OAKHURST, Calif. — Once upon a time, there was a Viennese girl named Erna who dreamed of living in a castle. After she left her native Austria she worked very hard, starting as a tea girl in London's Claridge Hotel and eventually becoming an accomplished chef.
Then one day she bought a seven-acre parcel of land overlooking the little California town of Oakhurst, just south of Yosemite National Park. She built a wood-and-stone manor house from the ground up, and opened a restaurant in it. There were elderberry trees all over the property, so she named the restaurant Erna's Elderberry House.
People came from miles around. They couldn't get over the European splendor of the place, the slate-rock wine cellar, the hand-laid tile floors, dark fixtures of burnished brass, the lace, the crystal and the magnificent wood carvings.
They gushed over her creative seven-course dinners, drank her wines and sipped coffee on her mountain terrace. Surely this woman was mad, they said, to build a restaurant so elaborate out here. But Erna only laughed.
"I'll build a castle, too, someday," she said, "and you'll all be my guests." And that's where the real fairy tale begins.
You see, what Erna Kubin-Clanin has done in real life is as improbable as most anything to be found in the Brothers Grimm. Erna has finished her castle now and named it Chateau du Sureau ( sureau is the French word for elderberry)--a nine-room, 9,000-square-foot hostelry that cost nearly $2 million and opened almost exactly two months ago. And as the saying goes, seeing is believing.
Of course, a night in a sumptuously furnished 19th-Century French chateau, next door to a restaurant with arguably the best cuisine in Central California, is not to be had for a song--about $350 per night for two to be exact. That includes breakfast but not dinner, which runs an additional $90 for two. But then it's certainly no pricier nor any less well-appointed than a highly regarded chateau or venerable spa in the French countryside.
Above Fresno, California 41 gradually begins to rise as it passes through a series of increasingly fallow fields. After about 20 miles, the stagnant San Joaquin Valley air turns fresh and you start to see sugar pines by the edge of the road. You trundle through the Central California town of Coarsegold and snake your way through a series of gentle green hills. Just before the bottom of a long hill, you'll see a sign on the left side of the road--"Erna's Elderberry House-Chateau du Sureau"--and a baronial iron gate. You'd better pinch yourself one time to make sure you aren't dreaming all this up.
The chateau is on the top of Erna's hill, just past the restaurant. You can see the brick-colored tile roof from the gate, the stone turret and the resin-cast coat of arms on the side, all conceived and built by Mariposa artist Peter Ledger. Leave your car by the entrance and walk through the green doors, where a houseman awaits you to take care of your luggage, garage your vehicle and show you to your room.
The moment you enter, the coolness of the stone floor envelops you, just like it would in a chateau in the Loire Valley. The living room is huge, with a separate "music tower" complete with French grand piano and hand-painted trompe l'oeil ceiling at the far end. There are broad beams across the main ceiling, triple-thick, hand-carved mahogany doors that have been sandblasted and stained to look centuries old, leading into various rooms off the downstairs hallway. At one end of the hall there is a tiny chapel to pass a reflective moment. At the other, there is a spiral staircase of limestone leading up to the guest rooms.
Erna's chateau has been designed in the spirit of 19th-Century France, and it is no coincidence that a great deal of the charm is related to the quality of imported materials. The red-clay floor tiles are French, as are the hand-painted bathroom tiles. The marble-and-stone walls and floors found in the chateau's bathrooms were cleaved from French buildings, and the wrought-iron balconies attached to every room obtained from Paris apartments.
Furniture in the chateau is mostly French, too, though more recently the property of various antique shops around the state. All rooms, named for herbs and flowers such as thyme and lavender, have highly personal themes and bedroom sets to match the colorful images dreamed up by Erna herself.
The Safran (saffron) Room, a sensuous, amber-shaded room, bleeds with yellow marble and features a Napoleon era bedroom set highlighted by an eight-foot ebony armoire. The Romarin (rosemary) Room is done in soft greens like a sprig of rosemary itself, with a forest-green drape around the king-size bed that you can pull completely closed on all four sides.
Before dinner and after a long drive, there's no better way to unwind than a hot bath. Bathrooms here are extrordinary--all marble and tile with deep, sunken tubs big enough for an entire family.