Adventure Seeking Couple Becomes Hoteliers in California Mountain Town
Downieville, CA: Longtime adventure seekers, Michael and Sonya Meline, purchased a quaint 10-room boutique hotel called Carriage House Inn in the equally quaint downtown district of the mountain biking boomtown of Downieville, California nestled in the Tahoe National Forest. The couple says they looked at over a dozen properties all over Colorado, Idaho, and California before settling on the three-story riverfront hotel which originally served as the town’s post office and even a beauty salon.
“The Carriage House is the culmination of our five-year dream” remarks Sonya. “This quest kept our relationship strong because we both would spend hours researching, strategizing and visualizing some type of resort or property where we could live and work that was right on a river and close to hiking, biking, and fishing. We visited so many resorts that it became an obsession for us. We were true van-lifers! Every bit of vacation time we had we spent on the hunt in our big Ford van. Our son, Greg, got so tired of riding along in the back seat that we started sending him to summer camps and on his own adventures while we scouted adorable mountain towns for inns, multiple cabin properties, vacation rentals, and hotels.
The couple owned several vacation rentals where they lived in the Southern California area. Mike had been managing those units and raising their son, while Sonya served as a chief executive in the tech industry where she continues in a work-from-home role.
“Before we moved to Downieville, we were driving 45 minutes each way, sometimes more for our son’s school and activities. Not to mention all the traffic… even on weekends” says Mike. “Plus, we wanted our son to have something different than the suburban-childhood lifestyle we both grew up with” he says. “Here, we can walk out our back door and be steps away from one of California’s most clear and unspoiled waterways on the Yuba River.”
Mike once worked as a fabricator and materials scientist in the automotive, aerospace, and sporting goods industries. One of his favorite roles was in the R&D department at Soft Ride Bikes where he discovered a love for mountain biking. He was drawn to Downieville because of the trail system that brings all who travel them to some of California’s most enjoyable terrain, complimented by breathtaking vistas. Mike commented that “it really is an exciting time with e-assist mountain bikes becoming a reality. This allows people of lower experience levels to get places they would have never been able to go before. It’s the dawn of a new era for mountain biking.”
Sonya added, “I grew up in Colorado, so I am used to the gold-country history, winding rivers, and snow-capped peaks that we have in Downieville. What’s special here is the trails and accessibility for everyone and in all four mild-seasons!”
Both Sonya and Michael are avid ultralight wilderness trekkers. So much so, before the couple adopted, they had a pack of backpacking goats on their Southern California permaculture farm. “We had four huge boy goats who were all bottle-fed as babies and acted like giant goofy dogs” said Sonya. “They were amazing on the trail, and in some ways better than horses because they can browse for food along the way which means we didn’t need to carry as much food to supplement their diet. We joke that we traded our kids for a kid, because we had a lot to deal with in the adoption of our son that required us to be on the road.” The couple re-homed the goats with a pack-goat outfitter and commented that they would like to have goats again someday, but for now the hotel and their son, who is now a junior at Downieville school, is where they are focusing their time.
The Carriage House Inn was previously owned by long-time Downieville residents, Liz and Richard Halliday, who consistently scored 9.7 and above on hotel review sites like Booking.com. With the purchase price of the Carriage House Inn, the Hallidays included extensive training and support for the Melines so they could sustain the same level of quality service returning guests have grown to expect. “It started with the first day we moved into the inn” remembers Sonya. “The town had a power outage, and Liz and Richard came over with a huge pot of coffee for us. Waking up to such kindness on our first morning as innkeepers in Downieville, with the misty fingers reaching down the forest covered mountains, and the trees ablaze with the colors of autumn all arounds us, I felt like we were living in a Hallmark Movie.”
But it hasn’t all been easy living for the Meline Family. While the occupancy rates at the inn have been almost double what the couple expected, they have also faced several long-term power outages from PG&E. This could have meant cold nights and poor communication for emergencies; however, they were able to operate a backup power supply for heating, internet, and a micro-phone tower and they provided battery powered lanterns as needed. “At one point there was no power in town, so all the restaurants and shops were closed, and guests were getting hungry! We broke out a giant pan of Costco’s finest macaroni and cheese and cooked it on the barbeque outside for the guests to share. It actually turned out really good, and we even got a TripAdvisor reviewer that commented on how impressed they were by our making the best of that situation” recounted Sonya.
