Your Inner Angel & Devil Both Get Time to Play At Resort that Straddles Nevada & California
by Karen Rubin
I am always evaluating whether the trip to a destination is worth the time, effort and cost of getting there.
In the case of Heavenly Mountain Resort in South Lake Tahoe, it doesn’t take me long to decide: absolutely.
I arrive at Reno/Tahoe International Airport and board a shuttle bus that takes me directly to the ski resort and my hotel’s door.
After traveling by air all morning, including switching planes, this question is in my mind as I board the shuttle bus for the 1 1/2-hour ride to the resort.
The bus ride is actually interesting – the Nevada landscape is fairly dramatic even when it is stark. You come through Carson City, Nevada’s state capital and see some interesting government buildings and The State Museum and the Carson City Railroad Museum.
The time passes pleasantly, and finally, I get my first glimpse through a curtain of tall evergreens of the vibrant cobalt-blue waters and the snow-capped peaks that ring this massive glacially formed Lake Tahoe.
The 72-miles that circle the Lake are fairly covered with resorts including Incline Village, Northstar, Squaw Valley.
We come into South Lake Tahoe, a small village – just a few blocks long – but packed with personality.
In fact, a split personality.
Half of the village is in Nevada and that side is dominated by tall, modern glitzy glass and steel casino hotels.
The California side is, well, Californian – laid back, low-key, Western-quaint with mostly low-rise structures and boutique shops that blend into the environment more than dominate it. There is even the area’s first LEED-certified boutique hotel, made largely from recycled materials of the motel it replaced.
A driveway separates my hotel, the Embassy Suites on the California side with Harrah’s Tahoe casino hotel in Nevada.
With all my travel from New York, I still arrive early enough in the afternoon to explore the area and soon appreciate just how special a destination Lake Tahoe is.
I walk the short stretch to the lake and find a sand (albeit much of it covered in snow) beach and just revel in the magnificent scenery, and the brisk, clean air.
I am quite sure my reaction to the stunning beauty has been repeated millions of times before. Captain John C. Fremont and Kit Carson were in “the neighborhood” searching for a new path to the Pacific in the mid-1800s, and settlers and tourists have been coming ever since.
But that first view at the shore of the Lake is nothing compared to my first ride on Heavenly’s Gondola up a steep vertical face of the mountain, with Lake Tahoe falling away behind, and then that first run down, with vistas that are so spectacular, it stops even the most gung-ho racers in their tracks. “Breathtaking” does not do the view justice.
The view is so compelling, in fact, that even if you were a nervous or timid skier, you would rush back up the mountain to experience that exquisite feeling again� and again� and again.
Heavenly is like no other mountain resort I have ever experienced.
As I soon discover, Heavenly is the Camelot of ski mountains: it mainly snows at night, dumping a total of 360 inches each season, so that you typically awake to fresh powder. But sunny days are the norm, not the exception, averaging 300 a year.
They call it “bluebird” days – a term used by sailors but aptly applies here, to refer to the blazing clear blue sky. My first day at Heavenly is just such a bluebird day.
And the weather! It comes as a surprise to me that the temperature is typically mild by ski mountain standards – in the 30s and dry.
You find that you can’t stop smiling, or looking at the view.
I find myself stopping at one point where two other women are already gazing at the vista. The first woman says she was married here, 20 years before – eloped, in fact. I can easily understand it.
Heavenly is possibly one of the most romantic places on the planet. And if you haven’t fallen in love before you get there, the flutter in your heart from the altitude, from 6500 feet at the base to over 10,000 ft at the summit, the endorphins from the exertion and the view will push you over that edge into romantic bliss.
No wonder there is a wedding chapel (on the Nevada side).
Heavenly actually straddles both Nevada and California, and it is so much fun to ski between the two (stopping for a picture at the “Welcome” signs), especially since the two sides are so different, especially for the scenic views they afford (spectacular from both, but very different).
At the Embassy Suites, I am also counseled that the Nevada side is warmer and softer in the early morning, and the views of the valley are dramatic, with the browns, greens and shades of gray.
The California side provides the most mesmerizing views of Lake Tahoe and the mountains. Even the hot-shot snowboarders stop every few minutes to take pictures (be sure to take a camera – there are even sports marked “scenic views”).
A Delightful Village
Coming back from the lake shore my first afternoon, I stroll Heavenly Village. Anyone who has not been here in the last 10 years probably would not recognize it. Changes put into place first by American Skiing Company and then when Vail Resorts acquired Heavenly in 2002 have dramatically improved the look and feel of the village at the base of the gondola – in fact, the gondola was an addition.
