Photo By: Gary Anderson/Special to the Town Crier
As a point of comparison with the Cadillac SRX, which will be reviewed next month, we opted to drive a 2012 Mercedes-Benz ML350 BlueTEC diesel SUV on a recent drive to Yosemite Valley for a long-anticipated Bracebridge Dinner weekend.
To get to Yosemite, we followed Highway 152 out of Gilroy, then Highway 140 through Merced and into the park. Since Highway 152 has been improved, this is definitely the best route to Yosemite from Los Altos – and a much more relaxing and pleasant drive than going via Tracy and Manteca as we once did. Either way, the drive takes about four hours, but one’s mood is much better after taking the southern route.
We thoroughly enjoyed the sure-footed confidence of the ML350, as the new electronically assisted speed-sensitive steering and taut suspension geometry took us through the succession of curves over the Pacheco Pass, then along the Merced River. Over this kind of highway, with tight, high-speed curves, we’d give the edge to the ML350, though we would have enjoyed the luxury touches of the Cadillac SRX on the straight and boring stretches from Los Banos to Mariposa.
Soon after we passed through El Portal, we revisited that old feeling of chin-dropping awe that captures everyone on the drive through the narrow Merced River canyons into Yosemite. One of the nature interpreters told us during our weekend that “Ahwanee,” the Miwok name for this deep and magical valley, is often interpreted to mean “the place of the big mouth.” Whether that interpretation is accurate or not, we were grateful that we could slide back the cover of the sunroof, because otherwise we couldn’t have seen the tops of the high cliffs that mark the edges of the valley.
The spectacular rock formations of Yosemite are always astounding, and it had been too long since we had visited this wonderful place. Long ago we learned that the only reason to go to Yosemite in the summer is if visitors insist. Instead, we know that the best time to visit Yosemite is in the winter.
Even on the busiest of the holiday weekends, parking lots at the trailheads to the waterfalls and vista points are half-empty. One can spend long periods of time enjoying the quiet of the trails without encountering another visitor.
There’s another benefit to coming up during this period.
In addition to sturdy walking shoes and warm jackets, our luggage included formal evening dress. Although one might wonder why this miracle of nature needs help attracting visitors in the winter, it has been the case since the Ahwahnee Hotel opened in 1926. New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, Easter and Mother’s Day are celebrated in grand style, and the hotel stages vintners’ holidays in the late fall and great chefs’ holidays in the winter and early spring. These evening events in the Great Lounge and grand dining room of this registered historical landmark counterpoint the marvels of winter in the Valley.
The event we came for was the highlight of the holiday season in Yosemite: the fabled Bracebridge Dinner.
Donald Tresidder and his wife, Mary Curry Tresidder, first staged the event in 1929 to attract visitors to Yosemite and the Ahwahnee in the winter. On Christmas Day that year, and every year since, the Squire of Bracebridge Hall has welcomed his guests to an evening of midwinter feasting, revelry and song in the 17th-century style first imagined by Washington Irving in a short story about life in a manor hall in that period.
The actual Bracebridge Dinner event starts late in the afternoon, with the several hundred guests gathering in the Great Lounge of the Ahwahnee for a glass of champagne or wine after having their pictures taken by a professional photographer in the Solarium.
Photographs are definitely justified, because the bowties and cummerbunds under their escorts’ tuxedo jackets appropriately match the lovely evening gowns of the women guests. One might even see among the gathering a foreign dignitary in formal wear of another part of the world, a Scot in full-dress kilt and military medals, or an Austrian nobleman in gray wool out of “The Sound of Music.” No imagination whatsoever is required to conjure oneself back into a period when gentlefolk dressed in their best formal wear for a midwinter celebration like this, and then gathered in front of the fireplace before the trumpeters sounded the call to enter the dining room.
Once in the Ahwahnee dining room, with sugar-pine trestles soaring 34 feet overhead from granite pillar to granite pillar, guests are ceremoniously escorted to their tables just before the lights dim and bells peal for attention. With the sound of carols, a candlelit procession of choristers then leads the Squire, his family and guests down the center aisle to the high table, situated on a dais in the alcove at the end of the hall surmounted by a stained-glass window.
From that point through the end of the meal four hours later, courses of four-star cuisine served with military precision are interspersed with entertainment. The jester is crowned king of the revels, the friar welcomes all in somewhat fractured Latin, the chef de cuisine is chased through the hall by the spinster duchess, the minstrels play ballads on traditional instruments and the trained voices of the 36-member chorus sing the traditional carols of the holidays.
The Bracebridge Dinner is the result of more than three-quarters of a century of fine-tuning. Ansel Adams – as interested in music and pageantry as he was in photography – was major domo and director of this pageant for more than 40 of those years while living in the Yosemite Valley. Andrea Fulton, the director and producer who plays the housekeeper in the pageant, has been involved in it since age 4. She assumed management of the pageant from her father in 1978. Cast members now say proudly that under her direction, the production has become more play than pageant, and each character has a backstory of how they relate to Bainbridge Hall and the Squire.
Many of the current actors and singers have been in the pageant for just as many years as Fulton. They attribute that continuity to the means by which each role has been refined, and each cue practiced to ultimate perfection, with the spectacle growing in complexity every year. Even many of the wait staff have performed their rehearsed roles for two and three decades.
The dinner itself could stand on its own as a life-marking dining experience, and the pageant could be enjoyed on its own as an entertainment achievement. But at the Bracebridge Dinner, the two counterpoint one another perfectly. There is nothing to compare with seeing the oversized fish, peacock or loin of beef paraded in on the shoulders of the pages to the accompaniment of the chorus, and then seconds later having a version of that dish set before you for your own delectation.
For years we had heard of the Bracebridge Dinner, but until fairly recently it was held only three or four times a year and demand for tickets was so great that the opportunity to purchase a pair was awarded in a raffle held a year in advance. More recently, the number of dinners had been increased to eight, and tickets now are available as part of a Bracebridge Yosemite package. One only needs to plan five or six months in advance to attend.
If you’d like to celebrate Christmas 2012 at Bracebridge Hall, visit the YosemitePark.com website and make your plans. If you’d like to enjoy the hotel and the park this winter, check out the website for events in early 2012 that can turn a wonderful winter weekend into a memorable celebration. But even if you prefer a down parka and a cup of hot chocolate to a tuxedo and a glass of champagne, Yosemite Valley on any day is the perfect place to escape from civilization and revel in the spectacles created by nature. No matter how you enjoy this crown jewel in our National Park system, take our advice: The best time to visit is winter.
Longtime Los Altos residents Gary and Genie Anderson are co-owners of Enthusiast Publications LLC, which edits several car club magazines and contributes articles and columns to automotive magazines and online services.