Creek beds with babbling brooks, wooden bridges to cross them, canopies of oak and sycamore trees, the horsy smell of country living. This is Martha Stewart's Connecticut masquerading as the Southern California hamlet of Monte Nido, Calabasas' little secret.
As can be said of many things in Los Angeles, the entertainment industry got here first.
In the 1920s, various movie studios built cabins to be used as weekend retreats in this area, roughly bordered by what are now Malibu Canyon-Las Virgenes roads, Piuma Road, Mulholland Highway and intersected by Cold Canyon Road. Families drove out from Los Angeles to enjoy the scenery, camp, hunt, fish and picnic.
Those were the days when the now $100-a-head-for-dinner Saddlepeak Lodge was a beer joint and a favorite of the visiting retreaters, who included Hollywood legends Errol Flynn and Clark Gable.
What's it about?
Judging from the number of basketball hoops in driveways and bikes left on lawns, the answer might be: kids. Toss in a way-above-average public school system -- Las Virgenes Unified School District -- and the blanks start to get filled in.
But that's only half of it.
This is a place that escaped developers' radar. Absent are the cookie-cutter homes that characterize much of Calabasas. Missing is the preponderance of postage-stamp lots with oversized McMansions.
Here, no two houses look alike. Mature trees abound. Horse manure punctuates the narrow roads, and you get the idea that no one is terribly bothered by it.
When you see a street sign announcing Huckleberry Drive, you think, "How perfect is that?"
Monte Nido valley is a rustic area within commuting distance of Los Angeles. Although it may not be far out, it is light years away from urban -- or even suburban -- city life.
Although not a designated community of the International Dark-Sky Assn. (whose mission is to stop adverse environmental impact on nighttime skies), Monte Nido is dedicated to minimizing light pollution and preserving the beauty of the night sky.
It is also home to a multitude of wild creatures, including coyotes, hawks, deer and raccoons, and it is a migratory pathway for myriad birds and butterflies in the spring and fall.
The neighborhood itself is a step back in time. It closes itself off to all traffic -- not that there is any through traffic to speak of -- for its annual Fourth of July parade. Families make floats; others ride on horseback. Prizes go to the best-dressed animal. Egg toss, sack races, homemade pies. Who says you're not in Kansas anymore?
And then there's Halloween, which is an opportunity to show the Joneses just how creative you can be.
"We don't just decorate for Halloween," said Tracy Bunetta, who has lived here for more than 20 years and is a Coldwell Banker agent, "we live for it."
Horses. Did we mention horses? Most lots are zoned for them, and the local Pony Club is one of the most active. There are plenty of equestrian events and neighborhood trails to ride.
Although Monte Nido home prices aren't cheap, they are a decided notch or two below the community's coastal cousins Malibu, Topanga and Pacific Palisades.
What's there? A little of everything, not all of it sunny and bright. The community's overall shadiness may not appeal to sun seekers.
On the market now is a 4,500-square-foot Cape Cod with five bedrooms and five baths listed at $2,595,000. It has a pool, covered patio and a large backyard.
On Cold Canyon Road there is a Santa Fe modern, built by and for an architect, with horse and hiking trails leading straight from the backyard. It has four bedrooms and four baths on 2 acres and is listed at $2,350,000.
Less expensive is a 3,080-square-foot ranch on three-quarters of an acre built in 1957. With five bedrooms, three baths, a tennis court and pool, it is listed at $1,575,000. It's a corner lot.
Good news, bad news
As a rule, Westsiders prefer to disassociate with "the Valley." But is this really the San Fernando Valley? Well, yes and no.
Residents claim that they can be on PCH in seven minutes and it takes a full 11 to hit the 101.
Sure, there is that pesky 818 area-code business. Bottom line: So you lose the snob appeal of having a 310 phone number, but you get neighbors who actually remember your name.
Monte Nido is part of the Las Virgenes Unified School District. Children through fifth grade attend Lupin Hill Elementary School, which scored 891 out of a possible 1,000 on the 2005 Academic Performance Index Growth Report. A.E. Wright Middle School and Calabasas High School scored 844 and 824, respectively.
Sources: DataQuick Information Systems; api.cde.ca.gov/; International Dark-Sky Assn., www.darksky.org/.