By Jen Lothspeich
My husband and I haven’t had the best luck with vacations.
Our honeymoon in Las Vegas was marred by comedic mishaps like getting locked in our hotel room.
And when my sweetheart proposed in a Portland, Oregon steakhouse, an overzealous waiter cleared our plates while he was still on one knee.
So when looking for a locale for this year’s trip, I hoped to break the streak of bad luck.
I aimed to keep things simple: minimal travel time, things to do in close proximity and somewhere aesthetically appealing to relax.
Once I laid out my guidelines, friends were quick to suggest Idyllwild, California, a community nestled in the San Jacinto mountains of Riverside County.
One nature-loving friend gushed about the hiking, another praised it for “going off the grid” and unwinding, and others pointed to the culinary offerings, art galleries and shopping.
These appealing aspects — just two hours from home — made our destination decision an easy one.
Our getaway began with one of our favorite things: food.
Suggested by friends, Idyllwild Bake Shop and Brew is a quaint spot with a short but satisfying menu featuring sandwiches as the main attraction.
The albacore tuna melt on jalapeno cheddar bread we chose had a nice crunch on the outside with flavorful fish-and-cheese gooeyness waiting on the inside. Hints of citrus and dill blended well with the albacore, making it more complex than a typical diner tuna melt.
With full bellies we headed to the cabin we had booked through vrbo.com. A few miles from the main village area, it gave us the chance to take in some of the scenery, dominated by tall trees and glimpses of vista views.
The curvy SR-243 highway took us past another place we had considered staying – Hicksville Pines Chalets and Motel. Their creatively themed rooms had enticed me and seeing where the place was situated I began to grow jealous.
Luckily our cabin, located on Pine Cove Road, had its own panoramic views of forest and valleys.
Other appealing aspects included an outdoor hot tub, a master suite with soaking tub and enough seclusion to make us feel far from civilization — though a mere 100 miles from home.
With a full kitchen and BBQ, we also had the option of eating in so we could save some of our spending money.
And Idyllwild offers plenty of places to spend that aforementioned cash.
“The Fort” includes small shops on two levels — ideal for gift and souvenir shopping. Our second day, we perused artwork and knick knacks at the Spruce Moose and snagged tasty jerky at Coyote Red’s along with a few confections.
We later found that the Candy Cupboard was a better spot to satisfy a sweet tooth however, with sizable handmade chocolates. We indulged in French butter creams, peanut butter fudge balls and something called a Hellfire caramel that combined my love of spicy, sweet and salty treats.
Of course we couldn’t subsist on sugar alone, so we asked around for a lunch recommendation and were directed to get “the best burger in town” at The Lumber Mill and, of course, locals know their stuff.
The “San Francisco” was possibly the juiciest burger I’ve ever had with an addictive, melt-in-your-mouth consistency. The unassuming eatery also has a lengthy cocktail/shot list with creative concoctions and names like “Darth Vader,” “The Incredible Hulk,” and “Starry Night.”
Once we got a taste of the mountain town, we decided to venture out to explore some of the natural splendor of the area on day three.
Lake Fulmor was a scenic 15-minute drive from our cabin and its lush greenery and picnic area was just what we were looking for.
Unfortunately, we didn’t realize an “adventure pass” was needed to park in the lake’s lot. A market near our cabin sold said passes, so $5 and 30 minutes later we were back on track.
We brought along coffee and pastries from Higher Grounds to enjoy on lakeside benches and the tasty treats paired perfectly with the striking views.
We also got to experience local wild life in the form of teenagers jumping off giant, 30-foot-tall rocks into the lake, which you aren’t actually supposed to swim in due to a recent algae bloom. Ah, to be young again.
Rounding out our trip, we decided to go all out for our last full day in Idyllwild.
We started with breakfast at JC’s Red Kettle. Their French toast had a flavorful kick of cinnamon and was tasty enough with just butter and powdered sugar but that didn’t stop me from dousing it in syrup. My husband’s buttermilk pancakes were equally tasty with a hint of vanilla.
Next up was shopping at The Funky Bazaar, which as its name suggests, is both funky and bizarre. The owner is like a character out of “Twin Peaks” — fitting in this mountainous setting. He gave us a bit of a tour, then we were free to peruse locally-made items, like cigar box guitars, records, trinkets and even an art gallery.
Keeping with the strange-but-true theme, we learned that a San Diego band we knew — Cameo Kid — were playing at a popular restaurant Idyology on our last night in town.
The atmosphere was offbeat and fun with dining options indoors and outdoors by a picturesque creek. We had drinks and caught a set by our friends before heading to dinner.
For our big finale, we chose rustic steakhouse Gastrognome. The well-rated restaurant comes with the quirky bonus of gnome artwork and figurines everywhere you look. Taking in Gastrognome’s endearing, kitschy motif was just the beginning of a festive night out.
Our meal started with calamari — lightly fried and cut into strips — and a grilled artichoke that was delightfully seasoned with rosemary.
My husband chose the steak and lobster tail dinner while I had a generous 8-ounce top sirloin. Garlic mashed potatoes and crisp sauteed green beans were an ideal mate for the quality cuts of meat we both devoured.
As the wine flowed — from their top-notch list — I made a game of counting gnomes around the restaurant. But I lost count around 50, probably because of the distracting and sumptuous crème brulee I also ravaged.
As our trip came to a close, I deemed our poor vacation spell officially over.
Idyllwild offered an optimal setting for both relaxation and revelry. We arrived with hopes for tasty food, beautiful scenery and spontaneous indoor and outdoor activities; and we happily found it all not too far from home.
—Jen Lothspeich is a wine-drinking, cat-cuddling native San Diegan who dreams of writing a best-selling true crime novel. Find her on Twitter at @Jen_Evel.
If you go:
There are various ways to get to Idyllwild from San Diego, but the quickest route is up 15 north to CA-79 S (exit 58) at Temecula Parkway toward Indio; follow that to CA-371 E, then on to CA-74 W, which will eventually turn into CA-243 and take you right into town. Distance, 113 miles; approximate travel time to destination is 2 hours 7 minutes. Alternative routes can also go through Hemet to the north or Warner Springs via Ramona to the southeast.
Spots to go (Idyll)wild for:
Fratello’s Ristorante & Pizzeria
Idyllwild Bake Shop and Brew
The Lumber Mill
Mile High Cafe
The Funky Bazaar
Local newspaper, The Idyllwild Town Crier: idyllwildtowncrier.com
Pocket guide: destinationidyllwild.com