Sunday, May 27, 2001
The High Road Out of Ojai
turbocharged test drive through mountains to a pleasing Visalia
B&B, with a few pit stops along the way.
By: FRANK R. HOTCHKISS
Frank R. Hotchkiss writes an automotive column for Tribune Media
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
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
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
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)