This Mountain Hamlet Has You Covered
An easy two-hour drive or less from almost anywhere in San Diego Country, Idyllwild has been a mainstay for family getaways and quick mountain escapes for decades. This bucolic community among the pines and high desert scrub recently faced its own potential extinction when a raging wildfire threatened to barrel through town, with nothing but brush that hadn’t burned for nearly 100 years in front of it.
A soaking monsoonal downpour is the only thing that spared the city from destruction, and now is a perfect time to visit and explore all that this surprisingly upscale spot has to offer.
Beyond the hiking trails, wide open skies, clear nights, and mountain pines, Idyllwild boasts an active arts and music community and impressive selection of dining choices, especially for such a remote location. Bistros and wine bars dot both the main downtown area and outlying areas that would seem more at home in downtown or bustling La Jolla than on a quiet tree-lined street.
Arts: The town’s Art Alliance calls the town a “diamond in the sky” with an assortment of both public art installations and individual galleries and showings. This volunteer-based, nonprofit organization works to “enhance and expand the city’s reputation as an art community, provide opportunities for member artists and artisans to display their work, raise the level of community commitment in support of the visual arts in Idyllwild, and support the achievement of artistic excellence,” according to the AAI Web site.
The AAI puts on several events throughout the year, including the regular Second Saturday Art Fairs, the Plein Air Festival, and an Art Walk and Wine Tasting. The organization’s Web site regularly updates a schedule of all art-related events as well as local galleries, inns, and cafes showcasing local artists. (www.artinidyllwild.org)
Jazz: Every August, the buzzing of cicadas and whispers of the wind blowing through the pines are joined by the sweet sax and guitar tones of Jazz in the Pines. Now in its 20th year, this annual two-day gathering brings together dozens of performers at venues scattered across the Idyllwild Arts Campus. Multiple stages rock and sway all weekend long with appearances by such well-known artists as Diane Schuur, the Ray Goren Band, Izzy Chait and Billy Valentine, and many more.
More than two-dozen groups perform everything from straight-ahead jazz to blues, Latin, and rock. Accompanying the musical performances are the Festival Marketplace, which showcases the work of more than 50 selected artisans, and the Dine in the Pines food court, which highlights options from local eateries.
Wine: Think a mountain escape means either BYOW or a visit to a small market for a bottle of over-priced chablis? Not in Idyllwild. Nestled right in the heart of town is the Idyll Awhile Wine Shop & Bistro.
Opened three years ago, this intimate bistro serves premium wine, beer, and food (both to enjoy on-site or take away). The owners stock an assortment of local California wines such as Idyllwild’s own Middle Ridge Winery, as well as craft beer from local breweries throughout Southern California.
Live music on the weekends makes the bistro one of the most popular destinations for both locals and visitors alike. Group beer and wine tasting events are available to celebrate any special occasion. (www.idyllawhilewineshoppebistro.com)
Food: Hearty diner fare, long the staple of many a mountain hideaway, is definitely plentiful throughout Idyllwild. Located in the town center, the Red Kettle Cafe has been serving hungry diners lunch and dinner for years. A good choice is its hearty chili paired with a fresh-baked cornbread muffin. The chili offers a zesty mix of spices with just that right amount of kick. The restaurant features an airy outdoor patio for al fresco dining with views across to the log cabin-inspired shopping center nicknamed “The Fort,” featuring retailers like Grandpa’s House of Jerky and Lady of the Lake Soap Shop just across the street.
Sitting on the patio, one can lean into the large oak plank chair rail and watch the town go by, a mix of pick-up trucks, jeeps, and some “city folk” cars such as Priuses and the occasional Mercedes-Benz. Locals stop and chat at the bottom of the patio, debating town politics and weather predictions.
On the flip side of the dining spectrum, Idyllwild offers a number of upscale options including The Gastrognome (European-inspired fine dining), La Bella Montagna Pasta House (Italian), and the classic Cafe Aroma, which has been pairing fine dining with a funky vibe and live music for years, bringing locals and visitors back again and again.
Menu options at Cafe Aroma vary from classic risottos and linguini to a scallop Caesar salad and garlic bisque, along with daily artisanal meat and cheese platters. Seasonal daily specials rotate throughout the year. (www.cafearoma.org)
Stay: Despite being a small community, there is no shortage of lodging choices throughout greater Idyllwild. Always a favorite, countless individual mountain cabins are available for rent by the night, week or month. (www.idyllwildvacationcabins.com)
Around town, traditional lodges and inns such as The Bluebird Cottage Inn (www.bluebirdcottageinn.com), the Fern Valley Inn (www.fernvalleyinn.com), and the Strawberry Creek Inn Bed & Breakfast (www.strawberrycreekinn.com) cater to visitors who want a more traditional hotel-type experience.
Just outside downtown Idyllwild, the Quiet Creek Inn on Strawberry Creek offers a mix of hotel-style services with a rustic cabin experience. A group of duplex cabins dot Strawberry Creek on over 6.5 wooded acres of towering pines and aromatic cedars. The site of a former Cahuilla Indian camping area and much later a horse ranch, Quiet Creek Inn was developed in 1986 to meet the demand of Idyllwild visitors who looking for accommodations mixing luxury amenities with a tranquil, forest setting. Cabins are outfitted with rock fireplaces, vaulted knotty pine ceilings, decks overlooking Strawberry Creek, in-room coffee, refrigerators, and microwaves; comfortable queen and king size beds with Egyptian cotton linens; cable TV with DVD and video players; and WiFi access for those needing to work while enjoying the mountain air. (www.quietcreekinn.com)
With a mix of eclectic dining, entertainment, lodging and activity options, Idyllwild offers an opportunity to create a unique mountain getaway tailored to almost any taste. So head up and decide how to spend your time — idle or wild. AIMEE CEBULSKI
Photography by Aimee Cebulski