Tempted by Tahoe? Heard about the bumper winter season last year and the seven feet of snow which fell in just one week this ‘Miracle March’? Apart from the snow, it’s actually a ‘soft’ place to sample US skiing for the first time – especially for Brits who, due to European ski experiences, have come to expect warmer temps as well as upscale outdoor eating and abundant après ski.
There’s a ritzy range of resorts circling gorgeous Lake Tahoe, many of which have views over the winsome water while you ski – fabulous photo opps! A two-centre holiday (at least) is the wisest way to get a broad perspective of the area, staying in South Lake Tahoe in order to ski at Heavenly and Kirkwood and then relocating to the North to sample resorts like Northstar and Squaw Alpine. Bonus: you get the most stunning views as you drive the mostly undeveloped east lakeshore route.
Fly into Reno, a seamless ‘boutique’ airport which has car rental right opposite the luggage carousel, enabling a speedy exit onto the easy-to-navigate wide highways to the hills. If you’re in the market for a second home, check out Clear Creek Tahoe, on the way to South Lake Tahoe to pick your plot. Mountain mansions are being developed there within a gorgeous gated golf club community: Coore Crenshaw-designed course with all the pro shop, club and restaurant bells and whistles, deluxe lodges for guests to stay, a ‘family campus’ launching this summer with its own clubhouse, swimming pool, games areas and restaurants. And it’s all run with five-star hotel hospitality by General Manager Franck Savoy – son of Paris’s Guy Savoy who also has a restaurant in Las Vegas. This fall will see the launch of the new spa and wellness centre at Clear Creek. And, best of all, golf members and owners get luxurious lakehouse privileges right on the beach at South Lake Tahoe. In the 1930s America’s artsy and atmospheric architect, Julia Morgan designed Twin Pines, now reinvented as the quintessential Ski & Lake Lodge by Clear Creek Tahoe. You can stay in the adjacent guest ‘cabin’, a glamourous two-storey log house with the intimate, cozy ambiance of a James Bond ski scene. And you can dine at the lakeview restaurant in the main lodge or dance and drink to mellow music on Saturday afternoons. Bucket list bonus: drinks on the dock watching the sun set over the languorous lake.
But you don’t have to buy in to stay on the lake shore as right next door is the Edgewood Hotel. Here you can indulge in sunset scenes from the heated outdoor pool, hot tubs and firepits and there’s a bistro and a fine-dining restaurant in the gorgeous golf course setting.
Ski in/ski out fan? Then the Marriott Grand Residences is for you, right at the gondola base of Heavenly Mountain Resort and surrounded by all the equipment rental outlets, ski school, après ski, restaurants and boutiques. The village at Heavenly is full of outdoor fun including a central skating rink, fire pits and live music. Eating options are endless but an eclectic experience can be had above the cinema at The Loft, which has a trendy lounge bar and top-end Italian restaurant as well as its own theatre featuring adult magic shows. For a magical munch, order the S’mores for dessert: it comes with its own tabletop burner so you can roast marshmallows and eat them sandwiched between wafers with melted chocolate.
Onhill entertainment is iconic, too, at Heavenly with ski-booted dancing at Unbuckle, the daily DJ Disco Snowcat at the top of the gondola as well as TAP, an on-snow beer-tasting après attraction just nearby, with free craft beer samples from local breweries and vouchers for discounted refills and appies at the lodge.
While Heavenly is generally geared to the beginner, the rising intermediate skier and rider and those who want to notch up maximum vertical on long and wide groomers, there are still great ungroomed glades such as The Milky Way, bumps runs, and double black ‘slackcountry’ areas just off the pistes. And nearby sister resort Kirkwood caters for the more aggressive aficionado. Around 45 minutes drive away, it can often boast even more snow than the lake resorts due to micro-climate. Out of bounds skiing can be a liftpass-losing offence in the States so for those wishing to wander the backcountry there are guides as well as Expedition Kirkwood clinics to unveil all the lift-accessed off-piste options.
An unusual aspect of the South Lake lifestyle is the cluster of casinos! As the border between California and Nevada intersects the lake – as well as Heavenly’s ski slopes – there are defined characters in each half. The California side of town houses the more rustic low-rise lodges, shops, restaurants and hotels that you would expect from a ski resort. And the Nevada sector sizzles with skyscraping casino hotels, late-night Las Vegas-style entertainment and casino-consolation breakfast buffets.
If you can’t travel anywhere without doing a bit of work, check out the high altitude co-working space at the top of Heavenly’s Tram. Sharing a building with Booyah’s, a tasty lunch venue with sweeping views, is the Tahoe Mountain Lab. Pretty cushy place for an office at 8250 ft with optional ‘board’ meetings on the chairlifts.
There’s so much to do at Heavenly and South Lake Tahoe, that it’s tough to pack up and leave but the drive up north is a must for the vivid views and variety – and the lake is only 21.75 miles long, so nothing is too far apart. By the way, if you’re not keen on winter driving, there are shuttles to the ski hills from most hotels as well as a public bus system and the usual array of taxis and Uber.
There are multiple options for staying at the North Shore: Kings Beach has rustic rentals right on the aqua lake, Truckee is a gentrifying second-home owners enclave with a Western-style downtown on Donner Lake, and then there are a variety of ski hill villages, notably Northstar and Squaw Alpine for those who prefer to stay on the slopes.