The couple also expressed frustration in sourcing skilled labor to help with upgrades to the property. “We are fairly remote here” commented Mike. “I am very thankful that I can walk across the street to get a single screw or outlet cover from Sierra Hardware, and they just put it on my tab. But getting more exotic building supplies, or skilled technicians, such as a roofer has proved challenging.”
Other than the remoteness, the town of Downieville has seen a dramatic fall in winter-residents. “We wanted to make sure we toughed it out through the winter months, as well as the busy summer season” commented Sonya. She expressed her desire to form bonds with the community she feels can only happen during the lull of winter.
We’ve met some of the most interesting characters here! One thing we learned right off is that the town of Downieville is kept alive in winter months by the long-time residents and they run virtually everything, from the Sierra Buttes Trail Association, the Sierra Frontier Medical Resources and Fire Departments, the Chamber of Commerce, the Downieville Improvement Group (DIG), the Lyons Club, and the Sierra County Arts Council. These groups, and I am sure even more that we haven’t discovered yet, are the lifeblood and safety nets of our community.
As new residents adding to a town of fewer than 300 people we sense the struggle to keep people here in the off season. We are truly fortunate to at least have these great community-groups. They throw world-renowned events and festivals such as Banf Film Festival and the Downieville Classic Bike Race. However, they also cater to Sierra County residents with things like the town spaghetti feed and several all-community lunches and dinners where the entire town comes out to share a hot meal and good times. It’s the closest-knit community I have ever been in – and short of the military, I just haven’t experienced this kind of camaraderie anywhere.
Built in 1937, the Carriage House Inn sits on the banks of the confluence of the Downie and Yuba Rivers, and holds up to 24 guests in bedrooms, each with private bathrooms. The Melines are currently adding their own touches to the Carriage House Inn. They are also changing the theme of the inn’s Victorian décor with elements of mid-century modern and accents of a whimsical forest motif.
They listed other updates including new beds, organic cotton linens, improved Wi-Fi and phone service, in-room movie streaming services, no-waste all natural premium hotel amenities such as shower gels and hair products, charcoal facial soaps, and a modern take on the themed guest suites – each complimenting the town such as one they named the Feather Suite, after the owner of La Cocina De Oro Taqueria, Feather Ortiz. “We have formed wonderful friendships with the people in town, some of them who we got to know over the years were exploring the area even before we moved here. Adding feather artwork and a peaceful vibe to one of our most popular suites overlooking the river, in honor of Feather, was awesome! I only wish we had more rooms to name with all the great people we have met here” said Sonya.
Natural soaps and cleaning supplies are another passion Sonya holds. In 2006 Sonya started the San Diego Pink Party, whose mission was to unite breast cancer survivors with those facing the disease, and to spread awareness of preventative measures and early detection for breast cancer. Her group contributed funds to the ban on BPA in children’s toys and water bottles in California and was one of the largest events in Southern California focusing on positive ways to improve breast health.
“I learned so much in the process of building the Pink Party” she says. “And to apply that to the daily world around us starts with what are we exposing our bodies to. We have to ask ourselves are the products we use to clean our spaces safe? Dish soaps, laundry detergents, disinfectants, glass cleaners, carpet cleaners, stain removers, air fresheners, all-purpose cleaners, and so much more… when we breathe in that fresh scent of cleaners, most of us don’t realize that chemicals found in some ordinary cleaning products are known or suspected to cause serious health effects including cancer. There are so many natural alternatives that not only work great, but are free of ammonia, bleach, and yucky phthalates which are known endocrine disruptors, and cause all sorts of strange things to people and our environment.”
The Melines report that they already have several weeklong bookings for the entire hotel, and they plan to increase these types of buyout events – stating that the mid-week stays are also good for the community. They hope to do more company retreats, small weddings, and family reunions. “We inherited several of these groups that buyout the hotel. One comes every year for what they deem the Summer Kickoff Festival. They rent almost every room in the entire town, and partake in river sports such as rafting, fishing, and swimming. It’s so cool to be in the middle of all these group events and feel the energy and excitement as the town fills up with people escaping city life” said Sonya. “I can’t wait to go rafting on crystal clear waters with big rapids and no crowds” added Mike.
For more information about Carriage House Inn, or the town of Downieville through the eyes of the Meline Family, reach out to Sonya Ziegler Meline at email@example.com