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Archive for the ‘California’ Category

Driving back from Scotty’s Castle, I could feel the fatigue creeping into my bones. The daylight was almost gone and we were both tired and hungry. The Wrangler Steakhouse was beginning to feel like a regular end-of-the-day haunt for us, so we headed there almost out of habit. It was our last dinner at Furnace Creek and we were rewarded with excellent service and another delicious meal, mine built from the salad bar and Dad’s designed by adding grilled chicken to a spinach salad with dates, glazed almonds and goat cheese. It was just what we needed before turning in for the night.

I set my alarm for five thirty a.m. and drove out to Zabriskie Point, hoping for a few photographic opportunities, but the sun didn’t cooperate. There were other tripod-toting figures there, equally disappointed. But it was worth the early morning visit just to see the views another time before leaving.

On the way back, I stopped at Furnace Creek Inn to check it out. It was smaller than I had expected, having compared it in advance to other upscale national park lodges – the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite and Old Faithful Inn in Yell owstone, for examples. Yet it exuded a desert peacefulness that was in contrast to the active atmosphere of the ranch resort. Given the right bank account and a desire to hide away, it would be a good lodging choice.

I returned to the ranch, loaded up our bags, checked out and headed west, stopping only at Father Crowley Vista Point to look back out over the winding road below. We left Death Valley with many sites yet unvisited: Racetrack Playa, Mosaic Canyon, Natural Bridge, Charcoal Kilns, Mesquite Sand Dunes, Titus Canyon and Ubehebe Crater. But it never hurts to have reasons to revisit outstanding destinations. Death Valley National Park certainly warrants another visit. Or two or three.

Leaving Death Valley behind, we headed north on Hwy 395, stopping for a quick fast-food lunch in Lone Pine, a town known for its proximity to the Alabama Hills. Used as a location for over 300 feature films, John Wayne, Roy Rogers, Clint Eastwood and Spencer Tracy all came to Lone Pine long before our quick visit. We didn’t hear the clattering of horse hooves or the commotion of The Lone Ranger’s ambush, but we did get a look at the wall mural outside the Museum of Lone Pine Film History.

From there, we drove on to Manzanar;, a former WWII war relocation center, now a National Historic Site. The Interpretive Center on the property is exceptional and the guides behind the desk very knowledgeable. The award-winning, 22-minute film, “Remembering Manzanar,” is shown every half hour, so it wasn’t difficult to fit it into the visit. It was educational and emotional, as well.

Pushing on, we weathered some snow between Lee Vining and Bridgeport. Dinner was casual at a Carson City Applebee’s, after which we found a fairly amazing room at the local Courtyard Marriott. Richly decorated in rust and ivory tones, the room was spacious and absolutely gorgeous, not to mention a bargain at 89.

It was tempting to linger a second night in Carson City, simply because the room was so delightful. But we managed to pull ourselves away, grabbing an early breakfast in the lobby before checking out.

Fueled on by dramatic pre-storm lighting, we took a side trip to Virginia City, NV, for a little photography. I had been there recently, but had not had the opportunity to visit the town cemetery – actually a cluster of small, independant cemeteries. Under threat of rain, I wandered from headstone to headstone, feeling the interconnectedness of the lives of those buried there. It felt eerily as if I were walking through the pages of Spoon River Anthology. A small world, even in the hereafter.

Retracing our steps out of Virginia City, we stopped in at the Gold Hill Hotel, located just a mile outside of town. Built in 1859, this hotel is the oldest in Nevada and has been on my “wish list” for some time. Though it wouldn’t be possible to stay that night, I was allowed to tour open rooms and took notes for future visits. We took advantage of their Sunday Brunch to enjoy homemade tomato herb soup and sandwiches in their Crown Point Restaurant before hitting the road.

Our last night’s destination took us up and over Hwy 50, around Lake Tahoe and down to Placerville, where we checked into the Historic Cary House Hotel, an impressive red brick building in the heart of town. Originally built in 1857 and later demolished and rebuilt in 1915, it served as a stage stop during the gold rush heydays. For us, it served as a perfect last night stopping point for the end of our trip. Typical of old hotels, the rooms were not large, which was fine for me, but felt a little too small for Dad’s liking. It was nicely restored and conveniently situated for our needs. Parking was complimentary and a continental breakfast was included with lodging. It would work well for the night.

