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DOWNHILL UPGRADE REFURBISHED BASE AREA LURES SKIERS, BOARDERS TO SOUTH LAKE TAHOE.

Byline: Tim Hunt Alameda Newspaper Group

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE - Few places can match Lake Tahoe for scenic beauty.

The huge, dazzling, blue lake is surrounded by forested mountains and granite cliffs, and the scene is crowned by clear skies much of the year.

The first sight of Lake Tahoe from Echo Pass on Highway 50 often prompts visitors to pull off the narrow highway and gaze at this natural wonder.

But that beauty gives way to tawdriness when motorists approach the heart of South Lake Tahoe. Motel after motel, low-end restaurants and rental shops, most built 40 or 50 years ago, flank much of Highway 50 from its intersection with Highway 89.

This is the scene that a combination of interests, headed by the city of South Lake Tahoe, has been trying to change. And they're making significant progress.

The alterations are essential if the Lake Tahoe area - particularly the gaming center on the south shore - is to continue to compete for skiers, snowboarders and other winter-sports enthusiasts.

For years, the skiing has been sound here, and it continues to improve as the resorts upgrade their lifts and facilities.

Surrounding Lake Tahoe and its 70-mile shore are more resorts than a visitor can ski in a week's vacation.

On the south side, there's Heavenly in the heart of South Lake Tahoe, Sierra-at-Tahoe over Echo Summit on Highway 50, and Kirkwood, two mountain passes and 30 miles away.

On the west side of the lake is Homewood. Further up Highway 89 are Alpine Meadows and Squaw Valley USA, with its new village. Nearby there's Northstar-at-Tahoe and the small Tahoe Donner area.

Off Interstate 80 over Donner Summit are Boreal, Sugar Bowl, Donner Ski Ranch and Soda Springs.

On the Nevada side are Mount Rose and Diamond Peak.

That's 15 resorts - more than two weeks' worth - within about an hour's drive (in decent weather) from any spot around Lake Tahoe.

They offer everything from quality beginner and family programs at places such as Northstar-at-Tahoe, Sierra-at-Tahoe and Heavenly to steep slopes and chutes to keep the experts interested at resorts such as Squaw Valley USA and Kirkwood.

With that many choices and stiff competition both around Lake Tahoe and throughout the western United States and Canada, it's no wonder that the city of South Lake Tahoe decided it needed to upgrade. It worked with the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, which controls development around the lake in the two states.

Major corporate players, notably the Marriott Corp. and Vail Resorts, have joined in the effort. Vail owns four of Colorado's best ski resorts: its namesake Vail, Beaver Creek, Keystone and Breckenridge.

When Vail Resorts purchased heavenly from the American Skiing Co. and Marriott took over two shared-ownership residential projects in South Lake Tahoe, the players were lined up to transform the area. Embassy Suites already had redeveloped the block closest to Stateline, Nev.

Heavenly Village now is taking shape a block away from Stateline where the major casinos (Harrah's, Harvey's, Caesars, Horizon) beckon with 24-hour gaming action, entertainment and dining.

The linchpin to the village is Heavenly's six-passenger gondola, which speeds skiers and snowboarders to midmountain in about 10 minutes. Heavenly routinely has offered bus service to its three base areas, but the convenience of walking to the gondola from the casino hotels takes it to a new level.

The village competes with the other ones springing up around the lake.

Squaw Valley USA's village transformed a base area that dated back 30 and 40 years, transforming it into a hub of activity throughout the day and evening.

Northstar-at-Tahoe, which already has enhanced its original village, is moving ahead with the next phases that include luxury condominiums.

The Heavenly gondola is surrounded by first-floor retail and rental shops, with condos on the upper floors. Marriott is marketing the condos as either traditional time-shares at Timber Lodge or fractional ownership (quarter-share or 13 weeks a year) at the Grand Residence Club. It's a mere stroll from your room to the gondola.

Whether a visitor is staying for a weekend or two weeks, the changes in South Lake Tahoe make it possible to walk or use convenient public transportation rather than getting snarled in traffic in a car.

A parking garage and a 14-screen cinema are scheduled for completion this spring. The old Raley's shopping center, meanwhile, has also received a total makeover, with a new exterior that complements the architecture of Heavenly Village.

