For years our family made an annual pilgrimage to Yosemite, driving through the tiny town of Oakhurst, Calif., about 14 miles from the entrance to the national park. We didn't stop, unless it was at Raley's market or to say hello to the talking bear in front of Ditton Realty, which, with a push of button, would (and still will) recite "'Twas the Night Before Christmas." But Oakhurst, as it happens, is worth more than a passing glance as you head up Highway 41. It has, in no particular order, a world-class inn, at least one superb French restaurant, some intriguing shops and what must be the largest collection of life-size, chain saw-carved wooden bears to be found, well, anywhere.
If cost is no object, the venue is elegant Château du Sureau, a 10-room European-style inn tucked into seven acres of what can only be described as a fairy-tale setting. Each room is filled with fine antiques, tapestries and 19th century art (48688 Victoria Lane;  683-6860, http://www.chateausureau.com). Rates from $385 a night.
If budget is an issue, the Yosemite Gateway Inn (40530 Highway 41;  683-2378, http://www.yosemitegatewayinn.com) is a pleasant alternative. With 122 units, some with two bedrooms and kitchens, there is a variety of accommodations to choose from. The inn is nestled among oaks and pines on a hillside and features indoor and outdoor pools. Rates vary by season, but on a recent visit we paid $119 for an enormous room with two queen beds.
If you're in the mood to splurge, Erna's Elderberry House is the place. Our six-course, prix-fixe meal began with seared Maine sea scallops and an asparagus soup with a lobster-cognac reduction, followed by a breast of guinea hen with fingerling potatoes and black truffle mousseline, then a baby kale salad and a cheese course. The feast concluded with a warm chocolate truffle and yogurt panna cotta. Erna's is small, elegant, and romantic. Dinner for two, with wine pairings, was $328, plus tax and gratuity. The Elderberry House is adjacent to Château du Sureau, and they share the same address and website. Reservations can be made at (559) 683-6800.
The Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad is up the road in Fish Camp on the way to the national park. From March to October (although trains may operate Thanksgiving weekend, depending on the weather) it operates a variety of Jenny rail cars and logger steam trains, some daily, some on weekends and some on Wednesdays. Kids and adults can enjoy a four-mile train ride through the pines while learning about the history of logging in the Sierra. Cost of a ride on the Model A-powered Jenny rail car is $16 for adults and $8 for children ages 3 to 12. A ride on the Logger Steam Train, recommended, is $19 for adults and $9.50 for children (56001 Highway 41, Fish Camp;  683-7273, http://www.ymsprr.com).
The lesson learned
It can be downright fun to spend a little time in Oakhurst, home to several delightful gift shops, the Fresno Flats Historic Village and, cross my heart, more than 100 carved wooden bears in and outside local businesses, making Oakhurst a carved bear capital. There's even one you can talk to.
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