Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
March 26, 2012
When we visited Northern California during ski week with our 6- and 8-year old girls, we made sure to stop for snow play at Lassen Volcanic National Park, an ancient volcano still active on the surface. Volcanoes are cool stuff for kids but fumaroles and boiling mud pots are even cooler and add to the sledding experience. Since Lassen is a solid 4-hour drive from San Francisco, I made it a stop during our week-long exploration of the area. The trouble is, winter camping was not an option and the Drakesbad Guest Ranch – the only lodging inside the park – is only open summers. I set out to find accommodations for our family of 4 based on the following criteria: less than 30-minute drive to park, nice bedroom with 2 double beds (1 for the adults, 1 for the kids), en-suite bathroom with bathtub (my girls like to take baths), free wifi (to check emails), TV in the bedroom (bonus for on-loan family DVDs) and a good choice of eating options nearby. Most of the lodgings around Lassen, say in Mineral, is just plain Jane motels and for our vacation week we wanted more. Enters the Bidwell House, about 30 minutes away from the park’s southern entrance. Here is my review after spending 2 nights at this bed and breakfast with our 2 kids.
LODGING: The Bidwell House
Located in the small town of Chester, The Bidwell House is generally considered the upscale B&B around Lassen. It’s not a stretch to say it’s the only nice lodging option in the area. We had stayed there pre-kids, loved it and hadn’t been back in 8 years. Lots of things happen in 8 years, including 2 kids! Now with 2 children, I wondered how kid-friendly the place was. I was afraid of the traditional image of B&Bs as romantic getaways for adults no-kids-please. I wrote the owner and explained our situation. As it turns out, they have 3 rooms that are child-friendly and one of them was available. We reserved it.
The room: when we arrived in the Aspen Room, my husband and I had mixed feelings. From our previous stay, I remembered bedrooms in the main house with wood burners, pioneer charm and period furniture. This is a 1901 ranch house, the bedrooms should look the part. However the Aspen Room belongs to an extension to the original house and though it’s decorated along the same lines, it doesn’t have the same charm as the old house. OK, it feels like a great motel room but could use higher ceilings and better beds. When I inquired, the owner explained that the nicest bedrooms are indeed on the upper level of the main house but that the presence of wood burners makes them a problem for families with children. In addition, the nicer bedrooms can’t accommodate extra beds and most have king beds. So there, come back as a couple for the total experience.
Perhaps because it’s more recent construction, the walls of the Aspen Room are thin and if you’re a light sleeper like me (and the upstairs neighbor gets up at night), a bedroom upstairs would be a much better choice. Last downside, on a rainy winter day, the bedroom seemed dark but I think any 1st level bedrooms would have seemed dark with that type of weather.
Now the upsides! The bedroom was large enough for our girls to roam around without any problem. They played chase and jumped from bed to bed like they were on a jungle gym despite my repeated (and ignored) warnings. Our coats were wet from the rain and it was great that we could hang them to dry in the small built-in closet right above our luggage. For bathroom fans, this one’s a dream! With its amazingly big clawfoot tub and white antique floor tiles, it was just the place to wind down after a day out. In fact the bathtub was so big that our 6 year old had to stand on her tippy toes to get inside – for her it almost felt like a small hot tub. Too bad the toiletries (soap, shampoo) don’t match the standard of the bathroom – I wish I had brought my own.
If you stay in “the addition”, the huge plus of The Bidwell House is the cozy lounge in the main house where a roaring fire sets up the scene and invites afternoon reads, lazy time and board games. If you stay in the main house, you’ll have an entirely different experience.
The main house: Built as a summer home in 1901 by the Feather River, this house was later moved on logs to its present location in Chester. Looking at it from the outside, imagine gazing at the big meadow from the wrap-around porch and hearing the river flow by. Today the Bidwell House sits on the main artery in Chester and is therefore easily accessible by car. Two parking lots make unloading easy and after you walk up the ramp, you push the front door and enter the house.
When we came in on a Sunday afternoon, it felt like visiting the home of some country cousins we haven’t seen in ages. Guests were reading books in couches in front of the fireplace and a person showed me how to use the antique phone to call the inn keeper. ‘”Ill be right over” came the answer. My girls barely had the time to explore the vintage toys in the sun room that Eva the owner was there. She showed us around, suggested we get a helping of the sherry and cookies to recover from our day, and discussed dining options. Over our stay the sun room became our favorite room as 1. that’s where the DVD library is stored, 2. if you want to work quietly, it’s a good spot and 3. you have a view on the garden.
Breakfast: “Breakfast is free?” That was the initial remark of my girls, before they fell in love with the idea of a fancy 3-course breakfast and asked if we could do it at home. I’ll say, it’s great not to have to drive to some local diner for breakfast. Both mornings, we walked to the breakfast room, picked a table and someone came asking us for our drink selection. As an incorrigible tea drinker I got my very own teapot and the girls were ecstatic. Menu the first day included plain yogurt with honey and raisin bran, omelet with sausage, spinach and cheese with whole wheat toasts, and cherry pie. On the second day we had yogurt with raisin bran and honey, French toast with bananas and bacon, and a chocolate custard with strawberries. Both days the weak link was the “sweet last course” of the menu but the rest was great and filled our stomach practically until dinner.
Service: Service was attentive, prompt and discrete. Whatever we needed, the owners were available to fill our requests and when my girls wanted seconds of bacon at breakfast, they got it. Eva even tipped us off on the best places to sled (she has 2 kids herself).
At the end of the day: I’m sad we’ve only ever seen the Bidwell House during winter time. The area has to be lovely during spring and summer with Lake Almanor right there. What some people do is they take one family trip with their kids and stay in one of the 3 “family” rooms, and later return as a couple to enjoy the posh rooms with jacuzzis. Sounds like a good deal to me.
If you’re used to the San Francisco food scene, don’t get your hopes up too high. Chester is deep burger and cafe country and both nights we attempted to find something different.
The first night we had dinner at The Red Onion Grill. If you stay at the Bidwell House, you get a free dessert with your meal (same ownership). As we later learned, it is also a must stop for fans of jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck. The space is large and clean and the hardwood bar is the bar that was originally in the hotel of Lewis H. Brubeck in 1892, Dave Brubeck’s grandfather. When you go, look for the photo of the Amedee/Brubeck hotel above the fire mantel. Pretty cool pioneer past of a jazz legend. Despite the decor, we found our food too salty, rather bland and didn’t finish our enormous plates. It feels almost out of place in Chester, serving overpriced fancy food with a long wine list. It’s the type of place you might go for Valentine’s but sincerely, I was sorry the pizzeria Tantardino’s in Westwood was closed. It sounded much more up my alley.
Address: 384 Main St, Chester.
On the second night, we wanted to eat Chinese at the Happy Garden Chinese Restaurant (I would have killed for a vegetable and dumpling soup!) but it was closed so we headed to Mi Casita. This Mexican restaurant is anything but fancy but it serves authentic Mexican food at very reasonable prices. The decor is kitsch and minimal, obviously food is the main attraction. In fact when we were there, we saw two large families walk in with their kids and order dinner. The service was good and efficient and we didn’t have to wait long before something landed on our table. I won’t say that it was the best guacamole I’ve ever had but it was a welcome ethnic dining experience.
Address: 686 Main Street, Chester.
Disclaimer: I received complimentary accommodations at The Bidwell House during our stay in exchange for this review. However the review reflects my honest feelings about the place without compromises and I would recommend the Bidwell House both to families and couples.