It takes a village to capture a crowd at ski resorts these days. And at Northstar-at-Tahoe, the village concept has evolved to such high form that even those who have never clicked into bindings are on equal footing when it comes to enjoying a crisp winter day.
Not a skier or boarder? Not to worry. At Northstar or in nearby Truckee, you won't find yourself stuck in a condo watching TV while the rest of your gang carves it up on the slopes. There's just too much to do.
It took a sprained thumb and a mean margarita for me to fully appreciate what this concentrated area has to offer those who aren't into cold-weather recreation. The tumble on an ice patch three years ago New Year's Day forced
Northstar before the Village was a family-oriented resort beloved by intermediate skiers and riders but pooh-poohed by experts as lacking in cliff-hucking terrain. For those who value their necks, however, it's always been
The multiuse village opened in 2008 and changed everything. Its mix of residential units on upper floors and retail at ground level is designed to slow the end-of-day exodus to the parking lot, and it was an overnight success in terms of waylaying visitors instead with a rich assortment of food, shopping, entertainment and places to put heads in beds.
As I discovered when I returned last season to stay a few days, Northstar has as many diversions for grandparents as it does for gung-ho teens. In the Village you can drop some serious cash in the kind of seductive sporting-goods shops and the beguiling boutiques you'd expect to find at a ski resort. But you can also get a massage or a haircut, watch a movie at either of two new theaters (opening in early 2011), paint some pottery, make your own jewelry and, of course, people-watch or take a few turns on that iconic ice rink. When hunger strikes, the choices range from deli fare and pizza to high-end
Other things to do without a lift pass:
Ride the free gondola from the Village at Northstar up to the palatial Ritz-Carlton Lake Tahoe that opened last season at mid-mountain. The signature restaurant, Manzanita, overseen by celebrity chef Traci Des Jardins, offers the quality (and price tag) you'd expect at a Ritz. But breakfast won't break the bank, and the Christmas card-worthy views from the windows are themselves worth the rent.
It's easy; just rent a pair, attach them to your boots and walk. Northstar's Cross County & Snowshoe Center can fix you up with equipment, lessons and groomed trails that lead to scenic views and warming huts. Moonlight excursions and family outings are scheduled throughout the season.
For those who already have gotten the hang of it, a more poignant place to leave prints in the snow (and be grateful for your warm coat) is Donner Memorial State Park, a 20-minute drive away just west of Truckee. Visit the Emigrant Trail Museum to learn about the Donner Party members who overwintered here in 1846, then snowshoe through the woods to pay your respects at a monument marking the place where so many perished. Call 530-582-7892 to check trail conditions and see if any ranger-led interpretive tours are scheduled. Parking fee is $8.
Lunch and more
For a double-whammy afternoon and evening, travel clockwise around Lake Tahoe to the Hyatt Regency in Incline village, where the elegant, newly remodeled Lone Eagle Grill offers incomparable lake views through its tall windows. Lunch menu standouts include a luscious calamari appetizer and a spinach salad with pan-seared scallops that will help you forgive yourself for the aforementioned calamari. Sit a spell at a fire pit on the beach outside before backtracking to Cal Neva Resort & Casino in Crystal Bay. There, $10 buys a fascinating, anecdote-filled "secret underground tunnel tour" that includes spicy tales of the days when Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack held forth in the showroom and celebrity guests (including Marilyn Monroe) tiptoed through an underground passageway to reach their cabins. Tours are offered at 2 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays and 5 and 6 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; tickets include a two-for-one drink coupon. Information: www.calnevaresort.com or 800-233-5551.
Tahoe's signature ski town is a blend of Old West funkiness, New West sophistication and an energy level that rises to borderline raucous on weekends. Stop by the welcome center in the circa-1900 train depot to pick up a self-guided walking tour map and soak up some history as you explore. From fine art to kitchenware, the shopping is seductive. Be sure not to miss The Pharmacy, a gorgeous boudoir/lingerie shop with pressed-tin ceilings and a stage where traveling entertainers including Charlie Chaplin may (or may not) have performed back in the logging days. Information: www.truckee.com or 530-587-8808.
Yes, Tahoe has a winery -- the state's highest and coldest, in fact. Russ and Joan Jones have been making wine at 6,000 feet for 21 years, but their Truckee River Winery's red-barn tasting room (with cozy wood stove) is fairly new. Pinot noir is the specialty, and the 2005 Gary's Vineyard Best Man Reserve a standout. Information: www.truckeeriverwinery.com/home.html or 530-587-4626.
Truckee has become a culinary capital in recent years, and dinner reservations during ski season are highly advised. Popular downtown venues include Moody's Bistro for contemporary American cuisine (and jazz on weekends); Dragonfly for California-Asian and Pianeta for high-end Italian. For lunch, you won't forget a meal at Burger Me! a casual hangout housed in a former automotive workshop. No Big Macs or four-by-fours here: Try the ahi burger with a side of sweet-potato fries or treat your calorie-burning teen to a Truckee Train Wreck, which consists of a quarter-pound Meyer beef burger topped with turkey chili, fried egg, onion rings and cheddar. Yuck or yum, it's a specialty.
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE AND AROUND: Worried that icy road conditions could cancel your trip? Leave the driving to Amtrak (www.amtrak.com), which operates daily service from the Bay Area to Truckee on the California Zephyr, along with bus service three times a day from Sacramento.
In Truckee, free shuttle buses serve Northstar and other ski areas from the train station, while Tahoe Area Rapid Transit buses ($1.75 per ride) run set routes all over the North Shore. Free Night Rider buses provide limited service after dark. Taxis are another option. Details: www.tahoetransportation.org.
WHERE TO STAY: Northstar-at-Tahoe -- 800-466-6784; www.northstarattahoe.com. Stay and Ski Free packages, from $115 per person based on double occupancy in a studio condo, include weekday lift tickets that can be exchanged for $25 resort gift cards. Prices for luxury village condos and mountain homes are higher. Cedar House Sport Hotel -- 866-582-5655; www.cedarhousesporthotel.com. Sleek European design and partnerships with outfitters offering everything from dog sled tours to guided snowmobile adventures and backcountry skiing make this newish establishment outside Truckee a favorite with the active-lifestyle crowd. Winter rates in the $170-$290 range (two-night stay required on weekends) include full breakfast. Best winter deal: Stay Friday and Saturday night and add a Thursday or Sunday night for free. Dog friendly. River Street Inn -- 530-550-9290; www.riverstreetinntruckee.com. This downtown Truckee bed-and-breakfast offers tons of charm, friendly management and a great morning spread. Best of all is its central location within walking distance of shops, restaurants and train station. Midweek rates $115-$130; weekends $155-$170. Family suite available. Larkspur Hotel Truckee-Tahoe -- 530-587-4525; www.larkspurhotels.com/larkspur-hotels/truckee-tahoe. This former Best Western has been beautifully re-branded and remodeled with warm woods and neutral colors. Rates from about $150 per night; ski, romance and other packages available. Dog friendly.