Happy Birthday on the Longest Day of the Year

Waiting for the parade to start

Waiting for the parade to start

Last weekend was yet another fun weekend along the coast of California. Kierstin’s birthday was three weeks ago, and I got her a custom-made mini-vacation package – a short jaunt to San Luis Obispo for a night away, dinner, and window shopping. But first, we celebrated the longest day of the year with the rest of Santa Barbara at the Summer Solstice Celebration.

The Summer Solstice Celebration is a four-day event that includes a festival in the park and an extravagant parade running through downtown Santa Barbara. The festival just so happens to be held at the park that is only three blocks from our apartment. So, Daniel, Kierstin, and I walked to the festival on Friday night for dinner. It was probably a good choice that we decided to check the festival out on Friday; the beer garden advertised a cover charge for Saturday, indicating that they anticipated a huge flux of festival-goers on Saturday if basic economics tells us anything.

When we arrived, it wasn’t that busy. A band was jamming on the concert stage in front of a modest audience; people were moseying between booths; and the designated food section of the festival had almost no lines. We started weighing our options for food. It was classic, deep-fried or grilled festival food with a few twists. There were the regulars: corn dogs, french fries, pastrami, tri-tip; the cultural favorites: tamales, California burritos, Indian; and the outlandish and bold: Jamaican vegan, deep-fried shark, deep-fried alligator. We all made our choices – all of us sticking to something more unorthodox than those deadly predators – and found a good spot in the beer garden. The longest days of the year is a pretty good time to hold a festival; we stayed out listening to the funk/jazz band on stage until the last light disappeared beyond the horizon at about 9:15 PM.

Daniel got a call from one of his neighbors, who apparently were planning on heading to the beach to build a small campfire, roast marshmallows, drink some wine, and tell creepy stories. Kierstin and I were on board for that. We all drove down to Hendry’s Beach and walked around the cliff, passing a few other bonfires along the way. Recently, I read about an interesting Dutch word. It doesn’t have a direct translation to English, but it typically describes something cozy or comfortable. However, most Dutch will tell you that cozy and comfortable doesn’t quite capture the true essence of the word; it’s more than a feeling that just can’t be fully explained by those words. The word is gellezig. I think the English language could use a word like gellezig, especially to describe beach campfires with friends. You could hear the ocean lapping against the shore, but the crackling campfire, cold sand, and glowing cliffs were the only landscape in view. S’mores on the beach, despite a little sand sprinkled in, are the same comfort food as always. And the dilution of the campfire by the dark night made the creepy stories that much more unnerving, imagining what might sneak up from the darkness.

The next day was the Solstice parade. We started to see blankets lining the streets along the parade route four or five days before Saturday, so Kierstin set up our own blanket just near the end of the parade right by where the festival was. The parade was to start at noon and was supposed to take about an hour to reach us. We sauntered through the various booths that had closed early the day before and then found our blanket and waited for the parade.

Creative costumes added an interesting atmosphere to the parade.

Creative costumes added an interesting atmosphere to the parade.

More crazy costumes.

More crazy costumes.

The theme was games: here's a Ms. Pac-Man, complete with a DJ atop the float.

The theme was games: here’s a Ms. Pac-Man, complete with a DJ atop the float.

Nailed it!

Nailed it!

Random as it may be, here were a rollerblading group of pirates that would stop to hand out free watermelon to parade spectators.

Random as it may be, here were a rollerblading group of pirates that would stop to hand out free watermelon to parade spectators.

Human bowling

Human bowling

One group made some custom steam punk-styled costumes.

One group made some custom steam punk-styled costumes.

Simba met this guy riding in the sidecar of his owner's bike.

Simba met this guy riding in the sidecar of his owner’s bike.

One of the many groups of dancers that made it through the parade.

One of the many groups of dancers that made it through the parade.

Kierstin, Simba, and I at the parade.

Kierstin, Simba, and I at the parade.

Time ticked by, and finally the parade arrived. The parade route was short and traveled along narrow streets, so floats in the parade were required to be human-powered only. This limitation on resources apparently enabled participants to harness their creativity. Some of the floats were massive structures pulled along by the participants, while some were just people in strange costumes riding modified bicycle contraptions or groups of dancers that conjured images of a Brazilian carnival. It was easy to see the reason behind the parade’s popularity.

Madonna Inn

Madonna Inn

After the parade, Kierstin and I left Simba with Daniel and began our drive up the coast. I had reserved a room at the historic Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo. This Central Coast landmark is known for its uniquely themed rooms. The founder, Alex Madonna, wanted to build a hotel like no other. Instead of hundreds of identical rooms, he wanted visitors to have the chance to experience something new every time they visit. We had seen the Madonna Inn while driving along Highway 101, and I had read a little about it, but now we were finally going see what it was like inside.

"Cabin Still" room.

“Cabin Still” room.

When booking a room at the Madonna Inn, you are presented with more options than just smoking or non-smoking and king bed or two queens. These standard choices are available, but you also can choose your own theme. Do you want a rock waterfall? You could choose the “Yahoo” room or the “Misty Rock” room, among others. If golf is your thing, choose the “Golfers” room. If you’re more into classic automobiles, choose the “Antique Cars” room. I thought we’d like something quaint and not too outlandish (like the entirely pink “Krazy Dazy”) so I booked the “Cabin Still”. It featured rock walls complementing log cabin décor, which included a faux fireplace. It was beyond the typical hotel experience.

Inside the "Cabin Still" room.

Inside the “Cabin Still” room.

There was so much to do, and we didn’t leave enough time for it all. We could have played tennis or basketball on the pink courts, hiked along the adjacent trails, gone horseback riding, swam in the beach entry pool, played lawn games, or enjoyed massages at the day spa – the inn is a regular resort that could require an entire vacation to appreciate. Instead, our plans were to head into San Luis Obispo for dinner on Saturday night and spend Sunday morning checking out the shops downtown.

Posturing as sophisticated cabin dwellers  before dinner.

Posturing as sophisticated cabin dwellers before dinner.

Dinner was at a nice restaurant called Novo’s. The building exterior is not unlike the rest of the historical downtown area – colored brick for a charming appeal. Inside, there is a bar and stairs that lead to a cellar and the kitchen occupies the remainder of the ground floor. We were seated on the backyard patio, which is a large, tiered deck that overlooks San Luis Obispo Creek. Lanterns dangle from a massive tree to give the patio area a peaceful ambiance only interrupted by cordial servers bringing delicious food. It’s definitely worth it to splurge on something like this every once in a while.

We managed to make it back to the hotel in time to try out the pool, which despite being heated to 85o F was still just too cold for that time of night. The Jacuzzi was perfect though, and we sipped poolside drinks with a few other hotel visitors before calling it a night. The next morning, we reluctantly packed up, wishing to spend just a little longer on our mini-vacation. Still, it was fun while it lasted, and we checked out but not before stopping at the café/bakery. Usually, it’s unquestionable that the best part of an apple strudel is the sweet cinnamon apple filling, but Madonna Inn has perfected their pastries so that even crust, so flaky and sweet, can induce cravings. Kierstin and I shopped downtown for a little and then headed back toward Santa Barbara, not capping the trip off with the famous clam chowder bowls at the Splash Café in Pismo. Happy birthday, Kierstin!

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