I’ve always thought of Yosemite as far away. Or, at least farther away than other Bay Area getaways like Mendocino or Big Sur. So, imagine my surprise when Google Maps told me it was only going to take three hours to get from San Francisco to the national park’s entrance. Wait, what? Why did I think it was going to take longer? Perhaps because Yosemite feels so other-worldly and majestic, with its stunning waterfalls and soaring granite. The notion of hopping into your car on Haight Street and three hours later craning your neck up towards Half Dome sounds too good to be true.
I’ll do you one better, though. Imagine not having to crane your neck, but instead looking out at Half Dome from the plush comforts of a hotel bed. Welcome to Ahwanee Yosemite, arguably the most elegant hotel in the National Park System. (Before we get any further: Yes, this is the real Ahwahnee Hotel. A contract dispute is to blame for its name to change to Hotel Majestic, but after a $12 million settlement in July the name has been restored and so has the hotel’s beauty and charm.)
Built in 1927, the wood-and-stone structure is reminiscent of an old hunting lodge, with wildlife murals, massive fireplaces, floor-to-ceiling windows, and a chandelier-lit Dining Room. (When you see the space, you’ll understand why it’s capital “D,” capital “R.”)
On our first morning there, my husband and I can see the hikers snaking their way up to El Capitan, the largest granite monolith in the world, but our sights are fixed on a less ambitious prize—the seasonal Mirror Lake. We follow a quiet trail through the forest, and a few miles later, with the sun still climbing in the sky, we arrive at this serene corner of the park. In the spring, Mirror Lake offers incredible reflections of the surrounding granite walls. In the fall, when the lake is dry, it becomes a meadow teeming with wildlife. To sit here is to feel like you’ve been dropped into an Ansel Adams photograph. We pop a tiny bottle of champagne we brought with us. Not that we’re celebrating anything in particular; this place just makes us feel grateful to be alive.
You know what also makes me feel grateful to be alive? An umami-rich bowl of mushroom soup, which is what we return to at the hotel after our “hike.” It’s actually the reason we came to Yosemite this weekend. The bowl of soup was part of a culinary series they call “Taste of Yosemite,” a month-long culinary extravaganza that brings together renowned chefs, cooking demonstrations, mix-and-mingle receptions, and gala dinners. Our lineup featured a cheese tasting with the “pioneers of handcrafted cheese”—Sue Conley and Peggy Smith of Cowgirl Creamery—and a cooking demo from Chef Adam Mali, of The Battery in San Francisco, who wooed us with a gorgeous plate of charred Gulf shrimp, confit tomatoes, and fingerling potatoes.
The headlining chef for our weekend was Chef Peter Armellino, of the Michelin-starred Plumed Horse in Saratoga, who cooked up a remarkable five-course dinner. My favorite dishes included ricotta gnocchi with roasted mushrooms and truffle butter; Guinea hen roulade with a foie gras emulsion; and roast sirloin with a silky béarnaise sauce. The grand finale was a smartly composed meringue “mushroom” with torn coffee cake, chocolate mousse, and passion fruit gel. I’ve had many, many extraordinary dinners as a food writer in Northern California, but this is the only one in which I slurped soup while making eye contact with a deer loitering outside the restaurant, and enjoyed the last swirl of a digestif on a starlit stroll under pine trees.
Over the years, the Ahwanee Yosemite has hosted everyone from Walt Disney to President John F. Kennedy. The Mary Curry Tresidder Suite is commonly known as the “Queen’s Room” because Queen Elizabeth II stayed there on her visit to Yosemite in 1983. Much of the original décor is the same (it’s been called “Southwest-meets-Art-Deco”), along with its much-loved and eclectic collection of Native American artwork, stained-glass windows, and Persian rugs. The total effect of the hotel and this culinary series, and the national park, is to make you feel transported in space and time. It offers a complete escape from the hamster wheel of everyday life in the Bay. Not too shabby for a three-hour drive.
The 2020 Taste of Yosemite series will take place January 12 – January 31, 2020. Visit www.travelyosemite.com for ticket information, and bookings at the Ahwanee.