(Published in the San Jose Mercury-News and its affiliates on January 25, 2015.)
Icy winter air in the Sierra Nevada brings out the primitive. A torrid fireplace, soothing surroundings and hot, replenishing grub — vaporous salads just won’t do.
For those who like to experience winter through a window rather than being out in it, two of the best spots in or near Yosemite National Park to revel in the creature comforts both echo an earlier time period long before selfies and commuter lanes. The Ahwahnee and Erna’s Elderberry House feature beckoning fireplaces and food geared to put the season’s chill on hold.
In Yosemite Valley, the famed Ahwahnee Hotel is a masterpiece of what’s lovingly been called “parkitecture” — a style first developed by the National Park Service close to a century ago that blends various design genres with the goal of harmonizing with the surroundings.
Winter at the Ahwahnee is the ideal time to cozy up in front of one of its three massive stone fireplaces and sip a warm, spicy cocktail or stroll across the granite floor under the 34-foot beamed ceilings in the dining room, pull up a wooden chair and nibble on dishes like an onion tart or roasted garlic and celeriac soup.
Construction of the hotel began in 1926 after socialites of the time like Lady Astor rejected the then “primitive” lodging available in the park. It cost a laughable-by-current-standards $1.2 million to build — double the estimates — and fortunately, the park concessionaires rethought the original moniker, the Yosemite All-Year-Round Hotel in favor of the village named by the native Miwoks who once lived on the site.
While the Ahwahnee awes visitors with its soaring, 87-year-old public spaces, 16 miles from the park’s south entrance sits another grand testament to earlier eras. The Estate by the Elderberries is of decidedly newer construction but guests will forget such details the moment they drive through the elaborate carved metal gates.
“The feeling is like in the early 1920s in Europe at one of the manor houses where you have butlers and maids,” explains proprietor Erna Kubin-Clanin of her Downton Abbey-like vision. “They enter the gates and they feel like they’re in a different world — in something special.”
This statement is not hyperbole. Including the 10-room, castle-like Chateau du Sureau, Erna’s Elderberry House restaurant, and more recently a spa and a lavish guesthouse populated by privacy-seeking celebrities, Hollywood producers and other wealthy folks, Kubin-Clanin’s nine-acre estate has received heaps of awards of excellence.
The estate is a longtime member of the discriminating Relais & Châteaux association that includes the world’s most exclusive, luxurious hotels and restaurants. Enough said.
All this comes at the prices one might imagine. As a sign near the kitchen explains it in a quote from Oscar Wilde, “I have the simplest of tastes, I only want the best.” That extends to 1200-thread-count Italian sheets and posh recipes made from the freshest ingredients.
This exquisite estate is an odd duck compared to Oakhurst, on whose edge it is located. With popular local dining choices running to a pizza parlor and taqueria and lodging competition from a Best Western, the Estate by the Elderberries — named for the bushes that have long been growing on the manicured grounds — is a proud anomaly.
Uniformed butlers and maids who have been carefully selected by Vienna native Kubin-Clanin and meticulously trained — even down to their vocabulary and diction — pamper guests.
“It’s all about service,” she says. “Making sure that if they need anything, we can provide it. The moment someone sits down in the salon in front of the fire — it’s a big roaring thing — the staff immediately asks, what can I bring you?”
The food choices are as sumptuous as the surroundings. Dinners in the restaurant are usually five-course affairs featuring recipes as alluring as the canopy beds, French antiques and life-sized chessboard outside.
Guests might sup on a luscious, lovely soup in which creamed cauliflower is swirled inside creamed broccoli with spicy cheddar toasts for contrast. A truffle-rich goat cheese souffle is paired with a tiny mâche salad and potato galette to keep out the chill. Those with a sweet tooth find satisfaction in a lush yam custard tart with crunchy pistachios served with a sybaritic dark chocolate sorbet.
With such dreamy dishes and a warm fire burning nearby, it’s tempting to stay indoors until spring.
Dining and Lodging Information
The Ahwahnee Hotel – The dining room serves breakfast, lunch and dinner and Sunday brunch plus snacks in the bar. Dinner entrees go up to $48. Room rates go from $471 to $1355 for the most expensive suite. For information, go to www.yosemitepark.com/the-ahwahnee.aspx.
Estate by the Elderberries – Erna’s Elderberry House serves dinner nightly, usually five-course meals for $108. The multi-course Sunday brunch is $64. Rooms at the Chateau du Sureau are priced from $385 to $585. The private two-bedroom villa costs $2,950 per night. For information, go to www.chateausureau.com.