Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Exploring the Alpine Wonderland of Idyllwild and Two Rustic Inns along Strawberry Creek

Strawberry Creek in Idyllwild

While living in Big Bear Lake in my early 20s, I hiked nearly every trail crisscrossing Southern California’s San Bernardino Mountains with my friend, Trish. At the time, she and her husband were fresh transplants from the East Coast and who had purchased a bed and breakfast in Big Bear. I had recently moved from the Midwest and was keen on exploring my new alpine home every chance I could. After her guests would check out on weekends, she and I would pick a trail and set off with her dogs through the pines and the fresh mountain air. We talked about everything on our hikes. When I moved away a few years later, our hikes and talks were the things I missed most.

We kept in touch over the years as we moved onto different cities, different jobs, and different phases in our lives. And then last spring, I found out I had the opportunity to return to Southern California and visit another mountain town: Idyllwild.

Inexplicably, neither Trish nor I had ever been to Idyllwild. It’s located south of Big Bear, in the San Jacinto Mountains, closer to Palm Springs, but still just two hours from either Los Angeles or San Diego. While living in Big Bear, Trish and I had both thought of Idyllwild as the more artsy, sophisticated distant cousin to Big Bear. Idyllwild had a summer music festival and a jazz festival. Big Bear had Oktoberfest.

When I told Trish I was headed to Idyllwild, she enthusiastically agreed to join me.

Leaving the traffic-choked I-10 freeway, I zipped up the winding mountain highway in my rental car, into the pines and clear blue skies. The landscape was at once familiar and different. Mountain ridgelines were covered in pines, but here they seemed closer, steeper, and more rugged than what I remembered from Big Bear. I arrived in the village of Idyllwild to find a charming collection of wood-shingled buildings housing art galleries, shops, and cafes. I immediately spotted Trish’s bright red Prius parked outside of an antique store.

We wandered through town, got our bearings and some coffee, and then headed to nearby Idyllwild County Park to hike. On the suggestion of a local, we pieced together a longer loop hike by combining several trails within the park. From the parking lot trailhead, we climbed steeply through wildflowers and blooming manzanita along Perimeter Trail to some incredible vistas of the granite rock-outcroppings rising above town. Climbing further up, past the nature center, we hiked along Summit Trail lined with large boulders. We eventually dropped back down along a shady creek and a meadow paralleling the campground. It was refreshing to be back in the mountains and rehashing life with a dear friend. We arrived back at the parking lot spent from the hike and seriously hungry.

Strawberry Creek Inn


Strawberry Creek Inn

I was staying the night at Strawberry Creek Inn near the village. We were greeted by Rodney Williams, who was an amiable host with a soft-spoken, low-key vibe. He gave us a quick tour of the inn and pointed out the trail along Strawberry Creek leading to the village, where we planned to have dinner at Ferro.

Garden at Strawberry Creek Inn
The inn’s main house—a large, wood-shingled cabin--was built as private residence in 1946. In the 1970s, the house was turned into a restaurant, and then opened as a bed and breakfast in the mid-1980s. Rodney and his partner Ian Scott purchased the B&B in 2004, fulfilling their dream of owning a B&B in a small town surrounded by nature.

The Country Gentleman
The rustic, charming inn includes five rooms in the main house, a row of four courtyard-facing rooms along the back, and a charming cottage overlooking the creek. Each of the courtyard rooms is decorated in a different theme, tastefully blending textures, colors, and other elements.

