Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Carpinteria Getaway

“The tide rises, the tide falls,
The twilight darkens, the curlew calls;
Along the sea-sands damp and brown
The traveler hastens toward the town,
And the tide rises, the tide falls.”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Longfellow was writing about the east coast, but he just as easily could have been talking about Carpinteria, California.

Eighty miles up the left coast of the United States along Highway 101 sits the hamlet of Carpinteria. Incorporated in 1965, Carp, as some of the locals call it, is named for the Spanish word for carpentry, mainly because of the Chumash Indians. They had a thriving canoe-building business in the area long before the white man arrived. The Indians used the natural tar vents bubbling to the surface in the area to seal the canoes they built. The area is a sleepy small town, perfect for a getaway, for the weekend or the day. Carp is home to the fiftieth largest oil field in California, the Carpinteria Offshore Oilfield, and I cannot help but think of the possible disasters looming in the form of brightly lit oil derricks twinkling off the coast at night. But Carp, for the most part, remains a small community that lacks the pretension of Montecito or Santa Barbara. If you can, plan to be in town for the annual Avocado Festival on the first weekend in October on the main drag, Linden Avenue. There is a lot of good food and relaxing fun.

I find myself drawn to Carp in the fall and winter, when the sea air is crisp and clean, and the crowds that gather between the brackets of the Fourth of July and Labor Day have all gone home.

My first stop is the Carpinteria Bluffs, a place of quiet trails that run through the grass and Eucalyptus trees down to the sea. The residents of the area fought for this stretch of valuable land, where oil companies threatened to drill, and housing developers saw a gold mine in potential resident and vacation properties. The area remains a recreation and wildlife preserve, open to the public from dawn until dusk. Railway tracks cross the area, and if one is lucky, the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner will rumble through taking travelers the length of California and beyond. Cross the tracks and make your way down the steep paths to the strip of sand at the foot of the bluffs. Seals frolic, and even give birth nearby, and one can walk for miles along the coast, watching waves crash against rocks with a roar of spray. Starfish live in tidal pools and dolphins swim by on their way to God-knows-where: when the sea is your playground, the world is infinite almost.

Back on the highway and a few miles farther north is Carpinteria proper. Linden Avenue is the main street running west from the highway down to the beach. There are a number of great little shops to peruse. Robitaille’s Candies advertises fresh fudge and an enormous variety of sweet delicacies. There are a few brand stores, like Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. Sly’s is a well-reviewed restaurant on Linden.

The place I must go to is a small shack almost at the beach on Linden Avenue and Dorrance Way. Spot Burger serves the best hamburgers in California, hands down. Better than In & Out, and better than The Habit (which originated down the road in Santa Barbara). Dine on the open air patio.

Another great place for dinner is Clementine’s up on Carpinteria Avenue. The restaurant bills itself as a steakhouse, but I like the fresh fish. They also serve a jumbo, succulent fried chicken that you will not be able to finish in one sitting. The best part of the experience is that for 25-30 dollars per person, you get a complete meal: iced tea, coffee, or assorted soft drinks; appetizer vegetable tray; bread and butter; soup; salad; entree with a fried baked potato or rice; vegetable (usually buttered carrots); and homemade pie (choose from apple, cherry, blueberry, rhubarb, pumpkin, banana cream, multiple chocolate varieties, strawberry cream, and others that I am too hyperglycemic to remember right now). “Homemade” is a word that a lot of restaurants toss around, but at Clementine’s, the pies are homemade by the owner, in house, and are the best I have ever tasted.

Why does food taste so much better by the beach?

What I come to Carpinteria for, more than anything, is the beach in fall or winter: it is deserted, cold, and beautiful. I bring my winter coat, bag of books, my chair, my thermos of coffee, and read my way through the day right there on the sand.

Why is literature so much better by the beach?

I watch the sun tumble into the sea, the gulls cry their goodbyes, and I wait for the stars to congregate in the sky above me. Ahh, the remains of the day. The water turns from deep blue to shining orange to red wine and finally, to a deep ebony: all the colors of the world stretching off to the horizon.

At the end of the day, I gather my books and chair and now empty thermos, and walk to my car. On my way, I pass the mysterious mermaid woman heading down Elm Street for her nightly swim in the ocean. She is a Carpinteria urban legend, but I can bear witness to the truth of her.

I drive slowly up Linden Avenue. The shops are closed, the sidewalks empty; Carpinteria is asleep, like small towns tend to do on a week night after 9 PM.

Back on the 101, I float south to Los Angeles and the work-a-day world. When things get dark, as they often do, and my life bogs down with the weight of its own entropy, I know that up the coast is a sandy beach calling my name. When I need her, Carpinteria will be there, waiting.


  1. A small tourist type town in the fall and winter is so beautiful. I have lived my last fifteen years in this kind of town. I have moved to another province April past to such a town.
    I enjoy speaking with people who travel during these times. They bring with them a sense of nature and appreciation.

    I am happy you have a little spot to get to. Very nicely written Paul and the pictures and beautiful.


  2. Thanks, Robert. I would love to live in Carp, and I have actually looked into the possibility. All I would need is a job up there to make it work. So I am looking...who knows. What a dream that would be.

    Take care


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