The shores of Lake Tahoe offer families so many outdoor activities, sports, shopping, restaurants, and scenic vistas that almost any resort will have enough to please ‘tweens, teens and younger siblings –but here’s our pick of the best places to enjoy this awesome outdoors wonderland all year round.
“The fairest sight the whole earth affords…the eye never tired of gazing.”
So wrote Mark Twain 130 years ago about his sojourn at Lake Tahoe, the resort for all seasons which borders the world’s second largest alpine lake. Most popular for boating, fishing, watersports and the Music Festival during its brief summer, Tahoe is also lovely in spring, when winter’s foggy mornings and snow-blown sunsets dissipate to reveal the surrounding Sierra Madre Mountains. Miles of lakeshore are stunningly scenic in fall, when hills are blanketed in pine, the aspen turns golden and the ground hardens for mountain bikers.
From November to late May, Lake Tahoe is a winter wonderland and in 1960 hosted the first Winter Olympic Games in the Western United States. As our family discovered with friends during an Easter visit, Tahoe’s resorts cater as much to novices as to the “Dude” Riders who flock to them. Straddling the California/Nevada border, families will find a lake which never freezes; cheap shuttle buses between small, funky towns; laidback restaurants and nightlife; and every conceivable kind of outdoors fun, making Tahoe an ideal getaway with toddlers, ‘tweens and teens.
Lake Tahoe’s North Shore Attractions
After a 3 1/2 hour drive from San Francisco (120 miles from Sacramento, 45 miles from Reno Airport), the lake can be seen from the Highway 89 rim road. (Hikers will find a forested Rim Trail above the shoreline for an up close tour.) A string of small towns offers good restaurants (favorites include Grazie (530/583-0233) for upscale Italian with gorgeous lake views, and Sol y Lago (530/583-0358) for great Cal/Mex), supermarkets and roadside attractions, such as sledding parks in winter and speedboat rentals in summer. Because stores stay open late to catch skiers or boaters, your teens will have plenty of places to hang until their tacos and virgin margaritas arrive.
Where to Stay: North Shore/California
For city dwellers, the convenience and strip mall charms of a town like Tahoe City are appealing enough after a day on the slopes. We decided to save the extra bucks on a ski in/ski out condo, yet wanted to sleep near Squaw Valley, the resort with the range of facilities we needed: care for our toddlers, an excellent ski and snowboard school, and renowned bowls for the experts.
From the many local Stay n’Ski packages, we chose the Granlibakken Resort and Conference Center ( 800/543-3221) which had its own wooded Nordic trails and small ski hill. A dark wood, 70s-style complex around a main lodge, the comfortable condos were impervious to young children’s antics and isolated enough to tolerate teens’ party sounds. Our two families had plenty of privacy in a two bedroom duplex with sleeping loft. The kids enjoyed both the independence to roam this peaceful, homey resort and the bountiful breakfast buffet, but were annoyed that Granlibakken’s beautifully groomed sledding hill was only open 10am-4pm. The reasonable rates ski and snowboard packages included equipment and lift tickets.
If you want to sleep a chairlift-ride away, the Resort at Squaw Creek (800/327-3353) is the deluxe facility on this side of the lake, and a is a perennial AAA Four-Diamond property, and one of the “Top 50 Ski Resorts in North America,” as selected by Condé Nast Traveler. There are 405 full service rooms, suites and bi-level penthouses plus casual and elegant restaurants including Ristorante Montagna, and a bit of nightlife. The resort’s Mountain Buddies is a fully-supervised children’s activity program for kids 4-13 who aren’t interested in skiing. Designed with convenience in mind, their all-inclusive Resort Fee reflects their desire to create a cruise ship atmosphere on land, by offering cross-country or downhill skiing, ice skating, snowshoeing and sledding, use of the Health Club, Yoga classes and other activities.
A bit less pricey, with 1BR units with kitchenettes, guest laundry, and some balconies and fireplaces, are the mountainside, all-suite Squaw Valley Lodge (800/549-6742) and Olympic Village Inn (800/VILLAGE), just a short walk from the lifts whether you want to mountain bike or snowboard.
The Village at Squaw Valley USA (866/818-6963) is a recent makeover done in partnership with ski resort developer Intrawest Corporation. A total of 286 slopeside luxury condominiums, and a variety of shops and restaurants are contained in a meandering, pedestrian-friendly European-style village.
Squaw Valley appeals especially to teens with its discounted lift tickets for ages 13-15, stunning, mountain-top Ice Pavilion rink which cantilevers over the slopes, snowtubing, and indoor climbing wall.
Lake Tahoe’s South Shore in Nevada
The obvious difference between both highly-developed shorelines is that most Nevada establishments (on the south and east shores) offer gambling and Big Name entertainment (most rated PG) for a twist on the usual après ski or apres fishing, depending on the season you visit. Dining options include Planet Hollywood in Caesar’s Lake Tahoe, and a Chart House on the lakeshore, with most chains in between represented. Those who believe casinos draw a different kind of family crowd usually sleep on the California side and drive around to the Nevada resorts.
Heavenly, the south shore’s premier ski resort, is just a few miles from South Lake Tahoe, California near the border with Stateline, Nevada. It’s now a Vail-managed resort with an upscale ski village with a gondola to Heavenly (like the one in Park City, Utah.) A really fun, nice-weather excursion, when you can’t look at another mall, is a two-hour paddleboat tour through Lake Tahoe Cruises (800/238-2463) on the M/S Dixie Queen, or one of the other tour boats leaving year-round from the local pier here or in Zephyr Cove, Nevada. This Nevada marina is also a resource for houseboat rentals.
Where to Stay: South Shore/Nevada side of Lake Tahoe
Accommodations abound; some of the most luxurious lodgings are quite affordable because of their special rates for gamblers. Harrah’s Lake Tahoe (800/HARRAHS, 775/588-6611), with 534 rooms and suites, may top the casino choices with its range of facilities (no kitchenettes in rooms but a gourmet restaurant) and kids’ play area. Of course, it’s also a name entertainment venue and a glitzier option than most, which may make it more appealing to teens.
The Victorian-style gables and dormers gracing the main lodge at South Lake Tahoe’s Embassy Suites Resort (877/497-8483) add style to an otherwise modern, all-suite hotel. Special perks include the chain’s signature complimentary nightly cocktail with the manager, and new ski racks, glove holders and boot shelves added to each suite. As part of a major 2006 renovation, the hotel has redone its indoor pool and sundeck, revamped its sauna and hot tub, expanded its fitness room, and spruced up the small game room for kids. In other family touches, the restaurant has gone “casual” with a big screen TV, kids menu, and relaxed ambiance, and there are no gambling facilities. Very reasonable mid-week and off season packages include breakfast, dining credits and lift tickets to any of the region’s resorts.
The Lakeland Village Beach & Mountain Resort(800/822-5969; 530/544-1685) is also popular year-round because of rooms which range from hotel doubles to 5BR condos, all with balconies, kitchens, fireplaces, and lakefront beach with hot tubs and outdoor heated pool. The secluded Ridge Tahoe Resort (800/334-1600, 775/588-3131) above Stateline offers deluxe rooms and 1 and 2BR condos in a small, totally convenient village with a private gondola shuttling guests to the Nevada side of Heavenly.
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