I pick up my ski rentals at Northface – they don’t charge for the afternoon before (and they’re open until 8 p.m.) and let you return the equipment by 9 a.m. the morning after your rental is due. That avoids the rush in the morning and gives me more time the next day.
In fact, because airlines now charge fees for carrying sporting equipment, more people are renting at their destination, and getting the benefit of sampling the latest equipment. I loved the equipment (especially my boots, the lightest, most comfortable I’ve ever had).
In the evening I sample one of the staples of South Lake Tahoe’s restaurants. The Riva Grill is right on the Lake, with outdoor patio and commanding views of the lake and another Lake Tahoe attraction, a sternwheeler boat that operates year-round.
Named for the Riva runabout wooden boat imported from Italy to Lake Tahoe, the restaurant has a wooden speedboat theme and a certain throw-back to 1930s with beautiful murals. It has Lake Tahoe’s only wood-fired pizza and offers a Californian-style cuisine (lots of avocados – even pizza with spicy shrimp and avocado), and a gorgonzola-seasoned garlic and asiago bread that is to die for. I dig into a 14-ounce grilled ribeye ($38). (900 Ski Run Blvd., South Lake Tahoe, 530-542-2600, 888-REGATTA, www.rivagrill.com).
Over dinner, I get a bit of an orientation to Heavenly Mountain Resort and South Lake Tahoe.
To begin with, we are in the Sierra Mountains, which are very different from the Rockies and make for a different downhill experience. The Rockies are more of a sheer climb and have many more larger mountain peaks, topping out at 14,000 ft. The Sierras have more features, more folds, more canyons, with peaks more in the 10,000-12,000-foot elevation range.
What it means to me is that the mountain is less intimidating, ideal for families, for never-evers, green- and blue-trail skiers affording the best of the downhill experience in terms of breathtaking views and long cruising runs, without the terror.
The mountain is special enough but what makes Heavenly so special is Lake Tahoe, which is singularly the most unique feature of any ski resort. Lake Tahoe is the largest alpine lake in North America: 22 miles long from north to south and 12 miles wide (there is a 72-mile drive around the lake, marking off the scenic attractions). It is deep – 1625 feet at the deepest – in fact, as deep as the Carson Valley on the Nevada side and holds enough water to cover the entire state of California to a depth of 14 inches. The water is 99.99 percent pure.
Lake Tahoe is very much a four-season resort, and because of the snowmaking and altitude, it is possible in March and April to golf and ski on the same day.
Heavenly Mountain Resort is one of the Vail resorts (Vail, Beaver Creek, Keystone, Breckenridge in Colorado), since being acquired from the American Skiing Company in 2002, and has been steadily undergoing improvements. The mountain is in the midst of a 10-year master plan that has seen new high-speed quads to replace older lifts, renovation of lodges on the mountain, new eateries like a renovated and expanded East Peak, new trails, added snowmaking and upgraded grooming fleet.
Meet the Mountain
The next morning, after a scrumptious breakfast at Embassy Suites (the way they prepare omelettes to order is fascinating), I walk the short distance to meet my “gal getaway” group at the Heavenly base gondola.
It’s a 20-minute ride up the sheer face on the gondola – with a stop at mid-mountain where non-skiing sightseers can get off to a platform.
I am immediately impressed by the superb facilities at top – a convenient and well-equipped restroom, refreshment/eating place (they served hot chocolate to people at end of day as got back on the gondola). I notice the tools at the lift, message boards (come in handy, though I was always able to get calls on my cell phone, a bizarre experience in itself, but handy).
The mountain has excellent signage – you always know where you are and where you are going. In fact, the mountain, which is massive, seems comfortable because you don’t feel lost, and you can always orient yourself because the views are so different from where you are on the mountain.
Just how massive? We’re talking 4,800 acres of skiable terrain, making it the largest ski resort in California; 94 trails, ranging from 34-miles worth of wide-open cruisers to 1,600-foot plunges in the double-black canyons. And if you are up to it, try the 1,800 vertical feet of knee-pounding, Volkswagen-sized moguls on the world famous Gunbarrel. It’s a 3,500-foot vertical from the 10,040-ft. summit down to the base, and if you wanted to take the longest way down, it is 5.5 miles – the longest on the West Coast.
In fact, the number of trails becomes irrelevant, because you can ski anywhere through the trees, making for infinite possibilities.
