By Raymond Bill
The best part about living in the Coachella Valley is our location. While northern sections of our nation, like Minnesota, are experiencing weather colder than parts of Mars, we are blessed with beautiful sunshine and temperatures in the mid 70’s. Regardless of the season, we are fortunate in that we can escape to some of the most desirable destinations California has to offer, without driving more than a couple hours. From the beaches of San Diego, Orange, and Los Angeles Counties to the mountain destinations of Big Bear, Lake Arrowhead, and Idyllwild, we have options. For the holidays, I had been searching for a place to take my girlfriend that would be far enough from home without the stress of traveling. We had the most amazing mini vacation in Idyllwild at a charming bed & breakfast, companied by fine cuisine and shopping in their quaint mountain community.
We arrived in Idyllwild after a short drive up Hwy 74 and although there was no snow on the ground, the crisp, clean mountain air was refreshing. At an altitude of over 5000 feet, we were surrounded by tall pine trees and cabins that you would expect to find in a Thomas Kinkade painting. We were fortunate to have a reservation at a premier bed & breakfast named Strawberry Creek Inn, which is located walking distance from downtown shops and restaurants. Built in the 1940’s, this cabin is majestic and features 10 private rooms and one large common area. We were greeted by the most welcoming Innkeepers, Ian and Rodney, who clearly have a passion for hospitality. Our room had to be one of the finest available as it featured a large stone fireplace, private balcony and satellite television with premium channels. This of course is in addition to the standard amenities such as housekeeping, bath and body products, mini refrigerator and coffee maker.
After settling into our room, we were eager to see what the town had to offer. With many shops to choose from, we happened upon a toy store, of all places. Not just any toy store, this shop, called, “Idyllwild Soda Pop & Sweet Shop and Remember When Toys,” had all the old favorites from my childhood, including Etch-a Sketch, Slinky and character figurines like Gumby and Mr. Bill (Which I had to purchase, given my last name is, in fact, Bill). After reminiscing and purchasing a Charleston Chew, Necco Wafers and a Jolt Soda, we were on to several boutique shops to finish our tourist activities.
After a short rest from our shopping excursion, we were ready to dine in one of many fine restaurants Idyllwild has to offer. Though busy for the holidays, we were able to reserve a table at the famous Gastrognome Restaurant. Seated by a grand fireplace, decorated with playful gnomes, we were greeted by a pleasant server who shared with us her favorite menu items. We began with a tender Calamari steak. Breaded and fried, this appetizer was sliced and served with a hearty tomato sauce as well as a savory aioli. No rings or tentacles here, just delicious calamari cut into slices. For entrees, I had a perfectly prepared fillet of Halibut topped with diced tomatoes, green olives, capers, and basil, served with crisp green beans and rice pilaf. My date would share with me her Tournedos of Beef; two medallions of beef tenderloin topped with mushroom caps and finished with a rich cream sauce. Entrees were impeccable and service was stellar. We finished with a flourless chocolate cake with crème anglaise and crème brulee. Desserts were phenomenal. What was most impressive was their wine list. Some highlights from this impressive list include Opus One (2003), Caymus, Napa (2010), and Chateau St. Jean, Cinq Cepage (1999). With bellies full, we settled in for the night with a good movie and a warm fire.
There are many benefits to staying at a bed & breakfast but the most notable is that there is breakfast provided. However, unlike your typical hotel or motel, this is no continental breakfast. On our first morning, we joined many other couples and families for breakfast in the common area, not knowing what to expect. We were served a delicious frittata with fresh baked biscuits and fresh squeezed citrus juice. I would do unspeakable things for that biscuit recipe but I’m sure, with a little coaxing, I can make a phone call for their secret recipe. We mingled with couples from all over Southern California, making our experience unique. With a full stomach, we ventured to downtown Idyllwild.
Our second day in town would also be filled with shopping and sight seeing. We enjoyed lunch at their local p
izza restaurant and later shared a bottle of wine from a wine shop named Idle Awhile, which also serves light bites such as flat breads and cheese plates. The owner of this little shop is genuinely humble and happy to be doing what he is doing. We felt at ease as he shared with us his values and a little insight on the town of Idyllwild. The residents of this community are some of the most welcoming people you could be fortunate enough to meet. They truly made our trip magical.
For dinner, this second night, we craved Italian and did not have to go far to find an amazing eatery called, La Bella Montagna. This small restaurant does not have much room for seating but it certainly makes up for it in flavor and service! Our server, Tony, was charismatic and eager to please. We took the recommendation of our friends from breakfast at the Inn, and began with a crisp Bruschetta. The flavors were intense, rivaling the best to be found here in the dessert! We shared a salad before moving on to our entrees. I ordered a special entrée that evening of jumbo prawns and tender scallops in a scampi style presentation with pasta aglio e olio (oil and garlic). The shellfish was perfectly cooked and the pasta was al dente. What more could I ask for? My girlfriend ordered ravioli filled with porcini mushrooms and creamy ricotta cheese, sautéed in a brown butter sage sauce. Both were simply amazing! We finished our meal with a traditional tiramisu, accented with crunchy chocolate covered coffee beans. Talk about a “pick me up!”
The following morning, we were pleased to join our new friends for breakfast. This time we would enjoy a remarkable French toast topped with sliced peaches and served with maple syrup and chicken sausage. Again fresh squeezed juice and coffee were provided. After we enjoyed our breakfast, we noticed several little books in the common area that were filled with guests’ feedback over the past 10 years. Every single comment (and there were plenty) was complimentary, validating our own opinions of our
stay. Guests noted the many board games and puzzles available as well as the large library of books on hand for reading. Many authors of the available books have also stayed at the Strawberry Creek Inn, including one of my favorites, Anne Rice.
After staying at the Strawberry Creek Inn, I cannot imagine staying anywhere else. The Innkeepers were as accommodating as a five star hotel and the locals were just as welcoming. We felt like staying for a full week but we agreed to just revisit at our very next opportunity. I have eaten in the finest restaurants this valley has to offer and surprisingly, Idyllwild has provided some healthy competition with Gastrognome and La Bella Montagna. I would even go so far as to say the service there is better than most I have experienced locally. If you are looking for a quick escape from the heat of summer or the heavy tourism of winter, Idyllwild has it all. Strawberry Creek Inn is located at 26370 Hwy 243 and you can reach Ian and Rodney at 951-659-3202.
The Gastrognome offers fresh seafood and great steaks, paired with amazing wine selections. They are located at 54381 Ridgeview Drive and reservations can be made by calling 951-659-5055.
La Bella Montagna provides some of the finest Italian cuisine within 100 miles! Truly incredible! Located at 26290 Hwy 243 and reservations can be made by calling 951-659-2630