Hammock at Strawberry Creek Inn
The chicken coop
My room, the Country Gentleman, was a bit like sneaking into the cozy study of a well-educated, well-traveled grandfather. An antique Smith-Corona typewriter sat on table near the door. A framed papyrus painting from Egypt and large gilded mirror hung on the dark, wood-paneled walls. The tin-stamped ceiling reflected the warm glow of the mission-style mica lamps and a flickering chandelier. The comfortable bed with a beautifully hand-carved wooden headboard was furnished with a Burberry-esque plaid duvet cover, a pile of coordinating pillows, smooth sheets, and a red chenille blanket at the foot of the bed. Across from the bed, bookshelves filled with a thoughtful selection of antique books lined either side of the brick fireplace with an electric insert. A pair of binoculars and glass sherry decanters stood on the wooden mantel. A leather armchair sat in the corner beside a chess table. Beneath the chess table, I found microscope and a magnifying glass. The room also had a small refrigerator, coffeemaker, and DirectTV. The room opened to a courtyard with comfortable outdoor seating.

The inn sits on just off the highway on over an acre of a certified wildlife habitat with extensive gardens and hammocks for lounging beneath the pines. There’s also a gazebo and more outdoor seating overlooking the creek. A chicken coop with an assortment of hens—Polish Crested, Ameraucana, Copper Marans, and Rhode Island Reds—provides entertainment for the guests and eggs for breakfast. Just before Trish and I left for dinner, we stood giggling at the chickens and snapping their pictures.

Baked Peach French Toast
From the gazebo, a trail leads down to the trickling waters of Strawberry Creek. We followed the path in the dappled sunlight beneath the tall pines and cedars along the boulder-strewn creek. In town, we had dinner at Ferro, a modern Italian osteria with a romantic ambiance. We sat outdoors on the back patio in the fading light and worked our way through several delicious courses and glasses of wine.

Breakfast was served the next morning on the glassed-in veranda of the main house of the inn. It was a delightful treat: baked French toast topped with caramelized peaches, silvered almonds, powdered sugar, and warm maple syrup served with a side of chicken apple sausage. The recipe for the French toast appears in the cookbook, Memorable Mornings from the Strawberry Creek Inn.

Strawberry Creek Inn Bed & Breakfast
26370 Highway 243
Idyllwild, CA 92549

Creekside path  at Quiet Creek Inn

Quiet Creek Inn

While in Idyllwild, I also visited the Quiet Creek Inn. It’s located just a mile and a half from the heart of the village, but feels like it’s a world away. The inn is a collection of 10 woodsy cottages on seven acres along Strawberry Creek. The property is also a certified wildlife habitat with towering pines, cedars, oaks, Japanese maples, lilacs, juniper, and wild roses. Natural wildlife includes squirrels, rabbits, coyotes, bobcats, mule deer and a variety of birds. With two hammocks strung beneath the trees and countless pairs of Adirondack chairs spread out along the edge of the creek, it’s an idyllic place to unwind and get lost in nature.

One of the guest cabins at Quiet Creek Inn
A mile-long path along the creek extends from the inn to a Boy Scout camp. Just a few blocks from the inn, guests can access the western reaches of the hiking trails in Idyllwild County Park, which can connect them to the village, the nature center, or more challenging climbs into the high country via the Deer Springs Trailhead.

Quiet Creek Inn’s property was once a horse ranch. The original barn was converted into a guest lounge outfitted with games, books, and a piano. Just outside the barn, guests can try their hand at throwing horseshoes at the horseshoe pit.
King Premium One Bedroom Suite

The guest cabins were built in the late 1980s to resemble the historic rustic cabins of the 1940s, but with modern plumbing and amenities. Each of the 10 cabins have vaulted ceilings with clerestory windows, wood-burning fireplaces built from river rock, and sliding glass doors that open to private decks overlooking the creek. Each of the one-bedroom suite and studio cabins are also equipped with WiFi, HDTV with complimentary on-demand movies and shows, coffee makers, small refrigerators, microwaves, glassware, dishes, utensils, and basic kitchen implements.
Queen Studio Cabin
The one-bedroom suites feature king or queen beds, kitchenettes with two-burner stoves and sinks, and queen-size sofa sleepers in the living room. The premium king suite offers an expanded private deck with air conditioning and the best views of the creek.