The contrast with the other side of Highway 50, where redevelopment hasn't started, is remarkable. On one side of the highway, a visitor will find upscale stores - including North Face and Patagonia - art galleries and jewelry boutiques. On the other side are a coffee shop, discount T-shirt store and palm reader.

There is more work to be done, but it's clear South Lake Tahoe is off to a fine start.

IF YOU GO

NORTH LAKE TAHOE/DONNER PASS:

Alpine Meadows: 1,800 vertical feet; 14 lifts; (530) 581-8374; www.skialpine.com.

Boreal: 500 vertical feet; nine lifts; (530) 426-3666; www.borealski.com.

Diamond Peak: 1,840 vertical feet; seven lifts; (775) 831-3211; www.diamondpeak.com.

Donner Ski Ranch: 750 vertical feet; six lifts; (530) 426-3635; www.donnerskiranch.com.

Granlibakken: 300 vertical feet, two lifts; (530) 581-7333; www.granlibakken.com.

Homewood: 1,650 vertical feet; eight lifts; (530) 525-2900; www.skihomewood.com.

Mount Rose: 1,440 vertical feet; six lifts; (775) 849-0704; www.mtrose.com.

Northstar-at-Tahoe: 2,280 vertical feet; 17 lifts; (530) 562-1330; www.skinorthstar.com.

Soda Springs: 650 vertical feet; four lifts; (530) 426-3666; www.skisodasprings.com.

Squaw Valley USA: 2,850 vertical feet; 34 lifts; (530) 583-6985; www.squaw.com.

Sugar Bowl: 1,500 vertical feet; 12 lifts; (530) 426-3847; www.sugarbowl.com.

Tahoe Donner: 600 vertical feet; four lifts; (530) 587-9494; www.tahoedonner.com.

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE:

Heavenly: 3,500 vertical feet; 29 lifts; (775) 586-7000; www.skiheavenly.com.

Kirkwood: 2,000 vertical feet; 12 lifts; (209) 258-6000; www.skikirkwood.com.

Sierra-at-Tahoe: 2,212 vertical feet; 10 lifts; (530) 659-7475; www.sierratahoe.com.

LODGING: Most snow resort Web sites have links for lodging. Here are some other options: www.tahoeaccommodations.com, www.virtualtahoe.com, www.tahoe.com, www.gotahoe.com.

INFORMATION: Lake Tahoe's six largest ski resorts (three on the north shore, three on the south) are jointly marketed by Ski Lake Tahoe: www.skilaketahoe.com.

From slopes to links in Lake Tahoe

The prime time for snow sports in Lake Tahoe is now, but as the sun starts to warm the days in March and April, there are still plenty of reasons to head for the mountains that encircle the lake.

In the spring, the crowds have dispersed, leaving minimal competition in the lift lines. And in a few select locations - particularly once daylight-saving time begins in April - a visitor can easily ski and golf in the same day.

On the north side of the lake, it's possible to enjoy a morning of skiing at Northstar-at-Tahoe, Alpine Meadows or Squaw Valley USA and then be on a golf course in Reno, Nev., in the afternoon - it's just about an hour away.

The same is true of the Heavenly ski area on the south side. Start on the Nevada side on Kingsbury Grade (Highway 207) and then descend into the Carson Valley for golf at Genoa Lakes or Sierra Nevada, 30 to 40 minutes away. The two courses are among nine in the greater Carson Valley that offer plenty of variety and challenge - plus low-season rates in the early spring.

- Tim Hunt

CAPTION(S):

4 photos, 2 boxes

Photo:

(1 -- 3 -- color) At Lake Tahoe's Heavenly resort, snowboarders, top, and skiers, above right, can get to their revelry much quicker now that a modern gondola, above, climbs from the village to midmountain in about 10 minutes.

(4) A skier and a snowboarder take advantage of the powder at Heavenly in South Lake Tahoe. The resort's village boasts casinos, dining, entertainment and a gondola for getting up the mountain.

Box:

(1) IF YOU GO (see text)

(2) From slopes to links in Lake Tahoe (see text)
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Title Annotation:Travel
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 15, 2004
Words:1346
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