San Juan Bautista has deep connections to its past that give it a settled feeling. But it’s not somnolent: Indeed, the colorful 1797 Mission church in the town’s center offers daily Masses, and the surrounding state historic park is replete with intriguing buildings, exhibits and personal accounts of California’s 18th century stirrings. Life here is more laid back than when priests and residents used a network of quarter-mile tunnels to flee raids by bandits. One of those tunnels — sadly, sealed because it became a pathway for varmints — was behind our hotel, which butts up against one of the town’s many 200-year-old buildings. But there was nary a varmint to be seen during my gal pal Alice’s and my stay in June. The tab: Our two-day, one-night outing set us back $300 or so. The past might be vintage, but in San Juan it’s not expensive.
We encamped in a spacious room at Posada de San Juan (310 4th St., San Juan Bautista;  623-4030), with a balcony that gave us a pretty peek at the surrounding oak-studded hills. The hotel was built 25 years ago by the grandparents of the current manager, Eddie Hernandez, who showed us the outbuildings, a former brothel and gentleman’s club he’s planning on transforming into a wine-tasting and music venue. Perhaps he’ll turn that escape tunnel into a bowling alley. We didn’t take advantage of the Posada’s well-stocked continental breakfast because we wanted to venture out for grub, but I gave a double-sigh pleasure rating for the room’s deep soaking tub.
We didn’t have to go far for dinner, because the homey Basque Matxain Etxea Restaurant (206 4th St., San Juan Bautista;  623-4472; dinner entrees $14–$22) is half a block from the hotel. It looked as if it needed some landscaping, but the sights on the plate are first-rate. There’s a nice selection of tapas, including my tortilla de patatas (a potato-onion-egg concoction), which was a fluffy treat.
I also had an excellent, fresh, perfectly dressed shrimp Matxain salad with feta, kalamata and manzanillo olives. My companions ordered a cut of beef that would take up half a wheelbarrow, but the only groans were of delight. There are plenty of other family-style offerings on the menu, and our server, Moses, was a charmer.
We weren’t in the mood to walk all 1,200 miles, but we did do five pleasant ones on the nearby Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail. San Juan’s namesake, Juan Bautista de Anza, led an expedition of 240 people and 1,000 head of cattle from the Mexican deserts to San Francisco in 1775 and 1776, and a wiggle on his route took him through these parts. Our five-mile section took us on a long, gradual ascent through pockets of oaks and over grassy hillocks, with farms, cows and horses near and far.
The lesson learned
San Juan doesn’t have tourist glitz, but a welcoming, mellow vibe. Stroll the streets, check out interesting establishments such as Mission Clocks and Vertigo, the local coffee roaster. Marvel at buildings with dates such as “1799” on them, linger at lunch in the lovely Jardines garden courtyard, stand slack-jawed in front of the town’s notable gnarled and knotted cork and pepper trees, dig the friendly feel. And find out in advance which one of those tunnels is still open in case you get into trouble.