Tahoe
Great deals, spectacular scenery await spring visitors

There's no doubt that scenic Lake Tahoe is high on the list of many California vacationers traveling in summer or winter, and a tourist infrastructure has been built up over the years to accommodate the hordes of people intent on a Tahoe getaway. But what many people may not think about is the advantage of visiting the lake during the spring.

Renowned for featuring no fewer than 15 ski resorts, Lake Tahoe attracts a ski-and-snowboard crowd from all across the country during its prime winter months. But as with most ski areas, the warmer spring weather generally causes a decline in visitors as thoughts turn to beaches, sunshine and warmer activities. That leaves a prime recreation area like Lake Tahoe in a position to offer more deals, better lodging choices and just all-around less traffic and congestion.

During spring, the lake takes on a special look as the sunshine combines with the snow-covered mountains to offer a crisp, clear mountain panorama. Sunsets are especially spectacular as the shimmering water reflects the fire-like western sky with a glow that gently gives way to a powder blue tint on the snowy winter landscape. Lake Tahoe is gorgeous any time of the year, but spring just seems to bring out its best.

The dissipating crowds mean that the Tahoe ski areas will offer wide open skiing and snowboarding most days of the week, many for special prices. In fact, some skiers and boarders live for the spring because they often can strip down to lighter clothing, staying warm and even getting tan with the additional hours of sunshine each day.

We visited the Lake Tahoe area in early March and found a happy bunch of skiers who were gushing about the combination of good snow and weather warm enough to ski with just windbreakers. During our midweek visit, shops near Heavenly Ski Area seemed not quite as busy as we�ve seen them in the past. The spring slowdown, it appears, was already under way.

Accommodation choices in the Lake Tahoe area are plentiful, even more so during the shoulder time between winter and summer. Whether it's casino hotels like Harrah's, or the new Embassy Suites right next to the Heavenly lift or waterfront condo resorts such as popular Lakeland Village, there is a wide variety to choose from.

On our most recent visit, we chose the Tahoe Lakeshore Lodge and Spa which, as the name suggests, is located on the waterfront in South Lake Tahoe. In fact, this probably is one of the best locations anywhere on the lake because of its broad expansive view looking north toward 22 miles of lake, surrounded by snow-covered mountains. Near as we could tell, all of the rooms had some variation of this spectacular view.

If you visit the Tahoe Lakeshore Lodge, ask for one of the rooms on the second or third floor on the west end of the property. Looking out from these picture windows, it's almost like you're on an ocean liner - the water is that close. It's a spectacular 180-degree view which is one of the main reasons - the other being affordable rates -- you would stay at the Tahoe Lakeshore Lodge. As with most real estate, the best locations are built up first, and the Tahoe Lakeshore was built decades ago well before the casino, shopping and condo developments you see near the Heavenly ski lifts, about a mile from the Tahoe Lakeshore.

But even with the Tahoe Lakeshore's age, we felt management had done a good job keeping the Tahoe Lakeshore up to date and well furnished. Our suite-style unit had a fully functional kitchen area, a small dining table, television and VCR and, adding a mountain cabin feel to the room, lodge-pole furniture. Our favorite amenity: the standing gas fireplace that kept the room toasty as night-time temperatures plummeted.

Aside from playing on one of the ski mountains, there are several other spring activities to enjoy while in the Tahoe area. Of course, Nevada is right next door and Lake Tahoe Boulevard takes you right to the state line where it's possible to enjoy Vegas-style gambling and shows in Harrah's and other casinos. In fact, step out of the Heavenly gondola and it's one block to the one-armed bandits.

Speaking of the gondola, many people don't realize they don't need to ski or snowboard to enjoy the Heavenly Ski Area's gondola year-round. You walk in and walk off, so you don't need to wear skis, and the gondola will not only take you up the mountain but it will bring you back as well. In winter, you can enjoy great views and hearty meals in the area at the top of the gondola. In summer, you can hike or mountain bike the many nearby trails.

