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Weekend Escape: San Diego County

Gambol and Gamble : A schizophrenic retreat--from slots to squirrels

November 24, 1996|JANET EASTMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Eastman is assistant Life & Style editor at The Times Orange County edition

ALPINE, Calif. — You're lying in bed and thinking about your weekend options: You're a half-hour's drive from a mountain peak, the beach and downtown San Diego. Which direction do you head in?

Complicating your decision is the knowledge that you're minutes away from picnicking in the Cleveland National Forest or playing slot machines at a casino.

Yep, you're in Alpine, that schizophrenic small town (pop. 12,475) in east San Diego County that rubs its back up against nature while facing out toward urban allures.

For a weekend getaway, my friend and I wanted to take our pick of Alpine's "Sybil" side: to play in nature, then play the slots. To commune with wildlife then mingle among the masses. To be in complete peace and quiet, then immerse ourselves in the din of a rock 'n' roll band.

On a Friday in early September, we drove from Tustin to the San Diego Convention Center to spend the day with 19,000 buyers and sellers at a sports/fashion retailing show. Many foot-squished hours later, we decided to bolt from the Big City and find some breathing room in the mountains.

A 25-mile trip east on Interstate 8 brought us to the California outback, where slow-moving towns boast crisp strip malls and other modern conveniences. Taking the Alpine Tavern exit, we stopped at the Country Side Inn, where we got a cheerful room, chilled champagne and continental breakfast for $50 a night. (This package is available through Dec. 31; the price will be $55 in '97.)

Even though we were a stone's throw from camping spots in the Cleveland National Forest, I must confess that I'm not a happy camper. I like spending my waking hours with Mother Nature but prefer to spend my sleeping time in hotel-supplied comfort. I was here, after all, to unwind.

How did we begin? We slipped into our swimsuits and headed to the pool area, where we sipped champagne in the Jacuzzi. Then we changed into comfortable clothes and walked two blocks away and found five restaurants, bistro to barbecue. We settled on the Mandarin Dumpling on Tavern Road because of its lively patio. A small band was playing unevenly while office-worker types jump-started their weekend with the help of happy-hour pricing.

We sat inside the whitewashed dining room and enjoyed the Sichuan combo ($9.95 a person), beginning with appetizers of hot and sour soup, steamed dumplings of ground pork and cabbage, sesame shrimp and paper-wrapped chicken. They were followed by a platter of prawns, water chestnuts and ginger in a spicy tomato sauce, and an equally generous portion of cashew chicken. Thankfully, our room had a small fridge that accommodated leftover Chinese food and champagne.

After nabbing muffins, juice and coffee from the lobby Saturday morning, we popped the T-top on the car and headed to the mountains to suck in some more fresh air. We took the Mt. Laguna Loop--California 79 at Descanso Junction--to Pine Valley, Cuyamaca, Julian, Santa Ysabel, Ramona and Lakeside, then back to Alpine. It's about an hour's drive around the loop on this two-lane road, if you don't stop along the way.

But we did, first at Lake Cuyamaca, where we walked out to the dock and considered renting a canoe ($4 an hour) or a paddle boat ($6), but figured it was too much work for a lazy weekend.

Fortunately, there are plenty of other places to consider in the 21,000-acre Cuyamaca Rancho State Park (a $5 day-use pass from the ranger station will pave the way for you to enter all the state facilities).

We raided the lake's general store for picnic goodies, then backtracked on SR-79 to Stonewall Jackson Mine, a campsite with an abandoned mine shaft as its centerpiece. Gold was discovered here in 1870 and $2 million of it was scooped out in about 20 years before miners left it for golder pastures.

Unfortunately, the squirrels stayed behind. When we pulled out our picnic, a signal went out over Squirrel-land and all the hungry ones came crawling. When the scene reached Hitchcockian proportions, we packed up again and drove down the hill under a black cloud. Suddenly, the sound of thunder followed by water-balloon-size drops forced us to pull to the side of the road and put the top back on the car.

That's nature for you. Thousands of years before the Spanish arrived here in the late 1700s, Native Americans named the area Ah-ha-Kwe-ah-mac, "the place where it rains." Some things never change.

But we weren't discouraged. A few minutes' drive later, at the Paso Picacho campground, there were blue skies, puffy clouds and rodent-free picnic areas.

So what's next? After a clean-up stop at the hotel, we drove a few blocks to the Alpine Inn on Alpine Boulevard, a restaurant that over 25 years has captured the loyalty of locals. With its fireplace, stone walls, exposed wood beams and black cushy booths, we're talking beef, baby! We ordered the tournedos topped with bearnaise sauce ($16) and a half fresh crab and filet mignon combo ($17). Dinners came with salad, clam chowder and baked potatoes as big as Idaho.

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