We followed the recommendation of the front desk clerk and had dinner at Z Pies, an easy half block walk from the hotel. The menu was clever and unique, offering delicious pot pies in a variety of hip flavors. My choice was Spicy Black Bean with Tofu, while Dad opted for Lamb with Rosemary. It was a fitting and hearty meal for weary travelers, just the right touch for the end of a long day. We returned to the hotel to read, edit photos and prepare for our final re-entry into normal daily life.

I’m always torn at the end of trips – half tired and ready to be off the road, yet half wanting to continue the journey. These were my feelings as we loaded up the car the next morning. Travel is tiring, yet it is also energizing. The trick, I think, is to think of it all as travel. In that sense, the trip never really ends. Just as we stop a few days at a hotel, we can stop a few months at our own house before moving on. With this thought in mind, my conflict was resolved. I let out a sigh of relief, started the car and headed for home.

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“Death Valley Scotty” was born Walter Scott in 1872. From a young age he sought adventure, running away from his Kentucky home at age 11 to his brother’s Nevada ranch. After working a variety of jobs, including some in Death Valley, he joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show as a cowboy.

Though he stayed with the traveling group for a period of twelve years. a new career was on the horizon for Scotty. In a clever and ingenious plan, he convinced numerous eastern investors to finance a gold mine that he had discovered out west, promising to split the profits with them. As proof of his discovery, he displayed an impressive hunk of gold-laced ore. It was a great plan, with just one catch: there was no mine and the ore specimen had been purchased by Scotty on a trip to Colorado. No matter, the investors believed the convincing story.

The funds intended for the mine allowed Scotty to live in wild fashion, spending the “earnings” from his lucrative mine at fancy hotels and saloons. So convincing was his flamboyant character that the charade continued for years, until the investors began to be concerned about the profits from the mine, which were missing in action.

As investors backed out, one important financier remained. Albert Johnson, an insurance magnate from Chicago, came out west and decided the beauty of Death Valley was more valuable than mining returns. He, along with his wife, Bessie, formed a lifelong friendship with Death Valley Scotty.

In 1927 contruction began on Death Valley Ranch and the impressive building that would come to be known as Scotty’s Castle. Though actually financed by Albert Johnson – to the tune of nearly two million dollars – the quiet insurance man went along with his colorful friend’s story that the castle was being built by Scotty himself, from his gold mine’s profits.

The details of the 32,000 square foot Spanish-Mediterranean main building are mind-boggling. Natural springs above the Grapevine Canyon property were used to provide electricity by using a Pelton water motor. A Leonard electric refrigerator was installed in the kitchen -a modern luxury that impressed many a guest – and cooking was done on a natural gas stove. Indoor waterfalls kept common rooms cool. Handcrafted tiles, wrought-iron chandeliers and European tapestries filled the “castle” in palatial style. A Welte pipe organ with over one thousand pipes was installed in a 37-ft-long upstairs music room.

With such opulence, as well as Scotty’s aptitude for self-promotion, stories of the “castle in the desert” began to spread. The Johnsons and Scotty became hosts to overnight visitors who arrived to see the extravagant building and surrounding desert and to be entertained by Scotty himself. Lodging fees were charged and the castle’s library was turned into a dining room. Custom dinnerware was imported from Italy.

The stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression brought a quick halt to finishing the ranch’s construction. Albert Johnson no longer had the means to pour money into the project. In addition, an error in the original survey and homesteaders’ filing on the property revealed that Death Valley Ranch had actually been built on government land. All construction stopped, leaving the 270 foot swimming pool and numerous other features unfinished.

Johnson managed to straighten out the legalities of ownership and acquired the land, but it passed to the non-profit Gospel Foundation of California upon his death in 1948. The National Park Service purchased it in 1970 and continues to maintain the grounds and buildings.

