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Travel: Ski in heaven party like hell; GAMBLE ON LAKE TAHOE AND YOU CAN'T LOSE, SAYS PETER FENTON.

Byline: PETER FENTON

THEY named it Heavenly - and that's no exaggeration. With the highest peak at over 10,000ft, it's right up in the clouds, and the wide, tree-lined trails make you feel like a ski god.

Look down at the crystal clear waters of Lake Tahoe - the world's second largest alpine lake - on one side and the vast brown expanse of Nevada's desert plains on the other, and you know you are in paradise.

But all that purity might get boring without a little sin to spice it up.

Take the long descent from the ski slopes down to the town of South Lake Tahoe (Heavenly is just the name of the ski area) and you'll find a world of devilish temptation.

Just a few yards from the main ski lift in the centre of town is the state line dividing politically correct California from anything-goes Nevada.

Cross Stateline Street and you are confronted by two massive casino hotels, Harvey's and Harrah's, which stand on each corner, glittering with lights and neon signs to tempt you across the border. A little further on are two more giants, the Horizon and Caesar's.

It's not apres ski as the rest of the world knows it.

For a start, the casinos are open 24 hours a day and just about all you could want in entertainment and dining is contained within them. Each has half a dozen restaurants, ranging from simple burgers and chilli to gourmet cuisine. For $30 (pounds 17) you can eat until you burst at Harvey's seafood buffet, which does every conceivable fish dish from sushi to lobster to deep-fried, battered pollack.

There are cinemas, nightclubs, a comedy club, cabaret, boxing and rock concerts (if you remember the Doobie Brothers, this is where they are now). Elvis regularly performed at the Horizon, although he is now flipping burgers in McDonald's downtown.

All of these delights take a little finding, though. Those cunning casino bosses have ensured that you have to run a gauntlet of one-armed bandits, craps tables and blackjack dealers to reach them. At the Hard Rock Cafe inside Harvey's there were even electronic poker games built into the bar.

At first glance, the vast gambling floors, with slightly sad-looking punters drip-feeding their kids' college funds into the slots, can strike you as tacky, but if you don't mind losing a few bob and know when to stop it can be a lot of fun.

With $20 (barely more than a tenner at today's attractive exchange rates) I spent a very enjoyable couple of hours playing blackjack (or pontoon, as I have always known it).

Cocktail waitresses kept me well supplied with margaritas (drinks are free while you are playing) and the dealers, and sometimes my fellow players, offered advice on when to hit (twist) or stand (stick) and the hand signals associated with each.

After a while I felt like the Cincinnati Kid and only the thought of my credit card deficit and not quite enough margaritas kept me away from the poker games.

SMALL fry like me the casinos can probably do without, but the high rollers are a different matter.

The big fish who are ready to bet into the thousands may be offered complementary rooms at the hotel.

The million-dollar gamblers, nicknamed "whales", could find the casino picking up the tab for them to stay at the luxurious lakeside residences rented by the likes of Diana Ross and Pamela Anderson.

Some of the tourists in South Tahoe are clearly there just for the gambling but the biggest sin of all would be to miss out on the skiing.

Heavenly is North America's second largest ski resort, after Vail, and the extent and variety of the skiing there is awesome.

Aaron, the excellent instructor who took our morning class, has been skiing the area for 14 years and knows it like his own backyard but he said: "I can be skiing in the trees and suddenly find a way through that surprises me."

The key to Heavenly's appeal is that virtually the whole area is skiable. You can slip through the trees from one immaculately groomed piste to another without being an off-piste expert.

If you fancy something a little more difficult, several of the black diamond-rated bowls are short enough and close enough to easier slopes to escape from if the going gets tough.

And once you have spent a few days toning those thigh muscles, tackle the fabulous long bump run from the top of the Gunbarrel chairlift. It looks pretty daunting as the chairlift takes you up there, but not half as daunting as it does looking down from the top.

Go up the Skyway Express chair to the top of the mountain and you can choose whether to ski California or Nevada. Or head down the central California Trail run where you can carve a nice wide slalom and weave from state to state.

Whichever side you choose to ski, the view is incredible. In California, you look down on Lake Tahoe, one of America's favourite summer vacation destinations.

