For travelers drawn to California's famed missions during the Christmas holidays, don't overlook Mission San Miguel Arcangel. That impressive reminder of Spanish times is just off the U.S. 101 freeway between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Founded in 1797 as the 16th in the chain of 21 missions that extend from San Diego to Sonoma, San Miguel has the most striking church interior of them all. Its walls are decorated with colorful frescoes that have survived for 162 years.
With the assistance of the mission's Indian neophytes, they were painted by Barcelona artist Don Esteban Munras, who left Spain to settle in Monterey. His blue, pink, yellow, green and red pigments continue to give life to the long, narrow sanctuary.
Painted pillars and a false balcony behind the main altar are dominated by Munras's depiction of the all-seeing eye of God. Beneath it is a multicolored statue of the mission's patron saint, St. Michael, imported from Spain by the founding fathers.
In addition to its remarkable interior, San Miguel is in rustic condition and a rural location that make it easy for visitors to imagine what life was really like in early California.
Nearby you can tour another state historic landmark, the Rios-Caledonia Adobe, erected in 1846 next to the road that connected the missions. For nearly two decades it served as a rest stop for stagecoach passengers making the jolting journey between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
To get there these days, drive north from Los Angeles on U.S. 101 and take the San Miguel exit seven miles beyond Paso Robles. Just off the freeway you'll see a campanile of bells that marks the mission grounds.
Bypass the entrance to the old adobe for a moment and continue to the parking area alongside the mission buildings. Walk through the entry arch and cactus garden to the gift shop where self-guided tours begin.
Hours are 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily, closed Christmas and New Year's. Admission by donation (adults 50 cents, families $1) includes a tour leaflet. Information: (805) 467-3256.
Smiting the Devil
Among the relics in the first display room are religious wood carvings brought from Spain by the Franciscan padres who founded California's missions. One 16th-Century statue portrays St. Michael smiting the devil.
In the room beyond is a model of the mission in its heyday; by 1822 San Miguel boasted more than 10,000 cattle and an equal number of sheep and horses. A garden corridor opens on a quadrangle that originally held Indian workshops.
You'll also see a kitchen with its beehive oven, the padres' sleeping and dining rooms furnished with original and reproduced artifacts of the Spanish era. Then visitors go outside beneath an arcade to reach the mission church.
After studying the sanctuary's artwork, walk around the church to the adjoining cemetery that is the burial site for more than 2,200 Indians. Some settlers also are interred there, including William Reed, who was murdered at San Miguel by robbers.
Reed and Petronillo Rios bought the mission property in 1846 after all the California missions were secularized by Mexico. The Reed family lived in the mission, and just down the road Rios built a two-story hacienda, now a museum.
Visitors are welcome without charge at the Rios-Caledonia Adobe Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (closed Christmas and New Year's). Its hyphenated name reflects the period 1868-86 when the building became a hotel, tavern and stagecoach station called the Caledonia Inn.
In later years the adobe saw use as a schoolhouse, post office, mattress factory and tailor shop. Volunteers known as Friends of the Adobes restored the structure and have furnished the rooms with mementos that recall its past roles.
Docents at the adobe also run a craft guild and gift shop to support continuing restoration. Be sure to stroll the sign-posted grounds and garden to see other historic items and a variety of plants. Information: (805) 467-3357.
Part of Original Highway
Fronting the Rios-Caledonia Adobe is a section of the old mission road, El Camino Real, which later served stagecoaches and then was paved as part of the original U.S. 101 highway. Now called Mission Street, you can follow it north past the mission to the town of San Miguel.
Although it boomed during World War II when there were 45,000 soldiers at neighboring Camp Roberts, the town was bypassed by the freeway and seems forgotten. You can get a bite to eat at the Kountry Nook (closed Sundays).
A better idea is to return to U.S. 101 and go back south a few miles to Wellsona Road. Then turn left across the highway for a meal at the Almond Country Inn, open daily from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.
The restaurant adjoins a popular roadside attraction, Helen Moe's Antique Doll Museum. The lifelong collection of Helen Moe features a thousand dolls, including one that dates to 1540. Appropriate to the season is a doll display of Christmas in the early 1900s.
A gift shop has an assortment of dolls for sale, as well as doll wigs, dresses, shoes and books. Other items range from teddy bears to collector plates and porcelain figurines. Hours are 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, Sundays from 1 p.m. Entry to the doll museum is $2 (couples $3), and 50 cents for children 5 to 12.
For other dining places, continue south to Paso Robles, where you'll also find lodgings. Noted for its beautiful grounds is the Paso Robles Inn with doubles ranging from $35 to $42. A dining room is on the premises. Reservations: (805) 238-2660.
Return to Los Angeles by going south on U.S. 101.
Round trip from Los Angeles to the historic mission and adobe at San Miguel is 464 miles.