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SECRET SPOTS OF THE WEST : FT. HUNTER LIGGETT | CALIFORNIA

Mild weekend maneuvers

A visit to an Army post involves a Hearst 'castle' and a Spanish mission. Snakes, dud shells: no extra charge.

August 17, 2008|Jane Engle | Times Staff Writer

SECRET SPOTS OF THE WEST

We asked you to nominate your favorite vacation places in the West -- your travel touchstones, so to speak -- and you came back with a satchel full of suggestions. We sifted and sorted and chose six to explore for ourselves. Marvelous or mundane? You be the judge.

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"This is a unique destination where you are allowed on a military post, visit [one] of the 21 missions and stay overnight at Hearst's private lodge," says reader Lloyd van Horsen of Santa Barbara, in recommending Ft. Hunter Liggett.

THE SETTING

Ft. Hunter Liggett, the Army's main reserve training center in the West, occupies more than 165,000 acres of remote scrubland, oak-studded hills and mountains in Central California. It is also home to the lovingly restored 1771 Mission San Antonio de Padua and an imposing hacienda designed in 1929 by Hearst Castle architect Julia Morgan for the late publishing baron.

THE VIBE

Decidedly eclectic: Mission-era California meets Desert Storm meets "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous."

"If you see a poisonous snake -- stay away -- and notify the gift shop clerk, please."

This genteel notice, posted outside the mission, said a lot about where my friend Wendy and I found ourselves after a 280-mile drive from L.A.

So did this sign a few miles up the road: "DANGER: Live firing area. Unexploded (dud) shells. KEEP OUT."

After flashing IDs and being waved through the gates of the fort, we bid goodbye to the comforts and certainties of civilian life. But we found helpful people and intriguing places.

OVERALL

Take the mission. Father Dominic Castro, resident priest of this small, still-active parish, and Joan Steele, director of religious education, greeted us like old friends.

San Antonio, the third of 21 California missions founded by early Spanish padres, stands out for its extensively excavated grounds and vaulted-ceiling church, which retains its original 1813 burned-brick facade and bronze bell. Wandering the surroundings was a mini-course in mission life. Among the remains were an 1820s well, a mill house, and foundations of shops where Salinan Indians made tiles.

Indoors, in the museum, we found treasures such as the mission's 1771 holy-water font, full-sized models of colonial rooms and exhibits on Salinan culture. A 1798 violin, crafted by the son of a Mission Indian and once displayed here, mysteriously went missing several years ago. Like a ghost, wistful strains of a hymn, earlier recorded on the instrument, wafted through the museum.

For a truly haunting experience, spend the night in one of the erstwhile monks' rooms at the mission, formerly a Franciscan training center. More like a cell, ours had twin beds, a sink, crucifix and little else; toilets and showers were down the hall. There was no food service.

But to drift to sleep here amid silence, save for a cricket chorus, was like disappearing into a dream of Old California.

Less spartan quarters awaited half a mile up the road. The Hacienda was once an outpost of William Randolph Hearst's grandiose estate that stretched for miles inland from seaside San Simeon.

Inspired by California Mission and Spanish colonial styles, the complex served mainly as headquarters for Hearst's Milpitas ranch staff. But the publisher, it is said, also brought in Jean Harlow, Errol Flynn, Will Rogers and other celebrities for parties.

In 1940, he sold the ranch to the U.S. government, and the Hacienda is now run by the Army. The fort's commander occupies a wing, leaving 12 guest rooms for visitors.

Our spacious Tower Room D, on the second floor, sported vaulted ceilings, elaborately carved wood doors, and a bath with ornamental floral paintings from Hearst's era. The Hacienda's restaurant has been shut for several years. So I headed down to the lounge, where Army trainers regaled me with tales of fist-sized tarantulas and other local fauna, plus gripes about fort life.

As for food on our foray, the less said the better. At the fort, the main option seemed to be the Cabl Cafe (mysteriously missing an "e"), with a palatable but limited menu of burgers, pizza and such.

But 12 miles down Jolon Road was the North Shore Inn, which served terrific German food and beer.

"What's flaedle soup?" I asked, eyeing the menu.

"It's the kind of soup we don't have," said Gisela, the cook, darting into the kitchen.

Out here in Ft. Hunter Liggett territory, they don't have a lot of things. That's part of the rugged charm.

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Mission San Antonio de Padua; (831) 385-4478, www.missionsanantonio.net; 31 rooms ($60 per night), plus a private suite ($195). The Hacienda; (831) 386-2511, www.liggett.army.mil/sites/local/; rooms $45 to $135.

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