Seal Beach is sandwiched between the busy maritime harbor of Long Beach and the chic seaside towns of Newport and Laguna. Its heyday was perhaps during Prohibition when it lured the wealthy with its glitzy dance halls and offshore gambling ships, and the Pacific Electric Red cars shuttled thousands to the beach every weekend.
Today, Seal Beach advertises a lone remaining red car as a local museum and offshore gambling ships have given way to offshore drilling platforms. While driving to Seal Beach, I experienced the one great horror of Southern California - the 405 Freeway. But turning off the freeway on Seal Beach Boulevard, I drove down one of the seaside town's residential streets and discovered another glory of its past - The Seal Beach Inn and Gardens.
Call 1-800-HIDEAWAY and you'll reach the Seal Beach Inn. It is a perfect phone number for a charming bed and breakfast - a hideaway for romance, business, or simply relaxation - situated but one block from the beach and two blocks from main street and the pier. The Inn is a 70 year old historic landmark, advertised to be the oldest bed and breakfast country inn in Southern California. But when it was purchased in 1977, it was a derelict hotel. Marjorie Bettenhausen Schmaehl, the inn's new owner, transformed it into the remarkable garden "hideaway" it is today.
Eclectic is the best description for the character of this inn. A vintage neon "HOTEL" sign stands incongruously beside a brick entryway. The entry is surrounded by lightposts that once graced San Francisco streets before the 1906 earthquake. The central gardens and fountains are reminescent of a Mediterranean villa. Ornate wrought iron railings draped with vines remind one of New Orleans' French Quarter. There are twenty-three guest rooms with private baths, each elegantly furnished with country estate furniture, many with four poster beds from Southern Plantation homes. Each room bears a floral name - such as Wisteria, Bougainvillea, Gardenia - with surrounding gardens featuring that flower. In the early evening the inn's formal dining room and library are set for an English tea. And each morning the inn serves its breakfast specialty of fresh baked quiche and homemade Belgian waffles.
Seal Beach has a few nice restaurants. I enjoyed Walt's Wharf, just down the block from the Inn, with an excellent seafood and pasta menu. There are some quaint stores but nothing fashionable. From the end of Seal Beach pier, you'll find the best view of Catalina, "26 miles across the sea," and a few miles to the north you can make out the smokestacks of the Queen Mary. Long Beach, with its museums, theatres, and restaurants, is a five minute drive. There are miles of beachside bike paths. And nearby is the town of Naples with a maze of narrow canals in the backyards of picturesque, expensive homes where Venice style gondolas can be rented for tours (310-433-9595) that include serenades from your gondolier.
If you want an escape, to find a little quiet or romance, the Seal Beach Inn is perhaps the perfect "hideaway."
The Seal Beach Inn closed in September 2006. The innkeeper, Marjorie Bettenhausen Schmaehl, gathered up all of the Seal Beach Inn's European fountains, French ironwork, ornate streetlights, and furrnishings and, along with her welcoming charm and baking expertise, moved them to a new inn in a spectacular setting on the Clearwater River nestled in sixty acres of pines in Kamiah, Idaho, just off Highway 12. The name of the place is the Hearthstone Elegant Lodge on the River. In town, they also opened the Hearthstone Bakery, a restaurant and bakery. I haven't had the opportunity to visit them yet in the Idaho panhandle but it's on my "to do" list.