Travel: Clear Lake Revealed

Journey northwest to Clear Lake, where a smattering of funky towns surround a warm, sparkling blue lake and invite visitors to partake in all the region’s treasures.

For some travelers, Clear Lake is a well-kept secret escape, whereas first-time visitors often are surprised
to discover an eye-popping, gorgeous revelation. Just two hours northwest of Sacramento, California’s largest fresh-water lake sparkles a glistening blue, with roughly 68 square miles of surface and more than 100 miles of shoreline. With ample space for water sports from pleasure boating to wind surfing, Clear Lake earns its reputation as the Bass Capital of the West with its high populations of largemouth and black bass, along with crappie, bluegill, carp and catfish.

Even if you’re not on the water, the area around it beckons you to park yourself and relax, to cruise and poke around from one little unpretentious town to the next, or to retreat into the peaceful countryside and mountains. Towns around the lake are indeed small, with just a few thousand souls at most. While you’re there, shop, golf, hike, bird-watch, taste wines and enjoy outdoor summer concerts. Dining-wise, you’ll find everything from locally owned diners to inventive, artful bistros.

• Clear Lake is shaped like a folded bandana on a person’s head, a semioval with two trailing ends forming an unbalanced V off the back. The two-lane Highway 20—the road along the east and north shores—mostly winds and twists close to the water, which is bordered by steep, rocky slopes covered with oaks and pines. The opposite side of the lake, reached via Highway 29, also is wooded and steep in places, but gentler, with more open farmland, walnut and pear orchards and rolling hillsides of newly planted vineyards. Higher elevation (1,326 feet at lake level), low population, little traffic and frequent easy breezes all make for generally excellent air quality. Sunsets are gorgeous, nights balmy. The stately, extinct volcano Mount Konocti, rising to 4,300 feet above sea level, lords over it all.

From Sacramento, take Interstate 5 north to Highway 20 west. We start our tour at the junction of highways 20 and 53; take the turn onto Highway 53 and head toward the towns of Clearlake and Lower Lake, then toward Hidden Valley and Middletown.

Clearlake is a scruffy little burg with a couple of waterfront parks: Thompson Harbor Marina, with a boat ramp and other services, and family-friendly Outrageous Waters, perfect for summer with water slides, batting cages, kids’ park and go-carts. It’s open through Labor Day; call (888) 932-3386 to ask about birthday parties and special events. If you’re hungry, check out Andre’s BBQ or Kathie’s Inn for some surf-and-turf selections. From town, follow Lakeshore Drive out toward Silverado Beach, Honeymoon Cove and Windflower Point—good fishing.

For a true getaway, consider Windflower Island Bed & Breakfast. On a tiny island off the point, the inn has a comfortable main house and cabanas to let, sandy beaches, optional catered meals and mainland shuttle service. (Contact Jeff LaFrance: 866-511-1575; 4lakesideproperties.com.)

• Lower Lake has a bit more to offer, starting with the Anderson March State Historic Park. Here, you’ll find oak woodlands, broad tule marsh, hiking trails, picnic grounds and guided nature tours. More than 150 species of birds have been sighted here, including double-crested cormorant, osprey and Western Grebes. Come in the wintertime to witness soaring bald eagles.

At Shaw’s Shady Acres, you can put in your canoe or kayak for a run down Cache Creek (explore to the Clear Lake Dam) or rent a fishing boat. The town’s historic district is just a couple of blocks long; check out the Candle Factory, Belle Dream Gift Shop and the Tuscan Village Deli.

Opened last year, the Lake Escape Resort has 18 cottages close to shore, many with private decks and full kitchens, plus a swimming pool, barbecue pits, picnic areas and a boat ramp. (866-788-5253; lakeescapere
sort.com)

If that’s not your scene, consider Spirit Lake Bed & Breakfast, which is set on 10 secluded acres with a private lake, a hot soaking pool and massage services (707- 995-9090; spiritlakebnb.com). If you come in the fall, the dense mixed foliage from here up into the mountains is spectacular.

• Middletown is cute, with the breakfast/lunch Cowpoke Cafe building sporting Holsteinlike black and white swatches and spots, and Perry’s Deli boasting the “best sandwich in Lake County.” Along the way, you can duck into Ployez Winery for a taste (try the sparkling Chardonnay and ask about the Summer Music Under the Stars program), or into Olive Tree Spa and Salon for some TLC. The tasting room of Guenoc Winery isn’t too far away. If you need fishing tackle, bait or picnic supplies derived from a great weekend farmers market, get to Hardester’s Market on Hartman Road.

Shortly before you reach Middletown, off the highway a couple of miles, Hidden Valley Lake Golf and Country Club offers the only 18-hole course in the area. (Four others scattered around the lake each have nine holes.) At 6,708 yards, mellow on the front nine, a hilly beast on the back, the course has excellent greens at every hole. Number 15 is the signature link, with panoramic views of the pine- and oak-studded mountains.

Turn off Highway 53 and bear west on Highway 29 toward Konocti Bay, Kelseyville and Lakeport. A handful of exits off of the highway reach the lakeshore. This stretch takes in the so-called “Clear Lake Riverias,” embracing much of the best the region has to offer.

• Point Lakeview Road and Soda Bay Road wind at the base of the steep slopes of Mount Konocti, taking you to the Konocti Harbor Resort and Spa. The resort’s 250 rooms—from standard or deluxe to lakeview suites with hot tubs on the deck—spread across 120 lushly planted hillside acres. For water sports, take advantage of the Konocti Marina, with watercraft rentals, fishing tackle sales, launch ramp and overnight mooring services.

