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Year Long Destination: Lake Tahoe, Calif.

There was a time when the mountains around Lake Tahoe, Calif., were mainly a winter destination during the skiing season. Now, the ski mountains and surrounding hamlets are alive all year with people powering down on mountain bikes or rock climbing, writes Al Auger.

(Above): A view of Lake Tahoe and Heavenly during the spring season. [Vansh Gupta photo]

The glistening white snow fades from the deserted ski areas and slides into the rushing rivers to replenish the dry reservoirs of the flatlands. The unclad Sierra Nevada settles into a moping session of waiting for the next season’s wakeup call to a white excitement. When the ski season ends, so does the mountain’s usefulness. The chairlifts stand silent, swaying in the breeze. The trails, once sensuous and undulating, now seem only ugly cuts between the greenery of majestic timber.

That used to be the way it was. No longer.

The ski mountains and surrounding towns and hamlets today are alive with people, powering down on sophisticated mountain bikes, or rock climbing up the rugged mountain side. Outdoor adventures at the leading ski spas are now a challenging year-round experience in the High Sierra. These venturesome activities have been joined by a wide range of sybaritic pleasures throughout the North and South Tahoe valley.

A perfect example of what the Tahoe Basin can offer in the off-season and beyond the beautiful lake spreading across the valley is the North Lake Tahoe Autumn Food & Wine Fest in September. Encompassing a number of the multi-star resorts and restaurants, the three-day event draws some of the biggest names in the culinary arts. For 2009, the line-up will be headed by James Beard award winner, Traci des Jardin.

(Above): Sunset at Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe.

Chef and co-owner of the famed Jardiniere and Mijita Cocina restaurants in San Francisco, Des Jardin is set to open her venue Manzanita in the Ritz-Carlton Highlands situated mid-mountain at Northstar-at-Tahoe in December. Scheduled for Sept. 11-13, the 24th annual Autumn Food & Wine Festival features a host of award-winning chefs to accompany Des Jardin in a number of locations through the North Lake Tahoe region. Proceeds from the festival are targeted to the community fund of North Lake Tahoe. (For information go to www.tahoefoodandwine.com.)

After a chaotic search to find its identity, Squaw Valley is now in the fast lane of becoming the premier year-round destination resort of the nation. Does it grab your imagination to play tennis, ice skate or swim in the free-form swimming lagoon & spa with two islands featuring overpowering indigenous boulders and waterfalls at the 8,200 feet elevation? For the more adventurous of all ages there are heart-thumping experiences on the trampolines or the Headwall Sky Jump.

The on-mountain changes reflect this Euro-ambience approach of the valley floor thoughtfully created by InterWest Corporation that began in the waning years of the 20th century. Thankfully, the designers kept away from the kitschy faux-Swiss look and put a modern, strictly Squaw Valley signature to every building and landscape architecture. This is a village to be strolled amongst its muted landscaping.

At the entrance to Squaw Valley is the posh Resort at Squaw Creek. This five-star hostelry with 405-rooms ranging from sumptuous suites to the luxurious President’s Suite offers every indulgence one could imagine. Shops, personal services, fine dining to pizza and hamburgers, two tennis courts, three pools and championship 18-hole golf course, it’s all here. Designed by the legendary Robert Jones, Jr., the picaresque course bears a purposeful resemblance to those of Scotland. The vast terrain of the valley offers the golfer a number of dissimilar fairways, from the hills behind the resort then dropping down into the valley with great, open ranges. The sports shop also features a driving range.

(Above): North Star at Tahoe.

Whatever Alex Cushing and then-partner Wayne Poulson may have thought way back when about the future of Squaw Valley after its surprisingly profitable hosting of the 1960 Winter Olympics, it was obviously too much of a stretch to envision what the revamped Squaw Valley has brought to the Lake Tahoe basin. It may sound strange after 49 years, but Squaw Valley has arrived after a dark history of neglect and deceit only Shakespeare could create.

