A golden summer
Away from the ski crowds, all is warm and wonderful
WAYW TO GO, TAHOE Pine forests, sandy coves, sparkling turquoise water and snow-capped mountains. Lake Tahoe has it all. But have the Yanks been keeping this a secret? Visitors to the largest alpine lake in North America are overwhelmingly local. During a week in early summer I encounter only American accents. If I were to tell a local shopkeeper I am from Mars, not Australia, I doubt he could look more incredulous. Maybe overseas visitors only head here in winter to ski. Yet summer by the lake, with cloudless days and lingering twilights, is a treat. Just don’t tell anyone, please. More: visitinglaketahoe.com.
A KNIGHT TO REMEMBER Vikingsholm is a Nordic fantasy castle, including wooden beams carved with dragons, earthen roof and grey stone walls. The 38-room mansion was built not by a Scandinavian but an American, Lorna Josephine Knight, a wealthy divorcee who backed aviator Charles Lindbergh’s trans-Atlantic flight. The land she selected for her summer home on Tahoe’s southwest shore reminded her of the Scandinavian fjords, and so she built a residence in keeping with that landscape. Knight entertained her guests at Vikingsholm and at her teahouse on Fannette Island across the way. Vikingsholm is reached by boat or a downhill walk from the carpark. After exploring the house, I hire a kayak to cross to her island and climb to the now-ruined teahouse with its stone fireplace and 360-degree view across Emerald Bay. Seated atop the rocky outcrop, the only island on Lake Tahoe, I feel rather like Brunhilde and fancy a Valkyrie might whisk me back to shore. More: vikingsholm.com.
WHATW THE DEUCE You can lose money even before you exit Reno airport, the closest major gateway to Lake Tahoe, where slot machines line the route from the baggage carousel. Straddling sunny California and the gambling mecca of Nevada, the lake’s casinos are corralled at South Lake Tahoe on the Nevada side. Not being a gambler, I wander through the Hard Rock Casino to see the memorabilia. Against a backing-track of ringing, pinging one-armed bandits, I take in the velvet schoolboy uniform of AC/DC’s Angus Young, Joey Ramone’s leather pants, Richard Avedon’s psychedelic Beatles portraits and Michael Jackson’s diamond-studded white glove. Tahoe has had other brushes with fame. More: hardrockcasinolaketahoe.com.
THUNDERBIRDST ARE GO He was the eccentric Californian recluse with a taste for the exotic. George Whittell’s most constant companion was Bill the lion who rode in his master’s convertible, leaving claw marks on the dashboard. Whittell built Thunderbird Lodge, his lakeside mansion, with vast inherited wealth after buying more than 16,000ha on the Nevada side, including about 30 km of shoreline. He became its inadvertent saviour, and the reason the eastern side remains so pristine, when much of his estate went to the state after his death in 1969. There are guided tours around his lodge, including the card room he used for poker games, underground boathouse, and elephant house. Mingo the jumbo, and other animals in Whittell’s private zoo, are no longer in residence. Despite vowing never to do a day’s work, this unlikely role model has a local high school named after him. More: thunderbirdtahoe.org/lodge.
U UNTO THE BEACHES Sandy coves encircle the lake, which has a shorel line of 116km; these are ideal for picnicking, sunbathing, hiring boats or windsurfers. But swimming is only for the truly hardy as water temperatures are cool even at the height of summer; the freshwater lake is fed by mountains and at 500m deep, it’s a long, chilly way to the bottom. Skunk Cove, once a private picnic area, is among the most secluded of the little beaches. It is reached by boat or a 2.5km walk through meadows and conifer forest. More: tahoeactivities.com.
FRENCH CONNECTIONS Half an hour’s drive east of Lake Tahoe, La Ferme restaurant adds a touch of Provencal charm to Nevada’s wild-west hamlet of Genoa. Inside the 1880s pink wooden homestead, ceramic hens decorate the eaves, a French farmhouse clock stands against the wall and there’s a fire in the grate. The menu changes regularly and includes braised rabbit leg, confit of duck and creme brulee on the night I dine. Gilles LaGourgue and chef Yves Gigot opened the restaurant about 20 years ago. LaGourgue also oversees the adjacent Menagerie Boutique with one-off jewellery, art objects and homewares. Once a bustling stop on the Pony Express, the quaint settlement of Genoa is now home to just 250 residents. Its historic main street boasts Nevada’s oldest “Thirst Parlour”. And look out for the skeleton in a coffin in the local antiques shop; the storekeeper insists it’s genuine. More: lafermegenoa.com.
GIN SLINGS AND GUNSLINGERS The name might conjure unfortunate images of b belching juggernauts, yet the town of Truckee is as picturesque as a film set. And indeed Charlie Chaplain’s The Gold Rush was filmed there in 1925. The name refers to the greeting a native American chief gave to the first European visitors — “tro-kay” meaning “everything is all right”. Truckee was once a major railroad town, and many halted there en route to the Californian goldfields. Trains running between Chicago and San Francisco still stop, but Truckee’s mainstay is tourism. Some come for Truckee Thursday, the weekly farmers market and fair, held from 5pm during summer. The imposing old Truckee Hotel on the corner of Bridge Street serves more gin slings than gunslingers these days. The town is about a 30-minute drive from the north of the lake. More: truckee.com. TAKET A HIKE Hiking trails surround the lake, especially on the west and southwest side, and they range from easy strolls to uphill battles. Angora Lakes hike is about an hour’s round-trip to an area named after a herd of angora goats that used to graze here. Food and boat hire are available at Angora Lakes. Mount Tallac is among the most challenging day hikes. But the strenuous climb rewards with jaw-dropping views from the summit. Wildflowers are abundant in late spring and early summer, including purple columbine, blue flax and red alpine paintbrush. Note that mountain weather can change suddenly and dramatically so pack rain gear. More: tahoevacationguide.com/activities/hiking.
IT’S SNOW TIME Some ski-lifts operate even in warmer months and give hikers access to higher, more remote trails. But it is in winter when the lakeside is blanketed in snow that the ski resorts come alive. Squaw Valley, which hosted the 1960 Winter Olympics, is among the most popular. Skiing covers six peaks across more than 24000ha; there’s an 868m vertical drop and 42 lifts. As well as downhill skiing and snowboarding, there’s crosscountry, sledding, snowmobiling and ice-skating. More: skilaketahoe.com.. HOUSE-PARTY HAVEN I rent a house with six friends at Glenbrook, on the lake’s eastern shore. The comfortable fourbedroom house is a five-minute walk from the lake. On warm nights we dine on the deck with lake views, or on cooler evenings in the large living-dining room with its open fire. We stroll along the nearby sandy beach to see the sun’s first rays catch the snow-capped mountains, and watch squirrels in the pines. But we avoid the bears; a neighbour shows me the claw marks on her door. Accommodation at Tahoe ranges from camping grounds and condos to upmarket hotels, including the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort (pictured). More: glenbrookrentalprogram.com; laketahoe.hyatt.com.