You can get pampered at the resort’s Dancing Spring Spa—massage, skin care, sauna, steam and other services await you. For kids, the resort has Kids Club programs and a miniature golf course. Dine in one of several restaurants, including the memorabilia-filled Classic Rock Cafe. For entertainment, check the schedule for the indoor Mazzola Classic Concert Showroom and the outdoor Konocti Field Amphitheatre. (Examples: Bruce Hornsby on July 19; Chris Isaak on July 22.) (800- 660-5253; konoctiharbor.com)
• Back up along Highway 29, be sure to stop in Kelseyville, which offers a pleasant, compact core and a few real surprises. Start with Studebakers Coffee House on Main Street for the “Perfect Cup of Joe” (beans locally roasted from Kelsey Creek Coffee Company), plus great breads, pastries, specialty teas and robust deli sandwiches. Consider packing for an early picnic here, then heading to serene Finch Gardens, where you can stroll the immaculate grounds on Saturday mornings and attend a summertime Art in the Garden show and shop for original works or plantings to take home. Call Helen Finch at (707) 279-4965 for details.

On Main Street, you can taste Lake County wines at the tasting rooms of Wildhurst Vineyards and Rosa D’Oro. For fine dining, you can’t beat Saw Shop Gallery Bistro, with a changing, seasonal menu emphasizing beautifully prepared, reasonably priced fresh fish selections plus lamb, steak and duck in a bright gallery setting enlivened with original art. On July 10, consider taking in “Jupiter, King of the Planets” at nearby Taylor Planetarium and Observatory.

You’ll find more marinas and water-access points along the lakeside roads, a variety of hotels and motels, and local dining sites such as the quasi-landmark Burgertown USA in Soda Bay. Continue your wine tasting at Steele Winery, where the lighter-style Chardonnay and earthy, meat-friendly Merlot are standouts.

This area also offers several outlets for fresh produce, including the region’s prime crops: walnuts and pears. Lake County Bartlett pears were exhibited at the 1885 World’s Fair in New Orleans, and today the county is the second largest supplier of premium fresh pears in the nation. Kelseyville hosts an annual pear festival in September. Adobe Creek Packing Company sells boxed pears and gives packing shed tours by appointment. (707-279-4202). Fowler Ranch includes a produce stand and farmers market, where you can pick up all manner of produce, fresh eggs, beef and pork products, with nearly everything certified organic. (707-279-2375)

• At the far western edge of the lake, the city of Lakeport is worth a weekend by itself. Several surprisingly good small art galleries showcase works by regional and national artists. As a starting point, visit the Main Street Gallery and pick up a copy of the Cultural Arts Guide brochure, with a listing of studios, galleries and events, and a map of the entire lake area. The old yet revitalized Main Street has jewelry stores and specialty shops to catch your fancy. To rent Jet Skis and other power watercraft, check out On The Waterfront. (707- 263-6789)

Lakeport has some very nice inns, such as The Mallard House right on the shoreline, with quaint shingle cottages, private dock and shaded observation deck over the water. Konocti Villa is a curious throwback, benefiting from its sandy beach and 1940s décor. Dining choices range from the oven-fresh goods of Angelina’s Bakery to the Italian cuisine of Sicily’s. Events fill the calendar year-round, including Volksfest (a Volkswagon car show) in July, a seaplane splash-in  in September, plus seasonal fishing tournaments, festivals and concerts. At spacious, grassy Library Park, you can picnic, swim, listen to free music at the bandstand or get out onto the water—prevailing westerlies make for great windsurfing here.

As Route 29 comes around to intersect with Highway 20, head toward the town of Upper Lake, then back east to tour the rest of the lake. Optionally, you can drive west on Highway 20 toward Blue Lakes and Ukiah.

• Old Town Upper Lake, essentially a three-block stretch of Main Street left of the highway, shows off a largely restored Old West facade hosting contemporary amenities, such as the lively Blue Heron Cafe, Gracious Ladies (sewing and crafts), Powell’s Antiques, Tumbleweed Coffee House and D. Gutierrez art gallery.

Consider staying a night or two at the handsome 19th century Tallman Hotel, now a boutique hotel gracefully restored by owners Bernard and Lynne Butcher. Many of the meticulously appointed rooms come with private garden patios and balconies. The Butchers also re-created the Blue Wing Saloon and Cafe next door; demolished in the 1920s, it is back in its original location next to the hotel, serving generous portions of well-prepared California comfort food, microbrews and local wines indoors or alfresco. Scrumptious hot wings, links, burgers, seafood dishes and braised short ribs just hint at the variety. Some meals are prepared on a huge 1930s-era boiler converted to an outdoor grill; the mouth-watering aroma is awesome. Save room for a sarsaparilla float.

Featherbed Railroad Company is a decidedly different B&B in Nice. Nine adapted caboose railcars (with names such as “Orient Express,” “Wild Wild West” and “Lovers”) serve as guest rooms, and each offers a different look; some have large soaking tubs inside, for example, but all include plush feather beds (800-966-6322; featherbedrailroad.com).

• The towns of Nice, Lucerne, Glenaven and Clearlake Oaks share many similarities—small size, a selection of mostly simple accommodations, lakeside parks and marina facilities. From Lucerne Harbor Park, take a daytime excursion or evening dinner cruise on the Clear Lake Queen, a triple-deck paddlewheeler.

Between Nice and Lucerne, visit the gardens and tasting room of Ceago Estate Wines, founded by Jim Fetzer (of Fetzer Winery fame), practicing organic and biodynamic farming to produce lovely Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc. Tulip Hill Winery also is worth a stop.

Clearlake Oaks is the home of the historic Eleven Roses Ranch, offering winery and historic-sites tours, and day trips on the beautiful, unspoiled main ranch property with wagon rides, barbecue and Dutch-oven peach cobbler to enjoy. (707- 998-4471)                                                   

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