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WEEKEND ESCAPE

Lazy days, sweet reward

A rustic property in northern San Diego County is a comfy place to unwind, go apple picking and cook.

September 26, 2004|Karin Klein | Times Staff Writer

Palomar Mountain, Calif. — My family used to go to Julian in apple season, and every year brought a new surprise. Once it was an honors system farm where we picked apples and pears and left our money in a basket. Another year, when we came past the prime season, a noncommercial orchard owner invited the kids to pick the remaining fruit on his trees for free -- apples so sweet they tasted candied.

But in recent years, my husband, Amnon, and I have found less to love. The pick-it-yourself orchards have dwindled, the crowds and traffic have swelled, and the horse-drawn carriages and tchotchke shops give the town the artificial folksiness of Disneyland's Main Street, not a taste of rural America.

It was time for a new apple-picking spot. An Internet search turned up Bailey's Palomar Resort in a part of northern San Diego County unscathed by wildfires last year. The rustic property is run by descendants of pioneers who homesteaded the land in the 1800s. It sounded the opposite of touristy -- no stores, no restaurants (which meant we had to bring all our food), no cute tours. Just woods, a stocked pond for fishing and a meadow with old apple trees that we could pick for 50 cents a pound. The place has facilities for tent or RV camping, plus the old Bailey House with seven bedrooms and three cabins for rent.

I chose the Cedars, a one-bedroom cabin with a sofa bed in the living room for our children, Sam, 13, and Aviva, 7. It had a full kitchen, a TV and a VCR. The rate for two adults was $125 a night; because Sam was considered an adult, he was $25 a night extra. As of press time, the resort's website offered three nights for the price of two, a deal not available when I booked.

Owner Brad Bailey, who was going to be on vacation at the time of our visit, tried to talk me into coming to his place weeks early so he could show me the way to the cabin, set in the woods off a dirt road. But I wasn't up for driving the extra 90-miles each way between Palomar Mountain and my home in Laguna Beach, and it turned out to be unnecessary. The cabin wasn't that hard to find after all, and as darkness settled in the Friday evening of our arrival, Brad's son Matt was there to show us the way.

The cabin was delightful. As promised, it was well equipped, with a washer and dryer, mismatched dinnerware that I loved, even scouring pads for pots. The space was cute enough to be fun, but not so cute as to be precious, decorated mostly in John Deere tractoriana down to the tractor nightlight.

We found games, puzzles and a beautiful antique piano in dreadful repair. That didn't bother Aviva, who didn't know how to play properly anyway. She happily sang and improvised her own accompaniment.

We quickly made dinner, discovering we had unnecessarily bought 20 pounds of charcoal. (The website incorrectly said the grill was charcoal. It was gas.)

A more pleasant surprise was the water out of the tap -- cold and almost sweet, from the resort's artesian wells.

Cooking in peace

In the morning, we discovered trees all around us. Steller's jays -- big, iridescent-blue birds with showy black crests -- flew back and forth, chattering, and a woodpecker worked without rest. The air was clear and deliciously scented of pine and oak.

A swing, fashioned from a length of fat rope with a board inserted above a big knot, hung from a tree in a clearing. The idea was to grab the swing, carry it up nearby rocks, then take a leap of faith. That kept us amused for a while.

After breakfast we looked for the apple trees and pond. That proved almost too easy. Our cabin was just a few hundred feet from the heart of the property, where the meadow and old farmhouse are.

The campground -- dotted with slightly seedy-looking trailers -- was empty, and the big Bailey House was filled with women holding a scrapbooking retreat. They never seemed to venture farther than the front porch.

The meadow had about 10 apple trees -- not exactly an orchard but plenty for us. The only thing that looked like it might be the pond, though -- at least from the "No Boating or Swimming" signs around it -- was dry. We had lugged fishing rods for nothing. What would we spend all our time doing?

We started with apple picking. The Delicious apples were red but from the somewhat bitter taste obviously not yet in season. A couple of larger, older-looking trees carried a rounder, smaller apple that looked and tasted like a good, tart McIntosh. The point, though, was simply rediscovering the fun of getting fruit from a tree instead of from a waxed stack at the supermarket, and both kids were eager choosers and pickers.

Afterward, we walked around the property collecting unusual feathers and fat acorns (Aviva wanted to grind them Native American-style) and watched a doe grazing in the meadow.

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