When my wife, Julie, and I were a young couple, we would sometimes take out a map on a Friday night, find a town we had never visited and drive there on Saturday morning. That’s how we discovered Idyllwild, Julian and other sweet Southern California spots. But we somehow missed Santa Paula and the Santa Clara River Valley, thinking of them as drive-through communities separating us from Ojai. We wanted a quick overnight, so we set out last spring to remedy the situation. The tab: $130 for one night in a hotel, $30 for dinner and $20 for breakfast.
The Glen Tavern Inn was built in 1911 across the street from the then-busy train station in what was an increasingly prominent oil town. It was designed by Sumner Hunt and Silas Burns, who between them were responsible for Southern California landmarks such as the Bradbury Building, the Southwest Museum, the L.A. headquarters of the Automobile Club and even the boathouse at Echo Park Lake. Back in the day, the inn’s 35 rooms offered beds to Hollywood icons Clark Gable, Carole Lombard and (when he was shooting westerns nearby) John Wayne. Today the airy rooms — which some say is haunted, though we weren’t — are cozy and comfortable. The beautifully preserved lobby, with dark wood paneling, period wing chairs and gentle music, felt like a step back in time.
Santa Paula doesn’t draw the tourist traffic that Ojai gets, but it has more than its share of excellent restaurants for a town of 30,000. As we walked down Main Street, window-shopping at the western wear stores, we were led by the smoky smell to Best B-B-Q. We joined a crowd of folks clamoring for tri-tip, pork ribs and hot links, and we tried a pair of sampler plates slathered in hot sauce, with sides of baked beans (excellent) and chili beans (so-so) before waddling back to the hotel, canceling a plan to stop at Fosters Freeze. By morning, we were sufficiently recovered to enjoy the excellent coffee and beignets at Rabalais’ Bistro.
The Heritage Valley area of Santa Paula, Fillmore and Piru supports a surprising number of museums. We stopped by the California Oil Museum, which has an impressive display of early drilling equipment; the Santa Paula Art Museum, which specializes in work by local artists; the Aviation Museum of Santa Paula, which has a collection of vintage biplanes and World War II fighter planes; the nearby Fillmore Historical Museum and its outdoor displays of steam locomotives and railroad cars; and Fillmore’s ReGEN Haus, a converted Craftsman bungalow cum steampunk antique store that calls itself an “emporium of wonder and attraction.” We could have spent half a day combing through the vintage radios, medical tools and beautifully restored wooden furniture accumulated largely through the proprietor’s work as a Hollywood prop master.
THE LESSON LEARNED
Santa Paula is only about 65 miles and a little more than an hour from our L.A. home, but it felt a world away. Like Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” we realized it’s not necessary to look much farther than our backyard for interesting destinations.