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Gilroy, California

Seas Less Sailed

Gilroy is and always was a farming town: cherries, berries, nuts and the crop for which it is universally known, garlic. In Gilroy you can shop at the Garlic Shoppe, visit Garlic World and plant your rig at the Garlic USA RV Park. There’s an annual Garlic Festival, a Garlic City Casino, and at the town’s best-know attraction, Gilroy Gardens, the kids can whirl about in giant garlic heads. At certain times of the year, as you drive through town, or even near it, someone in the car will scrunch their nose and say, “What’s that smell?”

Sounds unusual but not that romantic.

But Gilroy sits hallway between San Francisco and Carmel, and back in the day, before San Jose had an airport and freeways were built, movie stars — John Wayne, Will Rogers, Big Crosby — used to fly from Hollywood to San Francisco, then drive or be driven to their favorite vacation spot, Carmel, and on the way, spend a night in Gilroy.

So there’s a tradition of tourism, along with the ubiquitous stinking rose.

That’s why, along with the Garlic Festival, Gilroy has way more attractions than your average central California farm town.

One is golf; there are nine courses in and around town. A second is Premium Outlets; shop till you drop. A third is the big kahuna, Gilroy Gardens.

We spent a day there. Here’s what we liked and what we didn’t:

Like. It’s an oasis, beautifully planted with trees and shrubs and topiary. Employees are all enthusiastic and friendly. It’s enhanced by numerous lakes and waterfalls. Carnival rides range from totally gentle to thrill a minute. And once you pay the admission fee, they’re all free.

Didn’t like. Not only is the admission price steep, they hit you extra for parking. And there’s so much carny clutter for sale at cringe-worthy prices, it’s an invitation to a “Mommy, I want that!” whine fest.

For our stay in Gilroy, we bedded down at the large, comfortable and welcoming Best Western Plus Park Forest Inn — a big name, but it’s a big hotel.

We dinnered at Milias, where John Wayne used to go for steaks … and Joan Didion went for ribs. Everything is fresh, prepared from scratch and delicious. They call it comfort food; I call it great taste. They served us shortribs, avocado and shrimp, perfectly dressed wedge lettuce and the best carrot cake ever.

So it often is with destinations in seas less sailed.

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