Eureka, California

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Editor Mike Busch describes one of his very favorite West Coast flying get-aways, the historic, leisurely, quaint turn-of-the century Victorian seaport town of Eureka in Northern California. Located on beautiful Humboldt Bay right in the middle of Giant Redwood country, this well-kept secret offers something for everyone. Mike even shares his personal snapshot collection.

Eureka has become one of my favorite spots to get away and decompress. Situated on the northern California coast, just slightly more than 200 nautical miles north-northwest of San Francisco, Eureka is one of those special places that's easy to reach by light plane but a long hard drive for the wingless masses. During the summertime, when everything from Monterey to Mendocino to Tahoe is overrun by Bay Area refugees, Eureka remains quiet and delightful.

Eureka was founded in 1850, and became a thriving seaport for loggers, gold miners, and fishermen. Today, with a population of about 30,000 (or 80,000 if you include Arcata and other towns within a 20-mile radius), the town has retained much of the splendid architecture, delightful ambience and leisurely pace of the Victorian Era. With its natural harbor at the south end of beautiful Humboldt Bay (with Arcata 8 miles away at the north end of the bay) and right in the middle of California's most spectacular giant redwood forests, the Eureka economy is still based largely on lumber, fishing, and...to a lesser extent...tourism. But it's definitely not the kind of place that strikes you as "touristy."

The weather in Eureka is cool all year around. The mean temperature is 49°F in the winter, 59°F in the summer. It rains a lot in the winter — those 350-foot redwoods need enormous amounts of water — and has lots of fog in the summer. If your idea of heaven is baking in the hot sun, this isn't your place. But both my wife and I love cool weather, and Eureka is just our cup of tea — especially in the summer when it's hot everywhere else.

Flying Into Eureka

The hardest part about flying into Eureka may be deciding which airport to use, because Eureka has three: Arcata-Eureka [ACV], Murray Field [EKA], and Eureka Muni [O33].

Arcata-Eureka is the "big airport" with a 6,000-foot lighted runway, ILS and VOR approaches, and scheduled commuter airline service. Because the weather on the northern California coast is often IFR (rain or fog, depending on the season), ACV is frequently the airport of choice with its 200-and-1/2 ILS minimums. It doesn't have a tower, but it does have a 24-hour Flight Service Station that provides local airport advisory service.

There's no FBO, but 100LL and Jet A are available from the Airport Management (707-839-5401). If fuel is essential, it might be worth a phone call; one time at ACV, I taxied to the fuel island and learned that they were out of avgas and the next tankerload wasn't due for almost a week! In fairness, they almost always do have fuel. Parking is five bucks a night, on the honor system.

Oddly enough, the airport isn't located in either Arcata or Eureka, but in McKinleyville — 12 miles north of Eureka and 4 miles north of Arcata. We usually rent a car from the Avis, Hertz or National counters in the terminal because Eureka is a town in which a car is a major asset. But there's also a convenient "Airporter" van service (707-442-9266) that will take you to Eureka if you don't care to rent a car.

If the weather is VFR, treat yourself to Murray Field. (Actually, there's a VOR approach off the Fortuna VOR with minimums of 900 and 1-1/4, but I wouldn't bet on making it in less-than-VFR conditions.)

Located less than 2 miles northeast of downtown Eureka and right on the main drag (US 101), Murray Field seems right out of the 1940s with its delightful old wooden arch-roof main hangar. It has a 3,000-foot lighted runway and a small FBO called Northern Air (707-443-3197) that sells 100LL during daylight hours. They'll call you a cab for the short ride into town, or they can arrange for an Enterprise rent-a-car if you phone ahead. Parking at EKA is also five bucks a night.

Eureka Muni — also known as "Samoa Airport," O33 — is located on the Samoa peninsula, which is the barrier that protects Eureka's harbor. It has a 2,700-foot unlighted runway. I haven't landed there yet, but I'm told by friends that have that it features a restored navy blimp station that has been converted into a unique bed & breakfast inn. The rooms are furnished with authentic antiques from the early 1940s, and even the old radio room, dorm, and mess hall have been preserved, all lined with pictures of it's past history. Sounds neat! But be aware that O33 has no FBO, fuel, or maintenance.

Lodging

Finding a place to stay in Eureka is seldom a problem. There are something like 20 hotels and motels plus 16 bed-and-breakfasts in Eureka proper, plus a couple of dozen more options in neighboring towns. It's really a matter of deciding what you're looking for.

The biggest hotel in Eureka is the sprawling Red Lion Inn (707-445-0844) with 178 rooms and prices around $100 a night. If you'd like to spend less, try Best Western Thunderbird Inn (707-443-2234), Carson House Inn (707-443-1601), Downtowner Motel (707-443-5061), Holiday Inn Express (707-442-3261), Ramada Limited (707-443-2206), or Super 8 (707-443-3193), just to name a few.

For something fancier (and pricier), I suggest the Eureka Inn, a 105-room hotel in a 1922 Tudor Revival structure, with an excellent restaurant. Or for something really special, book into one of several lovely Victorian bed-and-breakfasts: The Carter House Inn or Hotel Carter (both at 707-444-8067), Eagle House (707-444-3344), "An Elegant Victorian Mansion" (707-444-3144), and Upstairs at the Waterfront (707-443-9190) are some of my favorites. The B&Bs typically have only a few rooms, so advance reservations are essential.

