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Weekend Escape: Zaca Lake : A fireplace, a view of the water and a lodge with a chef. Now, that's a retreat.

October 23, 1994|JOANNA M. MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Miller writes for the Ventura County edition of The Times. and

LOS PADRES NATIONAL FOREST, Calif. — It was early afternoon that sunny fall day as my husband and I lounged at the edge of tiny Zaca Lake, with gathering clouds above and a rising breeze that sent the amber-colored aspens into a flutter.

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With the baby monitor clipped to my pants and my 10-month-old son sleeping peacefully in his portable crib 200 feet away in our rented cabin, my husband and I reveled in the peace, he dabbling in water colors and I finishing a book, both looking up occasionally to watch the resident coots run across the water with staccato slaps against the surface. It was one of those moments so serene and complete that I will store it away to conjure up when needed.Our reverie in the sun that afternoon, it turned out, was only one of several memorable moments at the quaint and quirky lake resort, which feels less like a privately owned "island" in the Los Padres National Forest and more like a New England summer retreat.

It was a spot we had long wanted to visit, one we had heard about from friends in Santa Barbara. The 320-acre private parcel surrounded by the national forest was homesteaded 85 years ago and was a favorite haunt of the Chumash long before that. Fed by mountain runoff and underground sources, Zaca is the only natural lake in Santa Barbara County.

And so, on a weekend when it was still relatively hot in Los Angeles, we headed north for a three-day escape. Our trip began like most of our family outings: a late start, the trunk jammed full with a stroller, which we didn't need, a baby backpack, which we used a lot and the portable crib, which is essential for babies because the resort does not have cribs.

Leaving from Ventura, and with a two-hour drive ahead of us (about 3 1/2 hours from Los Angeles), we headed north on the Ventura Freeway toward Santa Barbara. To reach Zaca Lake, and the wine country for that matter, one takes California 154, San Marcos Pass turnoff, which is just past the La Cumbre exit in Santa Barbara. The highway, which cuts through the Santa Ynez Mountains and overlooks Lake Cachuma, offers one of the nicest vistas in Southern California.

We arrived at the main building at the resort just as the afternoon light was beginning to fade. After we checked in, my son and I settled onto the stone patio at the lake's edge for a bit of rice cereal and carrots. It turned out not to be much more than a bit because Ko'o, a large white Samoyed-looking dog that is alleged to be part wolf, gently licked the dish clean after I inadvertently set it down for a moment. Russ, the helpful maintenance and little-of-everything resort employee from Maine, shooed the resident dog away and apologized.

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At the Human Potential Foundation at Zaca Lake, as the resort is officially known, $110 a night plus tax buys you remote; it buys you rustic charm; it even buys you romantic; it does not buy you luxury. (The weekend would now cost $121 for the first night and $99 for the second, $20 less than it was a year ago.)

(The Human Potential Foundation was created by owner Gerald Kessler when he and his son, Craig, purchased the resort in the mid-1980s. The Kesslers intend eventually to make the resort as self-sufficient as possible, producing its own energy through solar or methane power and growing all the vegetables used at the restaurant.)

A quarter-mile around the lake, which measures only 18 acres, was our cabin for the weekend, No. 9. The log cabins, which were built in the '30s and '40s, were cozy little rooms, about 15 by 15 feet, with knotty-pine paneling, large stone fireplaces in the center and windows in the back with views of the trees and the lake.

The queen-sized bed was firm enough and gave us a comfortable night's sleep. The bedclothes were plain, but adequate. Our room needed recarpeting, but the feeling overall is that of a sweet, cozy mountain cabin. (Many of the cabins, according to the resort clerk, have now been recarpeted.) The bathroom, which is the same in all cabins, we were told, was a huge tiled affair with a giant wall heater that warmed the entire cabin. The room also offered a large tiled Jacuzzi that doubled as a bath or shower.

It would also have been perfect for a romantic party of two, with champagne chilling in a bucket nearby. . . . Alas, maybe another trip. . . . The tub appeared to have been well scrubbed but needed a rinse before I was prepared to dip in.

The windows on the back of the cabin looked out to a small patio with a picnic table and the leaf-covered forest floor sloping to the lake just beyond. At an elevation of only 2,400 feet, the pines were mixed with oak, one outside our door so huge that its trunk would have taken four adults to encircle. That elevation also allows for chilly winter nights, but it always warms up to sweater weather during the daytime, we were told.

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