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Winter in North Lake Tahoe

The new Ritz-Carlton Highlands, Lake Tahoe, in Northstar-at-Tahoe resort,

Photo: Courtesy of Ritz Carlton

Straddling the California-Nevada border in the pine-covered Sierra Nevada, Lake Tahoe is one of this country's favorite winter playgrounds. The numbers alone are thrilling: more than 400 inches of snowfall each year on average, 14,000 acres of ski terrain, and an 80 percent chance of sunshine on any given day. For hikers, skiers, and nature lovers, this rugged mountain retreat is about as close to heaven as you can be.

Getting There and Around
By Air Most major airlines fly into the Reno-Tahoe International Airport, which is 45 miles northeast of the North Lake Tahoe area. Pick up your rental car at the airport--four-wheel drive is advisable in winter.
By Car Tahoe City is 200 miles northeast of San Francisco, 100 miles northeast of Sacramento, and 40 miles southwest of Reno, Nevada. On high-season weekends and holidays, traffic can make the trip painfully long, especially if the weather isn't cooperating. And unless your vehicle has four-wheel drive, you might even need chains during winter storms. For updates on California road conditions, call 800/427-7623; for Nevada, call 775/793-1313.

Hitting the Slopes
Can't decide where you want to ski during your stay?North Lake Tahoe Central Reservations (800/824-6348) offers an interchangeable lift ticket-pass that gives you a choice of seven downhill and seven cross-country resorts over consecutive days. Here's the lowdown on four of Tahoe's most popular ski areas.
Alpine Meadows 800/441-4423; www.skialpine.com; adults (ages 19 to 64) $50 for a one-day lift ticket. Great value at a friendly, informal resort with plenty of elbow room on the slopes. There are 13 lifts on 2,000 acres of prime beginner, intermediate, and advanced terrain.
Northstar-at-Tahoe 800/466-6784; www.skinorthstar.com; adults (ages 23 to 59) $49. The best family destination, with spacious condo accommodations and good intermediate slopes. Sixty-three trails are served by 13 lifts. Nearby is Polaris Park, with tubing, snowbikes, snowscoots, and a roll in the Zorb (see below).
Homewood Mountain Resort 530/525-2992; www.skihomewood.com; adults (ages 19 to 60) $38. Nothing fancy, just a casual back-yard vibe. On 1,260 acres of powder, you'll find eight lifts and 56 trails, including runs that descend straight to the shores of Lake Tahoe.
Squaw Valley USA 888/766-9321; www.squaw.com; adults (ages 16 to 64) $52. The resort that has it all: 4,000 acres across six peaks, 30 lifts, some of the steepest and longest gradients in the country, and almost every amenity imaginable. Other activities include snow tubing, ice skating, bungee jumping, and hot tubbing.

Abzorbed
Skiers riding the chairlifts from Northstar-at-Tahoe's mid-mountain lodge find themselves gawking at the resort's newest novelty, the Zorb--a huge plastic ball with a person strapped inside. The ride requires windless conditions, so it took several attempts before I could embark on the 30-second adventure. I wiggled headfirst through the cell-like orb's tight opening and reached its nucleus, a harness suspended by a web of taut bungee lines attached to the shell. I then fastened the straps and slipped my feet and hands into stirrups. After I gave the thumbs-up, the attendant shoved the Zorb downhill. I tumbled head over heels, as close as I'll ever get to a spin in a clothes dryer. At Tahoe, it's the next best thing to a roller-coaster ride--not a sport you'd want to repeat too many times, but definitely a cheap thrill at $20 a pop.
Contact Northstar-at-Tahoe (800/466-6784) for information.

Where to Stay
Resort at Squaw Creek 400 Squaw Creek Rd., Olympic Valley; 800/327-3353 or 530/583-6300, fax 530/581-6632; doubles from $250. Lake Tahoe's most luxurious resort, with steeply peaked black roofs, rises from the southeastern base of Squaw Valley like a cluster of stalagmites. There are 403 sleek rooms--some with fireplaces and valley views--and three perennially steaming outdoor Jacuzzis. You only have to leave the front door to find a cross-country skier's dream; out the back, a triple chairlift whisks you right up the mountain.
River Ranch Lodge Hwy. 89 at Alpine Meadows Rd., Tahoe City; 800/535-9900 or 530/583-4264, fax 530/583-7237; doubles from $65. Midway between Squaw Valley and Tahoe City, the 19-room River Ranch is perfect for skiers who crave an old-fashioned lodge. Its design is quintessentially alpine, from the rustic dining room, with a stone fireplace and a down-home bar overlooking the Truckee River, to the guest rooms, decorated with antique skis, pinecones, and vintage ski posters.
Sunnyside Resort 1850 W. Lake Blvd., Tahoe City; 800/822-2754 or 530/583-7200, fax 530/583-7224; doubles from $90. After a day outdoors, guests retreat to the 23 woodsy rooms of this lakeside lodge done in classic mountain décor. The bar is a local favorite. Taco night, held every Wednesday in the lounge, is a hallowed tradition among locals. You can't beat the location: Tahoe City is only two miles to the north, and Homewood ski resort is four miles to the south.
PlumpJack Squaw Valley Inn 1920 Squaw Valley Rd., Olympic Valley; 800/323-7666 or 530/583-1576, fax 530/583-1734; doubles from $104. The owners of Napa Valley's hippest winery brought their penchant for outrageous whimsy to Tahoe four years ago with this 61-room inn. Luckily, the style--the Elizabethan era meets the early nineties--still works for the year 2000. When it came to designing the five spacious suites, it was not rhyme but reason that guided the architects. PlumpJack is the best choice for ski-in, ski-out convenience.