Interested in something a little more sedentary? Well, we could find you a center stage seat 2,000 feet above Lake Tahoe for music and stunning sunsets. Or maybe you’re looking for an intellectual aspect to the beauty of the High Sierra. Try an interpretative hike about the Lake Tahoe basin. Backpack in the Desolation Wilderness on trails that cover the spectrum from easy to difficult. In one of those strange inverse situations where the need has been waiting in the wings much longer than it should have, the fulfillment is now available.

At Northstar, summertime visitors may partake in mountain biking, challenging rope courses and imagine an artificial wall at 7,000-feet. Barreling down the dry mountainside on wheels has become almost as popular as blasting down the mountain on skis. Northstar’s Mount Pluto and Lookout Mountain have more than 100-miles of marked bike trails serviced by two chairlifts equipped with bike racks. Weekend bike schools for the novice and the most experienced taught by professionals are available.

Northstar’s Challenge Rope Course integrates ropes, cables and fir trees into mentally and physically enduring games and exercises for everyone from 10-years of age to whoever wants to give it a go. “It’s an obstacle course that will keep you on your toes while enjoying the vast panorama of out mountains,” described a Northstar spokesperson.

Music is the soul of Lake Tahoe’s off season and it can be best illuminated by the annual Lake Tahoe Music Festival playing at such venues as the West End Beach at Donner Lake and Homewood Ski Resort on the west shore of the lake. This year headliners included the Yellowjackets, Boz Scaggs and Huey Lewis and the News. Many other ski resorts feature musical events from jazz to blues to classical throughout the year.

(Above): The village at Squaw Valley.

Everyone is familiar with the biggest draw at South Lake Tahoe: casinos, night life, fine dining and, of course, a long menu of music. But the great outdoors is just as much a seductive whisper. At the heart of all the activities available is Heavenly Mountain Resort. Whatever your mind and body calls out for the information can be found through this legendary ski resort. The list of biking and hiking trails fills pages and can be detailed and described by going to Heavenly’s Web site (www.skiheavenly.com/lake_tahoe/things_to_do/biking). Lake Tahoe entertainment information, family vacations and lodging choices are at your fingertips.

One of my very favorite ski resorts, over many, many years, has been the sophisticated and friendly Sugar Bowl Resort at the top of Donner Summit. But Sugar is also a classic point of quiet refinement in the summer season. Its restaurant challenges any Tahoe basin resort for exceptional dining. Sugar Bowl’s chefs are known throughout the industry for their French-inspired California cuisine.

For the restless the Crest Trail is a starting place to hike or bike and end up on the deck of the Sugar Bowl deck with a refreshing cool drink and relax as the sun sets. Twice a week during July and August the Village Lodge offers an adult summer yoga course. Lodgings at Sugar Bowl Resort are available with special programs for families and kids. (See sidebar for other activities and programs.)

Many, if not most, of the special events highlighted here have been and gone, yet they will illustrate what a wildly distinct set of choices are waiting to satisfy anyone’s desire. Many will close with the first snowflake while others will remain open through early winter or year-round. Actually, the most enticing and attractive time to visit Lake Tahoe is the fall from late August to November. When the kids are back in school and the majority of vacationers are back to work and you have this magnificent environment practically to yourself. The colors will be changing to bright reds, yellows, russet and reds and many of the resorts will be offering the best deals of the year.

What’s Happening, Where to Find Out What You Need to Know

North Lake Tahoe: Wild flowers in bloom – the annual Winter Carnival – Music concerts, musical shows, etc. www.GoTahoeNorth.com

Northstar-at-Tahoe: Apex Adventure Bungy – Apex Adventure Ropes Challenge – 9-hole golf course and driving range – bike and gear rentals – Beerfest and Bluegrass Festival – horseback riding – fly fishing - live music and more. www.northstarattahoe.com

Squaw Valley: Cable car rides – stargazing – sunset hikes – Sunset or Full Moon Hikes – multitude of lodgings and dining from affordable to luxurious – live music – visit www.squaw.com

Sugar Bowl Resort: Visit www.sugarbowl.com

Heavenly Resort: Visit www.skiheavenly.com.

Al Auger is a freelance writer. He lives in Redding, Calif.


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