Tahoe Evolves

I grew up on skiing. For the better part of two decades my family and I would fly to Colorado for our yearly powder fix. The rental car we all piled into was scarcely big enough to fit five people, let alone all our gear. It didn’t matter that we were wedged in tighter than a Kardashian’s sweater. Because the moment we arrived at the resort, we’d ditch the vehicle until it was time to head home. Everything we needed—gourmet eateries, evening entertainment, boutique shopping and even an emergency room to treat a blown-out knee—we could find without leaving the resort. So when my husband and I relocated to the Bay Area in 1994 and took our first ski trip to Tahoe I was, well, confused. Where were all the shops, restaurants and nightlife? Compared to its Colorado cousins, the infrastructure fell short. Then came the turn of the century.

Over the past seven years Lake Tahoe Ski Resorts have undergone a major renaissance. Beginning in 2001, Heavenly Mountain, then owned by the American Ski Company, began transforming its property from a day ski area to a destination resort. A base village was created with new hotels, restaurants and shops, with a gondola installed just steps away from all this commerce. Around the same time, Squaw transformed a parking lot into a base village of its own. Then Northstar-at-Tahoe stepped up to the plate, making it the third resort in the area to build a pedestrian-friendly village at the mountain’s base. The final phase of the transformation from scrappy ski resort to top-rated vacation destination will be complete this month: a Ritz-Carlton hotel will open mid-mountain, along with an inter-mountain gondola that will connect the nearby Village-at-Northstar to the hotel.

It’s ironic that Lake Tahoe resorts have had to battle their way back into the hearts of ski enthusiasts, when it was the development of Lake Tahoe ski areas that helped transform skiing from a fringe sport to an American pastime in the first place.

It began in 1936 when iconic entrepreneur Walt Disney opened Lake Tahoe’s first ski resort, Sugar Bowl. In fact, Sugar Bowl was the first ski area in North America to have a gondola and the second to introduce a chairlift. Then in 1949 another visionary by the name of Alex Cushing poured his blood, sweat and tears into the opening of Squaw Valley. Just five years later, Cushing submitted a bid to host the 1960s Olympics. Against all odds, Squaw beat out European favorites like St. Moritz and Innsbruck. “These Olympic games were the first to be televised,” notes Savannah Cowley, Squaw’s media and public relations representative. “This exposure played a major role in turning skiing into a mainstream sport.”

Soon after, ski resorts began popping up all over the country. Once skiing caught on, developers realized selling lift tickets wasn’t the only way to make a buck. Vail Mountain, for example, debuted in 1962. Shortly after opening it began pouring money into a base area dubbed Vail Village. The resort grew so rapidly that within six years a second base area called Lion’s Head was built. By the ‘70s Vail Associates was so flush with cash it was able to create a library, an ice area and even a free transit system to move guests between the two base villages.This new revenue stream appeared to be a winner. In the years that followed, numerous resorts, including Snowbird, Keystone, Jackson Hole and Whistler, developed their own resort villages.

“The term ski resort is somewhat old-fashioned,” observes Ian Galbraith, director of corporate communications for Intrawest, which owns and operates 10 ski resorts in North America, including Whistler and Squaw. “Our approach is to build an infrastructure that creates a four-seasons resort rather than simply a place (where) people can come to ski.”

Certainly, the recession has slowed Tahoe’s resurgence. Developers have scaled back on the creation of new lodging and retail until the economy rebounds, just as consumers are scaling back on purchasing. Shelling out money for lift tickets this year will definitely hurt more than usual.

But like many die-hard skiers, I’ll sacrifice other luxuries before giving up the sport. And although Colorado will also hold a special place in my heart, I’m delighted to live in a place where I no longer need to fly for my ski vacations. Thanks to all the upgrades happening in the Sierras, I now wedge my own kids into a car packed tighter than a Kardashian’s sweater. But nobody cares. Because once we arrive, we ditch our vehicle until it’s time to head home.

Great Deals in Tahoe

Ritz-Carlton Highlands Sneak Peak ski package includes deluxe room accommodations for three nights and two 3-day adult lift tickets for Northstar Resort. The initial Sneak Peak ski package is valid Dec. 9 to Dec. 18, from $349 per night (three-night minimum). After the holidays the same package is offered from $399 per night. ritzcarlton.com/laketahoe

Squaw Convenient and affordable; the Village at Squaw Valley’s buy three nights and stay the fourth night free package; also includes four days of unlimited skiing for two. squaw.com/winter-packages. Squaw Valley Lodge is offering a mid-week lodging/lift package that includes four nights and then a four-day lift ticket for two at $124 per person, per night. squawvalleylodge.com or squaw.com/winter-packages. Explore other mountains this year while staying at the Resort at Squaw Creek; the resort has paired up with Alpine Meadows Ski Resort. Starting at $155, the package includes deluxe accommodations, breakfast for two, two adult lift tickets for Alpine Meadows and complimentary daily shuttle. squawcreek.com

