On the road: Heading north to Portland

PORTLAND — Traveling with a dog can often translate into lousy hotel rooms overlooking the highway but on our trip north to Portland we lucked out with a night in McCloud, Calif.

With views of Mt. Shasta, the picturesque little town clearly attracts visitors in love with the outdoors — fishing, hiking, climbing and in winter months — skiing. It wears its history well with grand old buildings, wide open avenues and friendly residents despite an ever shrinking population.

We stayed overnight at the McCloud River Mercantile Hotel and all I can say is what find.  Thank you Expedia. (See feature photo above.)

The hotel room itself was lovely. The highlights were: A claw footed tub in a spacious bathroom, sloping tin ceilings and a plush and comfortable bed.

Although perhaps the greatest highlight was a powerful air conditioning system that banished the 105 degree temperatures we’d passed through on our trip up north. How weird to see snow and look at our car’s temperature reading and see it climb over the four hours from a cool San Francisco 70 degrees to over 100 degrees. (It wasn’t that hot in McCloud but knowing that the room possessed the ability to make our breath visible was comforting.)

I’m just using Expedia really for the first time after some truly frightening experiences at hotels booked on another website. (Imagine pulling up to a hotel in the middle of nowhere South Dakota and being greeted by a man with no teeth, who grunted answers to questions, and a growling dog that I think he hit but I wasn’t quite sure but that was enough to tell me I didn’t want to stay there.)

But getting back to Expedia, we’d been to Ojai the previous weekend to stay with friends and had found another amazing spot — this time without the dog. So slightly new to Expedia, I was looking through the four pages of instructions that came with our reservation and realized that the check in time for the hotel was a mere one hour window between 3 and 4 pm. Realizing that we’d never make our cut-off I telephoned the hotel and had a brief conversation with Kevin Mathis, the owner.

He assured me that when we arrived our key would be available and if we needed him, the phone I was calling him on was actually his cell phone and he would answer it day or night if we had any problems.

While we chatted I asked him for restaurant recommendations and he suggested a nice cafe in nearby Dunsmuir, Calif., a spot that he said was his wife’s favorite.

We checked out the menu for Cafe Maddalena  and happily made reservations for which we arrived an hour early — thanks in-car navigation system.

Mathis’s recommendation proved an excellent one. The town seemed sleepy other than the activity from the railroad line across the way from the restaurant. There were freight trains flowing by while we ate; however, far enough in the distance that it wasn’t disruptive to our meal. The restaurant was clearly a focal point for the town and we found it crowded. Even more so after people streamed in from the beautiful rose garden when a tremendous rainstorm began, which included a few rounds of hail.

The low slung building held a beautifully designed restaurant with an open air kitchen directly across from the front door.

And the food was another welcomed surprise.

Gazpacho soup. (All photos by Sarah Abruzesse.)

We both began with the gazpacho soup special, which had olive oil drizzled across the top.

This was served at the same time as our second plate of homemade focaccia, which was wonderfully spongy and tasted delightfully of crisped onions and salt.

For my main meal I had a wonderful filet of beef ($23.50) smothered in a deliciously tarragony tart bearnaise sauce that my mother would have happily eaten with a spoon. I sopped the sauce up with the crisp frites and enjoyed a tangy watercress salad.

Meanwhile my companion had the sauteed pork tenderloin medallions served with cipollini onion, shallots and a tomato compote.

And for dessert we sat on the front porch and enjoyed a delicious flourless chocolate cake and hung out with the dog who had been slightly traumatized by the torrential rain and even more astounding hail.

After dinner the rain stopped and we drove on to McCloud.

When we pulled up a woman was being dropped off by some friends. She was one of two guests we ran into that night being dropped off to spend the night at this remote hotel.

The other was a man who had just flown in from Australia. His friends had picked him up at the San Francisco airport and were dropping him off after dinner. I never asked why would he travel halfway around the world to check into a hotel in McCloud California sans car but it is one of those little mysteries I’ve puzzled over and probably always will whenever I think back to that wonderful spot.

(One of our Portland friends said that Mt. Shasta has meaning for those that study crystals. Our friend, who is a diehard climber, said he discovered this after summiting the mountain and returning to a different town nearby. Apparently there was a gathering of crystal enthusiasts and he and his friend joined the group. Our friend immediately fell asleep so he was unable to give us a fuller story.)

We walked around McCloud that night. They were getting ready for the annual firemen’s festival and the day after that an all town flea market/yard sale. Both sounded like so much fun. We loved seeing all the beautiful grand hotels and inns that spoke to a time when the railroad brought prosperity and when people stayed the night they enjoyed a certain elegance and level of sophistication that is often absent in today’s travels.

Before turning in for the night we both stuck our head in the old burned out railroad safe that still had some shelves in it.

After a great night’s sleep we went out to view some of what make the area famous. Mathis had given us the recommendation the night before.

We drove to see three giant waterfalls that are about 10 miles outside of town. The waterfalls were spectacular— evidence of the area’s volcanic history. We also saw volcanic rock strewn about around the trail.

The diner in McCloud served a great breakfast.

We headed back to town for breakfast. We received $20’s off at the diner on the first floor of the hotel and wow it was worth staying for breakfast.

The place looked amazing. The kind of diner that makes you want to sit for hours. Here we also saw more of Mathis’s amazing restoration work. (Sadly we didn’t hang out long enough to look in the actual mercantile store that Mathis and his wife have painstakingly restored. They write a bit about the process on their website.  From the windows it looks great and seemed stocked with fun and interesting antiques.)

More than enough to eat for breakfast.

Meanwhile breakfast was delicious. I had fat, fluffy pancakes that came with scrambled eggs, bacon and sausage as well. (I didn’t write down the prices but it was super reasonable and we only paid a few dollars for tip etc. After eating our way through our $20 credit.)

Then we hit the road headed for Portland.

I’m not sure if we’ll ever make it back to McCloud but I’m more than willing. It was one of those special places that you stumble across and wish you could spend more time.