Trees are key here. They are not merely part of the scenery, they enhance the ski experience. When they say Heavenly has 4,800 skiable acres, they mean you can go just about everywhere in the trees. The trees are naturally spaced, making unlimited opportunities to explore just about everywhere. And the way they are spaced, you see through them so you always have these views.
What surprised me most about skiing at Heavenly is that with all this snow, how much snowmaking there is (73 percent of Heavenly’s trails), and how much grooming (with 15 Prinoth Bison X snowcats, the largest fleet in the country), basically insuring a quality experience.
I have never experienced snow like this – fine, buttery, carveable – and never have been so happy tackling new trails. I went from an eternal “plugger” on the slopes to a solid blue-trail skier, confident I could tackle the toughest intermediate trail.
Much is to the credit of my instructor/guide, Ivana Kynclova (otherwise, my inclination would have been to stay on slopes that I was comfortable on, rather than actually explore the mountain).
There are also Women’s clinics offered on Wednesdays; plus 3-day clinics in February and March (but if you come on your own gal getaway, you can hire your own instructor).
“Women are more cautious and afraid of falling,” Ivana says. “These clinics are taught by women, so they are not self-conscious.”
This year, the Ski and Ride Schools of Heavenly is introducing a new mountain guide program called The Adventure Sessions that bridges the gap between a private and group lesson. For $119, advanced skiers and snowboarders can spend a day sharing a top guide with an intimate group, allowing quick access to the best terrain and conditions on the mountain. Guests are teamed with like-minded, similarly skilled ski/ride enthusiasts who want to get the most out of their day, going places that they might not go themselves. Not only will participants receive lunch and preferential lift line access, but they’ll pick up tips and technical information along the way.
You can also take advantage of Heavenly’s “Ski with a Ranger” 45-minute program (11:45 a.m. on Thursdays and Fridays).
With conditions like these, I could easily imagine how you could go from a never-ever (green trail) to blue (intermediate) in five days. I only had three days (two with Ivana), and after it, felt so confident and excited about skiing.
After spending the morning exploring the mountain and working on my form, our group meets up at Gunbarrel Grill, one of two sit down restaurants presently on the mountain (more are planned under the 10-year master plan). The restaurant is right beside the Aerial Tramway (another cool feature).
We sit down to a sumptuous three-course, prix-fixe lunch ($21.95), “Wine Country,” with soup and salad, cheese and breads and choice of entrees (ambitious selections like a cashew and rosemary encrusted lamb chop or a sautéed chicken breast with artichoke hearts, mushrooms and tarragon, deglazed with champagne and finished with cream) – part of the revamped dining program at the resort designed by chef Claude Goode. He has introduced the Appetite for Life food initiative – all organic cheeses and dairy, and hormone-free meats. At the Gun Barrel Grill, a sumptuous view is included with every morsel.
The Gunbarrel lift takes people up as well as down from the mountain (if you are parked at Cal Basin, or if the gondola is closed for wind, this is the way down, or the tram; otherwise, there is a LONG hike down a narrow trail that winds all the way down the mountain.
On this day, the gondola was closed for wind (there were ample messages around the mountain so we knew that). We take the lift down to the California Base area, the original base for Heavenly, where the trails are best for learn-to-ski and green skiers, where the child care and day care programs are located.
Heavenly is only ski area in Tahoe with certified California day care for children as young as 6 weeks old. In addition, there are ski-and-play programs where children spend half the time in day-care activities and half the day skiing (they eat lunch in a yurt).
Obviously, there was a big crowd waiting for shuttle buses by the time we got down. I was impressed by how well organized it was – many more shuttle buses were sent. They even had hot chocolate and cookies for everyone as we waited, just as there was hot chocolate for people waiting at the gondola the day before.
It goes along with the high level of guest service.
And very likely that guest is a regular who feels more like a member.
At $369, Heavenly’s seasonal pass seems a great deal – the season so long and the travel distance from major markets like San Francisco so convenient (about two hours) – that Heavenly could easily feel like an extension of one’s own backyard. The pass also provides unlimited half-price on lift tickets at the four other Vail Resorts – Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge and Keystone.
Or, if you are coming the other way, from Colorado, Vail Resorts’ Epic seasonal pass, $599, provides unlimited lift tickets to all five resorts, plus Arapahoe Basin.
If perfect peace and inner calm is heaven, I can understand how Heavenly got its name. Heavenly is the feeling you get when all is right with the world. And from the 10,040 ft. summit, you feel, at least in that moment, you are on top of the world.
