Over the Labor Day weekend, the Esotouric gang set off to explore some gems off California's beaten paths, bound for neon signage, petrographs (so much more delicate than their cousins, the -glyphs), peculiar Victorian mansions, thrift shops, mid-century time capsules and a lesser-known residence from the office of the great Mayan Revival architect Robert Stacy-Judd.

This is the second of several blog posts in which we'll share our discoveries. Check out our road trip photo sets here and here.

Departing the vast Carizzo Plain and the ruined, yet still lovely, Painted Rock, we cut towards the vast agricultural lands of the Central Coast, and the agricultural city of Santa Maria. Our interest was not in barbecue or winery tours, but in staying the night at the only grand old hotel in this part of the world: the Santa Maria Inn.

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Since its founding in 1917, the Inn has served as home base for many Hollywood film crews, stretching back to the silent era, when the nearby Guadalupe dunes stood in for Egypt, Arabia and other exotic lands.

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While the Inn has been expanded in recent years, with a modern facade and tower, a long beamed parlor remains just off the main desk, decorated with historic photographs, Anglophile murals and notable pages from the Inn's guest register.

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Why yes, that is William Randolph Hearst's John Hancock. Even a fella with a castle spends the occasional night on the road.

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We liked our cozy second story room above the quiet courtyard in the historic section and the sincere graciousness of the staff. If you should find yourself in the middle of the state, we certainly recommend the Santa Maria Inn as a pleasant place to linger.

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We got an early start the next morning, bound for the handsome Spanish Colonial Revival City Hall complex.

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The offices were shut, but there was much to admire in the exterior ornamentation.

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Then we rambled around in one of our favorite thrift shops.

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And admired the magnificent old Haslam block, which at the time of our visit was seeking new tenants.

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For lunch, we stopped in Guadalupe, a charming little early 20th century downtown that's suffering mightily due to civic dysfunction and the state's earthquake retrofitting requirements.

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We've blogged about Guadalupe before. A hike along the boardwalk through the dunes, a visit to the little museum and leisurely chats with local shopkeepers are among our favorite ways to spend a few hours off the grid.

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On previous visits, we'd have gravitated towards the Far Western Tavern at meal time, but after 54 years, the family pulled up stakes and built a new restaurant in upscale (comparatively) Orcutt.

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Happily, El Tapatio was open for business, grilling up perfect fluffy chiles rellenos with a side of fresh corn tortillas. When we raved to our waitress about the fare, she blushed and agreed her grandparents are geniuses. 

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We've photographed the dune walk on past visits, so left our gear stowed on this one. The sands don't change much from year to year, and if the zipping swallows above our heads were the grandchildren of birds we met previously, it didn't show.

This is how we remember it, anyway.

Walkway leading out to the estuary and dunes Photo Jun 26, 1 38 48 PM

Next stop: Oceano, where we've booked a room in one of the strangest private homes on the Central Coast.