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Another world awaits just a hop, skip and a gorge away

Weekend!Getaways
by: RANDALL BARTON, If the majestic view from the Skamania Lodge’s lobby doesn’t satisfy, people-watching from the porch is fun.

Frazzled and in need of rest, you crave nurturing and nature. A lodge holiday can put you elegantly in the elements. Think of Audrey Hepburn in 'Charade,' lounging in her Givenchy après-ski, trading small talk with handsome strangers in Megève. The Alps are not an hour away, but the Columbia River Gorge is.

People from all over the world travel to the gorge for the majestic views, mountain air and creative Northwest cuisine. You hear foreign languages spoken in the spas and on the hiking trails.

To access this area, drive up Washington's Highway 14 for a change. Beyond the mushrooming growth of Clark County rises the arresting, 800-plus-foot Beacon Rock.

Henry Biddle purchased the basalt tower in 1915 (agreeing he would not quarry the rock) and within a few years built a trail, with countless switchbacks, to the top.

Despite the handrails, this is a thrilling hike for those not prone to vertigo. Imagine Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint scrambling about the faces of Mount Rushmore in 'North by Northwest.'

Three miles down the road is the town of North Bonneville, created in 1978 for residents displaced by the construction of a second powerhouse at Bonneville Dam on the site of their original town.

Nearby is good hiking, fishing, biking, boating and golfing, but forget about shopping. The lone food market in town is attached to the Chevron station.

The chief commercial attraction here is Bonneville Hot Springs Resort (1252 E. Cascade Drive, North Bonneville, Wash., 509-427-7767, www.bonnevilleresort.com). Locals remember when this ancient hot springs was a rustic getaway with cabins. It is now a multistory, concrete-and-glass hotel with views of a landscaped courtyard, the mountain at hand, or - less expensively - the parking lot.

Despite a knock-'em-dead four-story lobby and gorgeous pool, the place feels like it hasn't quite arrived. Landscaping is lush but new, and tractors and other motorized implements idle under mature trees ringing the property.

Like the newly monied, it's trying awfully hard to be fancy but is somewhat unsure of its clientele. Spa attendants speak in a librarian's hushed tones. The guest-services book instructs, 'the pool has relaxing music piped into it. Please do not spoil it with radios or CD players' - as if a boor with a boombox would read this cautionary anyway.

The relaxing music - Windham Hill Christmas music in the dining room - floats over most of the public spaces. Hotel guests in white terry cloth robes wander the premises en route to a splash or massage ($95 for 50 minutes, with soak and wrap an additional $25-$30) adding to the retreat mystique.

A spring-fed pool and spa are attached by corridor to the hotel. There are indoor and outdoor spas for those who have not booked a room with one, as well as a dry sauna.

The pool is warm enough to swim comfortably and offers a schedule of exercise classes. Children 16 years of age and under must be out of the pool by 7:30 p.m. Day use of the pool is available for nonguests for $15.

Rooms are serviceably furnished with desk, comfortable chair and pillow-topped mattress. Winter rates begin Oct. 21, with prices starting at $149 plus lodge fee and tax. There is nothing rustic or lodgelike about the rooms, but with nature and the spa beckoning, you probably won't spend too much time there.

Dinner entrees at the Pacific Crest Dining Room run between $15 and $24 and are generous in both size and flavor. Reservations are recommended since the dining room fills with locals seeking celebratory repasts. If you crave a cocktail, bring a bottle (there's a liquor store in Stevenson, seven miles up the road), since the lounge here is empty and uninviting.

Golfers find retreat

Just before you get to the town of Stevenson is the entrance for Skamania Lodge (1311 W. Skamania Lodge Way, Stevenson, Wash., 509-427-7700, www.skamania.com).

The long, paved approach - past forest trails and fairway greens - announces what the expensive automobiles in the parking lot confirm: You are in the lap of luxury. Classic lodge architecture and breathtaking views of the Columbia River and Cascade mountains trigger immediate decompression. Ah! nature. Breathe deep.

The lobby, dominated by an 85-foot-high, andesite rock fireplace, is abuzz with people helping themselves to free Starbucks coffee in airpots.

Rocking chairs invite time spent with a good book or people-watching. Nurse a martini on the front porch and watch the alpenglow as the setting sun enflames the facing mountains.

If your names are Bogie and Birdie, you'll want to head to the 18-hole golf course designed by renowned golf course architect Bunny Mason. Nongolfers can work up an appetite on the three clearly marked hiking trails that weave through the property, varying in length from a mile to 1.75 miles.

The Lake Loop Trail hugs the fairway greens and is a lovely jaunt past Wy'East and Lily Pad lakes. Experience an electric jolt as a garter snake darts across the path.

The icebreaking sound of a golf ball meeting the force of titanium steel punctures the crisp air. From behind a curtain of foliage one hears a group 'ahh' as a ball fails to fall where human whim would have it.

A fitness center includes exercise equipment and an indoor 20-meter swimming pool - perfect for laps - indoor and outdoor spas, dry saunas and Jacuzzis. Massages are offered beginning at $75 for a 25-minute massage on weekdays ($10 more Friday through Sunday).

There are a variety of room styles and packages available. Winter rates begin Oct. 15, and a typical package would be a forest-view room with $60 dinner allowance for $209 plus lodge fee and tax.

The standard guest room here is somewhat Spartan; the easy chair could be easier and the bed doesn't seduce with memory foam. This is in keeping with the rustic lodge experience, though $4 bottles of water placed around the room signal these aren't economy accommodations. Room doors close with the sound of a crypt being sealed, which can disturb light sleepers.

In warmer temperatures, the parklike setting in front of the hotel is a favorite for weddings, which tend to draw an audience of lookie-lous on the porch. The River Rock Lounge is thus packed. Order your drink at the bar and take it with you to your perch. Food service also is available in the lounge.

The Cascade Room draws diners from all over on Friday for the Gorge Harvest Buffet with an array of seafood, among other things, offered for $29.95 per person.

Order off the menu on Saturday night. Portions are large and the food is delicious. House specialties - based on the bounty of Washington - include salmon, pork and prime rib. If you decide to forgo the fish - and you should really reconsider - a side of forest mushrooms sautéed in butter, wine and rosemary will make the New York steak, prime rib or pork a triumph.

A cornucopia of foods are offered at Sunday brunch, at $25.95. Reservations for dinner and Sunday brunch are advised and be prepared to wait even with reservations.

Get smart in the gorge

While in the gorge take time for an excursion off the premises of your lodge. The Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center, just north of Stevenson, is a particularly pleasing two-hour diversion that will imbue you with the spirit of the land. In the Creation Theatre witness the formation of the gorge by ice, water and the great Missoula Flood.

Hamilton Island, accessed through North Bonneville, is a shoreline knoll with footpaths through the high grass. It offers gorgeous river and mountain views and the rare opportunity to witness the area much as Lewis and Clark might have (if you're not facing Bonneville Dam). They called their 'discovery' Strawberry Island for its profusion of vines; signs use this and not Hamilton's name.

The Bonneville Dam Visitors Center on the Washington side is a surprisingly riveting showcase of industry on parade. There are, of course, giant generators to view, and OMSI-style interactive displays, but the big ticket is watching the fish move up the fish ladders. Viewing windows allow you to observe astonished steelhead and salmon gaping open-mouthed at an impromptu meeting of the Red Hat Society.

For more information about activities in Skamania County, visit www.skamania.org.

Getaways runs the second Friday of every month in Weekend Life.