Naughty & Nice
By day, you feel so wholesome amid the snowy peaks.
But at night, South Lake Tahoe caters to a different side.
Step across the street to Nevada, and you have a miniature Reno – with glitzy casinos, world-class entertainment, and pulsing clubs that go all night.
This is why Heavenly is so perfect for Gal (or Guy) Getaways, and so popular for Bachelor or Bachelorette groups.
In fact, after leaving the slopes, our gal group reconnoitered at the Body Essentials day spa for massages (Cecil’s Fountain Plaza, 4118 Lake Tahoe Blvd., Suite 6, 866-545-4SPA, 520-541-3813, www.tahoespa.com).
Dinner was at a delightful hip and hopping Mexican restaurant, Sammy Hagar’s Cabo Wabo in Harvey’s Casino Resort, then a “G-Love and Special Sauce” concert at Harrah’s South Shore Room, followed by a VIP bottle service at Opal Ultralounge in the club, Mont Bleu, before returning at midnight to the VIP booth at VEX Nightclub in Harrah’s (the show is absolutely adults only). Then we couldn’t resist stopping in at the casino before catching a few winks and awakening for another fabulous day on the slopes.
This is not what you expect from a ski resort, where “nightlife” more typically consists of dining at a trendy restaurant, a beer and a game of pool before an early turn-in. People get tuckered out and they want to be up on the slopes early, to get the best snow.
But Heavenly is a unlike any other ski destination.
“We cater to the customer who wants to do it all – wants to go clubbing, gaming after skiing,” says Director of Communications Russ Pecoraro. “They are not necessarily �gamers’ but they are �in the game’.”
Here, there are a dazzling number of top-notch casinos, world-class entertainment venues, hip clubs (This is clear from the website, where there is a whole section on nightlife and entertainment. You can see what will be on when you want to come, and book tickets in advance.)
You’ve got Harrah’s Hotel/Casino with gaming, entertainment, dining, banquet and meeting facilities, wedding chapel, shopping, health spa; Harvey’s Hotel/Casino with lake views and 19 restaurants and bars including a Hard Rock Cafe, arcade, shops, entertainment, health spa, wedding chapel; MontBleu Resort Casino & Spa, the newest addition to the South Lake Tahoe entertainment scene, upping the ante with world-class restaurants and a commitment to Vegas-caliber nightlife, posh ultra-lounge, Blu Nightclub, an impressive marquee of live entertainment and exclusive poker rooms.
For dining, there are so many choices, you can go to the website and select the type of cuisine, the price point, the style of restaurant.
You can literally go round the clock – which is exactly what we did, in fact, experiencing the “24 Hours of Heavenly” package, that provided us VIP access to clubs, entertainment, as well as lodging and lifts.
The interesting thing is that the casino/hotels actually keep lodging package prices low, so Heavenly might well offer the best value for a major destination ski resort anywhere.
You can pre-plan, pre-arrange your entire stay, even pre-paying for your rental equipment, child care, ground transportation, on line (www.skiheavenly.com).
Heavenly/Lake Tahoe is delightful for families too. There is plenty of wholesome stuff to do – there is even a U.S. Forest Service office right at the base where you can find out about hikes and nature programs.
The mountain is wonderfully contoured for families with children of all ages and abilities – well marked, excellent facilities – you would be comfortable allowing better skiing older kids to roam the mountain on their own.
At the Top of the Gondola (9,156 ft. elevation), there is also Adventure Peak, an activity area where there is tubing, snow biking, sledding and snowshoeing, as well as the learn to ski and ride area (11 a.m. to 3 p.m. in winter; from 10 a.m. in summer).
A new, four-lane tubing hill, accessed by a state-of-the-art covered magic carpet lift stretches 450 feet up East Peak, with a 65-foot vertical drop. The fully-enclosed, elevated magic carpet lift also is used by beginning snowboarders to access new teaching terrain.
The most extraordinary attraction at Heavenly is also reached from here: The Heavenly Flyer, a ZipRider experience. You travel at high speed 3,100 feet (the longest zipline in the lower 48 states), down a vertical drop of 525 feet, from the top of the Tamarack Express back to the top of the Gondola – in just 80 seconds. The views are spectacular and zipping through the trees and over the Gondola will add perspective, making this an ultra-cool ride.
Other activities in Lake Tahoe: dog sledding, sleigh rides, sledding, snowmobiling, ice skating (with music) at the Heavenly Village.
