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October 8, 2008

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Where's Sarah?                                          Big Bear, CA!


Destination: Big Bear, California
More than just a wintertime getaway, Big Bear offers romance and adventure all year 'round.
By Sarah Kozer

When you mention Big Bear to most Californians, they think of ski trips and Christmastime cabins covered in snow. Most of us Los Angelinos enjoy a good laugh every winter when watching the news and seeing the poor residents of this mountain town getting snowed in for days at a time. But there's another side to this active city during the non-winter months when everyone comes out to play, and Big Bear becomes a magical wonderland with gorgeous scenery and a quaint environment perfect for a romantic or active weekend getaway.

Although only about a two-hour drive from Los Angeles, you can feel the stress of the city melting away on the scenic drive into Big Bear Lake. The road in is winding and there are hairpin curves, so if you are prone to motion sickness (like I am) prep with some Dramamine so you can enjoy the ride. A great place to start your adventure and get some ideas and information is at the Big Bear Visitor's Center: 630 Bartlett Rd., Tel: 909-866-6190, or visit to plan your trip ahead of time.

Excited about the itinerary and not wanting to waste any time, I decided to fill up with a hearty lunch and explore the town. The nearby Old Country Inn Restaurant feels like home ... if you grew up in a small, friendly rural town where everyone knows each other and greets you with a smile. I was half expecting to see Andy Griffith roll in for his afternoon sandwich. Even the mayor was in enjoying his lunch and chatting with the owners, Bruce and Shannon Bucionus. Specializing in German fare, the inn features a seriously huge menu that really has something for everyone -- even vegetarian options -- and all items are reasonably priced from $10. Old Country Inn Restaurant, 41126 Big Bear Blvd, Big Bear, CA, Tel: 909-866-5600.

Next, it was off to the main attraction: the lake. I was scheduled to take the Big Bear Queen Lake tour at the marina, but as I pulled in, I realized that there were no other boats out on the water. The wind had been picking up all morning, and by the time I'd gotten out of the car, it was strong enough to reconsider a boat ride, so there was a last-minute change of plans and I instead headed to the Big Bear Historical Museum, located on Greenway Drive just east of the airport in Big Bear City Park. To be honest, I'm not usually one for museums; when I visit a place I'm always looking for the action. But this museum proved to be a delightful surprise, as it gave a very realistic insight into the wild history of Big Bear, from the gold-mining pioneer days to Hollywood's use of the gorgeous scenery and its cowboy heroes. My favorite part was the "Rules" sign for teachers in the pioneer one-room schoolhouse. Apparently, it was scandalous and forbidden for a lady to ride in a carriage with a strange man or hang out in ice cream parlors. Oh, how times have changed! Though it wasn't planned, it worked out perfectly to start the trip here as it set the mood for the rest of the weekend and added to the romance and drama of the quaint town. The museum is open on weekends through October. Admission is free but they accept donations. Big Bear Historical Museum, Tel: 909-585-8100.

There was so much to see at the museum that I accidentally stayed longer than I'd planned and had to rush off to get a hike in before it got too late. I love to hike but am loathe to search out new trails in unfamiliar territory. I was born without an innate GPS and tend to get lost easily. So I brought my friend Dan McKernan from the visitor's center with us. Dan is pretty much an all-around athlete and active outdoorsman, so I asked him to lead the way to one of the best trails in Big Bear. He took us to Castle Rock on Highway 18 at Pampoose Bay and it was spectacular! Challenging but accessible, the hike was like walking into Sherwood Forest or something out of a child's fairytale book. Honestly, the scenery in Big Bear is almost too beautiful to be believed. I kept getting the feeling I was on a movie set. Cue the birds and wildlife! All around there was evidence of the creatures that share the forest. The birds were singing, squirrels and other critters were abundant and we even spotted a small animal that was too quick for us to identify but was definitely something I haven't seen before. The climax of the hike is the actual rock for which it is named, with a view of the entire valley for miles around. The rock is such a high vantage point, in fact, that the Serrano Indians used to use it as their lookout for spotting game and approaching visitors. Legend has it that one particular Native maiden used to wait and watch for her lover when he would go out hunting. When one day he didn't return, she took a "lover's leap" off the rock in despair. It is pretty intimidating, but if you are into rock-climbing, this is the spot.

Exhausted from the hike, I was anxious to check in, have a hot shower and change for dinner. I was excited to see what Castlewood Cottages had in store. From the photos on the website, it looked like this would be the perfect place to continue the romantic, lost-in-time feeling of the trip. I had never stayed in any kind of "theme" resort before so had no idea what to expect and was floored when I saw the room. It was literally like stepping into King Arthur's castle. The anteroom was designed to look like a medieval courtyard complete with flowering trees, a swing and even a mote! There is a glorious Jacuzzi bathtub big enough for two with a full-size knight in armor standing guard above it. The adventure doesn't stop there. This tri-level cottage is complete with a dining room and sleep chamber with a four-poster queen size bed and fireplace. It wasn't hard to feel like a queen here and you can take the fantasy as far as you want (there are costumes in the closet). I can't wait to go back and try out the Enchanted Forest or Woodland Treehouse cottage. Castlewood Theme Cottages, 547 Main Street, Big Bear, CA, Tel: 909-866-2720.

