California’s fourth largest city
On Hwy-99, 168 miles South of Sacramento/215 miles North of Los Angeles. Anonymous office blocks wedged between a freeway and a web of railway tracks are not a happy first impression of Fresno – a town famously at the butt of Californian jokes. However with over half a million residents, it’s the fourth largest city in California, so there has to be some fun to be had.
Three miles north of the featureless centre, close to the local university campus, the Tower District holds the Central Valley’s trendiest few blocks, with cafes, bookshops and antique shops, plus several decades worth of California architecture – from Monterey-style homes to the streamlined modernity of the Tower Theatre (from which the compact area takes its name) – to be explored and enjoyed.
Elsewhere, the diverse displays are stimulating at the contemporary Fresno Art Museum (http://www.fresnoartmuseum.org, 2233 N. First Street. Or there is a guided tour around the Meux Home (http://www.meux.mus.ca.us), 1007 R Street, a wooded Victorian gem whose playful arches and turrets originally belonged to a wealthy Fresno doctor. An important figure in turn-of-the-century Fresno was M. Theo Kearney, an agricultural entrepreneur who made a fortune from raisins and sunk some of his money into a grand abode now preserved as the Kearney Mansion Museum (http://www.valleyhistory.org), 7 miles west of central Fresno on Kearney Boulevard. With its European wallpaper and art-nouveau light-fittings, Kearney’s French Renaissance-style home was an incongruous Fresno sight when it was built – and it still is today. Forty-five-minute guided tours reveal the details of the house and of Kearney’s life, and a few of the secrets of successful raisin raising. There are also a number of festivals held throughout the year, the Fresno Film Festival, the Fall Wine Cornucopia and Miss California pageant.
Detour – Hanford
Fifteen miles south of Fresno, turn off Hwy-99 on to Hwy-43 and continue for 20 miles to Hanford. Once a major stop on the Los Angeles-San Francisco railway and holding one of the state’s largest Chinese communities, Hanford is now a sedate and extremely rural place, with a wealth of 1920s facades and a grand neoclassical courthouse. Another, far more intriguing, remnant of the old days is the Taoist Temple, on China Alley, at the centre of Hanford Chinese life from 1893. It is open for tours once a month.
Detour – Bass Lake
The great draw at the end of Hwy-41, which branches from Hwy-99 at Fresno, is Yosemite National Park. Follow the road as far as Oakhurst, however, and you will soon be surrounded by the water-sports fanatics and fishermen who prefer to spend their vacations at Bass Lake, reached from Oakhurst by a well-signposted side road. Around the lake, a number of pleasant walking trails pick through the pine-cloaked hillsides separating the lake from the more serious slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Boats and jet-skis can be hired at most of the lakeside marinas.
On Hwy-99, 91 miles North of Sacramento. A small university town, Chico was founded by John Bidwell, who made a fortune from the gold rush but whose liberal attitudes – which would not be out-of-step with present-day Chico – stood in the way of the power-crazed rush into politics that was the path chosen by many of his peers. During the 1860s, in the heart of his fledgling town, Bidwell built an Italianate villa, a handsome three-story pile now preserved as the Bidwell Mansion State Historic Park, 525 Esplanade Avenue, and justifying a visit.
Also bearing the name of Chico’s founder, Bidwell Park runs for 10 miles into the Sierra Nevada foothills: a picnic on its periphery gives a chance to contemplate the oak trees around which Errol Flynn played the part of Robin Hood in the 1937 film. A major event by local standards, the film is duly noted among the collections of the Chico Museum (www.chicomuseum.org), corner of Second and Salem Streets. Perhaps more interestingly, the now popular Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is brewed here and there are popular brewery tours several times a day, seven days a week, worth a tour –(http://www.sierranevada.com)