If Fresno seems an unlikely destination, wait until next month when the central California city becomes a TV miniseries.
Never mind that "Fresno" is a spoof about rival raisin dynasties. With comedians Carol Burnett, Charles Grodin and Dabney Coleman in starring roles, the city and county of the same name will get nationwide attention--and more visitors.
For local folks, raisins are no laughing matter. The Fresno area produces one-third of all grapes grown in the United States, and the fruit is a major contributor to the county's $2 billion-a-year agriculture income.
The fall harvest is celebrated this month with the Big Fresno Fair, a 14-day fling that begins Monday. That's where you'll see the best of more than 2,000 varieties of San Joaquin Valley produce.
Fair-goers also enjoy the traditional exhibits of livestock and everything from hand-stitched quilts to homemade jams. Adding to the fun are daily horse races, a professional rodeo, the carnival midway and grandstand entertainment featuring such favorites as Roger Miller, Mickey Gilley, Charlie Pride, Donny and Marie Osmond and Pat and Debby Boone.
Besides its century-old fair, Fresno has other attractions for out-of-towners. Even if you're en route to nearby Yosemite, Sequoia or Kings Canyon national parks, take some extra time to explore the city.
A good place to begin is the Farmer's Market just off the freeway in downtown Fresno. There you can buy the freshest local produce and sample an array of ethnic food.
From Los Angeles, drive north on Interstate 5 to join California 99 into the city. Pick up California 41 north toward Yosemite, then take the Divisadero Street/Tulare Street exit and cross over the freeway to the market.
Daily except Sunday, a dozen or so families come to town to sell their raisins, melons, apples, tomatoes and other produce picked that very morning on their farms. On Fridays and Saturdays, eight to 10 additional farmers set up stands.
The Farmer's Market is equally popular for its 18 self-service restaurants in an indoor setting of sidewalk cafes. You can feast on the food of Japan, India, Greece, the Philippines, Mexico, Italy, Germany, China and the United States. There are ice cream, yogurt and candy stands, too.
Near the market you'll find some of Fresno's most historic structures. The city began as Fresno Station in 1872, site of a telegraph office for the Central Pacific Railroad.
Going southwest on Tulare Street to R Street you'll see the Victorian home Dr. Thomas Meux built in 1889. It remained in the family until 1970 and then was acquired by the city and restored as one of Fresno's oldest dwellings.
Visitors are welcome at the Meux Home Friday through Sunday from noon to 3 p.m. Entry is $2 for a 45- to 60-minute docent tour of the house. During December, Christmas trees with various ethnic themes will be on display in every room.
A block beyond at Tulare and Santa Fe streets is the mission-style Santa Fe Station built at the turn of the century. It serves Amtrak trains on the Bakersfield-Oakland run. Opposite is the vintage Santa Fe Hotel where Basque food is served family style for lunch and dinner.
Another well-known Basque eatery is in the old Yturri's Hotel, a block from Tulare Street on P Street at Kern Street. Continue on P Street to Inyo Street to buy fresh sheepherder-style sourdough and French breads at the Basque Bakery.
Then take P Street in the opposite direction to Fresno Street and turn left to a city landmark, the fanciful Fresno Water Tower that was erected in 1894.
Across the street in the same block at 2331 Fresno St. you'll find the Fresno Visitors Bureau in the Chamber of Commerce building. Ask if the brochure, "A Historic Walking Tour of Fresno," has been revised and is available; it describes other downtown sights.
On the city's outskirts be certain to visit the Kearney Mansion, once the home of a noted Fresno farmer and businessman. Follow Fresno Street a mile southwest to the archway that marks the beginning of Kearney Boulevard, formerly the private drive leading to Theodore Kearney's 5,500-acre Fruit Vale Estate.
You'll ride for several miles through a corridor of stately palms, eucalyptus and oleander before reaching Kearney Park. Turn left on Garfield Street to see the impressive house.
Much of its decor and furnishings came from Europe where the lifelong bachelor spent considerable time. Especially interesting is Kearney's business office that appears as it did at the time of his death in 1906.
The mansion is headquarters of the Fresno City and County Historical Society. On Fridays and weekends, 45-minute guided tours are given from 1 to 4 p.m. Adults pay $2. In December the mansion will be decorated for Christmas and open daily except Mondays.
To spend the night in Fresno, consider the downtown Fresno Hilton where doubles begin at $59. On Sundays in the rooftop Sky Room you'll enjoy brunch for $8.95 (children $4.95) and a panoramic view of the city. For reservations call (209) 485-9000.
Also downtown and popular is the Centre Plaza Holiday Inn with doubles from $71, phone (209) 268-1000. Near Farmer's Market the new La Quinta Motor Inn offers a double room for $47, phone (209) 442-1110.
Other lodgings line North Blackstone Avenue as it parallels California 41 to Yosemite. Included is Fresno's only Mobil four-star/AAA four-diamond accommodation, the Sheraton Smuggler's Inn. Poolside doubles are $74, phone (209) 226-2200.
Return to Los Angeles by rejoining California 99 and Interstate 5 south.
Round trip from Los Angeles is 426 miles.