Vail Daily travel feature: Loving Lake Tahoe
May 31, 2014
I wandered up the sand dune that rose behind the rows of seating at the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival. This amphitheater, which is constructed each summer specifically for the Festival, not only affords exceptional views of the lake, but a truly unique experience. There's something liberating about curling your toes in the sand while a talented troupe of performers present their interpretation of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," set in the 1960s, complete with a mighty groovy Puck.
It was also an apropos beginning to a weekend in Lake Tahoe that completely changed my perception of this resort area.
Before I visited Lake Tahoe, I pictured a town much like Vail, but with a lake. Of course, I'd seen pictures of people skiing at Heavenly Ski Resort with the lake in the background, blue and expansive, but for some reason I had a hard time imagining the place outside of that photo.
When I finally arrived after the short drive from the Reno airport, I realized exactly how deluded I was. There is not just one town or village — there are actually two distinct areas of Lake Tahoe: the north and the south. There are restaurants and breweries, marinas and hotels dotting the lakeshore. People wander from shop to shop, maybe stopping for a frosty beverage at a lake side pub. Don't be fooled by Tahoe's laid-back vibe — the wide range of activities to try and things to see will keep you busy from dawn to well into the evening.
On the water
It's hard to describe just how big Lake Tahoe is unless you see it first-hand. With an area of 191.6 square miles and a length of 21.75 miles, it's enormous. The best way to truly get a feeling for the expanse is by getting onto the water. Sailboats dot the water like giant white cranes and kayaks are a popular mode of transport and exercise. One of the fastest growing experiences at Lake Tahoe is stand-up paddleboarding. Waterman's Landing at Carnelian Bay, owned by professional stand-up paddleboarder Jay Wild, rents stand-up paddleboards and provides lessons for novice SUPers.
The beauty of SUPing is that almost anyone can do it. From young children to octogenarians, SUPing is easy to pick up and almost impossible to do incorrectly. However, a few tips from Jay helped us refine our stroke technique and, before the sun was high in the sky, we were paddling across the mirror-like surface of the lake. I dipped my paddle into the water, concentrating on the hook-shaped stroke that Jay recommended and took just a moment to admire the view. From the water, the mountains rise sharply, jutting from the evergreens that hug the edge. It's like nothing I've seen before.
I would spend several more hours on the lake on a paddleboard, including an attempt to help break the world record for most people practicing yoga on a stand up paddleboard during the Ta-Hoe Nalu festival. Of all the ways to experience the water, SUPing is one of the most popular.
By the shore
Lake Tahoe is, by virtue of terrain and state lines, an area divided. North and South, California and Nevada (pronounced neh-VA-duh with the "a" as in cat), Lake Tahoe is an area of contrast. The northern side of the lake is dotted with beaches of varying sizes, resorts both modern and classic and a wide range of restaurants, including the West Shore Cafe, with not just waterfront, but above-water seating. Then there are the casinos, many which personify the opulence and style of its famous patrons such as Frank Sinatra.
The Crystal Bay Resort and Casino is one of the area's most iconic destinations; you can almost see Old Blue Eyes cozied up in one of the plush velvet booths in the Crystal Bay Steakhouse. He certainly would have been a fan of the show that our waiter Luis performs with bananas foster en flambe. The Crystal Bay Club hosts musical performances from a wide variety of artists; I got my first taste of Austin-based Mingo Fishtrap there.
Though resorts like Crystal Bay maintain the decor and ambiance of its heyday, there are changes afoot. CalNeva Resort, which was owned by Frank Sinatra and is rumored to be home to the ghost of Marilyn Monroe, is undergoing a massive renovation, which is expected to bring it to a modern level of luxury.
Of course, Lake Tahoe is also a busy ski destination and, in the summertime, those resorts (there are seven ski resorts in the Lake Tahoe area) are buzzing with special events and festivals. The Brews, Jazz & Funk Fest at the Village at Squaw Valley hosts craft breweries from around the country, many from California which are seldom seen in Colorado, along with live music at the base of the resort.
In the trees
From my precarious perch, the rope ladder that hangs in front of me looks less sturdy than I'd like. I'm tethered to the security cables by two carabineers, but the idea of jumping into space, clinging onto the ladder like a monkey, is a bit daunting.
With my friends shouting encouragement below me, I take a deep breath and jump. The ladder, despite its appearance, does its job and I clamber up to the next platform and contemplate my next move.
The Treetop Adventure and Ropes Course at Granlibakken Resort is a playground nestled in the trees, with eight different courses in two different areas. The Flying Squirrel course is perfect for younger guests while the Monkey course is geared toward older, if not wiser, adventurers. Each route is marked as easy to more difficult and the challenges range from the Fuzzy Bunny to a pulse-pounding bicycle ride about 50 feet above the ground. Open year-round, the Treetop Adventure course is an experience that you'll may love or hate — but you'll never forget.
Some say it's the dual nature of the place, with its divide of north and south, dual-state citizenship and contrasting combination of water and mountains that makes Lake Tahoe so unique. Others think it's the history of the area, with classic log cabins sharing the shore with flamboyant casinos. Other folks point to the wide range of outdoor activities, from hiking to biking to paragliding on to water sports and tree climbing.
Me? I think it's the exact combination of all these things that make Lake Tahoe an unforgettable destination.
Katie Coakley is a freelance writer and part-time Colorado resident who likes to travel, drink beer, sip whiskey and then writes about it. You can follow her adventures on her blog, katieonthemap.com or by buying her a pint on a sunny deck.