WHEN I’M RELAXING on the deck at the Gar Woods bar, grill and pier in North Lake Tahoe, the sun, breeze and beautiful vistas make me pretty well certain that it is the most fantastic place on the planet. Tahoe is the largest alpine lake in the U.S., and it consistently makes “most beautiful” roundups, rightly claiming the premier spot on vacation bucket lists. I’ve been observing and professionally writing about things that move — on land, on water and in the air — for a while, and when summer comes and Lake Tahoe becomes a boat and water sports mecca, it is particularly special.
Not coincidentally, Gar Woods (the place) is named for the original Garfield Woods boats that started arriving at the lake in the 1920s. If plied with a few of the place’s signature Wet Woody cocktails, I will passionately argue that — other than Marin — Lake Tahoe is the best place on the planet to become immersed in the beauty of boating and water sports culture. With a few more Wet Woodys, the more elaborate and outrageous my pro-Tahoe arguments will become. So it is that on those lazy afternoons, when one is watching the stand-up paddleboarders and wooden powerboats glide past, friendly discussions of “How do I get out on the lake?” arise. Plans for “looking into it” are made, followed by resolutions about sailing, stand-up paddleboard (SUP) or kayak lessons — each resolution worthy of being made good on.
The Lake Tahoe Concours d’Elegance
Beautiful boats are so frequent in Tahoe they seem commonplace, but I am always particularly alert for wooden speedboats and gleaming chrome that gets paired with sublime exhaust notes. Carnelian Bay has long been a center of wooden boat cruising and racing, and those early Garfield Woods boats have been joined on the lake by other producers over the years, including Chris Craft and Riva. These soulful machines are nothing less than an art form, and a curated selection of the “best of the best” will be on display at the annual Lake Tahoe Concours d’Elegance on August 10 and 11 at Obexer’s Boat Company.
The concours dates back to 1972 when some Tahoe Yacht Club members and friends gathered to share their passion for wooden boats, and the event in its current form includes some 70 to 80 vessels selected by experts as outstanding examples. The Tahoe Yacht Club Foundation has hosted the concours, one of the country’s premier events for these preserved and restored boats, since 1994. Each year, a specific marque (manufacturer) is honored, and the show features boats in a variety of sizes, years and classes. And while the cost to own and operate one of these crafts can vary, owners make a financial and time commitment that is akin to owning a big-name classic sports car, requiring fastidious preparation and maintenance to keep them in perfect form. The concours also features a robust program of social events and things to do, including a wine village and a boat rally as part of the weekend. If you have ever wanted to see this type of boat in action, this is the time and place. You can even try a ride in one, thanks to the Tahoe Maritime Center– Museum and Gardens.
Tahoe’s ultimate wooden boat — scheduled to be at this year’s concours — is the Thunderbird, a mahogany motor yacht built in 1939 by George Whittell Jr., a San Francisco millionaire and adventurer who is said to have cashed out of the market just before the ’29 crash. Whittell then built a playboy’s paradise, Thunderbird Lodge, which is managed today by a nonprofit that also operates the sleek, aircraft-inspired yacht that’s available for charter trips around the lake. If you want to indulge that Jay Gatsby fantasy, now is your chance, at only $5,000 per hour.
Stand-Up Paddleboarding and Kayaking
Marin is now famously a center of SUP and kayaking culture, and lots of Marinites want to paddle on Lake Tahoe for the same reasons they want to be on the bay — incredible views and a diversity of water and wind conditions. Alex Mourelatos, owner of Mourelatos Lakeshore Resort, which hosts numerous events including the Tahoe Cup, says paddleboarding on Lake Tahoe combines the choicest elements of the sport, including beautiful scenery and calm mornings with glassy waters that can be enjoyed by beginners and more challenging afternoon wind conditions for experts. People of all skill levels can take advantage of the shallow and sandy beaches for practice, too. As in Marin, significant SUP and kayak infrastructure exists in Tahoe. Vendors like the Tahoe Adventure Company can supply rentals and instruction, as well as arrange guided tours that explore favored Tahoe paddling routes, in areas including Zephyr Cove, Sand Harbor, Crystal Bay and Tahoe Keys.
Boat Cruises and Rentals
If you can see the humor in the old adage that the two happiest days for boat owners are the day they buy followed by the day they sell, you will then understand the wisdom of renting or chartering. Lake Tahoe offers myriad ways to get on the water and “try before you buy.” Rental and charter companies abound, and anything from small sailboats to powerboats for touring and waterskiing, as well as personal watercraft like Jet Skis, can be had for the asking. If you’d rather let someone else do the driving, consider the paddle-wheel-powered M.S. Dixie, the lake’s largest charter boat, which accommodates up to 300. Smaller luxury craft, like the Safari Rose, are also available for year-round cruising, and one can even view Fourth of July fireworks from the water by planning in advance.
If You Go
- Lake Tahoe Concours d’Elegance – laketahoeconcours.com
- Gar Woods Grill and Pier – garwoods.com
- Tahoe Yacht Club – tahoeyc.com
- Thunderbird Lodge & Yacht – thunderbirdtahoe.org
- Tahoe Maritime Center – Museum & Gardens – tahoemaritimemuseum.org
- Tahoe Cup Paddle Racing Series – tahoecup.org
- Tahoe Adventure Company – tahoeadventurecompany.com
- North Lake Tahoe – gotahoenorth.com
- Reno Tahoe USA – visitrenotahoe.com
- Best Tahoe Paddleboard Trips – tahoedailytribune.com/news/get-up-stand-up-10-of-tahoe-truckees-best-paddleboard-trips
- M.S. Dixie Paddleboat – zephyrcove.com/cruises/our-fleet
- Boat and Jet Ski Rentals – awsincline.com/rentals
- Safari Rose Pleasure Yacht – tahoecruises.com