Travel: A star turn for California’s slopes
Skiing? In California? It doesn’t really fit with the archetypal picture of sun-kissed beaches frequented by A-list Hollywood starlets.
But an hour’s flight from Los Angeles is Lake Tahoe, the largest freshwater lake in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, a world away the image of California I’d always imagined. And this rather surreal proximity means you can surf in the morning and ski the afternoon - if you really want an action-packed day.
I’ll admit, I was curious as to why anyone would travel so far from Europe, home to a plethora of perfectly good mountain ranges, fly straight past Canada and over world famous resorts in Colorado, to ski in California.
But the moment I first ski down Heavenly Mountain, with the huge expanse of sapphire blue Lake Tahoe outstretched in front, I understood why.
“It’s where God lives,” Mike, our guide for the day, tells me and my fellow skiers, as we make our way along pine tree-lined runs towards the largest alpine lake on the continent. With powdery, pure white snow beneath our skis and the Californian sun beating down from above, I can hardly disagree with him. This is skiing with a view either created by God, or CGI.
There are 15 skiable mountains around this 22-mile long lake, bordering the state line of Nevada. Heavenly is the largest, boasting the best views, and straddles both states - while one side of the mountain overlooks luscious Lake Tahoe, the other surveys the vast, dry Nevada desert.
With everything from heart-pumping, steep, vertical drops, to long, meandering trails that allow you to really take in the majestic surroundings, there’s a great range for different abilities. Each slope is pristinely cared for and groomed, and trees are naturally well spaced, making it a great place to go off piste and feel completely alone with the world.
And, as we keep getting told, two years ago there was so much snow that the slopes were packed until July. The temperature was even high enough for some to ski in bikinis!
Our resort base is South Lake Tahoe, which operates like a fully functioning town, complete with supermarket and cinema. It’s less idyllic than other purpose-built ski villages, but it’s buzzing with life.
A much more glamorous reception awaits me at North Star, another resort 90 minutes away at the top of the lake.
My memories of childhood family skiing include a lot of trudging back to a hotel with heavy skis awkwardly balanced over my shoulder, for what felt like miles. So gliding right up to the doorway of the Ritz-Carlton, where I’m staying, and simply stepping out of the skis for someone else to deal with, felt like true Hollywood A-list treatment. In the morning, my skis would be lined up in the snow waiting for me to step back into them.
North Star has been cruelly nicknamed ‘Flat Star’ by some Southern Tahoe residents, thanks to a few horizontal spots. The runs are certainly longer than at Heavenly, but it’s true that North Star is better suited to intermediate skiers and boarders than advanced. Even the most difficult runs here only equate to reds in the French Alps.
What does feel special about North Star is the sense of space and quiet on the slopes. Several times I made it to the bottom of a run without even seeing another skier. Affluent Americans from LA or San Francisco come for long weekends, so it’s not unusual for the slopes to be this empty on weekdays. Quite often, I felt completely alone in the peaceful wilderness, and I don’t remember queuing for a ski lift all week.
There can’t be a better way to enjoy apres ski than around a roaring open fire at a five star hotel. Our group slouch down into the sofas, gin and tonics in hand, stomachs groaning after three wonderful courses at the hotel’s elegant Manzanita restaurant.
That night, I purposely leave the curtains of the huge window stretching the length of my room open so I can wake up to view of the mountain.
Just a 30 minute drive from North Star is Squaw Valley, where we stay at PlumpJack Hotel for the night. Here we find warm, cosy, low-key luxury, an ice rink at the top of a mountain and even a ski-through Starbucks.
And after a day on the more serious Squaw Valley slopes (a boarder’s paradise with half pipes and jumps) I head for the outdoor hot tub.
“Vital for soothing muscles after skiing,” someone says. To be honest, I just want to sit in a steaming hot tub surrounded by snow, a glass of champagne in my hand, pretending I’m rich.
Three hundred miles south of Lake Tahoe is Mammoth Mountain. It’s possible to fly but many Americans choose to do the scenic four-hour drive, with rolling mountains, roadside rivers and little towns along the way.
We pass Bodie, a ghost town since the 1940s, which is inaccessible in winter. It was once a gold mining town attracting get-rich-quick single men, but with too many bars came violence, guns and murder. It sounds like the stuff of Wild West movies!
Mammoth Mountain is definitely worth a visit if only to boast you’ve skied on a volcano. Technically it’s still active with minor eruptions - the last was 700 years ago, so I’m pretty sure we’re safe, but there have been reports of volcanic gases killing trees in more recent years.
The night we arrive at The Westin Monache hotel, we gather for some local Napa Valley wine while Black Tie ski rental come to our hotel with our equipment measured out and ready to fit. As I take a sip of velvety smooth pinot noir, the hazy memories of queuing at 9am for an hour in a bustling shop in the Alps, gathering skis, boots and poles, blur into infinity.
The resort is the highest in California, and Mammoth is renowned for reliable snowfall. I experience the sheer scale of the mountain firsthand when I misguidedly tackle a tough black run, just to see the view from the mountain top. The strong wind had swept most of the snow away so we found ourselves inching down an icy drop, with varying degrees of finesse.
When the snow melts in the summer, the mountains are popular for hiking and mountain biking, and I’m told the landscape is even more beautiful.
During our week in snowy California, locals kept proudly telling us: “People come here for the winter and stay for the summer.”
But I think, somehow, they’ve got it wrong. Anyone coming here for a summer break would be well advised to stick around for the first flecks of snow to fall. Like me, they’d no doubt discover that California has plenty of surprises in store.
:: Lauren Taylor was a guest of Visit California (www.visitcalifornia.co.uk; 020 7257 618).
:: British Airways operates twice daily from Heathrow to Los Angeles. Fares start from £590 return including taxes, fares and charges. To book, visit www.ba.com.
:: Rooms at The Westin Monache Resort (www.westinmammoth.com) start from £116, £96 at the Ritz-Carlton at Northstar (www.ritzcarlton.com) and £206 at the PlumpJack Squaw Valley Inn (www.plumpjacksquawvalleyinn.com).