Where to Eat
Captain Jon's 7220 N. Lake Blvd., Tahoe Vista; 530/546-4819; dinner for two $85. No, it's not a fish-and-chips joint. Think salmon en croûte, Maine lobster, trout in blackberry-butter sauce. The seafaring touches--a captain's portrait, a lantern by the door--are counterbalanced by year-round Christmas lights and jazz played on the piano.
Cottonwood Restaurant & Bar Off Hwy. 267, Truckee; 530/587-5711; dinner for two $75. The out-of-the-way location doesn't prevent visitors from finding this down-home dining room in one of the country's oldest ski lodges. Guests can admire the collection of antique ski equipment and cocktail shakers while waiting for their jerked rock prawns or braised rabbit with andouille sausage.
Firesign Café 1785 W. Lake Blvd., Tahoe City; 530/583-0871; breakfast for two $20. Skiers gossip about their latest runs while loading up on carb-intensive breakfasts--served all day in generous portions.
Graham's at Squaw Valley 1650 Squaw Valley Rd., Olympic Valley; 530/581-0454; dinner for two $85. There's something appealing about this woodsy local standby, whose long tables are often filled with families. Chef Douglas Kreidler takes a world tour with galette Natalie (grilled scallops, oyster mushrooms, and goat-cheese pastry), paella, eggplant Marrakech, and cassoulet.
Le Petit Pier 7238 N. Lake Blvd., Tahoe Vista; 530/546-4464; dinner for two $75. French in name, cuisine, and decoration, Le Petit Pier is a prime spot to linger over a glass of wine and plate of escargots and look out over Lake Tahoe.
PlumpJack Café 1920 Squaw Valley Rd., Olympic Valley; 800/323-7666; dinner for two $78. While the clientele and menu are about as big-city as it gets in these parts, PlumpJack exudes casual mountain attitude. Choose from the wine list's 28 by-the-glass options as you nibble on bread still warm from the oven. Then launch into the café's signature dish, duck "cooked two ways"--that is, two different ways every week.
Swiss Lakewood Restaurant 5055 W. Lake Blvd., Homewood; 530/525-5211; dinner for two $90. Opened in 1973 by Albert and Helga Marty, this kitschy Swiss chalet-style restaurant probably hasn't been redecorated since. Dig into Wiener schnitzel, sweetbreads with béarnaise and red-wine sauce, or beef Wellington.
Truffula 550 N. Lake Blvd., Tahoe City; 530/581-3383; dinner for two $75. This loud, minimalist room hidden in the back of a mall delivers sophisticated flavors, thanks to chef-owner Larry Dunning. Try the oxtail osso buco with potato gnocchi and gremolata, or the seared scallops in foie gras sauce.
Wolfdale's Cuisine Unique 640 N. Lake Blvd., Tahoe City; 530/583-5700; dinner for two $80. Don't let the name stop you. Wolfdale's menu pushes California-Asian cuisine to the limit with dishes such as halibut with jasmine rice and wasabi cream.

Revved Up
When I booked my guided snowmobile tour, I was worried that it would be as exciting as a pony ride in a kiddie corral. I arrived at our starting point just north of the lake to see the other 10 riders being fitted with helmets--and one of them was a toddler. Not a good sign.

But the hour-long ride turned out to be an enjoyable, albeit vigorous, way to explore the backcountry. It was my first time on a snowmobile, and the orientation seemed to last all of five seconds. After that we revved our engines and, one by one, blasted up a Cat-track trail. It looked pretty easy as I watched a father take off with his young son tucked between him and the steering column. I soon found there is much skill involved in handling the somewhat unwieldy machines. When I almost ran into a gully, I realized I had to be more aggressive with the handlebars in order to make accurate turns. But once I'd learned that lesson, I was soon confidently barreling along trails, off into fluffy powder meadows, and up to a bluff where we stopped to check out the view. The toddler didn't find it quite so exhilarating--he slept through the whole bumpy ride.
Snowmobiling Unlimited, Brockway Summit, Hwy. 267 and Mount Watson Rd., 9 miles south of Truckee; 530/583-5858; $50 per hour.

The Sporting Life
City slicker that I am, my only idea of snowshoes involved Nanook of the North. It took world-class extreme snowboarder and skier Charles Patterson to clue me in. After I strapped on my rented snowshoes, Patterson guided me on a trek from the parking lot at Olympic Village Inn, up the deep snowbanks along Shirley Canyon. Almost every inch of Tahoe is prime snowshoeing territory. We traipsed over shimmering snowpack, gazing out at endless vistas of pine-shrouded mountains. Call me Nanook of the West.
To book treks, contact the Resort at Squaw Creek; 530/583-6300.

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