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Hidden Hamlet

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

Nestled amid the gentle rolling hills and bountiful citrus groves of Southern California
lies a charming hamlet unique for its vintage collectibles, pastoral wineries and wild
animals. Escondido, which means “hidden” in Spanish, entices year-round visitors with its
small-town ambiance, seasonal events and outdoor delights – all just 30 miles northeast of
metropolitan San Diego. Many first-time visitors begin their tour with a stroll through the
historic tree-lined downtown, a cornucopia of antique shops, art galleries, museums,
theaters and eateries. Antique aficionados can track down various treasures, including
tapestries, furniture, jewelry, coins and stained glass, in a number of emporiums along
Grand Avenue. The Escondido Antique Mall, for instance, boasts such unusual items as an
enormous collection of decorative thimbles, classic produce signs and even old Mad and Life
magazines. Culture enthusiasts, meanwhile, can peruse exhibitions at numerous art
galleries, including the popular Native American bronze sculptures found at Robert Wright’s
Fine Art Gallery. The Heritage Walk, through Grape Day Park, provides another dose of
culture – especially on Thursday, Friday and Saturday afternoons, when several relocated
structures, ranging from a Victorian country home to a century-old barn, a blacksmith shop
and a 1920s-era railroad car, are open to the public. Evenings downtown can be spent
enjoying a play or a concert at the spectacular California Center for the Arts, or the
town’s more intimate theaters, such as Patio Playhouse and Theatrx. After a long day of
shopping, browsing or sightseeing, visitors can relax with a quiche and an éclair at A
Delight of France on Grand Avenue or relish a gourmet meal of sea bass, venison or other
delicacies from the rotating menu at 150 Grand Café. Many gourmands then choose to treat
themselves to an old-fashioned ice-cream sundae at the western-style Hawthorne Sundae
Saloon. Operated by Holly Hawthorne, daughter of the owners of the adjacent Hawthorne
Country Store, the saloon is enhanced by rawhide barstools, marbled countertops and twangy
background music. Holly can be found there on most days, flipping scoops of ice cream high
in the air and serving up scrumptious concoctions like the Death Valley By Chocolate or the
Pony Espresso. Depending on the day, visitors may be lucky enough to experience a down-home
community event along Grand Avenue. Every Tuesday afternoon, shoppers can sample local
honey, fresh-roasted nuts, European breads, Mexican dishes and California produce at the
Farmers Market. From April to September, Friday evening is cruise night; spectators can
behold various American hot rods and classic cars during the Cruisin’ Grand parade.
Partygoers also can enjoy live entertainment, international foods and assorted crafts at
the biannual Street Faire, held the third Sunday of May and October. In early September,
the century-old Grape Day Festival celebrates the city’s rich history with art exhibits,
craft booths, blacksmithing demonstrations, farm equipment displays and a whimsical parade.
Encircling the heart of Escondido are myriad parks, casinos, golf courses and other
attractions. Three surrounding lakes welcome anglers and boaters for much of the year.
Novice astronomers can view the stars through the 200-inch Hale Telescope at Palomar
Observatory, north of Escondido. Amateur historians can explore the grounds of the Mission
San Antonio de Pala, one of several Spanish missions along the California coast. Along the
winding roads around Escondido, visitors will find any number of homegrown products. During
the warmer months, Lavender Fields promises wholesome aromatherapy with an array of
sweet-smelling soaps, bath oils, candles and sachets. Organic offerings of another sort can
be had at the Bates Nut Farm, where families can interact with farm animals, browse a
country craft boutique or enjoy a variety of dried fruits, candies and nuts. For wine
connoisseurs (and amateur tasters, too), the region around Escondido nurtures a handful of
sumptuous wineries amid canopies of oak trees. Visitors may sip premium wines at the
intimate Ferrara Winery, a 70-year-old family operation tucked away in a residential
neighborhood, or the lovely Orfila Vineyards, set within an agricultural preserve. Farther
south, the nostalgic Bernardo Winery offers a glimpse of one of California’s oldest
operations. Guests of the Deer Park Escondido Winery and Auto Museum, meanwhile, can taste
a variety of Zinfandel, browse a gourmet delicatessen and Americana gift shop -and delight
in what is claimed to be the world’s largest collection of vintage American convertibles.
History buffs will also appreciate Deer Park’s medley of early American artifacts,
including gasoline pumps, neon signs, Philco televisions, Maytag washers, Hoover vacuums
and Barbie dolls. The facility was temporarily closed for renovation at presstime; call
(619) 298-1666 for current information. Just southeast of Escondido, the renowned San Diego
Zoo’s Wild Animal Park provides a unique outdoor adventure for animal lovers of all ages.
Situated against the native habitat of the San Pasqual Valley, this 1,800-acre wildlife
preserve has brought Asian water holes, Australian rain forests and African savannas to
sunny California. Visit in December, and you can also observe a reenactment of an 1846
battle between American and Mexican troops; it happens next to the animal park at San
Pasqual Battlefield State Historic Park. Whether scouring for antiques, tasting local wines
or observing wild animals at play, motorhome travelers will relish their brief sojourn in
Escondido – and several welcoming RV parks in the area make it easy to explore the hidden
riches of this golden valley in any season.

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