Park rangers in 1939 period dress do an excellent job explaining the history of the ranch. The stories of Death Valley Scotty and Albert and Bessie Johnson seem very real while ambling through the doorways of the rooms they once inhabited. And seeing is believing when it comes to the many luxuries and technological advances that helped create Scotty’s Castle. Indoor tours are offered hourly from 9-5 daily, with additional underground tours available at varying times. Though it’s possible for visitors to wander the grounds on their own, the only way to see inside Scotty’s Castle is to purchase a tour ticket. It’s well worth it – a Death Valley experience that is not to be missed.

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We continued north to the Salt Creek Interpretive Trail, a winding boardwalk that follows Salt Creek’s warm, salty waters. Though water here is saltier than sea water and can reach temperatures over 100 degrees, tiny “pupfish” are able to survive. Impressive, considering Salt Creek Pupfish have a lifespan of less than one year and a maximum size of 2.5 inches.

Seeing the ruins of Harmony Borax Works was next on the agenda. Built after borax was discovered in the early 1880’s, the plant only operated for five years, closing in 1888. During that time three tons of borax were produced daily, hauled to Mojave by the much romantized mule teams that became a symbol of the borax industry. A one-way drive through gold-hued Mustard Canyon led us back to the highway.

We found dinner again at the Wrangler Steakhouse, where a basket of fresh, hot bread sliding onto our table was a welcome sight. Roasted glazed chicken got Dad’s vote for the meal, while I ordered up a Greek salad with kalamata olives, feta cheese and citrus-herb vinaigrette.

The following morning required a room change, as we’d added a third night after arriving and it necessitated moving to a standard accommodation. The room was not as desirable, and there were a few mix-ups involved in the transfer. But it did give us an opportunity to continue our stay. For that, we were grateful. We lugged our bags over to the new room and prepared for another busy day.

A little more exploration to the south was in order, so we headed out on Hwy 190 again. Turning left at Furnace Creek Wash Rd., we continued to Dante’s View Rd., where we took a right turn and maneuvered the twisting, steep terrain thirteen miles to a ridge on top of the Black Mountains. Situated 5500 ft. above sea level, the vistas from Dante’s View are nothing less than spectacular. In one glance, visitors can see both the lowest and highest points in Death Valley: Badwater Basin, at 282 ft. below sea level and Telescope Peak, at 11,049 above. From the parking area, trails lead off to both the south and north, giving additional vantage points to enchanted visitors and eager photographers.

Doubling back, we took a side loop through 20 Mule Team Canyon, which gave our car a slow, bumpy journey and gave us close-up views of rock formations. I made a note to myself to advise future visitors to take advantage of the side loops offered in various areas of the park. They allow a closer view of Death Valley’s wonders, both literally and figuratively.

Zabriskie Point was next on the list, conveniently located just west of the 20 Mule Team Canyon loop. The astonishing views of canyons, ridges and rock formations were so dramatic that I would go back a second time before our trip ended. Breathtaking scenery stretched out in every direction. Not surprisingly, photographers were staked out all along the edges of the viewing area. There would be even more when I returned during early morning hours.

After a quick lunch of leftovers back in the room, we changed direction and headed north. Though we now faced a driving distance of over one hundred miles round trip, it was our chance to see inside the mind of one of California history’s biggest characters.

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It didn’t take long to realize the obvious: It would not be possible to see all of Death Valley National Park in three days. The three million acre expanse was not going to be conquered in seventy-two hours. We would need to make choices.

We entered from the northeast, driving in by way of Rhyolite, a ghost town just four miles outside Beatty, NV. The drive from Las Vegas had not been difficult, but I’d attended business meetings in the morning, picked up my father at Las Vegas’ McCarren International Airport and then trekked a fair distance. It was with a sigh of relief that we finally checked into our lodging for the night.


We knew immediately we had made a wise choice in reserving a deluxe room at the Furnace Creek Ranch Resort. It was a sizeable accommodation, newly remodeled in soothing earth tones, decked out with high-class bedding and accented with artistic, framed prints of Death Valley scenery. Located in a single story building, the vaulted ceiling made the room feel even more spacious. A refrigerator, coffee maker, plush towels and upscale bath amenities made it a comfortable home away from home. Added to all this was a private patio that looked out over the lawn, pool and tennis areas. Parking was at our doorstep. At half the price of the prestigious Furnace Creek Inn just a mile down the road, it was perfect.

