GRASS VALLEY, Calif. — Forget about your Big Macs and Whoppers in Grass Valley. Nothing pleases folks here more than a Cornish pastie.
That's because the meat pies have been a traditional meal here since the 1850s, when miners left Cornwall, England, to work the hard-rock gold claims in California's Mother Lode.
At one time the population of Grass Valley was reported to be 85% Cornish, and their descendants are still around.
No wonder fast-food outlets abound, places such as Marshall's Pasties and King Richard's Pasties, as well as Mrs. Dubblebee's, where a pastie-making machine was invented.
Cornish pasties are just one of the treats you'll find on a trip to Nevada County and its sister Gold Rush towns of Grass Valley and Nevada City. Only five miles apart, the lucky pair continued to prosper even after the gold played out.
Best of all for history buffs, the two attractive towns in the Sierra Nevada foothills have preserved much of their colorful past. In Nevada City, where gas lamps still light the streets, you can ride around town in a horse-drawn carriage.
Off Highway 49
To get here, take the Gold Rush route, California 49, also called the Golden Center Freeway. Grass Valley is bigger and more modern than Nevada City to the north, but just off the freeway are many reminders of days gone by.
To pick up historical walking and driving tour maps, exit at Colfax Avenue. Then go left under the freeway and take the second left to the Nevada County/Grass Valley Area Chamber of Commerce, 248 Mill St.
The chamber occupies a replica of the 1850s cottage of the infamous international celebrity Lola Montez, who kept a pet bear in the yard. Two doors away is the former home of her young protegee, Lotta Crabtree, destined to become one of America's best-known actresses.
Heading south, Mill Street leads toward the Northstar Mining Museum where machinery and other displays show how gold was mined in the area more than a century ago. About two miles east, along Empire Street, you can visit one of the oldest, largest and richest gold-mining operations in California.
Nowadays it's Empire Mine State Historic Park covering 784 wooded acres. The remaining buildings and museum exhibits show what it took to dig out 5.8 million ounces of gold during the lifetime of the mine from 1850 to 1956.
One of the buildings to see is Empire Cottage, a grand English manor home built in 1897 for an owner of the mine, William Bourn Jr. It's surrounded by landscaped grounds with formal gardens and a reflecting pool. The park's winter hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Many Vintage Buildings
Grass Valley's main thoroughfare, Mill Street, has vintage buildings, including a hardware store that opened in 1854.
Popular Mill Street dining places include the Owl Tavern, Empire House and Michael D's. For Sunday brunch go around the corner on West Main Street to the Holbrooke Hotel's dining room.
Now a state historic landmark, the hotel has recently been restored to turn-of-the-century times.
Among its guests have been writers Mark Twain and Bret Harte, and former Presidents Grant and Cleveland. The 17 antique-filled rooms and suites range from $50 to $105, weekends $65-$145. For reservations, call (916) 273-1353.
A short stroll away, at 318 Neal St., is Murphy's Inn, an eight-room B&B built as a gold baron's home in 1866. Innkeeper and breakfast chef Marc Murphy pampers guests with comfortable rooms (three feature a fireplace) and a big morning repast. Rates are $62 to $94.40 with tax. For reservations, call (916) 273-6873.
The chamber of commerce has a list of area lodgings, including nine other bed and breakfasts: toll-free (800) 752-6222.
Some of those B&Bs are in Nevada City, known as the Queen City of the Northern Mines and one of the most appealing of all Mother Lode towns. Its downtown, which still resembles the Gold Rush era, has been designated a Historic Preservation District.
From the Golden Center Freeway, exit on Broad Street to the central business district.
Leave Car Curbed
Nevada City's steep and crooked streets follow old trails of the miners' mules and radiate from the original diggings at Deer Creek. You'll enjoy the hilly town best on foot; be certain to curb your car's wheels (otherwise you'll get a parking ticket).
Nevada City's most photographed building, Firehouse No. 1 on Main Street, is easily recognized by its Victorian bell tower and gingerbread trim. Now a museum of the Nevada County Historical Society, the 126-year-old building is expected to be closed sometime this fall for repairs.
Also being refurbished is the National Hotel, which dates to 1856 and is one of the West's oldest hotels in continuous use. It's at the foot of Broad Street, the town's main thoroughfare.
Up the street you can still be entertained in the Nevada Theater, which opened in 1865 and was reborn as a community cultural center a century later. On the weekend-only playbill, Nov. 27 to Dec. 12, is "Amahl and The Night Visitors." For information, call (916) 265-8587.