Another great ride is the cable car at Squaw Valley, site of the 1960 Winter Olympics. The cable car is open year-round and also can be ridden without taking any sort of ski or snowboard equipment. It's a 2,000-vertical-foot ride to the High Camp Bath & Tennis Club where you'll then have access to numerous activities, as well as five restaurants. Located in the mountains just northwest of Lake Tahoe, Squaw Valley is among the ski resorts that offer special spring pricing for lift tickets and stays in its upscale village. Special packages are available by calling 1-800-403-0206, or visiting www.squaw.com.

One more Lake Tahoe activity that is a great spring-time choice is a cruise on one of the lake's sternwheelers. We took a thoroughly enjoyable, relaxing two-hour cruise on theM.S. Dixie II, a paddlewheeler operated from Zephyr Cove Resort, on the east side of the lake just a couple of miles from South Lake Tahoe. The calm late-winter lake and mountain panorama were even more spectacular from the middle of the lake. With 50-plus degree temperatures and no wind, many passengers soaked up the Sierra sunshine out on the open upper deck while, down below, others enjoyed snacks, beverages and even full meals in an enclosed dining area. There were plenty of windows for viewing so no scenery was missed.

The highlight of this particular cruise was a stop in Emerald Bay and an up-close look at this blue and turquoise bay, surrounded by granite peaks. There is a state park here, but the cruise offers an excellent overview with professional narration pointing out such highlights as Fannette Island, the only island in Lake Tahoe and home to a crumbling stone house called the "Tea House." On the main shore is the Vikingsholm Castle, considered one of the finest examples of Scandinavian architecture in the Western Hemisphere. This 38-room mansion was built in 1928 as a replica of an 11th Century Viking castle.

Good restaurants abound in the Lake Tahoe area and local publications advertise a long list of activities, from snowmobiling to fishing, from sailing to horseback riding. But bring your camera for what we think is the most rewarding activity of all: capturing photos of the best scenery California and Nevada have to offer.

AT A GLANCE

WHERE: The south shore of Lake Tahoe is about 100 miles east of Sacramento. The 22-mile long lake is pretty much surrounded accommodations and tourist areas located in towns like Tahoe City, Truckee, Incline Village and South Lake Tahoe, the largest concentration of visitor attractions.

WHAT: Lake Tahoe is the second deepest lake in North America (maximum 1645 feet) and is known for its clear water and mountain panorama. The area is popular both as a summer and winter recreation area. About two-thirds of the lake's shoreline is in California.

WHEN: Year-round, depending on your interests. Snowsports are big in winter, while boaters and golfers enjoy the area in summer. The shoulder seasons offer more lodging availability and lower prices.

WHY: Lake Tahoe is one of the most beautiful locations in the West and is a great family destination because of its wide variety of activities. It's also within a short drive of Reno, and adults will find Vegas-style gambling on the south shore.

HOW: For more information on Lake Tahoe, go to www.visitinglaketahoe.com where you will be able to access three separate visitors bureaus serving the Lake Tahoe region. For more information on the Tahoe Lakeshore Lodge, please phone 800-448-4577 or visit www.tahoelakeshorelodge.com.

Photos: The view from the Tahoe Lakeshore Lodge and Spa; shirt-sleeve spring weather at the Heavenly lifts; passengers board the Dixie II; couple enjoys Dixie II view of the mountains near Emerald Bay; Tahoe Lakeshore Lodge is between the water and the ski area.

(Editor's note: CaliforniaWeekend.com is California's leading source of information on getaway travel in the Golden State. Visit the site often to find the latest getaway specials, a comprehensive list of resorts and lodgings and to use the Getaway Machine travel calculator to match up your needs and preferences with exactly the right lodgings and location.)

Photo credits: Cary Ordway, Sandi Ordway

OTHER DESTINATIONS: If you're looking for other California vacation ideas, be sure to check out other California Weekend articles onYosemite National Park, Idyllwild, Julian and Sequoia National Park.

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