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Wherever you decide to stay, a drive along the northern California coast is visually breathtaking, and if you find a comfortable inn to lay your head, so much the better. The Benbow Historic Inn is just such a place. It is also as interesting an auberge as you will find anywhere along the great and scenic Redwood Highway.
We reached exit 636 on highway 101 at 3 pm - and at the onset of a downpour. The inn appeared within seconds of leaving the freeway. It was a welcome sight, sitting on a hillside surrounded by a crown of the deepest green trees. If we didn’t know we were in California, we could be convinced we were in England. First open to the public in July 1926, this historic Tudor style hotel evokes old world charm inside and out.
In a place where private bi-planes parked to disembark the elite of Hollywood’s past there’s now an extensive parking area for guests and visitors. The list of Golden Age screen icons that frequented the inn includes Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, Alan Ladd, Charles Laughton, Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald, Joan Fontaine (honeymooned twice), and Basil Rathbone. Dignitaries included Eleanor Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover and more recently the King of Jordan, as well as entertainers Danny Glover, Matt Leblanc, and Cher.
The lobby is new and part of an extensive renovation and improvement project completed in 2018, but it has a sense of place that fits well into the original structure. (And beyond adding the new addition has made the inn ADA compliant, and an elevator has been installed – blissfully ending nine decades of hand carrying luggage up several flights of stairs.)
Walking to our bedroom, we felt a sensation of leaving the present and being drawn into a nostalgic journey back to a more reserved 1930s and 40s. After a long drive in the rain, it was a welcome adjustment.
We had been assigned the Burtis Benbow Suite, a beautiful room well decorated with period antique furnishings, tasteful décor, and a fireplace. We loved it, but there were two problems...
The thermostat was set at 70 degrees Fahrenheit, but the room was 82 degrees. Wayne clicked on the bathroom lights, but nothing happened. He tried several times to no avail. Judy tried once, and voila, there was light.
We called the front desk, and the clerk immediately assigned us another room. Wayne clicked off the bathroom light, but it remained on. Judy clicked, and the light went out. Surely, there was a reasonable explanation. Consider that Burtis Benbow was the fourth Benbow child and considered a mechanical genius; perhaps his genius extended to apparitional mechanical pranks?
During our stay at the Benbow, we learned of numerous ghostly incidents experienced by other guests and employees. Small anomalies like unexplained changes in room temperatures, pillows relocated, sherry decanter tops missing, furniture moved, office paperwork shuffled, and phone calls from empty rooms. No reports of any guest possessions being moved, only manor property.
By all reports, people experiencing these oddities seemed genuinely thrilled at the thought of being part of a friendly-ghost encounter. We concluded that for the first time in our many years of staying at supposedly haunted lodgings, perhaps we had finally experienced our first paranormal event.
It’s easy to see why the old Hollywood crowd, and the motoring public traveling on the new Redwood Highway in 1926, enjoyed the inn – the relaxation. Originally, 1290 acres of pristine wilderness provided opportunities to horseback ride, hike, bicycle, swim, boat, fish, lounge in a garden setting, and commune with nature. Almost 100 years later, much of the attraction remains.
There’s now a nine-hole golf course; the lake is gone, but the Eel River still flows gently along the Inn and under the old stone bridge. The scene is still peaceful and serene.
The outdoor patio is inviting. Our visit took place in winter, but it’s easy to imagine relaxing on the Parisian style patio with book in hand, enjoying the sound of birds and the delicate scent of flowers. We are anxious to return when everything is in bloom.
A short, scenic, 20-mile drive north puts you at the gateway of the 31-mile Avenue of the Giants 101 bypass near Humboldt Redwood State Park. We took the Avenue road, but it was raining hard, and not enjoyable. We look forward to the drive in better weather.
The main gathering room of the inn is called the upper lobby. It is a large space and can easily accommodate a sizable crowd.
A cozy fireplace warms the room, which is conducive to a friendly conversation, reading, game of chess, cards, or just relaxing.
The library is yet another comfortable space for guest enjoyment.
The bar was added as part of the renovation, and completed with painstaking care to give it an appropriate stance in the overall atmosphere of the inn.
The bar menu is inviting and Wayne’s special request for a grilled cheese sandwich and Caesar salad rendered an appetizing meal, artfully presented.
Judy delighted in a kale and farro salad embellished with, butternut squash, candied figs, caramelized onion, cotija cheese, toasted pepitas, and topped with a maple vinaigrette.
The Inn’s deep and diverse wine list of over 450 selections has earned the Inn several years of Wine Spectator Excellence Awards.
The Dining Room
“Delicious foods are enhanced by scene and spirits.” Surrounded by elegant wooden muntin framed windows, the dining room at the Benbow Historic Inn has a decidedly British panache that demonstrates the designer’s refined taste in old-world décor. The experience is like dining in a fashionable English country house.
Our morning meal consisted of eggs, delicious sausage, and the absolutely best crushed potatoes imaginable. The chef revealed, “The secret is to boil the full skin potatoes, fry them crisp, lightly pepper and gently crush.” Delightful!
A Country Lodging
If you enjoy being in a place with history, step across the threshold of time to a golden age where luxury was expected, and attention to fine dining and personal details was always the order of the day.
The erstwhile glamour and sophistication are still there in the northern California forest – at the Benbow Inn. Back in 1983, the inn was placed on the National Register of Historic Places – kudos to the selection committee.
Other things to consider
In 2018, Historic Hotels of America bestowed the Best Small Historic Inns Award (under 75 guestrooms) on the Benbow Inn.
The inn is an excellent venue for a corporate retreat or wedding for up to 225 guests.
Electric car aficionados: In these parts, it’s a long way between charges, and Benbow Inn has charging stations!
In our fast-paced world, any opportunity to get away from it all, even for a short while, can do wonders to re-energize our lives. The Benbow Historic Inn offers its own special magic from another time and place.
So choose from a range of guestroom types to suit your taste, soak in the refined ambiance, and enjoy a getaway at the inn.
For More Information
The Benbow Historic Inn has an excellent website that provides everything you need to know.
The opinions expressed in our articles are the journalists’ alone, and have not been reviewed, endorsed or approved by any entity.
Copyright © 2019 Visit great vacation destinations with Wayne and Judy Bayliff
Photos Copyright © 2019 Judy Bayliff - Vintage photos courtesy of Benbow Historic Inn. Fake ghost image by Wayne Bayliff