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A mountain getaway ... next door.


Tucked against the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains, the towns of Saratoga and Los Gatos are linked not only by State Highway 9, but by common redwood logging and mill town pasts. Lovely turn-of-the-century architecture and a concern for preserving the vitality of their historic downtown hearts also bind the two towns.

A weekend escape here, just 50 miles south of San Francisco, combines small-town charm--with sophisticated dining and shopping--and proximity to red-wood forest hiking. At this time of year, you can also cut your own Christmas tree nearby--or knock off some holiday shopping at Villa Montalvo's annual Yuletide, November 13, 14, and 15. At this terrace-gardened estate and arboretum in Saratoga, you can enjoy tea, crafts, and decorations from 10 to 4; admission costs $10, $3.50 ages 12 and under.


Both Los Gatos and Saratoga were born around creekside grist mills in the 1850s, but by the late 1800s the logging industry was pouring timber (and money) from the Santa Cruz Mountains down toll roads through both towns, helping them prosper.

Writers, too, prospered here. At the turn of the century, journalist and satirist Ambrose Bierce lived and wrote in Los Gatos for a time, becoming famous as "Bitter Bierce" with cynical one-liners such as "Saint: a dead sinner revised and edited" and in 1936, John Steinbeck moved to a Los Gatos cottage he called Arroyo del Ajo, or Garlic Gulch, to write the celebrated Nobel Prize--winning The Grapes of Wrath. Today in both of these tony commuter communities, the prevailing aroma is not garlic but money.


To begin your day like a true Los Gatan, stop in for a caffe Borgia and a pumpkin spice muffin at Los Gatos Coffee Roasting Company, 101 W. Main Street, where locals in business attire or jogging suits meet in such profusion they spill out onto sidewalk benches. Every Sunday from 2 to 4, free coffee tastings reveal the delights of unusual blends; Friday and Saturday nights there's live music from 7:30 to 10:30.

Suitably fortified, head for the Forbes Mill History Museum, at the end of Church Street off Main, the grist mill annex built in 1854 on the site that's considered the town's birthplace. The handsomely restored stone structure now is a fine small museum (you can catch a timely exhibit on political cartoons until November 15). The museum, at 75 Church Street, is open from 10 to 4 Wednesdays through Sundays. (A $1 donation is suggested.) Pick up a free historic walking tour map, then follow it "backward" from here (the guide suggests you start across town).

The walk takes you past the ocher and beige 1891 Beckwith Building at 31 E. Main Street, a landmark that typifies the town's reaction to the 1989 Loma Prieta quake. The quake hit more than 300 buildings in downtown Los Gatos alone, causing some $300 million in damage.

The brick and sandstone Beckwith Building wasn't spared--it fell apart. But locals couldn't bear to see it razed. After carefully researching historic documents, plans, and photographs, the building's owner and his architect strengthened and restored the Beckwith to its original look--removing inaccurate earlier remodeling along the way. Here, as with other historic buildings, the council and town planners expedited quake repair--speeding permits and waiving fees.

Continue up Main to see other signs of postquake revitalization, including the 1904 Ford's Opera House, at 140 W. Main. Now, divans rather than divas prevail: it's an antique furniture store.

Then turn right onto Santa Cruz Avenue for an eclectic mix of shops and architecture--and for the Los Gatos Cinema, which to moviegoers' delight is again open. (Aside from watering holes, nightlife is thin in these parts.)


Los Gatos's Highway 9 neighbor to the northwest was largely untouched by the '89 quake. Its downtown is still bisected by Big Basin Way, the former logging toll road the town grew up along. Many of the wooden buildings clustered here date from the last century, and new buildings retain the town's architectural integrity. An example is The Inn at Saratoga. The five-story luxury hotel, which opened in 1987, looks like a small Victorian from the main street (all floors are visible from creekside).

The street is still the main shopping and dining drag. Beyond the many antiques stores, we found some shops offering unusual holiday gift possibilities.