Once settled into our room, we headed eagerly for the nearest grub. This we found at the Wrangler Steakhouse, one of several eateries on the property. Dinner was excellent – filet mignon for Dad and spinach fettucini with portabella mushrooms, white wine, roasted tomato, and garlic for me. Delicious.

Over post-meal coffee, we discussed options for the next day. Sites within Death Valley are spread out and require travel – twenty miles to this one, thirty miles to that one, etc. We grouped our intended destinations into general directions, made a tentative outline for our explorations and returned to the room for a good night’s sleep.

Morning brought good weather and we loaded up camera equipment and headed out, stopping at the ranch’s casual 49er Cafe for an easy breakfast. Our first goal: salt flats.

Badwater Basin sits at 282 ft. below sea level – the lowest point in No. America – and derives its name from the undrinkable salty water of its spring-fed pool, located near the parking area. Visitors are treated to a stunning vista across the basin to Telescope Peak, which hovers 11,049 feet above the valley. I hiked cautiously out on the muddy trail towards the ocean of white salt, a result of the area’s rapid evaporation of rainfall. While I admired and inspected the rugged crust, Dad stayed behind to take photographs on the main boardwalk area.

Backtracking along the highway, we veered off the main road to follow the Artist’s Drive loop to Artist’s Palette, a colorful, rocky display caused by oxidized metals. Nine miles in length and situated along Badwater Rd, this drive is an easy addition to a trip to Badwater Basin.

After a brief rest at the ranch, we stopped in at the Death Valley Visitors Center to pick up an official park map and gain a little more insight into the area. The National Park Service is always good about staffing its visitor centers with knowledgeable rangers. We left there armed with new information.

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The Carmel Wayfarer Inn, on the corner of 4th Ave. and Mission St, is just one of many charming inns to be found in the city of Carmel, CA. Elegantly decorated and encircling a lush garden courtyard, we had reserved a room with king bed, trundle bed, fireplace and kitchen. It was spacious and decorated with French Country style. It was perfect for our weekend needs – a home away from home for two humans and two dogs.

We checked in mid-afternoon, with time to enjoy both the cranberry muffins waiting for guests at the front desk and the wine and cheese reception held between 4PM and 6PM. Brie and crackers helped tide us over until dinner. The room gave us a great place to relax comfortable after a long drive.

Arranged by a family relative, we met for dinner at Nico Ristorante, where a pet-friendly back patio allowed both humans and canines. Under the warmth of a heat lamp that dispelled the chill of the Carmel night, we sat down to a feast, served in white linen tablecloths which were graced with trios of yellow roses in flutes and flickering votive candles. It was a perfect meal in many ways, from cuisine to service to family company.

The menu featured dishes from both Italy and Greece. Plates of bruschetta and baskets of fresh bread with an anchovy-pesto dip were the first to arrive on our table. These were followed by plentiful servings of spinach fettuccini with pesto and walnuts, pasta carbonara and a variety of other equally delicious entrees. Red wine flowed freely, as did conversation in the elegant yet comfortable patio setting. The meal ended with tiramisu, crème brulee and baklava, accompanied by espresso for some and decaf for others.

The inn offers a morning breakfast, with homemade granola, fresh fruit, juice, yogurt and hard boiled eggs, along with fresh brewed coffee and an assortment of teas. We opted instead for breakfast at a local café, Belle, were we ordered a morning specialty of polenta with sautéed mushrooms and roasted Roma tomatoes, poached eggs and creamy goat cheese. We followed this with a stroll between galleries and stores, many offering water dishes and dog biscuits to four-legged friends passing by.

Carmel Wayfarer Inn is not the most luxurious inn in Carmel, but neither is it the most basic. Sometimes in-between is just right – amenities that are upscale enough to make for a delightful stay with a price tag that doesn’t break the bank. The décor is warm and inviting and the rooms are immaculate. Having a kitchen as an option is a bonus, especially for guests staying for more than one night. The fireplace: yet another plus.

The inn’s location is excellent, an easy three block walk to Ocean Ave., the hubbub of shopping activity. A longer, downhill walk of about nine blocks leads to the beach, saving the hassle of parking, though necessitating a huffier and puffier uphill return to the inn. Not a bad way to work off spinach fettuccine, though.

