Right now is a great time to enjoy Yosemite National Park, off-season | SierraSun.com

Right now is a great time to enjoy Yosemite National Park, off-season

Diane CovingtonDining Room at the Ahwahnee in Yosemite

“No temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite. Every rock in its walls seems to glow with life.” ” John Muir

There’s a special beauty about Yosemite Valley right now. It’s quiet, uncrowded. I just finished a three-day winter holiday there. On my daily walks, only the roar of a waterfall broke the stillness. One day, a coyote raced across the patchy snow of the meadow. Looking up at the sheer granite face of Half Dome, dusted with snow, I could glimpse the Yosemite that John Muir so loved.

I was attending a Chefs’ Holiday at the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite Valley. The Ahwahnee, the “Grand Dame” hotel of the park, was built in 1927 for a sum of 1.5 million dollars. In today’s dollars, I’m afraid to think how much that would be. The elegant and luxurious hotel sits right up against the granite cliffs of Yosemite Valley, its rock façade blending with the massive stones behind it.

And winter is the Ahwahnee’s season to show off. The Great Lounge, over 70 feet long, with 24-foot high ceilings welcomes you with blazing fires in the six-foot-high fireplaces. The plush couches invite you to curl up by the fire with a book and read.

At my Chefs’ Holiday, featured chef Mark Estee, Executive Chef and Co-Owner of Moody’s Bistro in Truckee, produced a superb five-course gala dinner on the last evening. The grand dining room, with giant sugar pine beams criss-crossing the 34-foot ceilings, lit by hundreds of candles, felt like a scene from a fairy tale.

Estee put on a cooking demonstration, as did the two other chefs from California, Kimball Jones, Executive Chef of the Carneros Inn, Napa, and Kelly Degala, Executive Chef of Va de Vi in Walnut Creek.

Our program included a tour of the hotel’s 6,500 square foot kitchen, a historic tour of the hotel and a private “meet the chefs” reception.

The three-day Ahwahnee package was fun, interesting, educational and delicious and the setting magical. The price, that included the room and all the fun for two people, including the gala dinner in the grand dining room, cost $949.

If you want to have the fun on more of a budget, you can stay at the nearby Yosemite Lodge for $545 for two.

Yosemite also offers Vintners’ Holidays in the fall, introducing guests to exceptional wines and the people who create them. It’s too late this year to enjoy the Chefs’ and Vintners’ holidays, but you can plan ahead for next season ” this fall and next winter. (See below for dates.) Tickets are also now on sale for the famous and spectacular Christmas Bracebridge dinners, beginning December 15, 2006.

But this season, it is not too late to catch Heritage Holidays, three days of fun, March 5-7, for the same price as the Chefs’ Holidays. The schedule includes a welcome reception, 1920s era dance lessons, followed by a tea dance, a gala dinner in the Ahwahnee dining room, a vintage fashion show and a Grand ball featuring the Royal Society Jazz Orchestra. You’d be spending a few days in the Roaring ’20s while enjoying Yosemite National Park at the same time.

If you just want to go and stay, there are lots of packages on the park’s Web site. Go to http://www.yosemitepark.com and click on “packages” and you can choose from many different levels of activities for all ages.

Badger Pass Winter Sports:

From the valley, catch the free shuttle up to Badger Pass Ski Area, for snowboarding, downhill and cross-country skiing. Or enjoy a free snowshoe walk with a Park Ranger, daily at 10:30 a.m. (You can rent snowshoes for $5.)

Valley sports and fun:

Pretend you’re an Olympic skater at the Curry Village Ice skating rink. Or get a head start on hiking season this year. Due to the light snowfall, many valley hiking trails are open.

Ranger walks and talks:

Each day in the valley, choose among various indoor talks or valley walks, even “Wee Wild Ones” for children under six. Or catch an evening Ranger program at Yosemite Lodge. Check the Web site for all current information.

Museums and gallery:

Browse through the Visitor’s Center, Ansel Adams Gallery or the Indian Cultural Museum or watch the half-hour film, “The Spirit of Yosemite.”

Plan Ahead:

For next fall and winter’s packages, Vintner’s Holidays November 5 through December 7 and the Chefs’ Holidays, January 7 through February 1, go to http://www.yosemitepark.com or call 559-252-4848.

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