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May 23, 2013

A rejuvenating whitewater getaway

Me (front left) going over Devil's Cesspool, one of the day's many highlights.
 What is it about a spontaneous getaway? Somehow they always seem to crackle with energy and unexpected discoveries. Surely it has something to do with the fact that such getaways are unplanned. You haven't been anticipating the trip for weeks or months; you haven't delved into restaurant reviews or methodically laid out a list of activities to enjoy.

Instead, out of necessity, you leaped into the unknown, knowing little or even nothing about your destination.

I'm thinking about such things because last week I took off on a spontaneous getaway and it couldn't have worked out better. It was only a quick 1.5-day trip from the Bay Area, but I came home feeling as rejuvenated and refreshed as if I'd been away for a week.

It all started one day last week when my San Francisco-based travel writer pal, Donna Peck (editor of Celebration Traveler), asked me to run up to the Gold Country for a one-day whitewater rafting trip. We'd get rooms in Placerville, spend the night, go rafting the next day, and return to the Bay Area that same evening.

Two days later we arrived in Placerville and checked into the venerable and historic Cary House Hotel. Built in 1857, the solid-brick building's past guests have included Mark Twain, Billy the Kid, and Elvis Presley; it's also believed to be the place where the egg/oyster/bacon dish, Hangtown Fry, was invented. Both our rooms were very comfortable, furnished with antiques, and possessed kitchenettes and full baths. The downstairs lobby was filled with historic memorabilia such as documents, photographs and clothing.

We'd both been completely focused on going whitewater rafting, and hadn't really given any thought to Placerville. Neither one of us had ever been there before, although I'd driven by many times over the  years on my way to South Lake Tahoe.

So it was a pleasant surprise to discover what a gem this Gold Rush town is. We spent the afternoon exploring Main Street, which still looks a lot like it did back in the rough '49er mining days when Placerville was called Hangtown (not because of the egg dish, but because of the enormous numbers of hangings that occurred here).

We browsed antique shops galore, perused restaurant menus, and spent quite a bit of time in photographer Jim Powers' photo gallery at 360 Main Street (huge photos with vivid coloration of local landscapes, either matted and framed or--my favorite--printed on aluminum). We also enjoyed a tasting at Synapse Wines (304 Main Street), a consistent award winner in major competitions such as the SF Chronicle and California State Fair competitions. I thought the '08 and '09 Syrahs were remarkably good.

 We asked everyone we talked to where we should eat, and a few names came up repeatedly. We arbitrarily chose one of them, Brick's (482 Main Street), and that was definitely the right thing to do. A friendly wait staff, an open & airy atmosphere with lots of art, and delicious, moderately-priced and healthy  food. I had the Turkey Burger with mushrooms, parsley, jalapeno & pepper jack cheese on whole wheat bun with lettuce, tomato & red onion with chipotle aioli ($9.95). Donna went for the Quinoa Burger with avocado, onion and chipotle aioli ($9.95). They had a great selection of local wines and local craft beers.

We topped off the evening at Cozmic Café & Pub (594 Main Street), which was having its weekly Open Mic night--no cover, great entertainment, really fab. It's in the old Pearson's Soda Works Building, built in 1859. Downstairs is the café (think imaginative wraps, sandwiches, salads, smoothies, etc.), with a very inviting atmosphere; you can also walk down the hall and grab a table under the rocks in the former gold mine on the premises. Upstairs is the pub and a room with good sound for entertainment such as the Open Mic session. There's always something going on in this place, as the calendar indicates.

Next morning we had time before rafting to take a tour of the Gold Bug Mine, just a mile or two from Main Street. We both loved the self-guided tour (with audio) of this hard-rock Mother Lode mine, which has wood flooring and lighting installed. It was simple, straightforward, and extremely informative.

We became seriously lost on the way over to meet our fellow rafters on the American River (at Henningsen-Lotus Park in Lotus), heading the wrong way on Highway 49. Eventually we figured it out and got going the right way, but wondered if we'd make it on time. But we both agreed that we'd had such a good time so far that we'd go home content if we had missed the boat.

Lucky for us we made it, and soon we were wet-suited-up and paddling down the river. Our rafting company was Adventure Connection. Our guide, Riley Cathcart, was among the best river guides I've ever had. His instructions were simple and easy to follow; he was low key and amiable; and he knew that river inside out, so that we skirted around rocks with precision and played some fun games with rapids.

The South Fork's whitewater runs and rapids are mostly Class III, or Intermediate. The waves and rapids on rivers are classified into six categories ranging from Class I, which translates to easy and fast-moving water with ripples and small waves, to Class VI (so extreme and dangerous that it's intended for experts only).

I've rafted in the past on everything up to and including Class V, so I had a good idea that the South Fork's Class III would be fun, fairly easy, and still filled with thrills. And it was, for the entire 13 or 14 miles. The scenery all along the way was gorgeous. Usually we had long-reaching vistas before us, and once we were in a long rocky gorge. The river flowed swiftly and we moved right along. Despite wet suits and a rafting jacket, I was completely soaked through almost from the beginning, but the day was sunny and warm so I didn't feel cold until I stepped from the raft five hours later.

Donna dropped me off in Sonoma late that evening. Walking into the house 1-1/2 days after I'd left I was tired and a bit achy in the arms from paddling, but who cared?

I'd been off on another spontaneous getaway, the kind that crackles with energy and discovery.
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