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Recently featured in the LA Times  May 27, 2001


Sunday, May 27, 2001

LA Times
Home Edition
Section: Travel
Page: L-5


The High Road Out of Ojai

A turbocharged test drive through mountains to a pleasing Visalia B&B, with a few pit stops along the way.

Frank R. Hotchkiss writes an automotive column for Tribune Media Services

Wending north from Ojai is one of Southern California's best-kept driving secrets, California 33, a two-lane blacktop that squiggles over the mountains of Los Padres National Forest for 56 miles. As the owner of a new Audi TT coupe, I find it hard to say which is more thrilling: the magnificent views or the exuberance of a turbocharged 180-horsepower engine climbing the highway's twists and turns.

The ride was part of a road trip I recently took with my wife, Sandra. We followed California 33 and a few other small highways north to Visalia, where the Spalding House B&B and Vintage Press restaurant awaited. For us, it was a close-to-perfect 36-hour escape from L.A., a trip with scenery so diverse that we felt as if we had ventured halfway across the country and back.

California 33 begins with a few surprises. After leaving Ojai, a series of sharp turns and short tunnels provided a strobe-like rhythm of light and dark as the car trailed Sespe Creek up a narrow canyon. Then came Sespe Gorge, a vertical rock face that plunges into the river--a favorite of daredevils willing to climb a wall 300 feet high.

It was early March, so looming to the east were peaks covered with snow: Mt. Abel (also called Cerro Noroeste), 8,286 feet high, and Mt. Pinos, 8,831 feet. We were only 20 miles from Santa Barbara as the crow flies, but it seemed like the Colorado Rockies.

As we plunged down the twisting highway, hair on fire and Eagles on the box, a panorama reminiscent of northern Arizona opened up: the Carrizo Plain with the Temblor Range beyond. Burnished bluffs and bleak valleys were interrupted only by the occasional ranch house or solo steer. This could have been Montana, or even Idaho.

About 50 miles from Ojai we stopped at the Halfway Station, a low-lying roadhouse with a sign boasting that it's owner-operated and therefore OK by law for guests to smoke inside. Nearly everyone did. Hundreds of baseball caps were nailed to the beams, along with bumper stickers proclaiming the sacred and profane (emphasis on the latter).

It looked like a colorful place, so we stayed. The owner-operator, not smoking, served up a grilled cheese sandwich for Sandra and a cheeseburger for me.

Back on the road, Sandra took her first stint behind the wheel. I tried to nap, letting her and the car's navigation system proceed unimpeded by my irritating instructions. Both performed superbly. We continued north on 33, then joined California 166 east.

"In 500 yards, make a right turn onto Highway 99," a computerized woman's voice cooed. With the help of a global positioning satellite, the navigation system (running off an on-board CD) guided us with voice prompts and screen arrows. We drove farther north past Bakersfield and onto California 65 into Porterville, where we stopped to visit Zalud House.

Built in 1891, this narrow, two-story brick structure is furnished with the original possessions of the German immigrants who first lived here. Curator Lynn Shell walked us through the fussy interior, decorated with delicate ceramics and fading family photos. Holding center stage was a carved wooden panel from China around the fireplace. Family patriarch John Zalud commissioned the piece during a six-month around-the-world tour in 1924--a journey that cost $450 per person aboard the ocean liner Empress of Canada, first class.

Our lodging for the night was in Visalia, reached after a 45-minute drive past thousands of pink-blossomed almond trees. The Spalding House B&B, the 1901-built former home of lumber king W.R. Spalding, is a mansion near downtown Visalia owned by Wayne and Peggy Davidson.

Wayne is so proud of his inn that he gave a 30-minute tour before showing us our room, which had an aviary. The house was spacious and easy to settle into, with an abundance of overstuffed chairs and couches. Honey-colored pine floors contrast with dark mahogany in the library, where shelves packed with books stand in front of gold silk damask walls. With only three suites, Spalding House never felt crowded. Our room was a bargain, only $85 plus tax (nightly rates start at $75).

We also liked the Vintage Press, a restaurant run by the Vartanian family since 1966. Angelenos might not expect to find fine dining in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley, and here dinner guests are more likely to be in boots and jeans than coats and ties. But the menu includes sophisticated cuisine and hearty steaks, and the cellar has been heralded by Wine Spectator.

The wild mushrooms in puff pastry that started our dinner tasted too much of lemon, but the cream of asparagus soup was delicious. For an entree I had fine medallions of veal in a sauce of Port, jalapeno and Iowa Maytag blue cheese; Sandra ordered sweetbreads in a cream sauce.

The next morning, breakfast at Spalding House was another spread: poppy-seed bread with cream cheese and strawberry jam, yogurt with nuts, a scrumptious omelet, cheese blintzes, orange juice and coffee. "The room costs $5," Wayne said with a smile. "It's the breakfast you pay for."

Then we started our return trip south, toward the wineries of Paso Robles. Roads in that area are as straight as a rifle shot. The temptation is to fly, but we reined ourselves in and observed the 55-mph speed limit.

There are scores of vineyards in the region; we steered toward ones on the far west side. It was a good challenge for the car, as the road dipped and turned between bald hills punctuated by oaks--country that reminded me of Thomas Hart Benton's Missouri paintings.

Tasting rooms here still have a down-home ambience, and in most cases they pour for free. Our favorite was Norman Vineyards, which served a rich 1998 Sauvignon Blanc and the robust, aptly named 1998 Monster Zinfandel.

Wine was a good way to end our trip. We packed up our bottles, stopped along the cute main street of tiny Templeton to grab a sandwich, and coasted on home, back to our vision of California.

 Budget for Two

Spalding House, one night: $93.20

Lunch, Halfway Station: 15.00

Admission, Zalud House: 4.00

Dinner, Vintage Press: 140.48

Gas: 46.61

FINAL TAB: $299.29

* The Spalding House, 631 N. Encina St., Visalia, CA 93291; telephone (559) 739-7877, Internet http://www.thethespaldinghouse.com.

* Zalud House, 393. N. Hockett St., Porterville, CA 93257; tel. (559) 782-7548.



"The Grandeur of the Past, with all the comforts of Today."


631 N. Encina
Visalia, CA 93291
(559) 739-7877