Flying to California is one of the most expeditious Vitamin D infusions available in our time zone. It is easy for an Oregonian to take for granted the virtual nation and its varied topography and climates that lie just across our southern border.
After weeks of tending a leaking roof, we spent the Christmas holiday in the sunshine of Cambria and San Francisco. When we disembarked from our flight to Santa Barbara last Saturday morning, we acted like cave dwellers or nocturnal animals suddenly thrust into the daylight, squinting at the sun as though it were an unfamiliar object. Bereft of sunglasses, I picked up a $6.99 pair at a gas station.
Driving north, our son's car traversed wine country, with vineyards covering the gentle hills as far as the eye could see.
On California's central coast, Cambria (population, 6,232) is energizing in late December. It's one of those charming places that has undoubtedly found its way into more than one Hollywood movie about small-town life. Among its bevy of motels, we had the good fortune to find Fog Catcher's Inn. Across the street and above the surf was a boardwalk that affords views of the craggy coast, plentiful birdlife including a pelican that swooped by and a sea otter riding the surf. As the sun set on Saturday, we watched two surfers riding waves.
Early Sunday morning, just as the sun cleared the coastal mountains, brilliant light hit the tops of breakers, causing a radiant and optimistic moment.
Hearst Castle brought us to this place. More specifically, we came to experience the castle's evening tour, which is only offered at this time of year. Seeing the hilltop home of William Randolph Hearst is an otherworldly experience at any time, but under a full moon, La Cuesta Encantada, as Hearst called it, is especially romantic. For these evening holiday tours, the place is decorated as Hearst did for Christmas, and re-enactors wear period clothing from the 1930s.
The outdoor lamps are covered with alabaster shades, which architect Julia Morgan specified for walkways, patios and the swimming pools. The glow of these lights and the sound of palm trees rustling in the breeze embodies the concept of enchanted evening. Hearst Castle's indoor swimming pool, where our tour ended, was described by Cary Grant as the most romantic place you might have a tryst at 2 a.m.
As our bus descended the 1,700 feet to sea level we observed cattle grazing in the light of the full moon. It was akin to the ethereal vision of range land that Frederick Remington captured in his night paintings.
Highway 1 between Cambria and Carmel is one of the most exotic road trips in North America. As the roadway moved into ravines and out to sheer cliffs, we traversed various micro-climates. We proceeded at a leisurely pace, stopping at viewpoints that afforded spectacular views 20 miles north and south.
As a special, Christmas Eve experience, we stopped for lunch at the fabled Big Sur restaurant Nepanthe, which is perched on an oceanside cliff. It is the sort of place you expect to see Hollywood types and aging flower children.
My wife had seen the Point Lobos State Reserve decades ago. Stopping there was her Christmas gift to the rest of us. Its shore habitat is singular. The poet Francis McComas said as much: "It is the greatest meeting of land and water in the world."
I reciprocated her gift by having us stop at the Carmelite convent church on the southern end of Carmel. Dating to the 1920s, it is the home of a contemplative order of nuns. The church's nave is oriented west to east, so that sunshine through its clerestory suffuses the whitewashed space with bright light.
Grace Cathedral is one of our special places. My late aunt and uncle were married in one of its chapels. Though he was never a churchgoer, W.R. Hearst's funeral service was at Grace. Duke Ellington performed one of his sacred works in the vast space. Thanks to the courage and vision of its clergy and congregation, Grace embraced the dispossessed of San Francisco who were afflicted with AIDS many years before President Ronald Reagan acknowledged the disease's existence and extensive research was funded.
The Christmas day sermon was preached by Rev. Canon Mary E. Haddad, a diminutive woman with a clarion voice and a clear message. If you want to hear it, Grace Cathedral maintains a vibrant Website, gracecathedral.org
Emerging from the cathedral, we donned sunglasses and heard the bell of a cable car.