Queen Studio Cabin
Innkeepers Marc Kassouf and Nathan DePetris took over management in 2013 and have been making upgrades ever since. In the first six months, they replaced all of the bedding and linens. The new linens include smooth white sheets, sage green duvet covers with a silky texture resembling rippling water, modern-patterned accent pieces, and premium cotton towels. They also upgraded other amenities and began a series of landscaping projects to transform the grounds. In the next six months, they renovated the cabins with new flooring and paint. They sanded and re-oiled the exteriors of all of the cabins to bring back the deep honey-hued color and sealed the decking with a green stain. They also brought in new beds for all of the cabins and luxury sleeper sofas for all of the suites.

Private deck overlooking the forest and creek
In one of the rooms, I noticed a paper bag filled with peanuts and asked the innkeeper about it. She smiled. “For the squirrels,” she said. “Guests like to feed the squirrels.”

A few moments later, I noticed a gray squirrel peering in from the deck railing. He was framed in the window against a beautiful backdrop of pine trees, boulders, and the creek… just hanging out in a mountain wonderland waiting for his next meal.

Quiet Creek Inn
26345 Delano Drive
Idyllwild-Pine Cove, CA 92549

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Vestiges of Gold and Ghosts at the 1859 Historic National Hotel in Jamestown

1859 Historic National Hotel in the Gold-Rush town of Jamestown, California

In the sun-dappled shade of the cottonwoods, I sit on a white plastic chair in a shallow creek, trying to swirl dirt around in a pan. My prospecting guide, Tom Tomasevich (a.k.a “Tom Cat”), is upstream from me, shoveling mud and rocks from the creek into a five-gallon bucket. Tom calls out above the rushing water, “Did you find any gold?”

Jimtown 1849 Gold Mining Camp on Woods Creek
I study the pebbles and dirt in my pan, but I’m not really sure I know what I’m looking for. “I don’t think so,” I call back.

Tom stops shoveling and sloshes toward me through the creek, carrying the bucket. He’s a soft-spoken, wiry slip of a man with salt-and-pepper stubble and tattoos across his shoulders. His great-grandfather was a gold miner. As a modern-day equivalent, Tom prefers metal detectors to the old-fashioned gold-panning adventure I signed up for, but his panning technique is impressive. With a couple quick, angled slips through the water, Tom skims more rocks from my pan. Then he shows me again how to swirl water through what’s left. He sighs with disappointment at the pan. “Tom Cat’s got to find you some gold.”

Reaching into the bucket, he piles more dirt and rocks into my pan, and then sits down in the creek with me to keep searching.

Gold Rush Saloon at the 1859 Historic National Hotel
The current price of gold, as noted in the saloon
I’m staying at the 1859 Historic National Hotel in the Gold-Rush town of Jamestown, and I’ve jokingly told Tom I want to try to pay for my hotel room with gold. Over 150 years ago, paying for a night’s stay at the hotel with a purse full of gold dust was commonplace. Earlier this year, the hotel’s owner, Stephen Willey, brought back the practice for overnight guests bearing gold flakes and nuggets. He purchased an old-time brass scale with weights and backs it up with the digital model required by county weights and measures, courtesy of Gold Prospecting Adventures across the street. Stephen notes the daily price of gold inside the hotel’s authentic Gold Rush-era saloon, which still features the original back bar from 1859 and a stamped tin ceiling. The night of my stay, gold was valued at $1,336 an ounce.

I signed up for a gold panning lesson with Gold Prospecting Adventures, which operates a historic mining camp on one of the richest creeks in the Mother Lode.

I skim the rocks from my pan and start to gently swirl the water. Tom is watching closely. “There!” he says, “That’s gold!”

He points at a tiny speck clinging to the bottom of the pan that gleams in the sun. It’s no bigger than a grain of salt. “That’s gold?” I ask doubtfully, trying to calculate how many salt-sized specks of gold it would take just to pay for a drink at the bar.

He produces a tiny vial, fills it with creek water, and then shows me how to pick up the speck of gold with the tip of my finger and place it in the vial. He screws the cap back on and hands it to me. “Your first piece of gold!”