Northstar could equally be known as Fivestar! The apartments at the Village are huge (especially compared to France), high-end homes-from-home with enough kitchen amenities and bathroom bonanzas to make you want to move in and stay for the season. Through the elite Platinum experience, Northstar offers premier privileges such as valet parking, queue-jumping, first tracks, club membership and private mountain guides. Next season could see the launch of a dedicated ski run, only open to Platinum patrons.
But worthy of six stars is Northstar’s daily onslope extravaganza known as Tōst. At 2pm skiers and boarders turn up for a free glass of Prosecco served from a charismatic counter in a clearing in the forest off the East Ridge Run. There are hightop barrel tables as well as huge bean bags with panoramic views and photo opps over the Martis Valley. Not content with this complementary offering, Northstar has also designed the Platinum Tōst which involves lunch too (sadly not free!) This is a private affair in a gated section, reclining on Adirondack chairs around a firepit with a cheese and charcuterie platter accompanied by a bottle of Veuve Clicquot, topped off with S’mores. Downhill decadence at its best!
And then there’s the ski in/ski out Ritz Carlton Northstar linked to the Village by gondola and the slopes. Even if you can’t justify rooming at the Ritz, it’s an attraction in its own right well worth a pitstop. Every day at 4:30pm they host a public Marshmology event around the terrace firepit featuring homemade gourmet marshmallows (free) and a Moët & Chandon bar if you want to add some sparkle. And for astrology advocates, there’s a new Stars and S’mores program at the Ritz Carlton Fireside Terrace with science-based cosmos conversation, poetry reading and telescopic viewing.
Indoors, there’s a lively fireside lounge encircling the signature central fireplace which was designed to resemble a gigantic tree soaring up to the roof canopy. For a special celebration, Manzanita is the fine dining venue with mountain-modern décor and mouthwatering menu. And, to soothe sore sinews, there’s the outdoor pool and hot tubs as well as Highlands Spa – I recommend the couples’ massages. As well as cushy ski in/ski out access right onto the slopes, the Ritz has a full-on ski valet service with boot warming and locker-to-snow pampering, so you can save all your energy for the actual skiing.
Another signature dining experience at Northstar is the Mountain Table Dinner Series which runs on various dates through the season, combining hedonistic nosh with insight into local vineyards and farm-to-table cuisine.
With Northstar, Heavenly and Kirkwood all part of the Epic Pass, it makes sense to look at the logistics of buying the season pass ($899), especially if you are going to ski several days at each resort. The bonus is that you would justify buying the pass during approximately a week of skiing at Tahoe and then would have free days to use at any time of the season in Europe (Les 3 Vallées, Paradiski and Tignes-Val D’Isère, Skirama Dolomiti Adamello Brenta Italy, 4 Vallées Switzerland, and Arlberg Austria) as well as other resorts all over the US and Canada, plus Japan and Australia (a total of 61 resorts worldwide). Gone are the days when only the locals brandished season’s passes: the collective season pass is fast becoming the must-have affordable option for destination skiers from all over the world. However, if you are only going to ski four or six days, there are Epic Pass options for that too.
A visit to Tahoe is not complete, however, without including Squaw Valley on the itinerary. World famous since the 1960 Winter Olympic Games, it is now linked to Alpine Meadows by shuttle, encompassing over 6000 acres of varied terrain. Dubbed Squaw Alpine, it is known for its big mountain skiing and is also full of high altitude treats such as a bustling bistro at the top of the Tram overlooking a huge outdoor hot tub with waterfall and spring sunbathing areas. It’s worth noting that Squaw Alpine has one of the longest ski seasons in the world, often celebrating the July 4th long weekend with spring skiing and piste parties. A great opportunity to do that coveted combo of skiing and golfing in the same day!
Run variety ranges from wide, long carving trails, beautifully manicured, to gorgeous glades, chutes in the seemingly perpendicular Palisades and steep rugged double diamonds off the KT-22 lift. With 2000 vertical feet of Squaw’s top expert terrain, KT-22 is regularly voted best chairlift in North America.
Across the 6000 acres of Squaw Alpine there are 14 different zones with tantalizing topography to suit every type of skier. There are beginner areas at both resorts, as well as an array of intermediate and advanced trails. Blue terrain abounds in Shirley, Big Blue, Snow King and Headwall. And Silverado, The Chief and KT-22 are the black, double black and off-piste sectors. And, did I mention the views? Check out Lakeview, one of the five zones at Alpine Meadows, for great photo opps over Lake Tahoe, fun intermediate skiing and lots of tree detours. And make sure to ski the Promised Land area at Alpine in order to access Le Chalet for Alpine fare such as raclette and apple strudel.
Stay at The Village at Squaw Valley®, at the foot of the slopes, for large, luxurious self-catering apartments with underground parking, scenic outdoor hot tubs and an easy (flat) stroll to the lifts and all the fun après – there are nearly 60 bars, restaurants and boutiques. One of the best bars is 22 Bistro right near the lift stations, with a daily live music happy hour.
Although it was back in 2011 that Squaw Valley combined with Alpine Meadows, not everyone realizes that the extra 2400 acres at Alpine is included on the same ski pass. Currently, the two areas are linked by bus or an easy 20 min drive. A new gondola, slated for winter 2019 will link the two resorts, making Squaw Alpine the third largest resort in North America.