When people think of California, they first think of beaches, theme parks and movie stars and often one of the most important aspects of this state is overlooked — the agriculture that provides so many of our basic necessities. With farmlands to rival anything you'll see in the Midwest, California's vast San Joaquin Valley is dotted with small towns that exist mainly to service those who work in the agriculture industry.
For Big City types, it can be enlightening to stop and visit a few of these communities, if only to get a glimpse of a slower, quieter life where the word "commute" is not in the local dictionary. Folks around here can just as well walk or bicycle to work in their shops and offices down on Main Street — although most do drive. Picture-perfect old-growth trees usually provide plenty of shade for the downtown business areas, while stately, historic homes adorn some of the main routes in and out of town. Traffic is just about nil, and people use their local parks to sit on a bench and just think about what all of this means.
In between the towns are the farmlands, neatly marked off in square or rectangular parcels, each devoted to a particular vegetable or crop. Old farmhouses are spaced every half mile or mile — although some of them are quite modern and palatial — and the seemingly endless two-lane roads are usually straight as can be. Not too many SUV's or sports cars out here — about nine out of every 10 vehicles is a pickup truck, some so old they're still living past lives.
For the family traveling through these agricultural lands, there is an opportunity to put things in perspective. City kids who figure that produce just magically appears at the local supermarket will be astonished to see their vegetables coming out of this region's rich soil. For adults, it's a chance to get some of these things fresh and cheap — buying fruit and produce in these parts really is cutting out the middle man.
All of this is played out over the hundreds of miles between Northern and Southern California, but one place where local city fathers have made it a bit easier for visitors is Fresno. While the city itself bustles with traffic and is hardly the "Mayberry" you're looking for, the area south and east of Fresno is made up of several small towns with names like Sanger, Selma, Kingsburg and Orange Cove. Local tourism officials have created what they call the Fresno County Fruit Trail that will take you to three dozen or so farms, shops or unique attractions that will give you a taste, quite literally, of what this region has to offer.
Timing is everything on this California vacation trip. We drove the 100-plus miles around the loop just a tad bit before the fruit was ready — worthwhile, but a little disappointing in the number of seasonal markets that were not yet up and running. Visitors taking the loop beginning in early June won't have that problem. Most fruit stands opened in May with peaches and nectarines. Cherries and apricots follow. Traditionally mid-April through July is best for berries, while mid-May through September will find the best of stone fruit — several varieties of peaches, plums, nectarines and apricots. From mid-June through September, visitors can see the famous Fresno raisins drying in the sun.
While we didn't taste much fresh fruit on our drive, we did find some fascinating locations on the Fruit Trail. We began by getting a copy of the Fruit Trail map from the Fresno County Office of Tourism (contact info is below). The map gives a great overall perspective to where things are located, although some of the specific directions were a little hard to follow. We must admit we ultimately cheated -- using our GPS navigation system — but getting a good local map to complement the Fruit Trail map should clear up any confusion.
Most of the Fruit Trail points of interest were seven to 10 miles apart, although there were several clusters with multiple stops near each other. You'll definitely want to stay in Fresno for the night, as this outing will take you the better part of a day to do it right. We can recommend the Courtyard by Marriott on Shaw Street — a little getaway unto itself with a large pool and Jacuzzi and spacious, comfortable rooms. Be sure to ask them about any current travel packages they may be offering.
Among the Fruit Trail stops we found most interesting:
Simonian Farms — This is a one-of-a-kind store located just on the outskirts of Fresno and is fascinating to browse through. The first thing you notice outside is the old farm equipment — a 1925 orchard sprayer, a 1936 Massey-Harris tractor, a 1906 steam engine tractor — as well as assorted other items such as a Santa Fe railroad caboose and eight-foot-high windmill (for sale for $98). This is just the picnic area outside the store and, once you approach the store, you see old wood stoves, antique gas pumps, dozens of old gas signs, several wooden birdhouses for sale — $10 a pop — and a huge selection of bells. The produce is inside the store — fruits, dates, nuts, such unusual items as Cajun-spiced home-cured olives and strawberry-coated Thompson raisins. Hanging from the ceilings are several antique bicycles and the store's walls are plastered with old-time photographs. Along a couple of walls are hundreds of dusty historical artifacts such as old typewriters and turn-of-the-century grocery containers. All-and-all, this store is quite a shopping experience.
Circle K Ranch — This store has everything raisin one can imagine. There are chocolate covered raisins, yogurt coated raisins, jumbo raspberry raisins and gift boxes that combine these and other varieties into one package. You'll also find walnuts, peanuts, dried pears, dried pineapples and dried plums.
Seasons — This little shop, located basically at someone's house, is named Seasons because it carries seasonal gifts, such as Christmas ornaments, year-round. As clerk Deborah Sappington pointed out, the owners know all of the shop's suppliers. One of the main attractions is a soap made with loofah as well as other organic vegetable items. Just for good measure, there's a tractor museum and display of antique tools, all right there in the backyard.
California Olive Oil Manufacturing Company — At this stop, it's the award-winning olive oil that is the attraction and, if you blink, you'll miss the non-descript building with the tiny front office featuring displays of their olive oil products. The oil has been produced by the Ugaste family for more than 60 years.
Kingsburg — This Mayberry-style town is trying really hard to be a Swedish theme village although about half the buildings along Main Street haven't quite gotten with the program. But no matter. The small-town charm is worth the visit and you'll enjoy browsing through such antique shops as My Sister's Closet and the Apple Dumplin', or dining at Gino's or enjoying a fresh brew at the Cappacino Courtyard. It's only fitting that this small piece of Americana has not one, but two 50's shops — the 50's Shop and the Rockin' 50's Shop, both stocked full of 50's memorabilia. Be sure and check out City Hall, a historic pillared building that looks like it was created for a Smalltown USA movie set.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: Fresno is located in the San Juaquin Valley, between Bakersfield and Sacramento and easily reached by the 99 freeway. The Fruit Trail is just southeast of Fresno.
WHAT: Fresno is located in one of the state's top-producing agricultural areas and the relatively large city of Fresno serves as a gateway to a region of small towns, villages, farms and orchards. If you enjoy cheap vacations, you'll like the prices you find in this area far from the population centers of California.
WHEN: In general, the Fruit Trail is best to travel in the late spring and summer months, although you are at the mercy of Mother Nature for any given crop. Even out of season, there are several interesting year-round highlights on the tour, which could be abbreviated just to visit those locations. Always check for travel deals and vacation packages, which are always better in the off-season.
WHY: Anyone who loves the taste and smell of fresh fruit and vegetables will enjoy the tour, not to mention those who find it interesting to visit historic buildings, small towns and shop for unusual products and artifacts. A day or two in the Fresno will really round out your California vacation.
HOW: A complete map with capsule descriptions of each Fruit Tour location is available by contacting Fresno County Office of Tourism at 559-262-4271. Or visit www.gofresnocounty.com.
OTHER DESTINATIONS: If a trip along the Fresno Fruit Trail is your kind of California vacation, be sure and check out California Weekend's articles on the Sonoma Food Tour, Napa Valley and Temecula Wineries.