After a relaxing Jacuzzi, it was time for dinner at, befittingly, Nottingham's restaurant located in the Robinhood Resort. (Apparently I'm not the only one who thinks Big Bear feels like a page out of a fairytale ... ) The setting is complete with authentic period antiques and a popular bar upstairs if you just want to go for ambiance and cocktails. Pancho Licona, the chef, is incredibly passionate about his cooking and the menu reflects his creative flair. He rarely takes a day off and keeps even the regular customers guessing with new and inventive specials all the time, including pasta, chicken, steak and seafood dishes. The vibe here is warm and cozy but sophisticated enough for a date night candlelit dinner shared over a bottle of wine from their well-chosen list. Wishing I had a warmer jacket on the way back to the cottage, I remembered that even when it is warm during the day in Big Bear, the nights are usually cool from the brisk mountain air. Nottingham's, 40797 Lakeview Dr., Big Bear, CA, Tel: 909-866-4644.

After a restful night's sleep in the Middle Ages, I geared up for some mountain biking and headed to Bear Valley Bikes to rent some equipment. The owner's professional cycling knowledge can help even the beginner get pedaling. His bikes are top-notch and I had never before realized what a difference that can make in feeling in control of the bike. I was fitted with a model specially designed for women and the staff gave me some lessons in how to ride and effectively use the bike's gears for the best performance. Big Bear is a world-class mountain biking region with more than one hundred miles of trails and Forest Service roads. Derek, the owner, knows the trails like the back of his hand and can recommend just the right path and provide a map to get you going. Bear Valley Bikes, 40298 Big Bear Blvd., Big Bear, CA, Tel: 909-866-8000.

One of my top recommendations for what not to miss in Big Bear is a stop by the Sweet Basil Bistro for a picnic lunch. Relatively new to the area, this small restaurant is quickly gaining a reputation for its delicious mastery of country Italian cuisine. From $12 per person, you can phone in an order for a gourmet picnic basket lunch with choice of entrees, sides and dessert. Chef Sally Hill and Deborah Cardinalli greeted me with a beautiful basket filled with one of the best meals I've had in a while. I took their advice on a wine recommendation and was thrilled with how perfectly it complemented not only the food but also the beautiful tranquil, grassy knoll where I chose to enjoy it. The pressed panini sandwiches were so good that I went back for another take-out order the following day on the way out of town. The Bistro will definitely be one of my first stops on future visits to the lake. Sweet Basil Bistro, 40629 Big Bear Blvd, Big Bear, CA, Tel: 909-866-9212.

After finishing the last crumb of dessert, I opted for a relaxing canoe ride at Captain John's Marina. Although a small shop, Captain John's is a full-service rental company with pontoon, speed, fishing and sailboats available along with kayaks and canoes. A one-hour canoe or kayak rental costs $20 for one to two people and is money well spent to get a completely unique view of the beauty of the water and surrounding scenery. It's also not a bad way to burn off some of those calories from lunch. Captain John's Marina, 39396 Northshore Dr., Big Bear, CA, Tel: 909-866-6478.

The last attraction I saw before heading back to LA was Moonridge Animal Park. It's important to understand the history and mission of the park, as it is not like a typical zoo or wildlife preserve. In 1959, fires ravaged the San Bernardino Mountains and left many of the animals injured and abandoned. Several of the animals, including a 30-pound bear cub, were brought to Moonridge for rehabilitation and sanctuary at the park. For many of these animals, however, returning to the wild was not an option due to human imprinting or injuries that would compromise their chance of survival. The park houses 160 animals from 80 species. Animals that cannot be released become permanent residents of the park and include a family of Grizzly bears, bobcats, wolves, a mountain lion and snow leopard, as well as dozens of smaller animals. Open: 10am to 4pm on weekdays; 10am to 5pm on weekends. Admission: $9 for adults, $6 for kids and free under age 3. Moonridge Animal Park, 43285 Goldmine Dr., Big Bear, CA, Tel: 909-878-4200.

In case you need some more incentive to visit before the season really starts to change, Big Bear is has some exciting offers and events to get you packing. Take advantage of a current promotion that offers a free $100 gas card for guests booking five or more nights at a participating lodge or a $25-$50 gas card for guests booking a three- or four-night stay at a participating lodges. Minimum night stays vary per lodge and other restrictions may apply. The free gas card must be mentioned at the time of booking. For a listing of participating lodges or to request a free visitor's guide, log on to or call 1-800-4BIG-BEAR.

Sarah Kozer, best known for her role on FOXÕs TV phenomenon, Joe Millionaire, has been featured on TV shows and magazines in the US and abroad, including UKÕs Back to Reality, People, US Weekly, Time, Front, Loaded, Vanity Fair, and Glamour. She has been seen on Oprah, Jay Leno, Regis and Kelly, Saturday Night Live, Howard Stern, Jimmy Kimmel and CNN, and on the cover of Playboy!

Voted one of the Sexiest Women of Reality TV the past four years, Sarah has hosted television programs including Extra!, has written for USWeekly and is currently producing, casting and writing for television, with several of her own shows in the works. She resides in Beverly Hills but spends much of her time traveling and exploring the world.

*Please tell us what you think of this week's newsletter!

All information presented here is accurate at the time of publication but prices, dates and other details are all subject to change. Please confirm all information before making any travel arrangements.

Pics From The Trip


View from the drive


Old Country Inn


Veggie wrap at Old Country Inn


Big Bear Historical Museum


The rules


The olden days


Castle Rock hike


Castlewood cottages


The King Arthur Dining Room


The bed chamber


Nottingham's Restaurant


Chef's special


Lots of bikes to choose from


Hitting the trails


Meditation on the Mountain


Sweet Basil Cafe


Picnic by the marina


Canoeing the lake


The view from the canoe


Moonridge Animal Park


A resident grizzly


The scenic lake


Sarah Kozer in Hawaii


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