Immersive and Interactive: California Travel Inspired by an Agatha Christie Centennial.
Agatha Christie penned her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, more than a century ago. Not published for years after, it introduced Belgian detective Hercule Poirot and unfolded in July 1917. That makes this summer a Christie and Poirot centennial. To celebrate, you don’t have to travel thousands of miles to Dame Agatha’s signature locations. Instead, consider visiting California spots with hand-picked ambiance while curling up with the books noted below to enrich your sense of place as you lose yourself in each engrossing plot at night in your hotel room. You have only to step onto the deck of a river cruise vessel or onto the beach to feel that at any moment, Poirot will wag his finger under your nose and rope you into a web of intrigue.
Evil Under the Sun
“But there is evil everywhere under the sun,” wrote the queen of mystery about a seaside playground for the rich where a young bride turns up strangled on the beach. You might succumb to the spell of this gripping novel as you sit back and squish your bare toes in the wet sand, then imagine the patrons of an aristocratic coastal English resort going about their dastardly deeds. Exercise your detection skills by searching for footprints and tracks while puzzling out if therein lies a tale. California’s shoreline stretches 840 miles from Mexico to the Oregon border, not all of it sandy but encompassing plenty of popular beaches for favorite sports ranging from swimming, surfing, sailing, parasailing, jet skiing, to kayaking and scuba diving. Indulge an athletic urge by all means but to achieve the mood, try to stay at San Diego’s Hotel Del Coronado, a sumptuous architectural marvel overlooking the tides. The “Del” opened in 1888 billed by its founder as “the talk of the Western world.” Together with its villas and cottages, it stands on 28 oceanfront acres (hoteldel.com; 1-800-HOTEL-DEL). The National Trust for Historic Preservation declared it in 2003 one of America’s Dozen Distinctive Destinations.
Death on the Nile
In this one, a love triangle adds up to a fatal, twisted tryst on an exotic Nile cruise. In our state’s capitol, Hornblower Cruises (www.hornblower.com; 916-446-1185) offers a leisurely one-hour yacht voyage down the Sacramento River past historic Old Sacramento, the Tower Bridge, and the Air Force Docks. No danger of mistaking the I Street Bridge for the Nile’s massive Abu Simbel temples. Nonetheless, Hornblower still delivers an eyeful and on special occasions, they have a Spooky Halloween cruise and on Labor Day, the Gold Rush cruise. Unlike Death on the Nile’s S.S. Karnak, Hornblower does not provide sleeping accommodations. But in the immediate vicinity, the Delta King permanently anchored in Old Sac has beautifully appointed Old World staterooms. Once a genuine riverboat, the exceptional floating hotel also has restaurants and a Murder Mystery Theater.
Dead Man’s Folly
In Dead Man’s Folly, a murder hunt game figures prominently in a summer fete. Christie draws readers into the heart of a charming British village and its typically huge, merry, public fair. Up north from Bakersfield, the California Coastal waterfront town of Morro Bay has a certain traditional amiability with eclectic shops, collectibles, bakeries, an arts center and, on Saturdays November through March, a farmer’s market with crafts, artisans, fishers, as well as many big festivals such as the Avocado Margarita Festival on September 9-10 this year, 36th Annual Morro Bay Harbor on October 7, 2017, and the Morro Bay City Wide Yard Festival next March/April (www.morrobay.org/events/; 805-772-4467).
The Mystery of the Blue Train & 4:50 from Paddington
Christie situated several of her titles on trains. Discover the mystique of railroads during murder mystery lunches and dinners on the elegantly restored vintage, museum-quality cars of the Napa Valley Wine Train out of Napa (winetrain.com; 800-427-4124) and Fillmore & Western Railway leaving from Fillmore (www.fwry-blog.com; 805-524-2546). Each adventure presents ingenious murder mystery enactments with costumed performers portraying royalty, jewel thieves, jealous spouses, blackmailers, heiresses, scoundrels, bohemians, crooks, and/or nannies. Prepare to enjoy fine cuisine while attempting to solve the brainteasers they pose. Mix and mingle with them and come dressed in theme-appropriate attire if the spirit moves you.
Murder in Mesopotamia
Christie had a passion for archaeology. In 1929, at Leonard Woolley’s excavations at Ur in Iraq, she and Woolley’s wife Katherine formed a close friendship. Christie later cast a woman based on Katherine as the victim in Murder in Mesopotamia. Christie met and subsequently married Woolley’s assistant Max Mallowan, and she often elatedly accompanied him on field work. “To see a dagger slowly appearing, with its gold glint, through the sand was romantic,” she would write. “The carefulness of lifting pots and objects from the soil filled me with a longing to be an archaeologist myself.” For a chance to unearth treasures even older than ancient urns, you need trek no farther than to join one of the two-day or three-day paleo digs at Ernst Quarries near Sharktooth Hill organized by Bakersfield’s Buena Vista Museum of Natural History & Science (www.sharktoothhill.org). All diggers may keep all teeth and fossils they find with the exception of scientifically significant assemblages and/or articulated fossils.
And Then There Were None
In this quintessential Christie classic, a Mr. U.N. Owen lures ten guests to his home on an isolated Devon island inaccessible except by boat. One by one they die, slain by a culprit who believes they deserve execution because they escaped justice at some unfortunate juncture in their lives. The few who remain must deduce who among them “done it.” From Bakersfield, a journey up north to San Francisco Bay puts the legendarily inescapable Alcatraz well within reach where it stands a chill, sobering record of crime and punishment (www.nps.gov/alca; 415-561-4900). Both day and night ferries transport passengers to the one-time Civil War fort, military prison, and cellhouse of the formerly notorious federal penitentiary. The educational behind-the-scenes Alcatraz tour could stir an ominous shudder worthy of Owen’s unforgiving walls.
Murder on the Orient Express
This archetypal Christie whodunit features a memorable company of characters while, in the process, manages to elevate to star status the luxurious train they boarded. The description of the Orient Express evokes awe for its posh, tasteful sleeping rooms and elegant dining salon. In the United States, Amtrak’s impressive Coast Starlight (www.amtrak.com; 800-USA-RAIL) operates between Los Angeles and Seattle, with most of it rolling through grand, varied vistas. Around Santa Barbara and farther north, gazing through the window reveals remarkably unspoiled beaches lapped by crashing waves, some hugged by rocky formations. California’s route continues as far north as San Luis Obispo, Salinas, Sacramento, Chico, Redding, and Dunsmuir (Mt. Shasta). Factor in hours and hours for reading. Travelers can ride on this classy trip by coach seating, in roomette compartments, and “bedrooms” (about twice the size of a roomette, and with a private sink, restroom, and shower). Roomette and bedroom ticket price include complimentary meals in the dining car and the particularly plush Parlor Car where experts conduct wine tastings. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner afford perfect opportunities to strike up friendships with interesting fellow passengers. Christie, for example, initially got the idea to experience an excursion on the Orient Express from a chance chat over dinner. Words to the wise: “An appreciative listener is always stimulating” (from The Mysterious Affair at Styles) and “Conversations are always dangerous, if you have something to hide” (from A Caribbean Mystery).
Above all, have fun immersing yourself in surroundings straight out of many of the best mysteries the last one hundred years have ever known.