A Yosemite for All Seasons
The historic Ahwahnee Hotel offers delicious fall and winter getaways.
Not many couples get to celebrate their 50th anniversary, but my grandparents, Chester and Madeline, did. For their special celebration, our family took a trip to dine at Yosemite’s historic Ahwahnee Hotel.
I was a young teenager, which made everything from the high ceilings of the Ahwahnee’s stunning dining room to the steep face of El Capitan seem that much more epic and beautiful.
It made sense to recognize such a milestone amid a landscape so spectacular that it caused John Muir, famed naturalist and former Martinez resident, to observe, “But no temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite. Every rock in its wall seems to glow with life.”
My favorite memories, however, are of the giant smiles on my grandparents’ faces, as they celebrated a half-century together and shared a fine meal with the family.
Two years ago, my parents celebrated their 50th anniversary and decided to continue the tradition at the Ahwahnee. Since their anniversary is in December and because my mother has always wanted to experience the hotel’s famed Bracebridge Dinner, that was the setting for their special night with family and friends.
They picked the perfect night for a dinner at the Ahwahnee: Snowflakes tumbled in the brisk air, making the enormous banquet hall feel warm and cozy, full of festive merriment.
The annual Bracebridge dinner is a journey back in time that reimagines the hotel’s dining room as an 18th century English manor. The evening began with Lord Bracebridge welcoming guests to his estate for an extravagant four-hour, seven-course feast complete with pheasant and plum pudding.
A large chorus sang holiday carols and broke into groups to entertain each table. There were various other entertainments throughout the evening, although I could have done with less of the admittedly talented court jester, due to my lifelong allergy to clowns.
Throughout the dinner, I kept sneaking looks at my parents in their formal evening wear, enjoying every minute of their anniversary celebration. “Thank you for making a dream come true,” my mother told Lady Bracebridge as we exited.
I’ll file that memory next to my grandparent’s glowing smiles in my personal Ahwahnee scrapbook.
Of course, the beauty of the Ahwahnee is that you don’t need to be celebrating an anniversary to visit. Just a three-hour drive from Danville, the hotel makes for an easy, elegant getaway from the East Bay. Throughout fall and winter, the Ahwahnee schedules wonderful food and wine events, in addition to the Bracebridge Dinner.
Last November, I was invited to try another of Ahwahnee’s great food and wine traditions: the Vintners’ Holidays. These wine retreats make a perfect pairing with the bright gold and yellow leaves in the park’s black oak and cedar trees, which add a Technicolor tint to the landscape’s perennial magnificence.
Vintners’ Holidays are scheduled mid week and feature afternoon tastings with prestigious winemakers. The sessions are moderated by wine journalists and experts, and the breezy, stream-of-consciousness chats with the winemakers are fun and informative. Guests learn about each winery’s history, and the winemakers’ background and approach to their craft.
The tastings take place in the Ahwahnee’s Great Room, a magnificent space with 24-foot ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows, with hand-stained glass that transforms the afternoon light into colorful beams.
It’s a pretty cool place to sip wine between lunch and the evening’s feast.
Indeed, the Ahwahnee, which opened in 1927, is the most ambitious hotel ever built in a national park. It was envisioned to host world leaders and elite guests in luxury, right in the heart of Yosemite Valley. Winston Churchill, Eleanor Roosevelt, Queen Elizabeth, the Shah of Iran, Lucille Ball, Will Rogers, and Bob Seger have slept there.
During Vintners’ Holidays, the wines are also showcased during the closing-night dinner, when the vintners’ wines are paired with an elaborate, five-course meal prepared by the Ahwahnee’s executive chef, Percy Whatley.
The hotel hosts one more big foodie event each year. In January and February, top chefs convene at the Ahwahnee for mid week Chefs’ Holidays retreats. These getaways are food-focused, with cooking demonstrations and kitchen tours, and plenty of face time with the guest chefs during wine and hors d’oeuvres receptions.
The lineup of chefs is culled from both coasts. There are almost as many New York chefs scheduled for the 2014 event as there are from California. The East Bay will be well represented by Kim Alter of Oakland’s Haven (January 15–16) and Peter Chastain from Walnut Creek’s Prima (February 2–4).
I have not had a chance to attend one of the Chefs’ Holidays sessions, but that’s OK. It’s another reason my wife and I have to visit Yosemite before our 50th anniversary trip in 2059.
Yosemite food and wine events
Yosemite National Park’s Ahwahnee Hotel is open year-round. For information, call (801) 559-4884, or go to yosemitepark.com/the-ahwahnee.aspx.
Six Vintners’ Holidays packages are scheduled November 11–12 through December 4–5. They range from two to three nights, and cost $664–$1,148 per person. Sessions tend to sell out, so early reservations are strongly recommended. yosemitepark.com/vintners-holidays.aspx.
The 86-year-old Bracebridge tradition used to be very difficult to attend; dinner tickets were awarded by lottery. To meet the demand in recent years, eight dinners are scheduled between December 13 and 25, including Christmas Eve and Christmas night. Reservations are strongly recommended, and prices are $389 per person for dinner. (801) 559-5000, bracebridgedinners.com.
Eight Chefs’ Holidays packages are scheduled for 2014, between January 12–14 and February 5–6. Packages start at $449 per person. yosemitepark.com/chefs-holidays.aspx.