Dining

There are so many wonderful restaurants in Eureka that it's impossible to try them all unless you're a local, and even then it'd be tough. I love fresh seafood, and Eureka is a seafood-lovers paradise. A couple of my favorite places are historic Lazio's Restaurant (707-443-9717) and the elegant Sea Grill (707-443-7187). There are at least a half-dozen other top-notch seafood restaurants in town.

 Since you may not want seafood every night, try the Rib Room (707-442-6441) in the Eureka Inn — wonderful food in an elegant setting. Or if you feel like taking a drive, the Benbow Inn (707-923-2124) is 20 miles south in Garberville, but the exceptional menu and atmosphere is well worth it.

For something really unique and different, drive over the bridge to the Samoa Penninsula and have lunch or dinner at the famous Samoa Cookhouse. It's the last surviving lumber camp style cookhouse in the West, operated by Louisiana-Pacific just as it was during the the heyday of the lumber industry. Food is served family-style at long oil-cloth-covered tables, which you share with perfect strangers who quickly become friends. Lots of good, simple, classic American food, very reasonable prices, and a one-of-a-kind atmosphere. Bring a hearty appetite, and please leave your axe at the door.

Victorians, Victorians!

One of the great treats of being in Eureka is seeing all the magnificent Victorian homes and mansions.

It's obligatory to begin with the Carson Mansion, the most spectacular and most photographed Victorian in Eureka, built by pioneer lumber magnate William Carson in 1886. Unfortunately, it's now a private club and closed to the public, so you can't go inside. But the outside is absolutely breathtaking.

Right across the street is the smaller but very lovely "Pink Lady" built for Milton Carson in 1889, now an art museum. Around the corner from the Pink Lady is Victorian Row, featuring a collection of smaller but beautiful Victorian homes that are kept in superb condition.

There are literally dozens of Victorians throughout Eureka. Pick up a "Victorian driving tour map" at your hotel and plan to spend an hour driving around and taking photographs.

If you haven't had your fill of Victorians yet, take a drive to the Village of Ferndale, about 20 miles south of Eureka. Founded by Danes in 1854, Ferndale is literally wall-to-wall Victorian homes and stores, many of them more than 100 years old. Definitely worth seeing, but a shade too touristy for my taste.

While you're driving south of Eureka, make a point of stopping at the tiny dairy farming town of Loleta. There, you'll find a shop called the Loleta Cheese Factory that offers a delightful variety of unique cheeses. Plan on spending 30 minutes tasting, then buy a few bricks and take them back to your hotel. Add some fresh-baked bread or pastries from the Eureka Baking Company and perhaps a bottle of local wine, and you have a fantastic picnic lunch.

You'll also want to take the opportunity to explore Arcata, 8 miles north of Eureka at the other end of Humboldt Bay. Eureka is a college town (home of Humboldt State University) and has a lovely downtown area called McKinley Square with some wonderful old buildings.

Redwood Country

No trip to Eureka would be complete without at least one or two visits to the giant redwood forests. The coastal redwoods grow to heights over 350 feet, the tallest living things on this planet. With incredibly tough bark about a foot thick, these ancient monarchs almost indestructible and live to be very old, usually 500 to 700 years. The oldest redwood is known to have lived 2,200 years.

Redwood National Park is about 40 miles north of Eureka on US 101, and is a gorgeous redwood forest that includes the world's tallest trees. I suggest packing a picnic lunch (remember that cheese, bread, and wine we bought?) and enjoying it in the forest under a canopy of 300-foot trees. It's truly an awe-inspiring experience.

Or drive 30 miles south of Eureka to Redwood State Park and the "Avenue of the Giants" where you'll find 51,000 acres of redwood forest. Follow the signs to Founders Grove, which includes the 346-foot tall Founders Tree and the fallen Dyerville Giant, the tallest tree in the park.

 Speaking of redwoods, make a point of stopping by Fort Humboldt on the south side of Eureka, right across from the big Bayshore Mall. Once headquarters of Ulysses S. Grant, it is now home of a marvelous logging museum that shows how lumbermen tackled the giant redwoods in the days when equipment was powered by horses and steam. Well worth a visit, and also a nice place to have a picnic.

Shopping

Plan on spending some time shopping while in Eureka.

At the south end of town, you'll find the huge Bayshore Mall with its four major department stores, 80 specialty shops, 10-restaurant food court, and multi-screen movie theater. It's a fully-enclosed mall, which is nice if the weather is rainy. Eureka also has a big Costco discount store.

My favorite place to shop, though, is Old Town. This is an area of a few square blocks down near the waterfront where you'll find an eclectic collection of specialty shops, art galleries, antique stores, and restaurants. Many of the buildings are historic landmarks. All the while, you can watch the boats going by. It's quite lovely.

Speaking of boats, be sure to drive across the bridge to Woodley Island and its picturesque marina, home to an active commercial fishing fleet as well as a wide variety of pleasure craft. Great views of harbor seals and an egret rookery. You can rent sailboats and motorboats. You can also arrange for day-cruises of Humboldt Bay or sportfishing trips.

There's lots more to see and do in Eureka — golf courses, tennis courts, jet boat tours and whitewater rafting on the Klamath river, some great jazz festivals — but my fingers are tired. Try a four-day flying getaway to Eureka ... you'll want to come back, I guarantee it.