I spend the rest of the afternoon hanging out in the creek with Tom: soaking up the late summer sunshine, listening to the soothing rush of the water, and occasionally finding more salt-sized specks of gold.

Eventually, I return to the hotel with my tiny vial of gold specks, but unfortunately, the hotel’s scales are unable weigh an amount so small. Stephen tells me the gold’s value is probably less than a dollar. I laugh. Fortunately it’s not 1859, and I can still use my American Express gold card.

*  *  *

Hotel balcony overlooking Main Street in Jamestown
The 1859 Historic National Hotel has been in continuous operation since it was first built, having survived two fires in the early 1900s. Stephen is only the third owner of the hotel, which he purchased with his brother and a friend in 1974. They hotel’s saloon had been a place that he and his brother would stop for drinks on their way back from ski trips and backpacking trips. When his brother learned the hotel was for sale, he convinced Stephen, who was in graduate school in San Francisco at the time, to move to Jamestown and run the hotel for at least six months.

The original six-month commitment has turned into a 42-year restoration and modernization project. When they purchased the building in 1974, the aging hotel had 12 rooms and just one bath. Working room-by-room, they tore the hotel down to the studs, upgraded the electrical, plumbing, insulation, and more, added bathrooms, and restored the rooms in keeping with the vintage of the hotel. Upgrades and modernization projects have been ongoing ever since.

Room #10 at  the 1859 Historic National Hotel
Instead of the original 12 rooms, the hotel now has nine elegant guest rooms, each with private baths. The rooms feature high coved ceilings, dark-stained wood trim, and beautiful period details. The rooms are furnished with fine antiques, opulent wallpapers, and lace curtains befitting of the era. My room, #10, was a quiet, cozy space tucked at the end of the hallway with a queen-size brass bed, pillow-top mattress, and triple-sheeted bedding with a matelassé coverlet. The bath featured a pull-chain toilet, pedestal sink, tiled shower with two shower heads, and plush bathrobes.
Private bath for room #10

Next door to room #10 is the soaking room: an inviting space with an antique claw-foot soaking tub for two. The soaking room is available for use by any guest upon request. A door at the far end of the hall opens to the balcony overlooking Main Street with comfortable outdoor seating.

Soaking tub for two
Downstairs, the hotel’s restaurant and saloon bustled with lively mix of locals and visitors. Stephen and his attentive crew of servers moved fluidly among the tables. The restaurant is led by Executive Chef Tom Callahan, who has been at the helm for 20 years. His menus feature Mediterranean cuisine with top-quality ingredients including USDA Choice beef, fresh fish, fresh pastas, house-made breads, local produce, and fresh herbs picked daily from the restaurant’s own herb garden. The restaurant has the largest wine list of Sierra Foothills wines, with more than 100 selections and awards from Wine Spectator. The restaurant serves lunch and dinner daily in its formal dining room, and weather permitting, outdoors on its vine-covered patio.

I enjoyed dinner and a glass of wine on the patio beneath the glow of lanterns and twinkle lights. I ordered medallions of filet mignon prepared in a burgundy mushroom sauce. The dish was served with a green salad, sautéed vegetables, fluffy garlic mashed potatoes, and warm house-baked breads. For dessert, I couldn’t resist the temptation of the apricot bon bon: apricots sautéed with butter, brown sugar, and apricot brandy, flambéed tableside, and served over Ghirardelli chocolate-covered bon bons with pecan praline pieces. It was a divine combination.

The restaurant's garden patio
As I finished dessert, Stephen pointed out the back of the garden patio, where a rectangle is cut into the concrete floor. He explained it’s the entrance to an old gold mine shaft, a vestige of the hotel’s earlier days. These days, it’s usually filled with water and Stephen has plans of turning it into a water fountain.

