On a high in California

Spoilt for choice ... Lake Tahoe's spectacular backdrop.
Spoilt for choice ... Lake Tahoe's spectacular backdrop.

Elizabeth Knight discovers Lake Tahoe's resorts offer deep snow, forgiving instructors and back-country adventure.

'That was fabulous. You're perfectly controlled. Great carving turn. Your hips are nicely squared with your shoulders," the ski instructor says. So, do my snow tracks resemble an unbroken line of S's, much like the ones in a year 4 cursive hand-writing book? Tragically, on close examination, my prints are asymmetrical Z's, a shape that not even a kindergarten teacher would award with a smiley-face stamp.

But it's not just the shape of the tracks that gives the game away - the instructor rewards my companions, none of whom has the grace or pace of an expert, with similar accolades. Clearly, some North American ski instructors are drilled in two CPRs: cardiopulmonary resuscitation and constant positive reinforcement.

I've come to the Lake Tahoe region on the California-Nevada state border to holiday at Heavenly Ski Resort and at nearby Northstar California. Both resorts have long, wide runs on soft, deep, forgiving snow, and great tree skiing against a backdrop of spectacular lake views. The region has more of a Wild West legacy than some of the US's bigger and better-known ski resorts, and shooting, fishing and living it rough still appear to be among the habits of some locals.

Heavenly, at South Lake Tahoe, is California's largest ski resort, with the highest summit and longest vertical drop (1066 metres). The closest airport to the slopes is Nevada's Reno-Tahoe International. Reno (a poor man's Las Vegas) is a pit stop on the one-hour drive to Heavenly's base town of South Lake Tahoe. I'm staying at the Marriott's Timber Lodge, as close to the Heavenly gondola as possible.

South Lake Tahoe isn't glamorous, either. It's divided by the border and has casinos on its Nevada side. The idea is that ski hounds can hit the snow by day and the tables by night. Yet what the town lacks in ambience is more than compensated for once you hit the slopes. Heavenly has a great selection of intermediate and black runs, and the super-steep chutes of Mott and Killebrew canyons. Add the beginners' slopes and there are 94 runs to choose from. There's no shortage of intense back-country terrain, either.

I've arrived in March, the tail-end of the northern season when there are no queues and there's little need to constantly look over your shoulder for fellow skiers, but still plenty of snow. Such a combination makes Heavenly a great option for a family ski holiday, as the key gateways for Australians - Los Angeles and San Francisco - are each just a short flight away.

Northstar California, about an hour's drive from Heavenly on Tahoe's North Shore, is a more intimate ski-in ski-out resort. Having recently received a multimillion-dollar facelift, the Vail-owned resort village's centrepiece is a skating rink fringed by cabanas with lounges, fire pits and complementary s'mores (roasted marshmallow and chocolate on crackers).

As with Heavenly, Northstar's ski runs offer the opportunity to weave around trees, jump and play in terrain parks or carve down wide-open groomed slopes. About 60 per cent of the resort's 97 trails suit intermediate-level skiers, with more than 25 per cent of the remaining terrain tagged as advanced. But it's worth noting that when this resort has an overnight dump, even the groomed runs can hold quite a bit of powder.

I stay at the ski-in, ski-out Ritz-Carton, Lake Tahoe, which sits in the snowfield well above the village hub and has valet service at every turn. A day on the slopes here starts with breakfast at the hotel's fine-dining restaurant, Manzanita, or a quick latte in the coffee shop before a valet brings my (warmed) ski boots, pops them on my feet and does up the clips and strap. When I step outside, another valet has placed my skis on the snow, with poles either side. Just step in and go, down to the village or to a chair. A lift between the village and hotel operates until 10pm and a car service is available for late-night partygoers.

Inside the hotel, a huge circular living space greets guests; the bar has an extensive selection of wines, including Australian and New Zealand labels; and the spa has a hairdresser. Rooms come with open fires, balconies and deep spa baths.

The undisclosed bonus to skiing in the Tahoe region includes meeting the characters who call this place home and work as instructors.

I meet Tim (aka Snake), who says he worked as a certified practising accountant for an international auditing firm in the mid-1980s and played a crucial part in uncovering the modus operandi of the Wall Street inside trader and white-collar criminal, Ivan Boesky.

Snake's buddy, Cliff, uses a bicycle bell attached to his ski pole as his call signal, looks and skis like a Ninja and is a study in black from balaclava to boots - with a SpongeBob SquarePants soft toy strapped to his helmet. Don't be fooled though: Cliff's the top scorer on Northstar's epic ski program, which means he's done more vertical miles than anyone else. And he has groupies - a bunch of regulars who have bike bells on their poles, stuffed toys on their helmets and are affectionately known as the "Cliffhangers".

I become an honorary Cliffhanger for an afternoon, skiing past the resort's out-of-bounds ropes and listening to Tahoe mountain men gossip and joke about previous students. I'm certain I'll make for good fodder and reckon a conversation between Snake and Cliff at the pub would go something like this: "Why would that woman from Australia so lacking in ski talent wear a silver parka so bright that it could be picked up from a satellite?"

Elizabeth Knight travelled courtesy of Vail Resorts and Qantas.


Getting there

Qantas has a fare to Reno-Tahoe, Nevada, from Sydney and Melbourne for about $1485 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Los Angeles (14hr), then to Reno (1hr 25min); see qantas.com.au. Australians must apply for US travel authorisation before departure at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov.

Skiing there — Heavenly

From Reno-Tahoe airport, a shuttle service is available to Heavenly, from $26 a person. See southtahoeexpress.com. If coming from San Francisco, Amtrak has a train and bus service to South Lake Tahoe. See amtrak.com. Bay Area Ski Bus also operates a shuttle service from San Francisco to Heavenly in the ski season. See bayareaskibus.com. BlueGO Heavenly ski shuttle operates between lodges and hotels and the ski village. See bluego.org.

Staying there

Marriott's Timber Lodge (marriott.com) has seven-night packages in a studio apartment from $1227 a person, twin share, if booked by November 15 for travel between January 1 and 31. Includes a six-day lift pass to Heavenly resort and Northstar resorts. See travelplan.com.au.

Skiing there — Northstar

The resort is about a 30-minute drive from Reno-Tahoe airport or about a three-hour drive from the San Francisco area. From Reno, a shuttle service is available. See NorthLakeTahoeExpress.com.

Staying there

The Ritz-Carton, Lake Tahoe (ritzcarlton.com), mid-mountain at Northstar, has seven-night deluxe king room stays from $1816 a person, twin share, if booked by November 15 for travel between January 2 and 31 (excluding January 18-21). Package includes a six-day Northstar-Heavenly lift pass and daily breakfast. See travelplan.com.au.

More information

See skiheavenly.com; northstarattahoe.com.

This story On a high in California first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.