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I almost missed old town Truckee altogether. I hadn’t been there for decades and took a turn off the freeway that sent me past condominiums, luxury cabins, spiffy new office buildings and a few upscale shops and businesses I had remembered a mountain community with historic structures and was baffled by the modernization, as often happens when revisiting a small town after it’s had years of growth. Fortunately, I decided to take one last loop back in the opposite direction, where I found the old town I sought.

Built in 1873, The Truckee Hotel has worn the hat of many names – American Hotel, Whitney Hotel, The New Whitney Hotel (which it inherited after most of the hotel was destroyed by fire in 1909,) Hotel Blume, Riverside Hotel, Alpine Riverside and, since 1976, The Truckee Hotel. It won an award in 1994 for historical restoration and is easy walking distance from historic downtown Truckee’s shops and cafes.

Guests need to have an appreciation for the authentic historic ambiance, as opposed to the modernized historic hotel luxury of some older hotels. Heated by the original steam system, there’s always a chance it might go out during the night, which is what it did on my visit – on a twenty-four degree night, no less.

On the other hand, a hotel with central heat, air conditioning and other updated luxuries would not have cost a mere fifty-nine dollars for the night. This was a mountain town and I specifically chose The Truckee Hotel for the mountain experience. Expectation plays a big part in perceived experience. I simply donned a jacket and gloves and snuggled under the covers.

In spite of having a bath down the hall, I was delighted with my room. Where the in-room bath might have been – at twice the room price – I had a sitting area with couch, table and chairs. The bedroom section held an old brass bed, antique dresser and side table and a wash basin with a small mirror and light above. A wall rack and basket offered towels, washcloths, soaps and hand lotion.

I found dinner in an eatery just across the street, a former Bank of America now named the Bar of America. Serving the purpose of both bar and restaurant, I grabbed a table in the dining section which bore the name of Pacific Crest Grill. Though the menu featured elegant options such as Homemade Mushroom Ravioli with basil cream sauce and hazelnuts or Coriander Crusted Ahi with gingered carrot reduction, I went for a simple salad and small Margherita Pizza.

The salad – bibb lettuce with candied almonds, shaved parmesan and champagne vinaigrette, may have been the best salad I’ve ever tasted. The pizza was also excellent, with thick slices of Roma tomatoes and no skimping on the sauce or cheese. I ate two small slivers and saved the rest for the next day. Classy ambiance and decor, upbeat music that ranged from soft jazz to flamenco and excellent service all contributed to a great meal.

The hotel offers a basic continental breakfast, served in a common room on the second level of the four-floor hotel. I picked up a blueberry muffin, some orange juice and hot coffee and returned to my room for a bit before departing for the day’s drive.

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I took a seat in the breakfast area at Stanford Inn by the Sea, relaxing back into my chair and looking out over lush, green gardens to the blue of the ocean beyond. Soft music floated through the air and, hands wrapped around a mug of fresh brewed coffee. I said a silent thank you for the peaceful atmosphere.

I’ve long been a Mendocino devotee, making yearly or, whenever possible, multi-yearly treks to soak in the fresh air, outstanding scenery and sense of life being lived as it’s meant to be. I’ve hiked on the bluffs, done volunteer work at the Art Center and holed up for weeks at a time to work on writing projects. But, until this particular visit, I had never been to Stanford Inn by the Sea.

With both my father and dog in tow, I needed an inn that would work for all of us, each with varying needs. My father needed comfortable accommodations and photo opportunities. I sought peaceful surroundings and access to food that would suit a vegetarian diet. Thunder, my corgi-shepherd mix, simply wanted to be with her human companions, but, by default, needed pet-friendly lodging. We all found what we needed and more at this exceptional inn.

We drove in via Hwy 128, crossing from Cloverdale to the coast on a winding, scenic highway. Passing through the small towns of Boonville and Philo, we emerged from a redwood canopy to take in the fresh smell of saltwater and shimmering blue of the Pacific Ocean. Another few miles up the road, just before reaching the town of Mendocino, we turned right on Comptche-Ukiah Rd. and found our way to the inn, where we were booked for a two night stay.