The gold mine shaft isn’t the hotel’s only vestige of the late 1800s. The spirit of former guest named Flo has lingered long past her check out time and occasionally creates mischief at the hotel. Many guests have shared accounts of doors slamming, lights going on and off, clothing being dumped from suitcases onto the floor, and a woman’s sobbing coming from the hallway in the middle of the night. Stephen tells me that the most adamant of non-believers have been known to change their convictions about the super-natural after they wake in the middle of the night to find Flo sitting at the foot of their bed. He says Flo just looks at them, not saying anything, and then she stands up and floats right through the door.

The second floor hallway of the hotel
The background on Flo is sketchy, but it’s believed that she had traveled to Jamestown to marry a young attorney she had met on a train just six weeks before. They arrived in Jamestown a few days before Christmas and were staying at the 1859 Historic National Hotel. She hired a local dressmaker to make her wedding gown; he gave her a diamond ring on Christmas Day. The very next morning, a shot rang out. Flo raced downstairs to find her fiancé lying at the bottom of the stairs in a pool of blood, shot dead by a drunkard who had stumbled through the front door of the hotel. Day after day, she sobbed uncontrollably upstairs in her room, and then on New Year’s Eve, there was silence. The hotel staff found her dead in her room, wearing her wedding gown, presumably having died of a broken heart.

I had hoped to meet Flo, but she must have sensed I was a journalist with a camera and long list of questions for her, so she avoided me. At breakfast, however, I learned that she made herself known to the other guests. One couple had lowered the shade for an afternoon nap only to have the shade spring back up as they were lying on the bed. They also described walking through the hallway and feeling an icy cold waft of air pass alongside of them. Another woman said she, too, felt a cold waft of air pass her in the hallway. She also described seeing chains that were strung across the open doorways of unoccupied rooms all swinging although there was no breeze to cause such movement.

As I packed to leave after breakfast, I looked around for signs of Flo, but everything was exactly where I had left it.

1859 Historic National Hotel
18183 Main Street
P.O. Box 502
Jamestown, CA 95327

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Three Romantic Inns on Moonstone Beach

Moonstone Beach Boardwalk in Cambria, California
The boardwalk at Moonstone Beach may be one of the most romantic strolls on the California Coast. Located off Highway 1 in Cambria, just south of Hearst Castle, a mile-long wooden boardwalk weaves among cypress trees atop a gorgeous stretch of seashore lined with sandy coves and rocky headlands. There are several benches along the path for admiring the view as well as sets of stairs that lead down to the coves. Beachcombers can explore the tide pools and watch for dolphins and sea otters frolicking in the waves while birds soar overhead. Across the road from the path, the east side of Moonstone Drive is lined with a number of boutique hotels. Three of my favorites include the Blue Dolphin Inn, Moonstone Cottages, and FogCatcher Inn.

Walk-out patio for the lower-level ocean view rooms at the Blue Dolphin Inn


Blue Dolphin Inn

Lobby of the Blue Dolphin Inn
The recently-renovated Blue Dolphin Inn exudes warmth and sophistication, blending modern furnishings with an exotic old-world traveler’s touch. The lobby and halls are lined with contemporary art and tropical floral arrangements. Each of the hotel’s 20 rooms feature Jacuzzi tubs, gas fireplaces, Keurig coffeemakers, cozy robes, and slippers to take home. The standard rooms are handsomely appointed with wood and leather-upholstered headboards, elegant linens, recessed lighting, white plantation shutters, vintage-style fans and clock radios/iPod docking stations, framed photographs, and antique maps of exotic locales.

Upper-level ocean view room: Saldanha Bay
Lower-level ocean view room with walk-out patio
The hotel’s six, spacious full ocean view rooms go a step further, evoking exotic beach destinations. One of the upper-level rooms named for South Africa’s southwestern coast, the Saldanha Bay features a king-sized poster-bed with thin white curtains knotted around the canopy rails. The room also has a set of leather chairs overlooking the ocean, African art, shell-beaded lamps, and tasteful tiger-print throw pillows and foot bench. One of the lower-level ocean-view rooms evokes Cape Cod with white-washed furnishings and starfish lamps. Each of the lower-level rooms open to a sun-soaked patio with comfortable seating and great views.