Encircled by snow-capped mountains it is 22 miles wide, 12 miles across and 99 per cent pure, and it shines like a mirror on a clear day. Closer to it you can see narrow strips of beach where the snow line ends, and the Mississippi-style paddle steamer which takes visitors on dinner cruises around the lake.

There are several smaller ski resorts around its perimeter, including Squaw Valley, which hosted the 1960 Winter Olympics and still attracts the cream of extreme skiers and riders. In truth, though, even a two-week visit will not exhaust Heavenly's choices.

On the Nevada side, you look down on a 5,000ft drop to the desert. Aaron reckons if the snow is good enough and with an experienced guide, an expert can ski all the way down.

If you want a different view, you can reach a great vantage point on a snowmobile tour out of Zephyr Cove, a mile or so across the border into Nevada.

After a quick briefing you are let loose on a skidoo, a cross between a bobsleigh and a motorbike, following a guide along snowy paths up the mountainside.

Once you have got the hang of leaning into the corners it is tremendous fun, though the guide will stop you from slipping into Formula One mode.

At about pounds 55 for the two-hour trip, it is well worth a break from skiing.

The views in South Tahoe itself are not the stuff of picture postcards.

Highway 50 runs through the centre of town and you have to be light on your feet to cross its six lanes before the traffic signals change. But improvements are being made.

Three years ago a gondola lift was constructed which whisks you up the mountain in just over 12 minutes, and the "village square" that was built around it is a tasteful addition, with shops, restaurants, ski-school offices and luxury accommodation.

IF THE casinos get too much there is a good choice of restaurants and bars on the California side, too, although you will have to take your hire car or get a cab to reach many of them if you are staying in the centre of town.

Fortunately, our hotel, the Embassy Suites, has Echoes, a superb restaurant where chef Roy Choi is swiftly building a fine reputation on classic American dishes with an Asian twist. If you are missing Britain, try the English-style pub upstairs at Dory's Oar restaurant a mile out of town. I can recommend the fish and chips and martinis.

Since Vail Resorts bought Heavenly 18 months ago, money has been poured in to improve facilities further up the mountain, too. At the top of the gondola is the ski-school meeting area, a picturesque alpine meadow with perfect beginner slopes and lifts.

Still on the California side, the brand new Canyon Express six-seater chairlift is as comfortable as your sofa as it whisks you up to the summit. A couple of the older and slower two-seater chairlifts are due to be replaced, too.

There are also plans to improve some of the mountain restaurants, which can get very crowded, especially on bad weather days. This is not something European skiers will be unused to, though, and Heavenly is well up to the standard of the American skiing experience that you expect.

Cheerful lift attendants will ease your journey up the mountain, queuing was polite (in January the queues were virtually non-existent anyway) and free paper tissues are available for city noses being spring-cleaned by the cool mountain air.

The lift passes, however, are not cheap, even allowing for the weak dollar - but once you are up on Heavenly's slopes you'll know it's worth it.

And - who knows - with a good night at the blackjack tables you could even get your money back.

THE BOTTOM LINE

VIRGIN Holidays offers a snow programme across the US and has a selection of offers for Lake Tahoe starting at pounds 439pp. A week at the four-star Embassy Suites Hotel including breakfast, car hire and scheduled flights to San Francisco starts at pounds 739pp. Child prices for under 12s start at pounds 249.

Virgin also allows you to pre-book ski rental and lift tickets beforehand, saving time and money. A six-day lift ticket in Heavenly costs from pounds 168 for an adult and pounds 60 for a child. Ski equipment rental,including boots, skis/board and poles is from pounds 14 a day.

For holidays next season, Virgin has just launched its snow preview brochure with savings for early bookers.

For more info, contact Virgin Holidays on 0871 222 0308 or visit www.virgin holidays.com Get a taste of the resort and its history at www.skiheavenly.com

CAPTION(S):

APRES SKI: Try your hand at roulette; BORDER LINE: Nevada boundary; CUT LOOSE: Hit one of the night clubs; RELAXED: Peter Fenton
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Feb 14, 2004
Words:1658
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