El Dorado County: One of California's Best Kept Secrets, Perfect for Fall Getaways
By Kathy Chin Leong

East of Sacramento, El Dorado County reigns as California's gold country, a hidden treasure laden with bucolic names such as Lotus, Somerset, Pleasant Valley, and Diamond Springs. Then the justapositoin of unusual town monikers such as Fair Play, Grizzly Flat, and Rescue make you want to visit only to see what surprises lie within.

As in any gem worth mining, it requires time to look and peck away. One recent weekend, my friend Julie and I went digging for family fun as well as ideas for restful parent getaways. El Dorado County, known for its wild west historical roots, is truly an off-the-beaten-path vacation for families who want to take it slow to take time to delight in farm visits, historical buildings and spacious parks. But don't fall asleep yet- the area offers rousing activities such as bicycling, hiking, and white water rafting for the gotta-move traveller.

Meanwhile, adults maneuvering kiddie-free will discover a spate of interesting and high-quality wineries and breweries, lovely B&Bs, wildflower walks, and fine dining not expected in the middle of a rural setting.


Setting up base camp in a kid-supportive hotel is imperative when travelling. And that's why we chose the excellent Holiday Inn Express in El Dorado Hills. The hotel offers the amenities children love and need to have – a pool for getting out that pent up energy, spacious suites and spacious rooms. Parents love to have in-room microwave and refrigerators for keeping extra food from the road. The micro is the best for warming up baby milk, leftovers, and more. What a great convenience.

For families on a budget, hotel hot breakfast each morning saves big bucks. We enjoyed the new fangled pancake machine that cooks and dispenses pancakes at the touch of a button. The whole pancake is made inside a metal box and rolls out of the machine off a conveyor belt. Each one is identical, fresh, and cooked to perfection. The breakfast also features cereal, fruit, yogurt, cinnamon rolls, and juices along with milk, coffee and tea. You can load up the kids and practically skip lunch, if necessary.

Rooms at the Holiday Inn Express are always nicely appointed with comfortable, clean beds, flat screen televisions, and, if you have a suite, you will get a nice living room with couch and separate TV. A separate TV is great when They want to watch cartoons, and you want to catch up with Dancing with the Stars.

The hotel is next to a walking path, and is also situated in the center of a bustling shopping area called El Dorado Hills Town Center, so you can enjoy roaming the shops while having access to grocery stores to stock up on your trip. Hotel rates start at $100, but check website often for routine specials. See http://www.hiexpress.com/ .


The plethora of farms is a great thing to pursue, especially in the fall. A few of the more interactive ones listed in the El Dorado Visitor's Guide include:
*Abel's Apple Acres, Placerville. Known for its buttermilk apple pie, you can come and enjoy pony rides, a hay maze, and pick up apples, apple butter, apple products, fudge, and a variety of gifts and crafts. Call 530/626-0138 or log onto http://www.abelsappleacres.com/ .
*Cardanini's Pumpkin Patch, Camino. This patch features over 15 varieties of pumpkins on more than seven acres. The folks there give you a cart and cutting sheers to find your perfect pumpkin! Call 530/644-2140.
*Willow Pond Organic Farm, Placerville. You can pick your own apples and pumpkins here. When you are done, you can picnic by the pond. You can also bring your pets to enjoy the farm as well. Call 530/295-8090 or log onto http://www.willowpondorganics.com/ .
*Hooverville Orchards, Placerville. A farm with a variety of lemons, oranges, apples, pears, peaches and home-baked goods, it features a picnic area and pond to enjoy. Julie and I came here and even though it was late in the day, we were able to select apples and assorted fruits from crates and leave our payment on the counter's coffee can as part of its honor system. Imagine that! Call 530/622-2155.


In Coloma, the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, is every child's dream of the wild west. In 1848, James Marshall discovered gold, and ever since then, California and the western hemisphere has never been the same. The state park features a museum and visitor's center, and some 20 replicated historic buildings such as a post office, schoolhouse, gun shop, and more. You can also see the precise site where gold was discovered in California. Kids can roam through the area and buildings, and also find a variety of play structures to hop on and off of. Families can tackle a variety of easy-to- difficult hiking trails, and also pursue some recreational gold panning at the South Fork American River. The park features daily interpretative tours at the sawmill. Click on http://www.parks.ca.gov/ for more info for times of opening and closing, and special events.

