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

May 15, 1994|DIANNE KLEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Klein writes for The Times' Metro section.

TRUCKEE, Calif. — 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."

*

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.

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