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On shore leave at Clear Lake

Wineries and other signs of the good life are popping up all around Clear Lake. The buzz? It's like Napa, without all the attitude.

October 29, 2006|Evan Halper | Times Staff Writer

Nice, Calif. — THE luxury speedboat pulled up to the dock of a sun-dappled hacienda, and a bikini-clad blond dug around the bow searching for something. When she found it, she slipped the slinky, black cocktail dress over her swimsuit and sashayed down a footpath -- through a field of lavender and around the occasional fig tree -- to a swank wine-tasting room.

You'd expect that at the waterfront playground of Nice.

Just not this Nice. This is California's Nice, a place that has never quite managed to attract the jet-setters that flock to its namesake on the French Riviera. No, this Nice has long catered to travelers who wouldn't think of vacationing without their Winnebago.

The RVers still rule many of the towns that dot the shoreline of Clear Lake, in the shadow of the Mayacama Mountains. But they are being joined by a steadily growing group that, until recently, thought of Lake County only as a place to buy gas before heading to nearby Sonoma, Napa or Mendocino.

My wife, Erin, and I recently discovered plenty of reasons to stay awhile.

We ventured back to the area despite a dreadful first trip here a couple of years ago. Drawn that time by websites that showcased the lake, we decided to stop for lunch on our way to the Mendocino Coast. But we found little more than trailer parks, greasy spoons and biker bars, so we kept driving.

A blizzard of promotional material from the county's economic development office promising a breathtaking makeover lured us back. Beneath the unvarnished veneer is an area that is beginning to resemble Napa and Sonoma, minus the attitude.

We strolled through gorgeous foothills, dined at outdoor cafes and lounged in a fabulous boutique hotel. And drank lots of wine.

Blessed by a rich, volcanic soil, the county now has 14 wineries, more than triple the number five years ago, and they're producing some fine Cabernet Sauvignons, Petit Syrahs and Sauvignon Blancs.

Their attractive tasting rooms proved an agreeable place to while away the hours. Among our favorites were Ceago Del Lago Winery, the Mediterranean-style lakeside compound where the blond who arrived by speedboat hoisted her glass of the winery's Sauvignon Blanc.

Winemaker Jim Fetzer opened his 220-acre property to the public less than a year ago, and it has quickly generated a buzz. Guests get the run of the property. The staff encourages strolling through the organic gardens and picnicking on the patio, from which there are jaw-dropping lake views.

But there is an even better reason to head to Clear Lake: the Tallman Hotel, a few miles north of Ceago del Lago, in Upper Lake. This 17-room boutique inn may be the ideal place to enjoy a Northern California weekend.

Our generous sized Eastlake-style room was warmly decorated with eclectic flourishes -- patterned pastel wallpaper, an impressive country French headboard and armoire.

The silky hand-stitched quilts on the beds with their regal floral patterns somehow melded seamlessly with the pinstriped carpet, wide-striped pillows, brightly painted tables and Asian-style lamps. French doors separated the bedroom from the mosaic-tiled bathroom.

Another set of doors led to a private outdoor patio with a large Japanese ofuro soaking tub, carved from teak. It sat next to an outdoor shower whose huge, old-fashioned showerhead sent forth a cascade of water.

The tub was a treat after our long morning runs down country roads that cut through seemingly endless orchards of pears. It helped soothe nerves frayed by near dust-ups with barking dogs and cowboys whizzing by in pickups, although any excuse for a soak in the deep tub was a good one. By my count, we slid into it half a dozen times during our stay.

In Tallman's high-ceilinged breakfast room, we feasted on warm, flaky croissants while admiring the work of local artisans who had etched wildlife scenes onto the wall and built a giant white mantel tastefully inlaid with tiles.

Outside the lobby, gravel paths meander through gardens full of rosemary, squash, tiny pumpkins, purple trumpet vines and sunflowers.

The Tallman was built in the 1890s as a hotel and stagecoach stop but fell into disrepair decades ago. The current owners took it over in 2003 and began transforming it into a luxury destination.

The hotel also owns the neighboring Blue Wing Saloon, a high-end pub serving tri-tip, ribs and grilled fish. It's the best restaurant for miles, so getting a seat on the saloon's porch, where the crowd spills out onto the hotel's peaceful gardens, can take some jockeying.

Make sure you have a car on your weekend escape. Upper Lake has a dusty old main street with a few bedraggled secondhand stores, and the adjacent town of Blue Lakes isn't much more exciting. Farther down the road, a battered sign at the entrance to Lucerne, complete with a rotting flower box, promises "The Switzerland of America." We found no evidence of this.

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