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WEEKEND ESCAPE

Yonder north, a redwood country ramble

In the town of Garberville, south of Eureka, towering trees and cool lakes and rivers invite visitors to a place of mists, far from smog.

September 14, 2003|Sue Horton | Times Staff Writer

Garberville, Calif. — It's easy to forget that San Francisco is not really Northern California, that the state extends almost as far above the Golden Gate Bridge as below it. But it does. The state gets wilder after you cross the bay and head north on U.S. 101. Cities give way to towns, towns to vineyards and farms. Then, somewhere past Willits, the self-proclaimed "Gateway to the Redwoods," the trees get really big.

A weekend in Garberville at the Benbow Inn, even a long weekend, is not for the faint of heart. From L.A., it took nearly 10 hours to get to the inn, which is about 70 miles south of Eureka. But last month when we finally arrived, we were instantly glad we'd come.

It isn't just that California's redwoods are majestic or that the inn is elegant and welcoming or that the air smells wonderful. It's that this is someplace else entirely, someplace very different from Los Angeles.

That's not to say there is anything wild about the Benbow. The imposing 55-room Tudor-style inn opened in 1926 and retains the graciousness of an earlier era. The large lobby has polished hardwood floors and Oriental rugs. The building overlooks a bend in the Eel River that is dammed in summer to make a lake, and mullioned windows have a view of a lovely patio. The bellhops are strong, which is good because the hotel has no elevators.

A reservations clerk had patiently explained the room choices. Two adults and a teenager would need at least a king-sized room with space for a rollaway. Rooms in the newer section of the hotel were the only ones with TVs, she said, and were slightly more expensive. A television-free room sounded more appealing to us, though, so we chose the older main building.

Our large corner room (about $165 plus tax a night) had a bay window with a bench overlooking the mountains. It was nicely but simply furnished, and the small bathroom was adequate. The hotel is closer to the 101 than one might wish, but even when logging trucks passed, we heard nothing.

My husband, Carl, and son, Sam, weren't interested in making themselves "casually elegant," the requested dress code for the dining room, so we had dinner on the stone patio. It was a good decision. The evening was cool enough for a sweater, but the patio, illuminated only by strings of tiny white lights and candles, still radiated some of the heat it had absorbed during the day. The wine, Chardonnay from a nearby vineyard, was crisp and delicious, and our hearty salads, one a chicken Caesar and the others with spinach, feta, olives and pancetta, were exactly what we wanted after a day of driving.

The next morning, after an excellent breakfast of duck hash and a spinach, goat cheese and caramelized onion omelet, we set out to explore.

The hotel's grounds are compact but beautiful. A rolling lawn, ideal for stretching out on a chaise longue with a book, slopes down to the Eel River. A small dock can accommodate a canoe or kayak, and a swimming platform is anchored in the middle of the river.

We asked about hikes from the hotel, but good hiking, the clerk told us, required a short drive, and we weren't yet feeling like getting back in the car. Nor were we feeling that we all had to do something as a group, having had a lot of togetherness the day before. My husband wanted to take a long swim in the lake. Our son went for a run along a winding road that paralleled the river. I rented a canoe across the street at the Benbow Lake State Recreation Area.

Out on the lake, where powerboats are banned, I watched an osprey perch by its nest and stare down at the fish swimming deep in the clear water.

Stratford-upon-Benbow

The inn sponsors events throughout the year: a costume party in October, a murder mystery weekend in November, special galas at Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's. At the time of our visit, many people came to the stage near water's edge for "Shakespeare at Benbow Lake," when, over two long weekends, the Festival Theatre Ensemble traveled from the Bay Area to perform. We got tickets to "The Taming of the Shrew."

The evening started with a dinner of locally caught salmon or barbecued tri-tip served at long tables set up on a lawn near the lake. It was a party atmosphere with minstrels entertaining and lively conversation among strangers. The play was well acted, but the biggest pleasure was that it was all happening as the sun set over a pristine lake.

The next morning, I wanted more of the redwoods. As the early riser, I headed north a few miles to the Avenue of the Giants, which winds through the area's great redwood forests. Just being on the road, surrounded by the tallest trees on Earth, was awe inspiring.

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