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An Off-Ramp Eden Near L.A.

Sunday, July 18, 2004

I'd spent three days racing, dodging and crawling on a dozen different L.A. highways, traveling from one business meeting to another. Life was mostly off-ramps and on-ramps by the time I reached Seal Beach, a coastal hamlet 25 miles south of Los Angeles, between the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve and the U.S. Naval Weapons Station.

At the Seal Beach Inn, I escaped from my car into a late afternoon breeze, salty and sweet. Six bright red antique lampposts stretched above me. A fountain bubbled nearby, drowning the highway frenzy.

Inside, a receptionist summed up my sorry state and led me directly to the dining room. Tea was served till 6 p.m. in bone china teapots. Cups with saucers. Cake with clotted cream. Coffee. Quiche. Chips and salsa.

My room could wait. I poured a cup of peach tea and stared past the tiled fireplace and Oriental carpets, out the back door. Shadows floated across a blue pool, flower-covered walls and an eight-foot fountain topped with a fleur-de-lis. The inn wasn't fitting into one of the four basic hotel groups: fancy, trendy, hourly or cute. It was easing into my psyche slowly, a stroke at a time, like a really good painting -- engaging the eye, piquing the mind, drawing the heart.

I sank down in an overstuffed chair in the library, where there were leather-bound volumes dating from the 18th and 19th centuries. I picked up Harvard Sacred Texts, Vol. 1, 1910, and spent 20 minutes wondering about Mohammed, Buddha and why I'd never eaten clotted cream before.

Through the window, dozens of blossoms tangoed in the garden. I tried to identify a few and gave up after distinguishing an ivy from a fern. A nearby list identified palms, pines, herbs, shrubs and a Tasmanian tree. Together they were a glorious jostling of fronds, petals and bells.

The carved doorknob in my room convinced me that I'd found L.A.'s secret garden. The silver dome was chiseled with flowers -- I could feel the petals in my palm. The room, named the Kaffir Lily, was huge, with a queen bed, two large chairs, white wooden shutters on the windows and a broad, blue rhombus of a tub. A note explained that each of the inn's 23 rooms was different; one held tiles from Catalonia, another lace curtains from Germany, a third etched windows from the United Kingdom.

After a quick soak, I explored. The hotel was a verdant maze of alleys and nooks filled with cascading flowers. As the light began to fade, I walked nine blocks to town. Across from Main Street, Seal Beach Pier -- the second-longest in California -- extended into the Pacific. In the 1920s, Seal Beach was full of bathhouses, dance halls and off-shore gambling. Thousands came for the weekend. Lindbergh flew here for dinner. Things had calmed considerably; now the town was remarkable for its lack of glitter and commotion.

The inn itself has survived a few incarnations. Owner Marjorie Bettenhausen Schmaehl was born in the Midwest, but her father was a missionary and she grew up in Taiwan, speaking Chinese. Her parents entertained dignitaries, artists and locals, and Schmaehl seems to have inherited the hospitality gene.

For the past 25 years, she's been tiling, painting and planting the Seal Beach Inn. "It's not decorated," Schmaehl says. "It's an art piece to step into." She has crossed the United States and Europe collecting bed frames and doorknobs. In France, she discovered a 300-year-old fountain. It cost thousands she didn't have, so she downgraded her itinerary and slept in a monastery for $2 a night to afford it. That level of devotion permeates the place.

"The English say it's very English," Schmaehl says, "and the French say it reminds them of Provence. The Swedes say it's Swedish, and the South Americans say it's romantic and very Latin."

I've been back three times -- I'll gladly log the extra highway miles to reach Seal Beach. My latest mission is to visit as many of the inn's rooms -- and baths -- as possible. Last time, I soaked in a turquoise tiled tub under stained-glass windows. Next, I'd like to slip into the French checkerboard bath that took two months to install.

Till then, my definition of perfection is last night's square, salmon-colored steeping tub. It's from Japan.

-- Mija Riedel

Rooms at the Seal Beach Country Inn & Gardens (212 Fifth St., Seal Beach, Calif.) are $125 to $295 a night and include gourmet breakfast and afternoon tea. Details: 800-HIDEAWAY, www.sealbeachinn.com.

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