Vail gives Tahoe a lift
Nov 11, 2012 (Menafn - The Oregonian - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --Snow levels were so bleak in Lake Tahoe last winter that during an epic March dump I heard one instructor tell another how nice it was "to ski on something that didn't come out of a garden hose."
Odd as it sounds, that conversation underscores a quiet revolution on the skiing scene around Lake Tahoe. Vail Resorts has bought three of the region's premier ski areas, and invested millions -- including on snow-making equipment -- to upgrade them.
While skiing on fake snow is hardly something to cheer about, it beats the alternative of dodging rocks or not skiing at all. And far more noticeable than snow-making equipment has been Vail's investment in on-mountain dining venues, high-speed chairlifts and village improvements at the Northstar-at-Tahoe Resort and Heavenly Mountain Resort.
Vail bought Northstar in October 2010 and Heavenly in 2002. It acquired Kirkwood Mountain Resort in February, but the extent of any planned upgrades -- besides some minor changes and inclusion in Vail's cool EpicMix technology (more on that later) -- is still unclear.
What is clear is that, even when Mother Nature isn't cooperating, Vail's investment is making a Lake Tahoe ski getaway more attractive than ever. From Portland, the flight to Reno is just under an hour, with a drive of an hour or less to the slopes.
You can enjoy vastly different vibes on the same long weekend. At Northstar, splurge on the ultimate ski-in, ski-out experience at the opulent Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe.
At Heavenly, choose from a variety of affordable lodgings near the gondola's base -- all within walking distance of shopping, brewpubs, fine dining and (on the Nevada side) casinos.
There's nothing to compare to the breathtaking sight of coming down that last run at Heavenly and seeing the sparkling lake below.
We came here for the mountain and the skiing but ended up being blown away by the lodging and dining experience.
Opened in December 2009, the Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe, is a magnificent mountainside resort -- the first such development in the region in decades. The 300 million project includes a central area in the hotel known as the Living Room, with a soaring ceiling, lots of beams and stone, and a central stone fireplace where you can even roast s'mores. The rooms are comparably luxurious.
Steven Holt, Ritz-Carlton's market director of public relations for Northern California, says architects drew inspiration from the West's great mountain lodges -- Oregon's own Timberline Lodge and the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite.
You'll find an Oregon native hanging around the entryway of the fabulous onsite Manzanita restaurant -- an enormous red cedar stump. You won't want to leave, either, after digging into tender red-wine braised short ribs or delicate, flaky seared sea bass.
Then there's the mountain: 97 ski trails spread over 3,170 acres. A new run, Castle Peak trail, is wide -- 240 feet -- and fun for intermediates with 1,400 feet of vertical drop.
It opened last winter, along with a detachable express quad chairlift, Promised Land Express; another 170 acres of glade skiing; and the resort's new on-mountain restaurant, Zephyr Lodge. All were part of 30 million in capital improvements Vail Resorts made last year to Northstar.
At Northstar, the best spot for seeing Lake Tahoe is at the top of Comstock Express, but you're likely to see no more than a patch of blue through the trees. At Heavenly, the sapphire lake is often in plain view, from the gondola to many runs.
Of course, when it's coming down like crazy the lake is nowhere in sight. So we concentrated on enjoying the snow.
I followed ski instructor Owen Lund over a few warm-up runs -- Ridge Run and Skyline Trail, then down Orion -- when Lund asked whether I'd like to tackle something harder.
He cut past some pines below Orion's Belt, tips slicing through new powder, through a gauntlet of trees to the bottom.
"I wouldn't mind doing that again," he said.
So it was up the Dipper Express lift and back among the trees, this time through the black-diamond Aries Woods.
The mountain is gigantic: 4,800 acres of terrain and 97 trails, split between its California and Nevada sides. As it did at Northstar, Vail Resorts opened a new on-mountain restaurant in December 2011, the Alpine-themed Tamarack Lodge.
After three days of skiing, with a few clicks on the EpicMix site, I could see that I skied 36,265 feet -- nearly seven miles. You can also track what lifts you ride, and when, review photos that resort photographers take on the various mountains (for free), and share them via email or social media sites.
It's all made possible by lift-mounted scanners that automatically read tags embedded on lift passes.
Just another dividend from the big investment in Tahoe's ski resorts.
-- Alex Pulaski
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