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Little Pleasures at the Lake

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Constance Sommer is a freelance writer in Los Angeles

My 18-month-old son, Liam, loves animals, but I had avoided taking him to the Los Angeles Zoo because I worried he’d be overwhelmed by the sheer size of it. So one weekend last month in this mountain resort, we were excited to find the Moonridge Animal Park, the perfect-size zoo for a pint-size traveler.

With only about 50 types of animals on roughly 2 1/2 acres, Moonridge is tailor-made for the toddler set, as evidenced by the hordes of parents and their wide-eyed tots jamming the place on a Saturday afternoon.

The park cares for orphaned or injured animals that can’t survive in the wild on their own. Among them are Alaska, a bald eagle with a wing thought to have been wounded by a gunshot; Tacoma, a black bear whose mother was killed by poachers; and Bob the bobcat, hit by a car and left blind.

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Moonridge was just one adventure for our son on a weekend designed for him. For my husband, Bill, and me, life at home is frenetic, our regular visits to family on the East Coast only slightly less so. We decided we needed a break, one that Liam would enjoy as well.

Of course, this getaway had to be short; Liam likes change for about 48 hours, max. He loves animals and big machines that move, and we needed restaurants serving pasta, grilled cheese sandwiches and other children’s fare. That’s how we ended up at Big Bear, ready for a visit to the animal park, a cruise on the lake and a stroll through town in the San Bernardino Mountains.

Big Bear isn’t the perfect distance from our West Los Angeles home. Liam naps 90 minutes at a time, leaving us with nearly an hour of non-nap driving along windy California Highways 330 and 18 trying to entertain a buckled-in toddler.

But once we arrived at 2:30 on a Friday afternoon, we still had plenty of energy. We’d rented a house by default. A bed-and-breakfast was out of the question, given our small child. Sharing a hotel room with a boy who needs lights out at 7:30 p.m. also seemed less than ideal. So I surfed the Internet and scanned for homes we could rent.

Hayden House at Gayle’s Resort Rentals (https://www.gaylesresortrentals.com) fit the bill: two bedrooms, one bath and a living room, all in a pine-shaded area about a five-minute walk from town.

We stopped at the rental office in town to sign contracts and pick up the key, then drove to the home. It turned out to be exactly as advertised. The kitchen was stocked with dishes and utensils, and for $12 extra, bedding and towels were waiting when we arrived.

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Even Liam seemed to know we’d left the city behind. We investigated the pine cones and needles that had fallen on the driveway, watched gray squirrels skitter from tree to tree and listened to the blue jays singing. Then we walked down a small hill to the village, still sleepy on a Friday afternoon, and wandered the quaint shops.

After a short rest back at the house, we left for dinner at Boo Bear’s Den, where we were seated in an outdoor patio still warmed by the fading rays of sun. Our gracious waitress rushed Liam’s order. No sooner had we fastened his bib than she delivered his grilled cheese sandwich with cinnamon bear crackers on the side.

Bill liked his cheeseburger; I thought my hamburger with cheese and avocado was all right, if a bit bland. But the service was excellent and the price right (total tab under $30, including beer and tip). Afterward, on the waitress’ advice, we strolled across the street to the PineKnot Coffee House, where the latte was as good as any in Seattle.

The day had exhausted Liam, who went to sleep at 7:30 p.m. and didn’t budge again until 8:15 Saturday morning. For his part, Bill woke up so energized that he practically raced out of the house at 8:30. He drove around the lake to the Cougar Crest Trail, which he ran for 45 minutes. He returned raving about the charms of the woods and declaring the area to be a runner’s paradise.

After eating cereal in our kitchen, we drove to the north side of the lake. There, with 27 pounds of baby snuggled into a pack on Bill’s back, we meandered for more than an hour along the Alpine Pedal Path, designed for cyclists and pedestrians. On our left, a meadow of knee-high grass stretched down to the blue lake, where only a few boats interrupted the calm. On the right, the land curved up into the scrubby mountains.

We drove back to the village for lunch at the Teddy Bear Restaurant, a small diner that captured our patronage by offering Liam’s favorite, peanut butter and jelly. Bill had a turkey burger, and I ordered fluffy French toast with sausage. We just wished the service had been faster and less surly.

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Nap time followed, and when Liam woke up midafternoon, we drove east on Big Bear Boulevard and Moonridge Road to the animal park, open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily (until 4 p.m. starting in November).

The best time to be at the park is probably 3 p.m., when the zookeepers feed the bears, cougars, ravens, wolves and other woodland animals. But because Liam had slept so late, we arrived at the end of the animals’ dinner hour.

Our little guy, though, enjoyed wandering at his own pace. We stopped to point out the wolves, which he insisted were “doggies,” and to marvel at the mule deer. One deer stuck its nose right up against the chain-link fence, evoking a startled yelp from Liam. I was amazed to find myself within a few feet of three grizzly bears.

The day ended with dinner at Thelma’s, a family-style restaurant in Big Bear City. The chicken pot pie was superb--and huge. Bill and I shared it and felt stuffed, while Liam gorged on a child’s plate of spaghetti. But the highlight of the meal was the apple dumpling dessert, apparently the specialty of the house. It consists of a baked apple wrapped in buttery pastry, surrounded by scoops of French vanilla ice cream and topped with whipped cream and caramel sauce.

With a cruise around the lake planned for noon Sunday, we reluctantly said goodbye to our cozy cabin and returned to the PineKnot Coffee House to pick up sandwiches for our boat trip.

After returning the cabin key to the rental office, we drove to a dock on the north side of the lake outside the town of Fawnskin. That’s where we met John Saunders, owner of Captain John’s Fawn Harbor and Marina. He’s also the guide and driver of a small, canopied electric boat that would take us on a two-hour lake cruise with nine other people.

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Saunders gave us a detailed history of the artificial lake. Most of the Big Bear shoreline is privately owned, so the cruise evolved into a lakeside tour of vacation homes edging the beach.

Liam stayed entertained as long as we could stuff his mouth with food or point out other boats zipping around us on the lake. He can’t tell us yet whether he wants to return to Big Bear. But if the smile on his face was any clue, we think we have our answer.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Budget for Three

Hayden House, two nights: $259.00

Dinner, Boo Bear’s Den: 28.11

Latte, PineKnot Coffee House: 1.75

Lunch, Teddy Bear Restaurant: 18.35

Admission, Moonridge Animal Park: 8.00

Dinner, Thelma’s: 24.96

Lunch, PineKnot: 11.85

Boat ride: 24.00

Gas: 18.47

FINAL TAB: $394.49

Gayle’s Resort Rentals, 40019 Big Bear Blvd., P.O. Box 2858, Big Bear Lake, CA 92315; tel. (909) 866-5711, fax (909) 866-8880, Internet https://www.gaylesresortrentals.com. Moonridge Animal Park, 43285 Goldmine Drive, P.O. Box 2832, Big Bear Lake, CA 92315; tel. (909) 866-0183, Internet https://www.moonridgezoo.com.

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