Places to Stay
I adore the Embassy Suites. It’s a combination of the best of staying in a hotel with being at home. I love a place that anticipates the guest’s needs, and absolutely everything you could ask for is provided in a very thoughtful way.
This is a true suite, with a separate bedroom (the king-sized bed is extremely comfortable) and separate living room (pull out sofa and plenty of room for kids), plus easy chair, a large table that serves for dining and as a desk, internet connections, two phones, microwave, a nice-size refrigerator, coffee maker, TVs in both bedroom and living room.
The hotel offers an amazing full breakfast (highlight are the individually prepared omelets in the morning, which they have down to a science), with huge selection of fresh fruits, yogurts, cereals, breads, bacon, potatoes, scrambled eggs, juices, even a hot chocolate dispenser.
Every afternoon, at 4:30-6:30 p.m. they offer a Manager’s reception (which in ski terms is apr�s-ski), with drinks (wine, beer, special mixed drinks), popcorn, crudités.
There is a lovely indoor pool and fitness room (open until 10 p.m.), and in-room massage is available should you want one.
There is a convenient check-in room for your skis or snowboard, and the hotel is a short walk from the Gondola.
We also get to sample the hotel’s fine dining, elegantly styled Echo Restaurant, and find it can stand on its own for quality and sophistication.
We enjoy a selection of delectable appetizers, including its signature dish, Tiger Prawn Spring rolls, made with pepper jack cheese, cilantro, green pepper and Chinese black bean aioli; parmesan-crusted escargot with fresh basil, garlic butter and herb crostini; and grilled portabella Napoleon with Rome tomato, pesto, goat cheese and reduced balsamic, and pistachio encrusted goat cheese. The menu is inspired, with a wonderful selection of entrees from pasta, poultry, seafood and meat, all with marvelous seasonings and treatments. It also offers a lounge menu with lighter fare (salads, soups, wraps, sandwiches).
Embassy Suites is ideal for families – offering room to spread out, the separate “zones” for kids and parents, kitchenette so you can have snacks in the room, the breakfast, indoor pool. A grocery store and deli plus a lovely selection of shops are a short walk away.
(Check out ski-and-stay packages. Embassy Suites, 4130 Lake Tahoe Blvd., South Lake Tahoe, 530-544-5400, 800-Embassy, www.embassysuites.com).
South Lake Tahoe offers an amazing diversity of lodging, from glitzy casino hotels to modest motels.
If you want to let your Superego hold sway (and the Californian in you), check out 968 Park, a newly opened boutique hotel, which is made almost entirely out of recycled materials, most from the outdated Days Inn it replaced.
The painted-slats of the original Days Inn structure now are used as the most visually exciting interior of the hotel. In fact, it is like living folk art, a testament to the various cultural epochs of our time.
The insulation is made from old denim; magnificent carved wood doors were basically rescued from the trash and refinished; old mattress springs become decorative art; the carpet is made of recycled materials; the towels made of organic cotton.
The 968 Park hotel is Lake Tahoe’s only LEED-certified, and it is a tribute to sustainable development, which will thrill and delight “green-conscious” guests.
It’s aptly described as “rustic zen.” But it is also very sophisticated with every guest amenity, even a spa (two massage rooms).
(968 Park Hotel, located just across the street from the Heavenly base, shopping and dining, 877-544-0-968,www.968ParkHotel.com).
An Online Experience to Match the On-Mountain Experience
Skiheavenly.com offers a terrifically user-friendly site which does everything but literally put you in the resort. A 360-degree virtual tour gallery puts you right in the middle of a high-quality video experience; and a trip folder allows you to create your trip over time, with the ability to save, retrieve and share particular aspects of certain trips or whole itineraries. There is also a blog; live, streaming web cam, ski and snowboard instructor profiles (I can heartily recommend my instructor, Ivana Kynclova).
It offers wonderfully helpful planning information – everything from an entertainment calendar to reserving a spot in day care and finding out about travel directions – and a slew of Heavenly packages that offer real value even over peak holidays, plus last-minute deals with extra savings
Heavenly Mountain Resort is reached from Reno/Tahoe International Airport by a shuttle bus; or rent a car and plan a visit at Virginia City, a historic town established in 1859 which looks much the same today as when it became the richest mining town in the world.
Visit www.skiheavenly.com or call 800-HEAVENLY (432-8365) to get more information or to book your trip.
Wednesday, 11 November, 2009
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