CALIFORNIA LOVE; ENDA MULLEN has a mammoth skiing adventure in the US state where the snow season can last all the way to July.
THEY say it never rains in southern California - but it certainly snows in the north. While this sprawling West Coast American state might not spring forth as an immediate choice for UK skiers it has much to recommend it, and 2017 saw record snow levels in many resorts.
Travelling from the UK obviously involves a long-haul flight but go for a longer stay and you can combine your ski trip with something like a city break in San Francisco.
Until you go there it's hard to get a handle on just how big California is, and how diverse its geography is.
From the sun-kissed beaches of the south to the snow-peaked Sierra Nevada mountains of the north, it also has deserts and huge forests.
Perhaps that's no surprise given it stretches from the Mexican border for 900 miles along the Pacific Ocean.
This was my first trip there and in less than a week I got to check out three ski resorts, as well as sampling the delights of San Francisco.
Our trip got off to a stuttering start - and bizarrely it was down to too much snow.
We flew from Heathrow to San Francisco with British Airways but you can also use the national carrier's newer route to Oakland, which is just up the road.
A plan to travel by road to Squaw Valley on the shores of Lake Tahoe was thwarted as the mountain roads were blocked by snow. Plan B saw us taxi to San Jose (yes, our driver did know the way), then a flight to Reno, Nevada, where we stayed in the Silver Legacy Resort & Casino in this mini-gambling mecca.
No gambling after such an epic voyage but some fine food in one of the resort's many restaurants.
Next morning we set off for Squaw Valley but again the elements were conspiring against us as heavy snow meant only a few runs were open.
Instead, we headed for Diamond Peak, across the state border in Nevada. It's a nice, if small, resort and was perfect for intermediate skiers like me, in urgent need of some refresher lessons.
I quickly found my feet after a six-year gap and before long was in my element, even if I did get overly ambitious and end up on slopes where I was a little out of my comfort zone. Although it's relatively small there's a decent variety of skiing here and the advanced skiers I was with found some suitably challenging terrain.
After a busy day we finally got to what should have been our original destination close to Squaw Valley, Cedar Glen Lodge, a charming independent hotel on the shores of Lake Tahoe.
Plumpjack Squaw Valley Inn in the nearby ski resort proved a great spot for evening dining. We enjoyed a memorable meal and I discovered, to my surprise, that Brussels sprouts are something of a delicacy in California. It takes all sorts.
A day later than planned we got on the slopes at Squaw Valley. It's a resort where you travel by cable car up the mountain to access everything from nursery slopes to black runs. It was windy and the continued snowfall and staggered opening of slopes meant it was busy - American resorts are frequently delightfully quiet compared to European ones - but we crammed plenty into a half day of skiing.
Having been spared a road trip at the start of our stay, we had our first big overland journey to our next destination, Mammoth Lakes.
We enjoyed a fabulous meal at the quirky Squeeze In, in Truckee, where diners are encouraged to write on the walls in an alternative approach to the visitors' book while sampling the brunch-style food.
My King Crab Benny, a delicious seafood take on eggs Benedict, was spectacular, although I wasn't so sure about the chocolate bacon they gave us to try.
Driving to Mammoth, you get a sense of just how sparsely populated large swathes of California still are. We stayed at the stylish and luxurious apartments in the Village Lodge, right in the heart of the resort.
A quick turnaround was followed by a visit to Mammoth Brewing Company, virtually on the doorstep.
The craft beer movement is huge in America and it was great to sample some fine concoctions from this small but impressive brewery.
Mammoth is essentially in the middle of nowhere and, although it's isolated, has a strong community feel. A lot of people seem to have moved there for skiing in the winter and hiking in the summer, and it's easy to imagine falling for its rugged beauty.
Even Brad Pitt has a house there. Pointed out to us by our ski instructor, it's one of the superdeluxe homes that are literally on the slopes. The Hollywood A-lister wasn't there during our two-day stay but our instructor delighted in telling us how she had once "chased him down a mountain".
Mammoth Mountain, as the name would suggest, is huge and, along with neighbouring June Mountain, has skiing to suit all levels and tastes.
The advanced skiers I was with tackled what looked like vertical slopes to me (even they admitted they were tough!), while the intermediates experienced a diverse array of runs in this spectacular setting.
It's a great location. The town is compact and there's a wide variety of bars and restaurants. We dined at Petras and Campo, which were both first-rate.
Mammoth might be isolated but it's also well connected, with its own airport making it easy to get in and out of.
We flew back to San Francisco to enjoy a night and a day in one of the world's truly great cities. It was strange going from the mountain to the hustle and bustle of a big city. We stayed at the King George Hotel downtown and headed straight out to soak up the buzz of this remarkable city by night.
With the best part of a day to do whatever we wished, the delights of the Museum of Modern Art and a special Matisse/Diebenkorn exhibition opening that day proved a perfect start before I headed for the famous Fisherman's Wharf.
From there, I took a boat trip out into the bay to see the iconic Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island. If you want to visit the prison, you'll need to book in advance. I also managed part of an interesting city bus tour, although sadly I didn't get as far as the Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood, home of the hippy movement. Time was limited but it left me thinking I would just have to come back.
If you do fancy heading to California to ski, it's worth noting the season runs until very late in some places - right up until July 4 in some resorts. Imagine celebrating US Independence Day by skiing down a mountain. Now that's a party with a difference.
travel file | ENDA MULLEN flew to San Francisco courtesy of British Airways, which flies to both San Francisco and has launched a new service to Oakland. See ba.com. He was a guest of the tourist boards of North Lake Tahoe, Mammoth Lakes and San Francisco, and the Mammoth Mountain resort.
| FOR more information on the areas visited, check out these tourist board websites: North Lake Tahoe (gotahoenorth.com); Mammoth Mountain (mammothmountain.com); Mammoth Lakes Tourism (visitmammoth.com); San Francisco (sftravel.com).
| FOR hotel details and rates: Cedar Glen Lodge (tahoecedarglen.com); Village Lodge (thevillagelodge mammoth.com); King George (kinggeorge.com).
Enda travelled to and from London as a guest of Virgin Trains (virgintrains.co.uk).
The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco
Brad Pitt has a house in Mammoth
As the name suggests, Mammoth Mountain is huge
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|Publication:||Wales On Sunday (Cardiff, Wales)|
|Date:||Jan 28, 2018|
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