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History abounds at Riverside's Mission Inn

By CARY ORDWAY

If you're like many California people, the most you know about Riverside is that it's a seeming metropolis that passes underneath the I-215 freeway in that vast extension of back-to-back cities that stretch eastward from Los Angeles. If you try to think about one distinguishing characteristic, you probably can't.

But get on down off the freeway and you'll find one of the most unique getaway experiences in the state -- an experience that transports you to Early California through architecture and through the efforts of city fathers to preserve Riverside's past. Smack in the middle of it all is an inn so grandiose that presidents have married there, honeymooned there and even planted trees there.

It's always a good sign when the place you'll be staying has a street named after it -- and so locating our destination was especially easy when we took the Mission Inn Road exit off the freeway and found ourselves instantly surrounded by historic Spanish architecture on every street corner. We noticed that churches, museums and historic storefronts are all within walking distance of one another and, towering above it all, was our weekend getaway -- the Historic Mission Inn.

Just inside the ivy-covered adobe archway, we walked through a courtyard of lush landscaping before getting our first glimpse of the majestic lobby area. Spectacular chandeliers and giant wood beams complemented the elegant flower-patterned carpet to create a sense that this building was at once luxurious and historic. The lobby's grand piano is the only piano made by Steinway for the1876 Centennial. But this was only the beginning -- the Historic Mission Inn is like a fun house for those who marvel at historic and creative architecture. Around every corner there is something unique or fascinating.

The Historic Mission Inn at first gives the feeling it might have been a real mission or monastery, what with its 239 guest rooms, including 28 suites. But upon closer reading of its history, this palace-like inn was actually built by Riverside town father Frank Miller, who had taken the original Glenwood Tavern, built in 1874, and converted it to a small inn that opened in 1903. Over the years Miller continued to expand the inn using the popular Mission Revival architecture so prevalent in California, but blending architectural styles and ornamental details from the Southwest U.S. as well as several Mediterranean countries -- and of course the California missions.

The inn closed for seven years in the late 80's for a $55 million renovation and then reopened in 1992 to rave reviews. Today, the inn is situated on an entire city block and has a total of 320,000 square feet. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a State of California Historic Landmark. President Nixon was married here, President Reagan honeymooned here and President Teddy Roosevelt planted a tree on its grounds. There is even a chair still on the property that was built for 300-pound William Howard Taft, also a visitor to the inn. Of course, dozens of movie stars and other dignitaries also have spent time at the inn, and its unusual architecture has served as the backdrop for a string of movies dating back to 1913.

The rooms and suites -- which offer many unique floor plans -- are almost as interesting architecturally as the inn's exterior. The sitting area in our suite was appointed with antiques -- some more elegant than others -- and the bedroom featured a comfortable four-poster bed. Our unit had an L-shaped floor plan and, just beyond the sitting area was a large table and four chairs that could double as a work area or a dining table. There was no view to speak of, but once you walked outside the suite there was a series of stairways, walkways and catwalks that offered a variety of amazing views of the inn's special architecture.

The inn has several award-winning restaurants, with Duane's boasting an especially long list of awards from restaurant writers and Wine Spectator Magazine. Las Campanas, the hotel's Mexican restaurant, appears on many award lists -- and we could see why. We enjoyed a variety of dishes that all seemed to have a special flair.

Among the finest spa resorts in California, the inn features a year-round heated swimming pool and jacuzzi area for relaxation but, if you want the ultimate, Kelly's Spa will pamper you until you won't want to go home. Proving especially popular with local residents -- Kelly's features a variety of scrubs, polishes, body wraps, therapeutic baths, massages and facials.

Just outside the hotel, you can walk to several museums. Nearby are the Riverside Municipal Museum, Riverside Art Museum, California Museum of Photography and the Riverside Ballet Theater. There is even a museum right in the Mission Inn. In fact there is strong community support for historic preservation in Riverside and many historic buildings throughout the city are open to the public. Over 100 City Landmarks, 20 National Register sites and two National Landmarks have been designated by the Riverside City Council.

The Mission Revival architecture is everywhere in Riverside, and so it seems are churches. The Unitarian-Unversalist Church is especially striking with its Norman Gothic Revival architecture. Another Gothic Revival building is the Magnolia United Presbyterian Church, the oldest church building in Riverside. Like the Mission Inn, the Union Pacific Depot is an example of Mission Revival architecture.

Walking around the Historic Mission Inn District, you notice a mission symbol on flags and in various locations around the inn -- that's the raincross symbol that was designed for the Mission Inn and given to the city by Frank Miller.

There are several antique stores and specialty shops in the Historic Mission Inn District. Many of the stores are small, but the Mission Gallery encompasses several floors of the Old Sears Building and offers a wide selection of antiques and collectibles in addition to a deli, a floral shop and a fine jeweler. In this case the store itself is something of an antique -- it's been there for more than 65 years.

If the fine dining, shopping, museum-hopping and spa aren't enough to keep you occupied, Riverside is conveniently located for day trips to a couple of other popular getaway destinations -- Big Bear Lake and the Temecula wineries. Either is reached in under an hour's drive from Riverside. Big Bear Lake offers mountain scenery reminiscent of the Sierra Nevadas, while there is a growing wine industry in Temecula offering a variety of tasting rooms and winery gift shops.

For us, however, the Historic Mission Inn District was plenty to keep us busy during our brief stay in Riverside. Just like you miss a lot in the "flyover" states when traveling by air to the East Coast, sometimes you also miss a lot in the "drive-over" cities when you don't bother to, now and then, come down off the Interstate.

AT A GLANCE

WHERE: The Historic Mission Inn is in Riverside, 55 miles east of Los Angeles, near the junction of the 60 and 91 freeways. It's also easily reached from the north or south by way of Interstate 215.

WHAT: The Historic Mission Inn is one of the most spectacular and historic hotels in California. Riverside has a surprising history that is in evidence throughout the city. It has a warm inland climate with plenty of sunshine. Those looking for spa vacations that include a big helping of California history will love the Mission Inn.

WHEN: A visit to Riverside can be pretty warm in the summer, although not unbearable. Best time to visit would be non-summer months. Be sure to check out travel deals and vacation packages offered by the Mission Inn and other area lodgings at certain times of the year.

WHY: There just aren't many historic hotels that have been restored to this degree. Combine that with the world-class dining and luxurious amenities and the hotel itself is enough reason for the getaway even if the surrounding museums and shops weren't so interesting.

HOW: For more information on the Historic Mission Inn, call 800-843-7755 or visit www.missioninn.com. For more information on the city of Riverside, phone 909-683-7100.

OTHER DESTINATIONS: If the Mission Inn is your kind of California vacation, be sure to check out other California Weekend articles on the Montage Resort, La Quinta Resort and Coronado.

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