OAKHURST, Calif. — "This little elf wishes you a fine, fine day," reads the card tucked into the freshly shined shoes left at our doorstep. The elf has hand-colored a cheerful self-portrait and signed the message with a heart.
"Elves?" Jonathan asks. "You didn't tell me this place would have elves."
When we came to stay at the Chateau du Sureau, a nine-room inn hidden in the foothills of the Sierra about halfway between Fresno and Yosemite, we didn't expect a trip to fairyland. We just wanted dinner.
Even before we were married, from about the mid-'80s, Jonathan and I had heard about Erna's Elderberry House, the Oakhurst restaurant run by Erna Kubin-Clanin. Craig Claiborne once called it "one of the most stylish restaurants in the nation," and Wolfgang Puck has bestowed high praise on the cooking of Kubin-Clanin, a fellow Austrian. As the restaurant accumulated awards and high guidebook rankings, it seemed that Kubin-Clanin's ambition was to create a place that not only exceeded local meat-and-potato mountain standards but reached for the very heights of a French three-star country restaurant.
In 1991, Kubin-Clanin moved closer to her French three-star ideal. As her self-penned brochure "The Enchanted Story of the Estate by the Elderberries" puts it, she opened the Chateau du Sureau, just a winding garden path away from her restaurant, because she didn't want her customers to stay in ordinary motels after eating her extraordinary food. Well, if that's the way she thinks about us, we decided now that we were finally making the schlep, we might as well go for the total Erna's experience.
Of course, Erna's world is not cheap: Rooms at the Chateau du Sureau are $310 to $410 per night, with a two-night minimum on weekends. There goes a piece of the real world right there. (One-night weekend stays may be arranged if the room can be filled the rest of the weekend.)
In California, only a handful of other lodgings would compare with Cha^teau du Sureau for price tag, pampering, food and romantic setting: Auberge du Soleil in Rutherford (starting at $350 a night weekends), Montecito's San Ysidro Ranch ($325), Meadowood in St. Helena ($375) and the Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel ($325), to name a few.
When we call for reservations, a very pleasant discussion ensues about whether we'd like to stay in the Thyme Room, or perhaps the Rosehips Room. We decide on a Friday-night stay in the Rosemary Room. It's got a double-size bathtub and a four-poster bed with curtains that, as the lovely woman on the other end of the line discreetly says, can be closed for privacy. I hang up feeling as if I've just arranged a weekend at the home of a generous new friend. One thing about paying luxury prices (unless you're in certain clothing stores) is that people tend to be really, really nice to you.
We make the drive up California 99 and northeast on California 41, the road to Yosemite, in almost exactly four hours. Turning up the drive to the Estate by the Elderberries, we leave behind our fellow travelers, the bass-boat-towing station wagons and kid-packed sport utility vehicles, and encounter a closed iron gate. It's not possible to just drop in at the chateau, or even to drive by. We press the speaker button by the gate, and only after checking our name on the list of reservations does the voice on the other end turn syrupy sweet. The gate sweeps open and we drive up a hill to the front door of the red-tile-roofed chateau, which looks like some investment banker's retreat, part Italian villa, part French castle and a bit of Swiss chalet.
To greet us are two young men who take our car and our bags. Momentary panic sets in. To tip or not to tip? The answer is not to tip. The idea is to leave your cares behind and your wallet in the room--until it's time to pay the bill. Be assured that gratuities will be added then (10% service charge), and you can always leave something extra.
There is no front desk, no place to check in or say, "Hi, we're here." Instead, we meet Mamie Whitlock (just Mamie, she tells us), who emerges from the back wearing the chateau uniform--crisp white apron over a simple black dress that is embroidered on one sleeve with the insignia of approval from the Relais & Chateaux group, like the racing logo of some Team Erna sponsor. Her hair is neatly pulled back, and her skin is clear and porcelain. For a moment we wonder if this is Erna herself. But Erna sightings, we will discover, at least this weekend, are rare.
With the sounds of Beethoven playing softly in the background, Mamie leads us on a tour of the public rooms of the chateau and briefs us on how things work.