When the governor’s office reinstated more stringent coronavirus restrictions in advance of the holidays, out-of-state travel was explicitly discouraged, making regional adventures in California the most responsible choice for travelers. Fortunately, California has no shortage of fascinating places awaiting discovery—even for those of us who think we know the state pretty well, as I recently learned during an eye-opening visit to the Sierra Foothills, north of Sacramento. My destination? The newly-opened Holbrooke Hotel in Grass Valley, a former mining town steeped in Gold Rush history. Not only was I intrigued by the new hotel, I was curious to explore Nevada County, a popular escape for discerning Bay Area residents and Northern California creatives.
I was among the first lucky guests to check into the landmark Holbrooke Hotel upon the completion of a meticulous two-year renovation project that honored the property’s original essence while modernizing its infrastructure. Located in Grass Valley’s historic downtown core on Main Street, the iconic structure dates back to 1862. In its heyday, Mark Twain, Jack London, and President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Holbrooke’s guestbook. When you enter the lobby, you can picture their ilk sitting in one of the many cozy nooks with a book and brown beverage in hand.
Reimagined with a fictional “intellectual frontiersman” as its muse, the 28-room, three-level hotel retains its historic integrity down to the original brick and stone walls. The updated design and décor pay tribute to the hotel’s colorful past and Sierra Nevada roots through thoughtfully sourced accents such as taxidermy, antique furnishings and fixtures, and vintage pianos. Local architects and craftspeople were brought in to help preserve and enhance period elements like the woodwork and stained glass behind the bar at the Golden Gate Saloon and the old school elevator.
Guest rooms are located on the second floor of the main building, as well as in the adjacent Purcell House. Between the layout, hand-picked antique furnishings, and archival photography on display, every guest room is a bit different. The vibe is stately yet relaxed with soothing white walls, high ceilings, and large windows. All rooms are appointed with clawfoot tubs and even the newer elements have a vintage feel, like the wrought iron bedframes, telephones, and sound systems. Essentials like USB ports, high-speed Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth speakers will keep you wired and connected.
EAT & DRINK
Every local I met was particularly enthusiastic about the opening of the Holbrooke’s restaurant and bar, the Golden Gate Saloon, a watering hole where gold prospectors gathered when it first opened in 1852. Chef Zachary Ahrenholtz, who honed his culinary talents in some of Napa Valley’s best restaurants, developed the hotel’s signature Californio cuisine inspired by the early days of California. Nearly everything that comes out of the kitchen is made from scratch, from the baked goods and tortillas to the smoked meats and addictive sauces. The cocktails at Golden Gate Saloon are another big draw, specializing in elevated classics like the Maple Old Fashioned and Boulevardier. The hotel also has an underground speakeasy, Iron Door, that’s sure to be a hit once regulations allow them to open.
Over the course of my long weekend stay, most of my meals were enjoyed at the Holbrooke, but I did manage to become a daily regular at Cake Bakery & Cafe for coffees and sweet treats. I was also impressed by the flavorful wholesome Mediterranean fare at MeZé, and the dinnertime ambiance and cuisine at Watershed at the Owl.
SEE & DO
Across the street from the hotel is Mill and Main, a hat shop and women’s clothing boutique owned by Jacqueline Michie, a local milliner who trained under Philip Treacy. Her cool creations can be customized for you right on-site. Mill Street has become pedestrian only and is made for browsing, whether you’re in the market for books, crystals or clothing—or simply want to admire the many well-preserved historic buildings.
I took a jaunt to nearby Nevada City, an equally charming former mining town also known for its bohemian spirit. Local artisans sell their wares at the Nevada City Farmers Market on Saturdays. Kitkitdizzi is a well-curated shop carrying a delightful array of housewares, clothing, ceramics, accessories, and beauty potions.
The outdoors are a big part of the lifestyle in and around Grass Valley, which sits just under the snow line at 2,400 feet. I took a scenic drive along winding country roads to see the Bridgeport Covered Bridge and South Yuba River State Park, and toured Empire Mine State Historic Park. The Bear Yuba Land Trust is an excellent resource for information on the vast network of regional hiking trails. And if you want to gain elevation, Truckee and Lake Tahoe are less than an hour’s drive away.