In some ways, time has stood still in California's port city of Eureka, an outpost of Victorian architecture and magnificent scenery that is well worth including in any visit to the state's northern coastline. In fact, surrounding Humboldt County will give you a history lesson as well -- and treat you to some of the most fascinating natural attractions anywhere in the West.
Still a small city with just 40,000 residents in the immediate area, Eureka's downtown is a collection of historic Victorian buildings, many of which have been restored to reflect their mid-19th Century splendor when local residents built ornate homes with money earned through logging, farming and fishing. While there were periods when the town seemed to lose its vitality, in recent decades the city has been spruced up to show off both its waterfront and its heritage.
To be sure, it takes an effort to get to Eureka, a city separated from the eastern part of the state by the Coastal Mountains and a scenic 150-mile connection from Interstate 5. Another option is to work your way north on Highway 101 taking advantage of various opportunities to drive connecting roadways to the Highway 1 coastal highway, arguably the most scenic highway in California.
Whatever way you go, though, you'll find dramatic scenery, numerous points of interest and a new appreciation for how diverse our state really is.
When in Rome, as they say -- so what better place to stay in Eureka than in a Victorian mansion? Our mansion of choice was one of the Carter House Inns, a group of four Victorians that are striking in their appearance and considered among the finest accommodations in Humboldt County. We enjoyed a suite in the Carter House, a mansion that owners Mark and Christi Carter built back in the 1980's from plans they found in an antique shop. The 19th Century original had been built in San Francisco.
Sometimes it's difficult to tell the difference between a restoration and a building like the Carter House which is really a replica. Since original designs were used, rooms and ceilings are just as they were in the original; fixtures and furnishings all have been painstakingly chosen to convey authenticity. With the exception of the over-size 21st Century Jacuzzi tub, everything seemed original, albeit in much better condition than an original structure might be.
Our second-floor suite in the three-story Carter House was amazing in its workmanship and attention to detail. Like many Eureka homes, this mansion made liberal use of woods, from the gleaming wood floor to the carved wall designs to the ornate banisters and window shutters. While one room of our suite had a comfortable sitting area, fireplace and queen bed, an adjoining bedroom was also fully furnished and would be ideal if you are bringing kids. The suite's bathroom area was quite spacious and elaborate: a separate dressing room area plus a bathroom that included both the Jacuzzi tub and a shower, with period furnishings such as two separate standing wash basins. As if that were not enough elegance, a stay at the Carter House also includes a full cooked breakfast of omelettes, bacon, sausage, pastries and fruits — which gives you a chance to check out Restaurant 301, the Carter House Inns' award-winning dining establishment.
While in Eureka, we spent considerable time in Old Town, the downtown area where visitors find numerous restored Victorian buildings, many of them housing interesting shops, cafes and other businesses. The district includes the Eureka waterfront, where a boardwalk offers visitors a chance for some exercise while taking in views of the 125 fishing boats that now operate out of this harbor.
A must-see near downtown Eureka is the Carson Mansion, an often-photographed example of just how elaborate Victorian architecture can get. Today the mansion is a private club, but tourists flock to the building to get an up-close view of its dramatic features.
There are numerous side excursions from Eureka, making it an ideal place to headquarter while in Humboldt County. For example, one of our favorite short trips was the drive north about 20 miles to Trinidad, a tiny seaside town that reminded us of Mendocino in the way that it was built on a bluff overlooking this area's incredibly scenic coastline.
Trinidad is the perfect place to enjoy some easy hikes while soaking up the natural beauty that is visible in every direction. We especially liked the one-mile loop trail around Trinidad Head that took us through dense vegetation to several cliff-side vantage points of the coastline as well as the sea. Seals could be heard barking in the distance while gawking seagulls circled overhead. Waves crashed with enormous velocity on the head's rocky shoreline. Dozens of pleasure and fishing boats bobbed in the bay as the waves grew in thunderous intensity.
The Trinidad Civic Club built a replica of the original Trinidad Head Lighthouse and those who visit this scenic location will find that it has become a memorial to persons lost at sea. Just down from the lighthouse we found yet another fascinating trail, this one taking hikers several flights of stairs down to a remote Robinson Crusoe-style beach just south of Trinidad Head.
While in Trinidad, be sure to stop by the Trinity Bay Eatery and Gallery. An unassuming kind of place, this small restaurant features the best New England clam chowder we've ever tasted.
Had we gone a little farther north we would have quickly come to the Redwoods National Forest, home of the recently announced world's tallest tree.But we chose instead to view the Redwoods on our drive south from Eureka where, after about 25 miles, we found the Avenue of the Giants, a 31-mile section of old Highway 101 that runs parallel to the freeway. This is a meandering drive that takes you into the heart of several redwood groves and through numerous canopies of trees and vegetation that make you feel like you are not just driving by the redwood forests — you're driving into them. Maps are available along the way and there are several nature trails that take you even deeper into the forest.
The trip south from Eureka on Highway 101 takes you close to several attractions such as Ferndale, a town brimming with pristine Victorian architecture, or Loleta, home of the famous Loleta Cheese Factory where more than 50 varieties of cheese are made right before your eyes.
But headlining this particular journey was the geographic beauty of the area itself — several picture postcards' worth of rich farmland, rolling hills, rugged forested mountains and uncluttered seascapes that made it feel like time in this area has indeed stood still.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: Eureka is located about 270 miles north of San Francisco and 150 miles west of Redding.
WHAT: Eureka is a true Victorian Seaport and the city's considerable effort to restore Victorian buildings, particularly in Old Town, has created a unique, enjoyable place to visit. The city also is an excellent base of operations for side trips to the many other attractions in Humboldt County.
WHEN: Anytime, although you'll want to dress warm and be prepared for rain during the rainy season from November through March.
WHY: Eureka and Humboldt County offer some of California's best scenic and historic attractions.
HOW: For more information on Eureka and Humboldt County, please phone 800-346-3482 or visit www.redwoodvisitor.com. Carter House Inn is at 800-404-1390 or visit www.carterhouse.com. Another excellent option for accommodations that we sampled is the Best Western Humboldt Bay Inn, which features newly remodeled rooms, free internet service, free DVD rentals, free continental breakfast, refrigerators, microwaves and many upscale amenities without the upscale price. Uniquely, the Humboldt Bay Inn also offers guests free limo service to and from downtown locations Sunday through Thursday. Not bad for rooms that start at $66. Phone 877-275-7814 or visit www.humboldtbayinn.com.
Photos: Beach at Trinidad; Carson Mansion; downed tree in Avenue of the Giants; Carter House Inn
Photo credits: Cary Ordway, Sandi Ordway
(Editor's note: CaliforniaWeekend.com is California's leading source of information on getaway travel in the Golden State. Visit the site often to find the latest getaway specials, a comprehensive list of resorts and lodgings and to use the Getaway Machine travel calculator to match up your needs and preferences with exactly the right lodgings and location.)
OTHER DESTINATIONS: If you're looking for other California vacation ideas, be sure to check out other California Weekend articles on Yosemite National Park, Idyllwild, Julian and Sequoia National Park.