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Eastwood's Acres : A Stay at Mission Ranch, Clint's Spare-No-Expense Redo of a Seaside Roadhouse in the Town Where He Was Mayor

September 26, 1993|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Turan is The Times' film critic

When a writer named Bruce Jay Friedman turned his thoughts to Clint Eastwood several years back, he ruminated not only about the actor but also about Eastwood the property holder, the movie star who chose to live not in L.A. but "out there where he's got all those acres."

And with regard to those acres, Friedman speculated, Eastwood "didn't just pick them up in that Ronald Reagan free-enterprise frontier spirit either. I don't even think ecology is at the top of his list of concerns. He just wanted a little room. And if someone trespassed on his property, he wouldn't just blow the guy's head off. Maybe he's got a gun or two, but he doesn't have a collection. He'd invite the trespasser in, offer him a bite to eat. It wouldn't necessarily be a simple sandwich either. . . . He'd serve him a salad. Why? Because he has enough confidence to feed the fellow some artichoke hearts and not see it as some kind of threat to his masculinity."

Though Friedman doesn't mention it, Carmel is where Eastwood has his acres and a whole lot more. He served a term as the town's mayor, named his production company Malpaso after a local canyon, used the area as the setting for the first movie he directed and owns both a commercial building and a bar-restaurant called the Hog's Breath in the center of town.

And, to top it all off, a cover story in Architectural Digest recently celebrated the opening of Eastwood's latest Carmel venture, Mission Ranch, an expensive redo of a venerable local property that now offered "thirty-one luxurious guest rooms, a renovated restaurant and bar and what are still the best views in California."

As a die-hard (so to speak) Eastwood fan, I've always been curious about "out there where he's got those acres," and the opening of the new spread seemed an ideal time to visit. I could spend a weekend searching for Clint Eastwood without the risk of having my head blown off, and maybe even get some artichoke hearts thrown into the bargain.

According to both Architectural Digest and a friend who's lived in Carmel for years, Eastwood's rescue of the ranch qualified as a genuine good deed. One of the last of a dying breed of oceanside California roadhouses, it was on the verge of being torn down for yet another irksome condominium development when the actor stepped in. He negotiated with 17 owners, forked over $5 million and spent a lot more upgrading the place, which had become, it was dryly noted, "a seedy refuge for traveling salesmen and illicit couples."

Though not as involved with Eastwood as I am, my wife graciously thought the trip sounded like fun and we set off on the 300-plus-mile drive on a Friday morning. After winding up the Coast Highway and picking up U.S. 101, we impulsively stopped for lunch just south of San Luis Obispo at a town called Los Alamos because a faded roadside sign promised an authentic Western experience.

Charming and dusty, Los Alamos turned out to be as advertised. We ate at the Bell Street Cafe in the center of town, where the walls were decorated with antique wagon wheel wrenches (I asked) and a sign by the cash register invited you to vote in the annual Old Codger and Bespectacled Matron contests.

Mission Ranch itself is on the southern end of Carmel, hard by the venerable mission where Padre Junipero Serra lies buried. The entrance is next to an aging sign reading "Food-Bar, Cottage Motel" that may not date from the hotel's beginnings in the 1930s but certainly looks it.

The property was originally a dairy farm, and the drive in takes you past some of the old buildings, now spiffily redone as hotel structures. The whole place, in fact, with its dozen or so buildings grouped loosely around a central space, reminds you of nothing so much as a small Western town. Enormous and ancient trees, eucalyptus and cypress, shade the area, and beautifully tended flowers give off a heady scent. You half expect to round a corner and see ladies off to a church social, or even Eastwood himself, wearing a marshal's star and nodding to the good folks as he warily patrols the area.

Because our trip had been so spur of the moment (and because of the crush the Architectural Digest article had caused), we had to take different rooms for Friday and Saturday, and the last ones available for each night at that, though this hardly proved to be a disadvantage.

The first night was spent in the Hay Loft, a (yes) former hayloft located up a flight of stairs above what was once a stable but now functions as a laundry area. One of the few rooms in its own building, the Loft's rural motif was echoed by large barn-like doors to the bathroom, painted wooden walls and a steeply pitched ceiling with just the kind of exposed beams, my wife pointed out, she wants us to have at home. Thanks, Clint.

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