Travel

'Roughing it' at Ft. Hunter Liggett

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"This is a unique destination where you are allowed on a military post, visit [one] of the 21 missions and stay overnight at Hearst's private lodge," says reader Lloyd van Horsen of Santa Barbara, in recommending Ft. Hunter Liggett.

THE SETTING

Ft. Hunter Liggett, the Army's main reserve training center in the West, occupies more than 165,000 acresof remote scrubland, oak-studded hills and mountains in Central California. King City, the nearest town, is about 20 miles away.

Besides military maneuvers, munitions, Humvees and other hardware, the post is home to the lovingly restored 1771 Mission San Antonio de Padua and an imposing hacienda designed in 1929 by Hearst Castle architect Julia Morgan for the late publishing baron.

THE VIBE

Decidedly eclectic: Mission-era California meets Desert Storm meets "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous."

When your head stops spinning, consider this: Where else can you overnight at a Spanish mission or a junior-sized Hearst Castle, hoist a glass with Army troops and soak up more than two centuries of California history?

Don't expect to be pampered. Bring a sense of adventure and a well-stocked cooler. (I'll explain later.)

"If you see a poisonous snake -- stay away -- and notify the gift shop clerk, please."

This genteel notice, posted outside the mission, said a lot about where my friend Wendy and I found ourselves after a 280-mile drive from Los Angeles.

So did this sign, posted a few miles up the road: "DANGER: Live firing area. Unexploded (dud) shells. KEEP OUT."

After flashing IDs and being waved through the checkpoint at the fort, 22 miles west of U.S. 101 on Jolon Road, we bid goodbye to the comforts and certainties of civilian life.

But we soon found helpful people and intriguing places.

OVERALL

Take the mission, six miles past the fort's entrance. Father Dominic Castro, resident priest of this small, still-active parish in the Diocese of Monterey, and Joan Steele, director of religious education, greeted us like old friends when we pulled up on a Friday night.

San Antonio, the third of 21 California missions founded by early Spanish padres, stands out for its remote location, extensively excavated grounds and vaulted-ceiling church, which retains its original 1813 burned-brick facade and bronze campanile bell. The courtyard is lovely.

Wandering the well-signed surroundings was a mini-course in mission life. Among the remains were an 1820s well; an aqueduct that once stretched for three miles; a mill house with grinding stone; and foundations of soldiers' quarters, a tannery and shops where local Salinan Indians fabricated roof tiles.

Just watch your step.

"We've killed a few rattlesnakes inside the Indian cemetery walls," Steele said.

Indoors, in the multiroom museum, we found treasures such as the mission's 1771 holy-water font, full-sized models of colonial rooms and exhibits on Salinan culture. A 1798 violin, crafted by the son of a Mission Indian and once displayed here, mysteriously went missing several years ago. Like a ghost, wistful strains of a hymn, earlier recorded on the violin, wafted through the museum.

For a truly haunting experience, spend the night in one of the erstwhile monks' rooms at the mission, formerly a Franciscan training center. More like a cell, ours had twin beds, a sink, crucifix and little else; toilets and showers were down the hall. There was no food service.

But to drift to sleep here amid silence, save for a soft chorus of crickets, was like disappearing into a dream of Old California.

Less spartan quarters awaited half a mile up the road. The Hacienda was once an outpost of William Randolph Hearst's grandiose estate that stretched for miles inland from seaside San Simeon.

Inspired by California Mission and Spanish colonial styles, the rambling complex served mainly as headquarters for Hearst's Milpitas ranch staff. But the publisher, it is said, also brought in Jean Harlow, Errol Flynn, Will Rogers and other celebrity pals for parties.

In 1940, he sold the ranch to the U.S. government, and the Hacienda is now operated by the Army. The fort's commander occupies one wing, leaving 12 guest rooms for VIPs, tourists and other visitors.

Our spacious Tower Room D, on the second floor, sported vaulted, beamed ceilings and French windows overlooking a shady courtyard. It had several elaborately carved wood doors, a queen-size bed with a faux-shearling spread and a bath with cobalt-tile trim and ornamental floral paintings dating to Hearst's era. At $75 a night, it was a steal.

For breakfast, there were the contents of the sacks we'd been handed at check-in, each containing a muffin, a fruit cup, a cookie and a bottle of orange juice; the room had a fridge and coffee maker. The Hacienda's restaurant has been shut for several years, awaiting a willing contractor to run it.

So I headed down to the cavernous lounge, where Army trainers regaled me with tales of 5-foot-long rattlers, fist-sized tarantulas and other local fauna, plus gripes about fort life. It was enlightening.

As for food on our weekend foray, the less said the better. Hence, the cooler.

At the fort, the only option seemed to be the Cabl Cafe (mysteriously missing an "e"), a small joint with patriotic décor and a palatable but limited menu of burgers, pizza, breakfast burritos and such, plus oceans of Budweiser. (Vegans, despair.)

So, when we roamed off-post and found the North Shore Inn, 12 miles down Jolon Road, it was a revelation.

Run by Army veteran Danny O'Brien and his German-born wife, Gisela, who does the cooking, the restaurant served terrific bratwurst, bockwurst, sauerkraut, home fries and a thick-foamed Erdinger Weissbier Hefe-Weizen, one of 30 types of German beer it stocks.

"What's flaedle soup?" I asked, eyeing the menu.

"It's the kind of soup we don't have," Gisela said as she darted back to the kitchen.

Out here in Ft. Hunter Liggett territory, they don't have a lot of things. That's part of the rugged charm.

Mission San Antonio de Padua; (831) 385-4478, www.missionsanantonio.net; 31 guest rooms ($60 per night), plus a private suite ($195). The Hacienda; (831) 386-2511, www.liggett.army.mil/sites /local/; rooms $45 to $135. North Shore Inn, 70229 Jolon Road, Bradley, Calif.; (805)472-9175; open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesdays to Saturdays; dinner entrees $9.95 to $14.95.

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