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WESTERN TRAVEL | WEEKEND ESCAPE

A bit of Aspen in California's Sierra

Sophistication has come to Truckee, whose bright, beautiful setting eclipses a dark chapter in history.

October 09, 2005|Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writer

Truckee, Calif. — TIME was, I'd think of this old pioneer town in the Sierra's eastern shadow and remember a buddy from my university days named Clay. A nice guy, that Clay, and smart too. But he had a fatal flaw, a blemish open to Darwinist taunts.

He hailed from Truckee.

Wasn't Truckee, friends would razz, the coldest spot in the lower 48? Didn't the Donners party there?

It has been nearly three decades, and goodness knows where poor Clay landed. But his hometown, the mountain burg once dominated by a hard-knuckle sawmill, is today a veritable vacation suburb of Silicon Valley, a place of huge second homes, golf courses and a dolled-up downtown. Contemporary Truckee is a base for ski bums and Gucci gals. Paul McCartney, the ex-Beatle, flits into town many a March.

We arrived at the start of the fall shoulder season, between the summer spillover from nearby Lake Tahoe and the winter ski crowds. It was to be a weekend of discovery -- a hunt for history, fall color and a bit of fine dining. We would also discover whether our daughters, Charlotte, 11, and Grace, 9, were ready for the polite confines of a bed-and-breakfast.

So, during the drive up the mountain, we held "the talk." No fights. No screaming. No big noises.

"No fun?" the elder wondered.

As we crested the Sierra summit, Donner Lake spread out before us like a sapphire pool. Off to the east, Martis Valley lay golden under the sun. A traffic circle festooned with flowers directed us onto Truckee's main drag. Brick buildings, some dating to the 1870s, have undergone whole-hog restorations, and the shops reflect an evolving sophistication mixed with small-town charm.

Off the lobby of the venerable Truckee Hotel we found Moody's Bistro, a dark-wood jazz pub and trendy restaurant. This is the place where Paul croons a tune or two while on vacation.

There were no erstwhile Beatle sightings as we headed to the patio, the yellow-and-white awning flapping overhead in the breeze. The Cobb salad proved solid, the fish and chips inviting. But star billing went to my "lobster roll," a French bun filled with a delightful mix of crustacean and garden vegetables.

Just up the main street, we wandered into the turn-of-the-century train depot, which doubles as a tourism bureau. Inside we learned the common belief is that Truckee got its name from a Paiute Indian chief who befriended early pioneers. In pre-refrigeration days, townsfolk here profited handsomely by selling ice harvested from nearby lakes and ponds.

Truckee's oldest building, an 1863 log cabin, now serves as a real estate office. Just around the corner, an antique stone building -- once the community's carriage house and blacksmith shop -- holds a snowboard shop. The 1875 Truckee Jail, used for nearly a century but now a museum, was shut.

Downtown boasted patisseries, curio shops, antiques stores and full-fledged galleries. Aspen-style gentrification is in full bloom -- a sore point among locals who have seen commercial rents skyrocket. But hints of pioneer simplicity remain. Truckee Variety Co. is still filled with toys you can't find at a big retail chain -- an ark of miniature animals, wonderful balsa-wood gliders.

As the sun tilted west, we wheeled uphill one block to the Richardson House Bed and Breakfast Inn, an eight-bedroom Victorian built in the 1880s for a prosperous lumber family. A high-ceilinged entry was dominated by carved stairway banisters and century-old leather wallpaper hand-tooled by Chinese immigrants. Rooms were cushy and decorated with antiques, a few with claw-foot tubs.

We settled into adjacent rooms sharing a bath. On a getaway for two, I would have grabbed the Writer's Room, an airy space with a luxurious canopy bed and a multi-pane view of downtown Truckee.

Dinner at Pacific Crest started well, with a table overlooking the sidewalk bustle. The restaurant was lovely to look at, with soft lighting mixing with rich woods and contemporary style. But our food -- an oven-fired pizza for the girls, Jenifer's risotto, my roasted pork -- proved less inspired than the ambience.

Though the town has charms aplenty, its real beauty comes from the surrounding terrain.

Granite abounds. Sugar pines and cedars blanket the hills. Fall produces spectacular color displays.

We rented bikes at the entry to Squaw Valley and headed down the blacktop trail along the Truckee River. It proved an easy ride, mostly flat. And flat-out gorgeous. We were too early for changing leaves, but the riparian growth was stunning. The river bobbed with the season's last rafters.

At River Ranch, an old-guard lodge and restaurant on a bend of foamy rapids, we parked the bikes for lunch. During the fall and winter, business moves inside the semicircular bar and restaurant. On warm days, folks hover outside like vultures in a hunt for a table overlooking the river.

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