For the more adventurous families, whitewater rafting trips are also available. Local outfitters such as Whitewater Connection offer day trips for all levels on the South Fork of the American River. See http://www.whitewaterconnection.com/ .


Going to Gold Country without the kids? Most memorable is a bed and breakfast is found in Placerville dubbed the Bella Vista Inn, an Italian-inspired house that rivals the likes of B&Bs in Napa Valley any day. The owners, Kathleen and her husband contractor, have turned their personal home into a Tuscan oasis filled with antiques and antique replicas, and framed Italian artwork.

Located on a hillside, you see that Bella Vista Inn (http://www.discoverbellavista.com/ ) is aptly named that, for it means beautiful view in Italian. You can practically inhale the tree lined views of the Sacramento River and wide azure skies. And you cannot help but break into song as you are inspired by the peaked hills and mountains of El Dorado County. Opulent decor rains down on this B&B, from the crystal chandeliers to the hand-painted ceiling mural to gold gilded frames of European landscapes. The property exterior reminds me of the Great Gatsby, for a sweeping driveway that curves up to the house passes a lush, grandiose lawn, while a white gazebo, ponds with statues, and stone benches graze well tended trees and flowering bushes.

Rooms are  filled with thick, deep comforters. Some feature fireplaces and jetted tubs, while all have flat screen TVs, and more. Our room greeted us with rose petals leading up to a large king bed. We took note of this for the next time when we would bring our husbands. The suite we had called the Bella Vista featured window views of the mountains. A round wooden side table topped with a bud vase and rose was perched next to the window. It was a great place to sip morning coffee and daydream while lingering on the picturesque setting.

A hot tub embedded in rocky natural-looking hillside is next to the pool, overlooking the valley. This breathtaking scene is what location set managers dream of. Breakfast is equally breathtaking as Kathleen lovingly dishes up eggs Benedict, French toast, and other delectables with expert plating techniques that sent my taste buds soaring. Rates for the Bella Vista Inn start at $149. Check its website for specials. Note: a downstairs suite is great for families with small chlidren.


For dinner, an historic, brick restaurant dubbed the Café Mahjaic is a white-tableclothed gem, with New American cuisine showcasing international flavors. Food is so excellent you will kiss your fingertips after you take your first bite. Here you'll find everything from grilled fish tacos to chicken pad thai to its specialty, chipotle chocolate shrimp (a winner). With sunlight streaming through the tall paned windows at dusk, the small café as romantic as they come. See http://www.cafemahjaic.com/ .

Vineyards make for awesome photos for those who want to go winery hopping. Close to the inn is David Girard Vineyards, set on an 85-acre estate. Picnic tables and a small gift shop highlight this well appointed winery. See http://www.davidgirardvineyards.com/ .

Another venue, Gold Hill Winery and Brewery at http://www.goldhillvineyard.com/  is an amazing setting with ponds and rolling hills. It is one of few places that have both a winery and brewery so you can sample both wine and beer. Over 50 wineries dot these Sierra foothills, so your dancecard of visits will be full.

When you have a weekend to spare with or without the kids, check out El Dorado County for all of these key destinations and more. A taste of farm life never hurt anybody!



El Dorado County Chamber of Commerce – http://www.visit-eldorado.com/
Holiday Inn Express – http://www.hiexpress.com/
Bella Vista Inn - http://www.discoverbellavista.com/
Whitewater Connection – http://www.whitewaterconnection.com/
Marshall Gold Discovery Park – http://www.parks.ca.gov/
Café Mahjaic – http://www.cafemahjaic.com/
David Girard Vineyards – http://www.davidgirardvineyards.com/
Gold Hill Winery and Brewery – http://www.goldhillvineyard.com/
Abel's Apple Acres - http://www.abelsappleacres.com/
Willow Pond Organics - http://www.willowpond.organics.com/


Kathy Chin Leong is editor of www.bayareafamilytravel.com. 

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