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Deep Culture Travel:

Old Monterey

by Karen Misuraca (The California Coast)

When American colonists were rebelling against England, Spaniards were building outposts in the coastal valleys of Alta California. The conquistadors galloped through the Santa Ynez and Santa Maria River valley, camping under massive valley oaks in wild stream canyons. Falling in love with the seductive contours of the golden land and the natural riches of flora, fauna and the moderate climate, they stayed, establishing sprawling ranchos.

Settling in the foothills below the dark ridgeline of the Santa Lucia Mountains in the late 1700s, Spanish Franciscan padres built Mission San Miguel Arcangel and planted grapes for their sacramental wines. Decades later, when the Mexican army occupied the area, a land grant called El Paso de Robles--"the pass of the oaks"--was purchased for $8,000 by the Blackburn and James families (Drury James was the uncle of famed outlaw Jesse James). In the 1860s, the Southern Pacific Railroad arrived and the small town of Paso Robles began to grow as headquarters for farmers and ranchers. The Blackburns developed some of the natural hot springs into spas for travelers. An elegant hotel was built and train passengers arrived to "take the cure," seeking the healing properties of the mineral-rich waters and mud baths.

Today, carefully preserved late 19th- and early 20th-century buildings around the grassy, two-block square Paso Robles town plaza house a mix of restaurants, shops and residences in architectural styles from Mission Revival to redwood "stick," Western false front, and Victorian Queen Anne. A jumbo grain elevator, an acorn-shaped clock tower from 1892 and a 1908 Italianate Revival-style Carnegie Library, now a museum, are stand-outs among the trove of historic buildings.

A renowned pianist and freedom fighter, and ultimately Premier of Poland, Jan Ignace Paderewski came to the Hotel El Paso de Robles in 1914 in hopes that mud baths and hot sulfur water would relieve his rheumatism. He took to the place, buying property and planting walnut, almond and plum trees, and 200 acres of Zinfandel and Petit Syrah grapes on his Rancho San Ignacio Vineyard. The first of his several wine awards was a gold medal at the 1933 California State Fair. Each year in March, the community puts on the Paderewski Festival, with concerts, lectures, winery tours and a Polish breakfast.

Since the early 1900s, farmers and ranchers have produced wheat, barley and cattle on the rolling hills and once there were more almond orchards than anywhere else on earth. Today, although vineyards are as evident as grazing meadows, a Wild West spirit continues to prevail. Winemakers wear cowboy boots, cowboys drink Cabernet and dusty pickup trucks pull up to elegant mansions. And, you are just as likely to see deer, wild turkeys and jack rabbits as a daytripper in a red convertible.

Springtime in the Vineyards

Spring is the best time of year to explore the backroads, when the valleys are green and the yellow mustard is in bloom, before the hot days and the influx of vacationers in the summertime. Twenty miles inland from the Pacific Ocean, the variation in temperatures is dramatic, with summer days over 100 degrees and nighttime lows in winter dipping below freezing, with little rain during the growing season. The warm climate red wine grapes such as Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Rhone-style varieties comprise about 80% of the grapes grown here in stony, chalky soil. Tobin James Cellars harvests Zinfandel grapes from a plot of head-pruned, dry-farmed vineyards first planted in 1924. Taking his wines seriously and himself less so, James wins gold medals and blue ribbons for his whimsically-named wines: Late Harvest James Gang Reserve, Bulls Eye Syrah, Ballistic Zinfandel, Made in the Shade Merlot, and Liquid Love, a late harvest Zinfandel with a label warning, "Beware! Drink in moderation. We take no responsibility for what happens once this bottle is uncorked!"

Formerly a stagecoach stop, the winery looks more like a Western saloon than a modern tasting room. Visitors are loudly welcomed up to a fancy, circa-1860 mahogany bar that was shipped from Blue Eye, Missouri. While kids play arcade games, their parents sip and snap photos of Western memorabilia, from six-shooters to saddles, lariats and horse collars.


When the Mexican army occupied California in the 1820s, they granted expansive ranchos to various local worthies who established cattle ranches and grain farms. By 1886, the Southern Pacific Railroad was shipping cattle out of the hamlet of Templeton, just south of Palo Robles. Today's reminders of the agricultural and ranching history are the huge Templeton Feed and Grain silo smack in the middle of town, and the Templeton Livestock Market where real cowboys buy and sell horses and cattle and you can watch penning and roping competitions.

On the main street, Jack Creek Farms Country Store represents a long agricultural heritage. The Barlogio family's great-grandpa, James, immigrated from Switzerland in the late 1800's, and raised dairy cows and pumpkins on the banks of Jack Creek. Farm animals and antiques tractors are on display at the store among fields of flowers and pumpkin and tomato patches. Visitors can pick their own apples, plums, peaches and olallieberries.

At the Templeton Tavern, you may find yourself elbow-to-elbow with a cowpuncher in riding boots or a vineyard worker in a wine-stained shirt. A general store and a bank in the 1880s, the A.J. Spurs restaurant building is crowded with Old West memorabilia, cowhides, spurs, horse collars and vintage photographs. Patrons dig into iron pots of Vaquero soup, and rib-sticking steak and ribs roasted in oak-fired ovens.

Among a handful of small wineries near Templeton, Wild Horse Winery is named for the wild mustangs in the hills, the descendants of the first horses introduced to California by the Spanish.

Hot Springs

The Salinan Indians and the Spanish mission padres knew the Paso Robles area as Agua Caliente, meaning "hot water," referring to the many natural underground hot mineral springs. As early as the 1860's, spas and mud baths in the town were tourist attractions and "taking the waters" a popular pastime. The Paso Robles Hot Springs Hotel was built in 1864 and was replaced in 1940 by the Paso Robles Inn, which today draws the healing waters into aromatic--think sulphur--whirlpool tubs on private patios overlooking a lush garden.

Another historic spa, Sycamore Hot Springs Resort has been a popular destination since 1897 and remains a tranquil retreat. You can arrange to soak in hot mineral-rich waters in a tub secluded in the woods, and explore the extensive gardens along Lopez Creek.

Nestled against a forested hillside, Avila Valley Hot Springs maintains, year round, a huge, heated swimming pool and a mineral pool fed by 105-degree water from an artesian well. The mild marine climate and ocean breezes keep this corner of the valley twenty degrees cooler in summer and warmer in the winter than just a mile or two inland.
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