The Happy Wanderer: Grass Valley/Nevada City


HILLS NEWSPAPERS  July 1, 2009

I’M NOT WEALTHY, by any means. But a trip with three girlfriends recently to retrieve the family jewels proved to be a rich experience.

It had been several years since my dear friend, Jillian, lost her mom. At the time, it was too difficult to look through her treasures, so they remained — undisturbed — in a safety deposit box in Grass Valley.

“It’s time to see what mom had,” said my longtime pal, who was anticipating not only newfound wealth but a road trip with three of her best female friends. Little did we know of the treasures we’d share in one of California’s most colorful regions.

Grass Valley and nearby Nevada City are two of the Sierra foothill’s most vibrant towns. They have Gold Rush charm and San Francisco sensibilities and more things to do than we could possibly fit into two days. But we tried.

Day 1: Taking a “shortcut” from Sacramento, we headed northeast on Highway 20 through the pastoral Penn Valley. The road meandered through rich, rolling farmland dotted with grazing horses and chocolate colored cattle. I mention chocolate because it was here that we had our first of many sweet treats, packed neatly in a cooler next to sparkling waters and fruit. Hydration is important but chocolate is a must.

Our cottage was a one bedroom suite in the Northern Queen Inn, a modest resort on 34 wooded acres with a natural waterfall and a narrow gauge railroad reminiscent of the

original train that ran from Nevada City to Colfax in the late 1800s. Our accommodations were quiet and close to town — a perfect location for four women looking for fun but also for beauty rest. We settled on our sleeping arrangements (Affie and I were in the loft and Laura and Jillian were on the living room trundle) and we headed into town.It’s my recommendation that you visit the chamber of commerce in any new town to get the lay of the land. The folks at the Nevada City Chamber were especially helpful — pointing out the live local theater, restaurants and art galleries, as well as outdoor activities. Armed with a bag full of brochures, we immediately headed for the bar.

Nothing beats a saloon for local color, and in the case of Nevada City, history. You can almost picture the grizzly gents slamming their gold nuggets on the bar, demanding a whiskey. My girlfriends were more subdued, but perhaps just as thirsty. We sipped our wine and split an order of chicken wings while chewing the fat with the locals. Later, we drove three miles to Grass Valley (where Jillian picked up her mother’s jewels) and found the perfect evening venue: the Holbrooke Hotel.

Lovingly renovated, this historic hotel is one of the region’s great treasures, with richly appointed rooms and a balcony that overlooks the main street below. The restaurant and bar are a local favorite, and it’s easy to see why. The live music is some of the best in the county, and the seafood salad was so succulent, I couldn’t bare to share — even with girlfriends. Luckily, their meals were every bit as good.

Day 2: Family jewels stowed securely in the house safe, we drove 20 minutes to Bridgeport for a hike in the scenic South Yuba River State Park. The main attraction for us was the long covered bridge — a romantic slice of Americana reminiscent of the famous “chick-lit” book “The Bridges of Madison County.” We photographed the bridge from too many angles and then strolled the stretch of river that featured a watering hole with several large rocks perfect for sunning and jumping into the gentle current. We entertained the idea of joining the fun, but opted, instead, for a picnic of fine cheese and flat bread we’d purchased at a gourmet shop in town.

The evening included a dine-around in Nevada City that had us trying appetizers and wines in several local establishments. It was Friday night and the town was abuzz with an eclectic mix of people enjoying the balmy prelude to summer.

I’d been told by a local club owner that Nevada City is becoming a “little Austin, Texas,” meaning the live music scene is really catching on. It was evident that night, as an eclectic mix of music filled the air. It was almost like a festival, though there was none scheduled. We took it all in, then walked back to our room and had sweet, melodic dreams.

Other attractions: Tour the site of the oldest, richest hard rock gold mine in California at Empire Mine State Historic Park. Go wine tasting in Nevada City at Indian Springs Vineyards or Nevada City Winery. Pick up a map at the chamber of commerce and hike 18 different trails in the region. Take a self-guided tour of 42 native and non-native trees in the downtown Nevada City area (available at the chamber office, the map was prepared by a local horticulturist).

For more information, contact the Nevada City Chamber of Commerce at 800-655-NJOY.

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