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Los Olivos, Calif.--Barely two hours north of Los Angeles, vacationers breach the twilight zone, discovering a 19th-Century village that's a scene out of a Grandma Moses painting.

September 21, 1986|JERRY HULSE | Times Travel Editor

Passing through little Los Olivos involves mere seconds, which tells something about its appeal. After this the land unfolds to infinity, taking in vegetable gardens and vineyards, country inns, cattle, horse ranches and a bright red one-room schoolhouse that stands in the shade of towering trees.

Hidden in the Santa Ynez Valley, Los Olivos is a flashback to a time when life seemed secure and neighbors were friends, not strangers. Publisher/historian Jim Norris calls it "turn-of-the-century togetherness."

It's a rural community where apples and grapes are harvested in the fall when fields lay yellow with pumpkins; great oaks spread their shade over grassy hills and summer evenings come alive with a concert of crickets. It is a town without a pizza parlor or a Jack-in-the-Box, and that's how the residents of Los Olivos intend to keep it. It's big on patriotism as well, with a flagpole rising dead center of Grand Avenue honoring America's war veterans.

Visitors stop for cool drinks and submarine sandwiches at Stan Montanaro's country store, which Montanaro's grandfather founded in 1889. Shelves are stocked with jars of relish and jellies and there's a walk-in refrigerator filled with soda pop and beer.

Montanaro, who wouldn't trade Los Olivos for a Paris mansion or a San Francisco estate, recalls graduating from grade school with a class of nine. He went away for a while but the lure and memory of this small town where he grew up was irresistible, and so he returned for good.

The store where he spends his days is an old-fashioned calendar scene. Step outside the door in summertime and the air is alive with the hum of bees and the rich good smell of the earth.

In the autumn, Los Olivos sponsors "A Day in the Country" (Oct. 25 this year) when city types drive up from Los Angeles and Santa Barbara to lose their cares in a scene straight out of the early '20s. Apples and grapes are ready for picking and the air is crisp and crafts booths are scattered up and down Grand Avenue.

A parade moves down Grand Avenue with kids in costume, vintage cars, horses and bands. Afterward everyone gathers for a picnic in the park along with games at Stagecoach Plaza, an apple pie contest, wine tasting and dog races.

Earlier, Los Olivos puts on a re-enactment of the Stagecoach Mail Run, and December is dedicated to an old-fashioned Christmas celebration with mulled wine, hot cider and period costumes.

Los Olivos: population 850. At one time the town was lively with livery stables, blacksmith shops and a major hotel. For 100 years Mattei's Tavern has drawn crowds to its dining room with its 19th-Century sense of well-being. Originally it fed passengers on the Los Angeles-San Francisco stagecoach run.

Later Los Olivos became the terminus of the narrow-gauge Pacific Coast Railroad Line and passengers continued to dine and seek shelter at Mattei's, whose register contains the names of guests without important portfolios as well as celebrities: Clark Gable, Bing Crosby, Edmund Lowe, Rosalind Russell and William Jennings Bryan.

Promoters surveyed the valley and saw an opportunity to auction off land. They offered free barbecue excursions to Los Olivos, but both times they were rained out and both times residents of the sparsely settled land were silently grateful.

Although a scattering of homes and ranches appears throughout the valley, mostly it remains rural and unspoiled, its rolling hills as green in springtime as Ireland itself. With summer, the grass turns brown, presenting a striking contrast to the gnarled old oaks that spread their shade across the landscape.

Antique shops and artists' studios line the main street of Los Olivos where Mary Hollister and Barbara Buell Phillips welcome visitors at the Stuff Store and white-haired Esther Anderson sits behind a teller's cage at Village Antiques, fashioning lamp shades.

A kitchen behind Miss Anderson's turns out homemade chocolates and across the street Jedlicka's stocks "everything for you and your horse."

Visitors browse through Roeser's Variety Store, Prys Gallery, the Red Duck, Zaca's and a variety of other antique shops and galleries.

Dead center of town, visitors up from Santa Barbara and Los Angeles bid for rooms at a remarkable new small hotel, the Los Olivos Grand, which appears like a country inn out of Burgundy or the Loire Valley. Guests are welcomed by General Manager Alex Murphy who did a 14-year stint at the popular Salishan Lodge on the Oregon coast. The hotel is one of those rare inns with a superb restaurant and rooms to match.

The rooms are graced with French armoires, fresh flowers, brass beds, down comforters and fireplaces featuring hand-painted tiles.

At the Grand, guests sunbathe beside a swimming pool and soak in a Jacuzzi and relax in a parlor with deep sofas, a cheery fireplace and handsome paintings.

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