Big Bear Village is a vacation getaway for more than just Californians

By Chris A Hale

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, July 12 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

A sign welcomes visitors to Big Bear, Calif.

Chris A Hale

Having grown up in Utah, there was never any need to travel outside the Intermountain West to find a new recreational lake to play in. As I look back on my childhood, I remember fishing with my grandpa and my dad on many Saturdays at Mirror Lake in the Uintah Mountains, or at Starvation or Strawberry reservoirs.

As a teen, I loved water skiing at Flaming Gorge or Bear Lake. And then there was Lake Powell, which was the favorite destination of my church youth group where any number of activities could be enjoyed. Whether it was exploring ancient Native American ruins, jumping off cliffs into the water or midnight swims off the beach, Lake Powell was my personal favorite too.

When my wife, bred and raised on the West Coast, suggested we try something else last summer, I was a little skeptical. But for the sake of sustaining marital bliss, I agreed, and we took our children to the mountains of San Bernardino National Forest in Southern California.

Less than a two-hour scenic drive from my wife’s family home was our destination, Big Bear Lake. With a population of just over 5,000, the year-round resort town swells to more than 100,000 people on many weekends during the year, so I figured there had to be some attraction there, right?

Near the end of our drive up the canyon, my first impression was that Big Bear looked a lot like Jackson Hole or Banff, Alberta. Tall pines and other trees gave me the feeling of seclusion and peace. And then the shimmering water of the lake in the morning light came into view as we crossed a dam and I realized just how spectacular, and different, Big Bear, Calif., was.

In the shadow of the dam I saw a series of small, odd-shaped buildings on a rock island in the lake. Not much bigger than outhouses, my wife, Kim, told me that what I was seeing was China Island (the correct name is Garstin Island). On top of the giant boulders is a series of wonderful Oriental style buildings that were built in 1911 by Maude Garstin. The kitchen is one building, and each of the bedrooms and other living spaces are in separate buildings. Attainable only by boat, the cabin is pretty strange but still really cool in its own way.

Several types of watercraft, including what looked like a pirate ship in the distance, dotted the water in all directions. Motorboats and sailboats, as well as jet skis and paddle boats, were everywhere.

I became very interested in what else I might see.

Before we arrived at our lodging just outside of the village, we passed an alpine slide on the right and a large marina on the left. Cut into the trees above us were the groomed trails of a ski resort. Several miles away, at the opposite end of the lake, I could see a strange white building that resembled a robot with a giant eye. I couldn't begin to guess its purpose, but I hoped to find out.

Our cabin, nestled between several cabins for rent, was just on the outside of the village. Within a five minute walk was a movie theater, multiple restaurants and shops and a fabulous ice cream shop. Within a 10 minute walk was the shore of the lake.

I had to admit we were set for the weekend with all the comforts of home, yet in one of the most beautiful mountain settings I'd ever seen.

The pirate ship, I found out the next day, was the actual one-third-scale prop from the 1981 movie "Time Bandits." Remember the ship that was strapped to the bald giant's head when he walked out of the water? Yep, that was it. The boat is now used for pleasure tours around the lake, and yes, we did participate.

I guess Kim had been on it a lot previously because the crew recognized her. The captain entertained us on the cruise by firing his small canon at a competing tourist paddle boat. We also stopped in a small bay surrounded by large summer homes, one of them owned by Mel Blanc Jr., who came out on his deck and spoke through a megaphone as Bugs Bunny to us. Meanwhile, we heard the history of the lake, the boat and the village.

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