Weekend Escape: High Sierra : Truckee Stop : The Locals Were Notably Friendly, the Lodgings Vintage, the Prices Trending Upward in This Historic Railroad Town

TIMES STAFF WRITER; Klein writes for The Times' Metro section.

On the outskirts, there are rival supermarkets and rival drugstores, competing video shops and pizza palaces, even an outlet shopping mall, but the heart of old downtown Truckee always seems to stay the same. It's down home, laid back, a little naughty, rough hewn.

And trendy, of course.

It seems tourists "discover" this High Sierra frontier town every day, for its proximity to the ski resorts in the winter and its hiking, mountain biking and fishing during the thaw. The eating and drinking are pretty good all year round. Oh, and the gambling tables of Reno are only about 45 minutes away.

Yet this is not to give anybody the wrong idea. Truckee, so often prefaced with the word historic that outsiders might think it part of its name, is not Aspen, or even Telluride or anything close. Its 10,000 year-round residents are generally a rugged and proud bunch. "Truckee Local," some car license plate holders boast.

My husband, two daughters and I discovered Truckee a few years back when my parents bought a cabin on Serene Lakes, about a 15-minute ride over the Donner Summit. So just like all the other tourists who have come before us, we have claimed Truckee as our own. There are no dress codes. Strangers talk to each other, nicely. Even at the finest restaurants, our children are welcomed with crayons and smiles.

(To get to Truckee, we usually fly into Sacramento and drive east from there. If we had to rent a car--my parents lend us one--we would probably fly into Reno, as it would cut the highway time in half.)

Until recently, however, we had no idea about the hotels. So after a stay at my parents' cabin, my husband, daughters (ages 3 and 7) and I checked into The Truckee Hotel for an April weekend. Truckee doesn't have a lot in the way of accommodations, but rather than settle for what appeared to be the standard bed-and-nightstand-by-the-highway (i.e. the Super 8 Lodge off Interstate 80 or Best Western's Truckee-Tahoe Inn by the small local airport) we went with charm.

This (historic) hotel used to be a stagecoach stop. It's 120 years old, although the woman who took my reservation over the phone assured me that the bathrooms have been redone since. In fact, she said that by the end of last summer, the entire building had been completely restored. Although it used to house railroad workers and lumberjacks, The Truckee is now a nonsmoking hotel, and flouting of that rule will bring a $75 "deodorizing charge," according to hotel literature. What the reservations taker didn't tell me was that there are no phones or televisions in the rooms--or that there is no one to help drag luggage up the stairs (no elevators, either).

The rooms, however, have a light, feminine feel to them, with floral quilts on the beds, linen and lace doilies atop the antique chests and walls painted powder blue. Ours were certainly comfortable if a bit spare. Another unexpected touch: In the basket with the sample-sized shampoo and mouthwash were two sets of disposable earplugs. The card attached to them read, "Since we're in the heart of the historic railroad town of Truckee, you might hear the rumble and whistle of one of our trains."

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The hotel has four slightly sloping floors of 37 rooms, only eight of which have private baths. Guests in the other rooms--all with a sink in the corner--use a common one down the hall. Since my days of dorm living are well behind me, I asked for one with a private bath. There turned out to be a slight problem with this. While there were rooms with two double beds (the plan: grown-ups in one, children in the other), none had baths. The solution was two adjoining rooms, each with a single queen-sized bed. Ours had a bath--with an appropriately claw-footed bathtub--and the kids' did not.

This also meant we spent more money than we had planned. Our room was $95 a night, and theirs, $65, and we were asked to settle the bill when we checked in Saturday afternoon.

With that taken care of, we set off for a stroll down the town's main drag, Commercial Row. It's a mix of saloons for regulars, restaurants for tourists, coffee shops for locals, and stores selling everything from fancy children's clothing to kachina dolls. And if you want fishing tackle you can find it, too. Somehow, nothing, and nobody, seemed out of place. Elderly tourists were strolling next to young families with small children, who mingled with bikers showing off their tattoos.

Stroll is the operative word here, as life seems to amble along at half-speed on Truckee time. A stray dog who took a liking to us came, too. We took our time browsing in shops, then bought some frozen yogurt at the Ponderosa Deli and parked ourselves on the benches meant for just that. We learned long ago not to bother with the overpriced jewelry boutiques or the imitation Western clothing stores where "sale prices" would translate to more-than-retail anywhere else.

For dinner that night, we had been looking forward to The Passage restaurant, in the same building as the hotel but independently operated. The daily food and wine specials are usually intriguing and delicious, albeit with made-for-the-tourists prices. For example, an appetizer of oysters "Oscar" was $7.50 on Saturday night, and a glass of 1984 Ridge York Creek Cabernet was only 50 cents less.

During this particular meal, however, the service was so outrageously slow that, for the first time in our lives, we walked out before our entrees arrived. Left to settle the bill with the waitress, I explained that especially with two children at the table, more than an hour's wait between the appetizer and the main course was more than we could stand. She slapped the bill on the table without a word--neither an apology nor a thanks. It was fortunate that we'd saved an apple from the snack (cheese, crackers, fruit and juices) served in the hotel's ground-floor parlor earlier that afternoon.

The next morning, we ate breakfast in the same parlor: a nice buffet of muffins, bagels, cereal, fruit, juices and coffee is included in the price of the room. The good news was the train hadn't kept anybody up, although the steam radiator knocked steadily through the night.

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We tried OB's Pub and Restaurant on Commercial Row for lunch. The food was straightforward and good, the atmosphere dark yet not spooky enough to scare the kids. They got their own coloring book with plenty of connect-the-dots. After lunch, we visited the Emigrant Trail Museum, just off I-80 on the western fringe of town. The museum chronicles the Donner Party's horrific journey toward Sacramento in the winter of 1846-47, and, of course, their meals of fellow travelers. There is a nearly continuously running movie on the pioneers' plight and the gift shop sells several books. I bought a $3 replica of a tiny doll that consoled one young member of the party through some very dark nights indeed.

By the time we'd taken all this in, we were ready to relax over a good (maybe vegetarian?) meal that night. From the outside, the Cottonwood restaurant looks to be part of a ramshackle lodge perched over downtown, but inside it's an airy, quietly graceful restaurant with terrific service and food, and more crayons for the kids. We'd been told not to miss the Caesar salad. It and the rest of the meal--bottle of wine, hamburgers for the kids, ribs for my husband and seafood over linguine for me--was first rate. The bill, with tip, came to $103.

One thing about Truckee: The atmosphere may be Twin Peaks, but the prices are L.A. Still, it was a thoroughly enjoyable meal--relaxed, just like Truckee itself. The Truckee Hotel, too, is worth a return trip. The staff was cheerful and the environment kid-friendly. We felt as if we were staying in a friend's home.

Budget for Four

Round-trip to Sacramento: $282.00

The Truckee Hotel, two nights: 352.00

Pizza, yogurt, drinks: 21.18

Dinner, The Passage: 59.32

Lunch, OB's Pub: 31.38

Emigrant Trail Museum: 5.00

Dinner, the Cottonwood: 103.00

FINAL TAB: $853.88

Truckee Hotel: P.O. Box 884, Truckee, Calif. 96160; tel. (916) 587-4444 or (800) 659-6921. Truckee Chamber of Commerce; tel. (916) 587-2757.

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