Tahoe: five major ski resorts to choose from

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

"Lake Tahoe would restore an Egyptian mummy to his pristine vigor and give him an appetite like an alligator. . . . The air up there in the clouds is very pure and fine, bracing and delicious. And why shouldn't it be? -- it is the same the angels breathe," wrote Mark Twain about this glacial lake that straddles the California-Nevada border, 58 miles southeast of Reno.

Truly a lake for all seasons, Twain may have been referring to it during the winter months, for the snow, too, is ideal for skiing; not icy, just packed and powdered. Surrounded by the Sierra Nevada, Lake Tahoe is a mountain recreation playground that claims the largest concentration of skiing anywhere in the States. Of the 22 various ski areas situated by the lake's 71-mile shoreline, there are five major resorts: Squaw Valley USA, Northstar, Alpine Meadows, Kirkwood, and Heavenly Valley, of which the latter two are on the south shore and the three others on the north.

In a way these logistics have somewhat created a Civil War complex, in which the south end people think the northerners are snobby and the north end folks think that the south end is ticky-tacky, overcrowded, and too casino-ized, or something to that effect. What a newcomer needs to know about Lake Tahoe is that there are indeed two distinct areas. And what separates the north shore from the south shore is more than just an hour's drive.

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"The first thing a travel agent should ask people planning to come here is 'What kind of skier are you?' and 'What is your main reason for coming to Tahoe?'" said Janet Jones, executive coordinator of Ski Lake Tahoe, the marketing organization responsible for promoting these ski resorts throughout the States, Europe, and Canada.

Simply, there's more skiable terrain with a wider choice of areas on the north shore, suitable for all levels of skiing ability. Also, the north shore is geared more toward family enjoyment. There is less development there, too, and it exudes more of a rustic atmosphere. The two main towns, Truckee, with its logging mill and Old West flavor, and Tahoe City, both have a low-key charm. There4s continental cuisine and intimate dining at Le Petit Pier, in Tahoe Vista , and at the Waterwheel, an unlikely name for a northern Chinese restaurant run by Mike Vick, a mathematics teacher, and his wife, Debbie. The food is as good as at any Sichuan place in San Francisco.

Here's a thumbnail sketch of the three major north shore ski areas: Northstar (Box 2499, Truckee, Calif. 95734, [916] 562-1111), an 1,100-acre resort community with village center, shops, restaurants, rentals. Season is from Thanksgiving to Easter; 8 lifts, 41 runs (longest is 2.84 miles), vertical rise is 2,200 feet, 50 percent designated as intermediate, 17 percent advanced, 33 percent beginner/novice; recreation center with outdoor Jacuzzi pool, sauna, exercise room; ski school; accommodations ranging from hotel rooms to four- bedroom condominiums; shuttle transport throughout grounds. Ski packages available, also midweek specials. Suited ideally for family. Squaw Valley USA (Box 2007, Olympic Valley, Calif. 95730, [916] 583-5582 or [800] 824-7954 except California, Alaska, and Hawaii). Home of the 1960 Winter Olympics and official Olympic Training Center for US team. Season is from mid-November to May; 26 lifts (includes cable car and gondola); 2,700-foot vertical drop; longest run three miles; five peaks starting at 6,200-foot to 8,200- foot elevation; 30 percent designated as advanced, 40 percent as intermediate, and 30 percent as beginner. Squaw Valley Lodge is at the base of the lifts, with other accommodations for 600 people, self-contained village with shops, restaurants, movie theater, church, post office, skating rink; other accommodations at nearby motels and condo rentals within 15- mile radius. Ski packages offered. Alpine Meadows (Box AM, Tahoe City, Calif. 95730, [916] 583-1045). Leased on Forest Service land. Season is from mid-November through May; elevation base 6,970 -feet, top is 8,637-feet with view of the lake; 13 lifts; 2,000 acres of skiable terrain with 50 miles of runs; 40 percent designated as advanced/expert, 35 percent as intermediate, and 25 percent as beginner/novice; no overnight accommodations on premises, but handles reservations in nearby facilities; provides shuttle service to south shore ski areas Monday through Friday, free of charge.

These areas all have day lodges, restaurants, and cafeterias at the base and on the slopes. Lift tickets range from $15 to $17 all day; some are interchangeable.

In contrast, the south shore offers night life and big-name entertainment at the hotel-casinos such as Harrahs, sahara- Tahoe, and Harveys, from dawn to dawn. This side of the "tracks" is the flash, glitter, glamour counterpart of the sedate north. But the two ski areas here offer just as excellent skiing as on the other side, only it is limited in choice.

Heavenly Valley (Box 2180, Stateline, Nev. 89449, [702] 588- 4584). Encompasses nine peaks that drape over the California-Nevada border with 20 square miles of skiable terrain, 4,000-foot vertical drop. Season is from mid-November to mid-May; longest run is seven miles; 22 lifts, 25 percent designated as most advanced, 50 percent as intermediate and 25 percent as beginner/novice; five day lodges; view of lake; helicopter skiing; ski school, ski packages; accommodations at nearby motels, hotels, and condominiums. Kirkwood (Box 1, Kirkwood, Calif. 95646, [209] 258-6000). Situated 30 miles from Stateline, Nev., on scenic Highway 88; provides shuttle service; 2,000 acres of skiable terrain , much open-bowl type; 2,000-foot vertical drop with base elevation at 7,800 feet and 9,800 feet at top; 10 lifts; 50 runs; 25 percent designated as advance/expert; 50 percent as intermediate; 25 percent beginner/novice; ski packages; ski school, accomodations include on-premise condominiums and nearby facilities from 30 to 35 miles away. Probably the least crowded of all five areas.

Regardless of which area one chooses, the main gateway to the Lake Tahoe region is through Reno's international airport. Because of the growing population of Reno-Tahoe as a single destination, the air service and air carriers has increased proportionately. Three years ago, there were only three airlines servicing Reno, whereas today there are 10, with United handling most points east, directly or via Chicago.

Reno is equidistant to either the north or south shore of Lake Tahoe. Regularly scheduled buses serve each point at a nominal cost, though there are more going to the south shore; also, limousines are available for hire. For those planning a Lake Tahoe visit, an overnight or a couple of days in Reno (known as "The Biggest Little City in the World) offer a range of diversions, from the MGM Grand Hotel's theatrical extravaganza "Hello, Hollywood, Hello" to the Nevada Historical Society Museum of the Old West.

Perhaps what distinguishes Lake Tahoe's ski areas from other popular Western spots, such as Aspen, in Colorado, is that the winter is actually the low season for Tahoe, which traditionally is a summer vacation land. These ski areas are encouraging midweek business and offer enticing packages as well as day rates at off-season rates, making Tahoe as a ski resort a bargain compared with anywhere else.

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