One flight of stairs took us to our room, which was perfectly situated midway across the second floor of the Big River Building. Our private deck offered an excellent view of the grounds and ocean. As an added bonus, the much-photographed Mendocino Presbyterian Church was beautifully framed between two tall pine trees to our right. The perfection in vistas was equaled by the room’s interior, which offered a queen bed, day bed with trundle, writing desk, private bath, refrigerator, coffee maker, flat screen TV and fireplace, already pre-set for the evening.

Realizing how much there was to explore without even leaving the property, it’s amazing we made it into town. The inn has expansive gardens and sitting areas, a pool building that’s open 24 hours, yoga classes on selected mornings, a “Massage in the Forest” studio, and enticing areas in the main building for relaxing in front of crackling fires. A hosted bar allows guests to pull up a barstool and enjoy a good Merlot or Chardonnay. And the gift shop, which meanders artistically throughout the lounge areas, has a wide enough selection of merchandise to keep even the most discriminating shopper browsing for a long time – books on vegan cooking, sustainable living and pet-related subjects mixed with locally-knit scarves and hats, jewelry and candles

Still, one of the advantages of staying at Stanford Inn by the Sea is its close proximity to the town of Mendocino, home to numerous eclectic shops, galleries, cafes and restaurants. As hard as it was to leave the inn, we headed into town to explore.

A stroll along Main St. led us to the Gallery Book Store, where I picked up an artsy memo pad and a black Gallery Book Store t-shirt. Dad picked up a book of local area points of interest. Thunder was allowed to browse inside, as well, which was a welcome surprise. From there we wandered over to A Cultured Affair for a mini-lunch of Mexican corn chowder, after which we spent some time photographing the town’s many water towers, weathered fences and gardens.

We headed back to the inn for afternoon “tea.” Well-known for its award-winning food at The Ravens’ restaurant, the inn sets out an impressive spread for its guests from 3:30-4:30 in the afternoon. Over tea and coffee, we enjoyed hummus, vegan sweets and the inn’s signature “Sea Palm Strudel,” a delicious blend of sea palm, carrots and onions, rolled in sesame phyllo.

Had I not been traveling with a non-vegetarian father, I might have stayed put for the rest of the afternoon and evening, but I worked out a culinary compromise with Dad. We would go back into town for dinner and enjoy breakfast at the inn in the morning. It was a plan that worked perfectly. We landed at The Moosse Café for dinner – rack of lamb for Dad and an outstanding salad of arugula, red onions, feta cheese, pine nuts and papaya-vinaigrette dressing for me.

We returned to find homemade chocolate chip cookies in our room, compliments of the inn. With the warmth of the fireplace, the plush, luxurious bedding and crisp silence floating in from the private deck, the evening was relaxing and calming – nothing short of perfect.

Up early, Thunder and I took a walk to visit the llamas and horses that live on the property, stopping also at the edge of Big River to watch Catch a Canoe & Bicycles, too, preparing for a day of activity. We wandered through Big River Nurseries, the inn’s certified organic garden, which provides many of the fresh, healthy ingredients for The Ravens’ recipes. There was a sense of healing energy everywhere and we tried to soak up as much of it as we could.

Breakfast was impressive, even to Dad, who is a strictly professed non-vegetarian. Potential guests who opt to stay elsewhere because the included breakfast is vegetarian are missing something special. I ordered huevos rancheros with black beans and salsa, while Dad had an omelet with a russet and sweet potato medley. Accompanying these dishes were homemade huckleberry-lemon scones, fresh squeezed orange, grapefruit or carrot juice and fresh brewed coffee. The scones were the best I’d ever tasted.

Before leaving, I was fortunate to have a chance to visit with Jeff and Joan Stanford, owners-innkeepers who have spent almost three decades developing Stanford Inn by the Sea into what it is today. They are devoted and caring – to the land, the staff, the community, the guests and the energies that allow this special place to exist. Their understanding of and ability to explain sustainability, earth energy and vegetarian and vegan philosophy, as well as their uncompromising dedication to the guest experience, makes for a unique lodging.

The ability of an inn to be down-to-earth yet luxurious, nurturing and educational yet unobtrusive, is rare. But this is the foundation of Stanford Inn by the Sea. It works. And it’s magic.

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