Foodophiles will like The Butter Paddle, at 14510 Big Basin Way. We found everything from lobster-shaped napkin rings to cushion-handled knives, plus pottery, candles, and glassware. The shop, staffed by volunteers of the Junior Auxiliary of Eastfield Ming Quong to benefit two children's homes, is open from 10 to 5 Mondays through Saturdays.

The International Coffee Exchange, at 14471 Big Basin Way, is open 7 to 7 Mondays, 7 A.M. to 9 P.M. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 7 to 11 Fridays, 7:30 to 11 Saturdays, and 7:30 to 7 Sundays. Besides great cappuccino and pastries, this local hangout has an array of coffee- and tea-related gifts and books.

Next door, also at 14471, Posh Paws has designer clothing for dogs and cats, holiday stockings for pets, and practical things like leashes, scratching posts, and food treats. Don't be surprised if Dudlie, the owner's gentle black lab--husky mix, greets you at the door.

Check into the historical society's free guided walks--the next one is on Sunday, November 1, departing at 2 P.M. from the Saratoga Historical Museum at 20450 Saratoga--Los Gatos Road. For more details, call (408) 867-4311.

And check out Saratoga's annual Holiday Open House, on November 27 from 6 to 9 P.M. Shops on Big Basin Way from Saratoga Los Gatos Road to Sixth Street (side streets, too) are decked out with festive lighting, refreshments, and entertainment.


Just a short drive west of Saratoga is a city park that's worth a detour--Hakone Gardens. The formal Japanese garden, at 21000 Big Basin Way, is often described as the finest of its type outside Japan. Beyond the koi ponds and curving bridge sit a lovely teahouse and new cultural exchange center. And now through December, Japanese maples should be ablaze with fall color. The garden is open from 10 to 5 weekdays, 11 to 5 weekends; parking is $3 on weekends, free on weekdays. The suggested entry donation is $1.

Try the loop drive shown on our map heading south on State Highway 17 and west up steep Black Road. Several Christmas tree farms are clustered here and off Skyline Boulevard (State Highway 35). For a free list, call (800) 454-8733.

From Skyline Boulevard, you can hike into forested Sanborn-Skyline County Park and scramble onto Summit Rock for valley views. Or try popular Castle Rock State Park with trails that stretch through Big Basin State Park to the sea.

West of Skyline, 5 miles from Highway 17 on Bear Creek Road, is the area's first winery--the David Bruce Winery. It's open for tasting and sales from noon to 5 Wednesdays through Sundays. There are other fine wineries in the area you may also wish to meander through.

Supping and sleeping

For a Los Gatos Vacation Packet ($5), call (408) 354-9300. For a Saratoga guide ($3), call 867-0753.

Dining. In Los Gatos, some of our favorite restaurants: Andale Taqueria, 6 N. Santa Cruz Avenue (soon moving across the street to 21 N. Santa Cruz Avenue); 395-4244. Bacio Ristorante Italiano, 210 E. Main Street; 395-5444. Cafe Marcella, 368 Village Lane; 354-8006. Pigalle, 27 N. Santa Cruz Avenue; 395-7924.

A few of our favorites in Saratoga: Country Store Care, 14577 Big Basin Way; 867-2440. Le Mouton Noir, 14560 Big Basin Way; 867-7017. Margherita di Roma, 14482 Big Basin Way; 867-9178.

Lodging. Some charming lodging in Los Gatos: La Hacienda Inn, 18840 Saratoga-Los Gatos Road; (800) 235-4570. Toll House Hotel, 140 S. Santa Cruz Avenue; 395-7070.

Elegant accommodations in Saratoga: The Inn at Saratoga, 20645 Fourth Street; 867-5020.
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Title Annotation:includes directory of restaurants and lodging; vacation spots in Los Gatos and Saratoga, California
Author:Finnegan, Lora J.
Date:Nov 1, 1992
Previous Article:Gifts for or from a cook.
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