Sugar Bowl A new chairlift will take skiers and riders to just below the summit of Mount Judah. While skiers and riders can currently access this skiable acreage by hiking, the new lift will allow the resort to maximize usage of its skiable terrain. Accommodations range from family friendly home rentals to the convenient Lodge at Sugar Bowl, where all rooms have complimentary wireless Internet. sugarbowl.com

South Lake Tahoe Year three of Heavenly Mountain Resort’s ten-year master plan includes a new tubing lift, which accesses a new four-lane tubing Mecca at Heavenly’s Adventure Peak family recreation area. Sierra-at-Tahoe Resort has taken a direct shot at the price barrier to learning a new sport in a tough economy with a $35 Learn To Ski/Ride package that includes a limited access lift ticket, rental equipment and a 2.5 hour lesson (Sunday through Friday through the season) Also new this season, Kirkwood Mountain Resort has two new lifts, providing access to 700 additional acres and over 1,350 vertical feet of skiing and snowboarding, accessing the famed chutes of Thunder Saddle along with pristine powder stashes on Fawn Ridge. Buy tickets online ahead of time for great deals. kirkwood.com

Other Western Options

Park City, Utah
Dakota Mountain Lodge and Golden Door Spa is a new 175-room Waldorf Astoria Collection hotel in Park City. Features
include the new Frostwood Gondola, offering ski-in/ski-out convenience, and a 16,000–square–foot Golden Door Spa, as well as the on-site restaurant Spruce Park City (country cousin to San Francisco’s award winner headed up by award-winning chef Mark Sullivan). Starting in January the resort is offering a fifth–night–free promotion (some blackout dates apply). dakotamountainlodge.com

The Canyons is one of the largest ski resorts in the area and draws advanced skiers and boarders with harder terrain than other local resorts. Try the Winter Playland package and choose among a three-day adult lift ticket, two First Tracks Passes (to enjoy the mountain an hour before it opens to the public), a three-day equipment rental, a lesson or a dining credit. Price varies. thecanyons.com

Aspen, Colorado
If you’re looking for Austin Powers in Aspen, chances are he’s hanging out at the uber-hip Kimpton property Sky Hotel. In step with the fun decor, the list of specials includes a Ski In Rock Out Ski package starting at $300 and includes a lift ticket per guest for each night’s stay. theskyhotel.com

Indulge your favorite history buff at the Jerome Hotel with three nights in a deluxe king room, a tour of Aspen and the Ashcroft Ghost Town, two Aspen Cruds at the J-Bar and 1889-themed turndown amenities; including silver dollar coins and an old-time photo album. Package starts at $899. hoteljerome.rockresorts.com

Beaver Creek, Colorado
The ultimate for die–hard ski fans, the Ritz-Carlton Bachelor Gulch has its own high– speed lifts steps from the hotel and sits at the base of Bachelor Gulch Mountain. Take advantage of the well-priced Hit the Slopes package, which includes two adult ski passes good for three days at either Beaver Creek or Vail Mountain. Package starts at $339 a night. ritzcarlton.com

Vail, Colorado
The Arrabelle at Vail Square, a luxury hotel (and spa) in the heart of the new Vail Square, just opened last year. Just footsteps from the Eagle Bahn Gondola, the Arrabelle was inspired by the classic grand alpine hotels of Europe. Through the season, all RockResort properties at Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge and Keystone are offering a  three-for-free that includes a free third night of lodging, $50 RockResorts gift card or $50 in on-mountain currency plus a free helmet cam (one per reservation). arrabelle.rockresorts.com

Stay and Ski Free. Reserve any number of nights in a standard or medium room at the Sun Valley Lodge or the Sun Valley Inn through March 25 and pay only $94.50 per night, per person.
And they will throw in a free lift ticket for every night of your stay. Also except for a few blackout dates, kids stay and ski free. sunvalley.com

Bring the family to the sprawling Resort at Paws Up, which has only 19 accommodations and sits on a cattle ranch. The resort’s Christmas package includes accommodations, all daily meals, your family’s own personal Santa, a decorated Christmas tree (or you can decorate your own) and more holiday goodies. The resort also features an ice skating rink and gingerbread making contest. The five-night package for two adults and two children starts at $7,376. pawsup.com

Bring the entire family to Sunriver Resort, the Northwest’s preeminent ski destination, where kids ski free. Combine this with the stay free, ski free package, which includes three nights of lodging and three days of lift tickets at Mount Bachelor, which works out to about $120 a person a night. Free shuttle to Mount Bachelor. sunriver-resort.com

Dawn Denberg

Dawn Margolis Denberg has worked as a professional journalist for 20 years. Her work has appeared in top publications, including Wired, Shape and Parenting. She has also written several books for children including, The Men in Black Agent’s Manual The Official Godzilla Movie Fact Book. And, most recently, an episodic audio series for Tales Untold.