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California's Highway 49, wineries, gold & dining

Author: HotelCharlotte (More Trip Reviews by HotelCharlotte)
Date of Trip: October 2007



In our years of traveling throughout the Groveland-Yosemite region we often find ourselves on Highway 49, an intriguing route that is sometimes twisted, occasionally steep and always scenic. Highway 49 is a scenic choice for those traveling south from Interstate 80 or Highway 50 out of Lake Tahoe instead of using Highway 99.

Common throughout the length of this drive are the wineries and gold rush era history with plenty of other pleasurable distractions including theater and art, regional crafts, music, farmlands and oh...so much more!

We started at old town Auburn by finding the "Omelet shop", a little restaurant (who's name escapes me) in oldtown, downtown that specializes in serving omelets with 78 different recipes to choose from. I ordered the roast beef, tomato and red onion with a dollop of sour cream and it was delicious! Victor's was more traditional but just as tasty. This restaurant seems to collect an eclectic crowd of tourists, cowboys and local characters.

We enjoyed the downtown checking out the cute shops. We found a few that were note worthy including a great nursery, Belle Flore Gardens, (1125 Lincoln Way. 916-660-9701) located right in the middle of downtown at the Lincoln-High Street. The shoppe is a work of art and I could have wandered their offerings for hours, instead we bought some mums and wandered down to Pioneer Motherlode Mining Co., (www.pioneermining.com.) This store has all the little bits a prospective gold panner might want and the big equipment a career miner needs. The store is at once high-tech with the dingy mounted floating pumps and old world with the maps, prospecting pans and vials of gold flake. This was another stop I could have spent far more time in.

We next head off to discover the California Welcome Center. We encounter a very helpful staff. I bought two things here that were touristy-kitch. The first is one of those shake-it-up-and-it-snows globes with a carrot, and 2 charcoal bits and the heading: California Snow Man. The second was a vial with real California gold flakes and a certificate of authenticity. This makes a good discussion piece as most folks haven't seen gold in its raw state

From Auburn we head south on 49 to Placerville. You will meander through some of the prettiest countryside in the Sierra foothills with many farms. (not the Central Valley crop farms, but scenic crops like orchards, grapes and such.) We found the El Dorado County Visitors Bureau (www.visit-eldorado.com) publication an exceptional resource with maps of all the agritourism stops (Farm Trails) and wineries along the way with a handy list of open times and schedules.

We chose to stay overnight in Placerville at the newly remodeled Cary House Hotel (www.caryhouse.com) with a new owner. We very much enjoyed our stay here. The room was a one bedroom apartment with a living room and kitchen. The rate was under $100. Perhaps this was a midweek special. The breakfast was very light, requiring us to dine shortly after leaving. The Hotel sported beautiful antiques along side plastic relics. An odd juxtaposition that we hope the new owners will change, especially in the public hallways and lobby. Parking was free and we were centrally located in downtown and could walk everywhere.

We explored town looking for a good lunch stop before heading out to find the wine tasting stops. We discovered Powell's Steamer Co. on Main Street, (530) 626-1091, also under recent new ownership. Turns out we "rediscovered" Powell's for dinner too. Not much choice on a Monday night in Placerville.

After lunch we are following the map and old memories as we began seeking out winery tasting rooms. Our first find was Ursa Vineyards (www.ursavineyards.com), a producer of wine we already know and enjoy and carry in our own restaurant. We have the California State Fair wine guide with us and see that Ursa has scored a double gold. We are ready to try a winning taste! Alas, it is Monday and Ursa is closed.

We scoot down the road a bit and find Jodar with a nice port to try out on our friends back in Groveland. I decide this is a good time to look at that handy El Dorado map with open/closed times. We find Madrona Vineyards (www.madronavineyards.com) to be near where we are and head for High Hill Road and the farm stops along the way. We bought a case of delicious apples from High Hill Ranch and enjoyed some fudge from the Fudge Factory Farm before we found Madrona. Good wine and a beautiful setting!

Returning to Placerville we find ourselves looking for a good dinner with a nice wine list. We go where the Hotel recommends, Tomei's 384 on Main Street only to find that Monday is not a good day here either, though the restaurant looked like something we would enjoy. The menu was a tasty read. We walked around a bit and found a few chains type places and decided it would be better to go back to Powell's Steamer Co. and try something else on the menu. We weren't disappointed. Others have since recommended Cafe Luna also on Main Street.

Heading south again we breeze through the tiny towns of Plymouth and Drytown. Small places who's history dates back to the Gold Rush. Plymouth is now a wine center with a great number of little wineries spread out to the east of town along a figure 8 route in the Shenandoah Valley.

Next we come to Amador City and Sutter Creek. Sadly, most folks will now miss these villages as they have just completed a bypass. If you are touring the area, make a point of going through, not around. Both of these outposts are very historic and photographic

Sutter Creek is far larger than Amador City with several hotels, Bed & Breakfasts, galleries antiques, curios and restaurants lining Main Street. We stayed at the Hanford House (www.hanfordhouse.com) just around the corner from Main Street and were able to walk everywhere in the downtown area. We enjoyed wine tasting two doors down from the Hanford in a co-op featuring three vineyards. Not that the wine was great, but the art hung on the walls had me captivated. We even purchased a huge picture that hangs in my bedroom.

We enjoyed a great traditional Italian meal at Bellotti's the cornerstone of the newly remodeled American Exchange Hotel. We peek over the edge of the bridge hoping to spot a gold nugget. Unsuccessful, we cross the street and tried again on the north side of the bridge.

Traveling perhaps a bit over half an hour heading south we intersect Highway 4 and turn left to go to Murphys, an exceptional little wine town a few minutes detour off of Highway 49. Besides wine, there are oodles of unique bed and breakfasts, historic inns, museums, galleries and wonderful little restaurants. We have stayed at the old Murphys Hotel, (www.murphyshotel.com) circa 1800's with presidential visitors on the guest list and oozing charm. We go to places like this and wonder..."if the walls could talk..."

A visit to Murphys is incomplete without a stop at Ironstone vineyards and although I have been there many times, we go again. The tasting room set amongst the vineyards with a marvelous old bar from which the tastings are done. The Sauvignon Blanc was recognized this year at the State Fair and their reserve list has some good selections. But one visits Ironstone to see the grandest museum in the Motherlode with a gold nugget of gigantic proportions inside a true bank vault. I circle the vault for many minutes wondering where I will get a shovel to start digging for my natural riches. This Herculean chunk of gold was discovered in 1991, not the 1800s and it sparks dreams.

Next on our list of stops we take Parrots Ferry Road short cut to Columbia. This stop is a State Park and restored Gold Mining Village with wooden sidewalks and dirt roads. Columbia is a great place to visit on weekends when you might witness a bank robbery or catch a ride on a stage coach. Smart visitors will spend the $3 to rent a gold pan. You get the lessons for free and will even catch a spot of gold! Arriving on docent days adds intrigue. During the mid week period we see many buses with students.



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