Try This Mountain Out for Size

California Weekend by Cary Ordway

While the best getaway spots in California are almost always crowded on weekends and during popular vacation times, one of the state's recreation jewels is offering a little quieter vacation experience this year.

Surprisingly, Big Bear Lake, one of the state's top mountain resort areas, is seeing less-than-expected visitor traffic this year. Local lodging operators say it's due to a "Perfect Storm" of events: a continuation of the Southern California drought, bad press resulting from last year's fires and a pesky beetle that is taking advantage of the dry weather to destroy some of Big Bear's gorgeous pine trees.

Overall reservation statistics are hard to come by, but several individual lodge owners have noted that business has been down or flat in recent months. A few lodgings are showing increased business, but that seems to be more anecdotal than general. The feeling among many lodging operators is that Big Bear is getting a bum rap.

"All the TV stations make it sound like we're a match stick ready to go off," says Myron Koza, owner of the Wishing Well Motel, "and we're not."

The closest fire to Big Bear Lake last year was 20 miles away, according to Dan McKernan, public relations coordinator for the Big Bear Lake Resort Association. And, yes, McKernan says, the water level is down - but all that is lost, he insists, are the shallow areas of the lake that would not have been good for boating anyway. He points out that all of the water activities are still there, just confined to a somewhat smaller area.

Aggressive efforts are now under way in the San Bernardino Forest to clean out trees that have been infested by bark beetles - warm winters and air pollution from nearby populated areas have exacerbated a problem that has always been there. Now, some experts say between 40 and 50 percent of the area's pine trees could eventually fall victim to the beetles.

The dead trees are noticeable but, as far as we could tell, not yet seriously detracting from the Big Bear experience that Southern Californians have enjoyed for generations. It's no accident that Hollywood has frequently used Big Bear as a stand-in for mountain locales around the world. But unlike many other mountain destinations, Big Bear's biggest problem right now - the lack of moisture - is also one of its greatest assets. Where else can you find an easily accessible mountain with 300 annual days of sunshine?

Big Bear also has one of the best selections of getaway-style lodgings anywhere in the state. The "cabin in the woods" experience is alive and well at Big Bear, whether it's staying in a resort or renting your own vacation home by the week or month. There are some of the best bed-and-breakfast inns available anywhere in California. Or you can stay in simpler motel-style units - Big Bear has it all.

On our most recent trip to Big Bear, we sort of combined the cabin and bed-and-breakfast experiences - by staying at a renowned bed-and-breakfast called Gold Mountain Manor. The inn was built in the 1928 by Guy Sherman Maltby, well known in the Big Bear area as a contractor and owner of the Bear Valley Milling and Lumber Company. The building simply exudes history at every turn.

Although it is much more than a cabin, the inn does have many of the features you would find in a cabin in the woods: a gigantic stone fireplace, gleaming bird's eye maple floors and beamed ceilings. Originally, this mansion included nine bedrooms, eight fireplaces, a wine cellar, a billiard room, chauffeur's quarters and three deluxe donkey stables. The grounds include many majestic pine trees and the feeling outside is one of a peaceful, historic park.

Inside, Innkeeper Cathy Weil spends her time doing all the things that a perfect hostess would do - baking gooey chocolate cookies for arriving guests, or putting out wine and a snack plate for a late afternoon gathering of her guests. And, of course the Big Event of the day is the scrumptious breakfast, all prepared meticulously and most from tried-and-true recipes used by the inn for many years. Our breakfast menu included fresh peaches and sour cream, a chocolate cappuccino bread pudding in a coffee cup, a sausage and egg quiche plus fresh squeezed orange juice.

In between meals, it's not uncommon to see Cathy working as much in her garden as in the kitchen, always humming a tune as she brings in vegetables fresh from the garden. It's clear that she's in her element - just a few months ago Gold Mountain Manor was owned by a pair of gourmet chefs and, when Cathy took over, she spent several weeks learning their culinary secrets. As guests can validate, she has passed this little test with flying colors.

The accommodations at Gold Mountain Manor are just as distinctive as the food. After all, where else could you stay in former donkey stables and feel like you were royalty?

We stayed in the Ted Ducey Suite - converted from those original stables and named after one of Big Bear Mountain's most famous outdoorsmen. It's hard to imagine Ducey settling in for his over-sized Jacuzzi bath surrounded by burning candles and soaking in water laced with fragrant bath powder. Perhaps the suite's wood-burning fireplace and aged knotty pine were more to this man's man's liking. Regardless, the Ted Ducey suite is a getaway unto itself and sure to please any couple intent on making their overnight stay memorable. (If you need further convincing, just read the entries in the Guest Book).

Gold Mountain Manor is among several lodgings in the Big Bear area that place a premium on pampering. There is a good selection of fine restaurants as well, and breakfast time at Gold Mountain is a great time to swap stories and recommendations with other guests staying at the inn. Most of our fellow guests were young couples and it was clear they were loving every minute of their stay at Big Bear.

The activities in and near Big Bear are limitless - if it has to do with outdoor recreation, you probably can do it at Big Bear. Hiking trails are located in different locations around the lake, and bicycling is big - although, remember, you're at almost 7,000 feet of altitude. Boat rentals and water activities are available in summer; in winter Big Bear turns into a winter wonderland ski resort. Skiing and snowboarding are offered at Snow Summit and at Bear Mountain. Other winter sports include sledding, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.

If you want to head to Big Bear before the snow flies, the Big Bear Lake Oktoberfest is now in its 34th year and runs through the month of October. Guests can get shuttle rides between their lodging facility and the Big Bear Lake Convention Center, where the festival is held. If you like German beer, grilled bratwurst and the sounds of German polkas and sing-a-longs, the Oktoberfest at Big Bear is one of the most authentic in Southern California - especially given its "Bavarian" setting.

Be sure to check out the stein holding competition, the only such contest in the United States. The object is to carry the most one-liter beer steins without spilling. The woman who wins this event - and we're told she's going to have to hold upwards of 20 steins to do it - is crowned queen of the festival.

For more on travel in California, visit California Weekend's Web site at www.californiaweekend.com

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