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The Californian town where history meets Hollywood


SA writer Amanda McInerney took a road trip along Northern California’s famous Highway 1, stopping off at the town where movie star Clint Eastwood was once mayor and still owns an historic ranch hotel and restaurant.

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Taking in some of the history – from long ago, and just a little more recently – of Northern California’s Highway No.1 and the charming Carmel-by-the-Sea.

I’m not usually one for trying to jam too much into a trip, but when a trip is short, and the distance to get there is so very long, I know I need to make the most of it. So during our recent visit to Northern California, we decided to take a day trip down Highway 1, along the spectacular coastline south of San Francisco.

This strip of road and coast is famous from books and movies – and rightly so. The rugged Pacific coastline is gorgeous and the travel easy.

We managed to hit quite few well-known spots, including the pretty little town of Carmel-by-the-Sea.

Home to a thriving artistic community, the town is something of a tourist mecca – as much for its famous past mayor (Clint Eastwood) as for the way it has managed to maintain the natural beauty of its setting and the residential nature of the community by some vigorous planning regulations.

There are no street lights or parking meters in the township itself. All building developments must be designed around existing trees, and planning statutes recognise the importance of preserving public facilities like libraries, local theatres and historical sites.

One of the latter is Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, or the Carmel Mission, the second mission built by Franciscan missionaries in Upper California. It was established in the mid 1770s, largely constructed by the forced labour of local indigenous people, and abandoned by the 1860s.

The Carmel Mission. Photo: Amanda McInerney

Restoration of the church began 20 years later and continued sporadically for the next 100 years.

Today, the church is one of the most authentically restored of all the mission churches in California and has been listed as a National Historic Landmark. It is also an active parish church, radiating the vibrant community spirit of Carmel-by-the-Sea.

We managed to slip in just before closing time, at the end of the day. Like so many historic sites in colonised countries, the simple beauty of the grounds and buildings belies the heartache and bloodshed of its creation. However, the honest restoration and conservation is a joy to see.

The Carmel Mission. Photo: Amanda McInerney

The other local historic spot that caught my eye was the Mission Ranch Restaurant. Originally a dairy, the ranch has had a colourful history as a farm, a private club, an officers’ club during the war and a generally rowdy party spot.  It was rescued by Clint Eastwood in 1986, just before it was to fall into the hands of developers who had plans for condominiums.

Over the years, Eastwood has fastidiously restored it, going to lengths to replicate the styles and trims of the various periods of each building – each structure represents a different architectural era of the history of the ranch. He’s done the old place proud and the views out to the bay, from the outdoor dining area, are glorious.

They say that Clint is not averse to wandering in for a drink every now and then – sadly, not on the day we visited.

South Australian writer Amanda McInerney writes about travel and food on her Lambs’ Ears & Honey blog, where this article was originally published.

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