day during daylight hours and it’s free. The Goleta Butterfly Grove (Ellwood Main) is in the Sperling Preserve on the Ellwood Mesa in Goleta, just north of downtown Santa Barbara. Free parking is available. Goleta Butterfly
The grove in Pacific Grove, near Monterey

The Pacific Grove Monarch Preserve (1073 Ridge Rd., Pacific Grove) is located behind a salmon-colored butterfly-themed motel. There are, on average, about 10,000 butterflies that come here yearly, and why not, Pacific Grove is stunningly beautiful! The best time to view these silent creatures is October through March. There’s usually a docent on hand to answer questions and explain about the short life of these amazing creatures. There is a free street parking nearby and the grove is free to enter. Pacific Grove Butterfly
Also from my backyard. Absolutely stunning!

Friday, September 19, 2014

Food 4 Thought: Restaurant Review - Four Seasons Afternoon Tea

Four Seasons Biltmore
1260 Channel Dr., Montecito
Hours: Friday and Saturday, 2 to 4 p.m.

Afternoon Tea has a tradition dating back to the 1840s in England - though the origins of tea drinking stem from China. Allegedly Anna, 7th Duchess of Bedford, was feeling a bit peckish in between the usual two mealtimes in England, breakfast and dinner, so the Duchess decided a pot of tea and a light snack would suffice. One thing lead to another and everyone copied her – meaning that afternoon tea became a socially accepted practice, thus resulting in tea parties. Ah, England. Though we hearty Americans won the war of Independence, the civility and properness of British afternoon tea can still be experienced at the most non-British of places, the Four Seasons Biltmore here in Santa Barbara, which has been offering tea since 1987. Is it a more formal experience? Yes. Should you go? Yes, at least once if you’ve never experienced it, and you needn’t wear wacky hats, but I do suggest it.

Wacky British Tea Hats!
The Full Afternoon Tea ($33) includes two courses; a first course of finger sandwiches and a second course of pastries, scones and other hedonistic snacks. There are a dozen teas to choose from: standard offerings like Earl Grey (rather proper, eh Giles?) to peppermint herbal, and Japanese sencha. You can upgrade to the Montecito Tea ($36), which adds a glass of Sherry, or the Royal Tea ($39), which adds a glass of Champagne or Kir Royale.

The finger sandwiches arrive first and these will change seasonally. My visit included a cranberry-turkey salad sandwich with spinach on sourdough with delightful savory note; a smoked salmon with watercress greens on pumpernickel topped with beets which is piquant but slightly overpowered by the bread; and a cucumber, Point Reyes blue cheese, arugula, mix on raisin walnut bread topped with sliced poached pears. The poaching of the pears however removes the citric notes, which would actually enhance the flavors.
The smoked salmon, watercress and pumpernickel
The desserts on the second course will rotate every week or so therefore some of these items will change. The three-tiered tray is loaded with strawberries dipped in chocolate all juicy and ripe with a thin, not a clunky thick, coating of chocolate on them. The coconut cookie is a tad dry but definitely has a preponderance of coconut. The small current scone is served warm and is best topped with the lemon curd.
I’ve never understood crumpets, a loose battered griddlecake, but they are terribly British. Even with a topping on them these traditional discus dough cakes do nothing for me. The coffee macaroon was soft and mild almost like a mini coffee break. The bite of cheesecake is supremely decadent and frankly way too small for something this good. It’s smooth as silk with a mild graham cracker crust and the strawberry topping makes this a perfect bite of food. The tartlet is made with blueberry, raspberry, strawberry and blackberry in a small square filled with custard. There’s a pleasing burst of fresh berry fruit balanced against the creamy custard and crisp pastry shell. Save the chocolate tart for last. This has a crisp cookie crust topped with a small gold decorative leaf and a stunning creamy dark chocolate-caramel center, all ideally balanced and the exclamation point of a great time. Of course there is the addition of small dishes of lemon curd a citric tart smooth wonderful curd; strawberry jam which is viscous and sweet; and Devonshire clotted cream which is surprisingly buttery yet mild for you to slather on whatever (or whomever) you want.

Food:          ★★★★
Service:       ★★★★
Ambience:   ★★★★

Afternoon Tea - British style

(NOTE: Ratings are ranked 1-5. Each restaurant is visited multiple times in accordance with guidelines of the Association of Food Journalists. Michael Cervin is the Santa Barbara region restaurant reviewer for, and was the restaurant critic for the Santa Barbara News Press for eight years. He judges at professional and charity food and wine events.)