Guests can order from a menu of breakfast items which are packaged picnic-style and delivered to the room each morning. Guests can opt to enjoy their breakfast in their room, on the patio, or on the beach.

Blue Dolphin Inn
6470 Moonstone Beach Drive
Cambria, CA 93428
805-927-3300 or 800-222-9157

The Garden Gate cottage at Moonstone Cottages

Moonstone Cottages


Interior of the Garden Gate cottage
Front porch of the Garden Gate cottage
Just a stone’s throw away, the Blue Dolphin Inn’s sister property, Moonstone Cottages, is an enclave of three private cottages tucked among the cypress trees with ocean views. The cottages have all of the same amenities of the inn, but with kitchenettes and a cozier feel. Last fall, I holed up for a night in the middle cottage, the Garden Gate. Coming in from a long walk along Moonstone Beach, I poured myself a bubble bath in the deep, jetted spa tub and then curled up in bed with a book and a glass of wine in front of the fireplace. The bed had a wooden headboard the color of driftwood and a teddy bear propped up among the throw pillows. There were chocolates on the bedside table.

 A warm breakfast was delivered picnic-style to the cottage in the morning. I sat on the wooden bench on the porch outside my door and enjoyed a breakfast sandwich with fruit and cheese while listening to the waves. When I was finished, I walked across the street with the binoculars from the room to see if I could catch sight of whales.

Moonstone Cottages
6580 Moonstone Beach Drive
Cambria, CA 93428
805-927-1366 or 800-222-9157

The view from one of the ocean view king rooms at the FogCatcher Inn


FogCatcher Inn


Heated pool and fire pit
Dining room at the FogCatcher Inn
One of the assistant managers at the FogCatcher Inn is a former U.C. Fresno literature professor who had honeymooned at the inn decades ago. With its newly-revamped rooms, charming English cottage style exterior, and ocean views, the inn remains a romantic destination, but with a full range of hotel amenities and room types, it’s equally welcoming for families. The 60-room inn was completely renovated in spring 2015 with driftwood-inspired furnishings and a modern palette of white, gray, and yellow. The new, crisp white bathrooms feature large mirrors with soft illumination on all four sides, bamboo accent pieces, and Molton Brown bath products. All of the rooms feature gas fireplaces, refrigerators, microwaves, Keurig coffeemakers, 48” HD TVs, and iHome docking stations.

Garden view room at the FogCatcher Inn
The inn’s sundeck at the back of the property has a heated pool, hot tub, and a fire pit with views of the ocean. A complimentary, expanded continental breakfast is served each morning in the dining room from 7 to 10 a.m. The breakfast includes eggs, sausage, waffles, oatmeal, pastries, and more. Adjacent to the dining room is an outdoor patio for enjoying breakfast with a view. The inn is located directly across from Moonstone Beach with easy access down to the sand.

FogCatcher Inn
6400 Moonstone Beach Drive
Cambria, CA 93428
805-927-1400 or 800-425-4121

* * *

While Moonstone Beach is the main attraction for these three inns, there are other nearby attractions you won’t want to miss. Just a short drive away is Fiscalini Ranch Preserve. The 430-acre oceanfront preserve is a former dairy farm and cattle ranch that features sweeping views and meadows. Hiking, biking, and horseback riding trails traverse dramatic ocean bluffs and forested ridgelines that rise 400 feet above the sea. The charming village of Cambria, which is located on the east side of Highway 1, offers an eclectic mix of shops, art galleries, wine tasting rooms, great restaurants, and a farmers’ market on Fridays. The area’s most famous attraction, Hearst Castle, is located just 10 minutes north of Moonstone Beach off of Highway 1. Other nearby attractions include an elephant seal rookery and the Piedras Blancas Light House.

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