The recent nightly television coverage of the 2006 Torino Winter Olympics once again has reminded us of the drama and spectacle that has always been the Olympics - and for those of us who just can't quite get enough, there is a California ski resort where we can see a former Olympics venue first-hand.
It was not all that long ago that Squaw Valley was the center of the world's attention as it hosted the 1960 Olympic Games - the first-ever games in the Western United States and, even more significantly, the first games to be televised.
Squaw Valley barely beat out Innsbruck to host the competition because the people who make such decisions just couldn't get their heads around the idea that California, of all places, would have a place that gets 450 inches of snow each year. Ironically, the winter season of 1959-60 started out with little snowfall, a frightful circumstance for the Squaw Valley officials who had lobbied so hard to bring the games to California. But then, as if written for a movie script, the storms came just before the event and dumped more than enough snow to make the Squaw Valley Olympics one of the most successful ever.
Located near Lake Tahoe, Squaw Valley now refers to itself as Squaw Valley USA, a not-so-subtle reminder of the national pride that goes with hosting - and competing in - the Olympics. Over the years, this ski area has steadily grown, developing into one of the country's top ski destinations. Cable cars, gondolas and numerous high-speed detachable quad chairlifts have been added to dramatically increase skier lift capacity while, at the same time, new first-class accommodations, restaurants and retail facilities make the skier's time off the mountain feel just like a ritzy vacation.
Lake Tahoe has no shortage of excellent ski mountains but Squaw brings one thing to the table that the others can't: Olympic tradition. It's evident today in the symbolic Tower of Nations and Olympic flame that still greet Squaw Valley visitors as well as the Olympic rings clear visible on buildings near the Village - in some cases, the same buildings used in the actual Olympics.
Our visit to Squaw Valley reminded us of previous vacations at great ski resorts like Sun Valley and Whistler-Blackcomb. The relatively new Village at Squaw Valley is what immediately lets you know that this is a true destination ski area - the kind of ski area where you block a week off your office calendar and just stay put on the mountain exploring new ski trails each day and finding plenty to keep your vacation interesting in the Village.
The mountain itself is an impressive backdrop to the Village. With 4,000 skiable acres and more than 100 runs, Squaw Valley's ski terrain looms over the village like some vast playground just waiting to be explored. On a clear day - and we did get some gorgeous weather at least during part of our stay - the mountain and village are just like a picture postcard.
We checked into our condo in the Village and, even though the Village complex includes several buildings, it was easy to find the check-in area as well as the nearby entrance to the underground garage. This is state-of-the-art ski resort planning; when the Village opened back in 2001, it included an easy-to-navigate color-coded underground parking area that allows you to park your vehicle close to your building's elevator. Instead of snow piling on your vehicle, freezing your wiper blades and icing all your windows, your vehicle can be indoors during your entire visit. The Village shops and restaurants are all within a five-minute walk of your condo.
Ski lockers are on the first floor and we were given a lock and combination so that we could leave our skis and gear in the lockers and not bother taking them up to our second story condo unit. Best of all, when it came time to ski, it was just walk out the door and about 30 yards over to the lifts. No need for using public changing rooms or booting up at your car - just suit up in your room, grab your equipment and you're at the lifts.
Our condo, near as we could tell, was valued at about a half-million dollars in the pricey Squaw Valley market. It was just a kitchen, living room area, a bedroom and a bathroom, but that's what it costs nowadays to own property "on the mountain" at Squaw. It was, however, well appointed with designer furniture, two television entertainment systems and a pretty complete kitchen area.
Our particular unit was south-facing and looked right out on the lifts - just the perfect spot to be to keep an eye on weather conditions and do a little people-watching. The views of the mountain were picture-perfect from our deck, which got just enough sun on it to be usable in cold weather. But one word of caution for people staying in a south-facing unit: While it's definitely the most convenient part of the Village - and has the best views -- it can be a tad noisy on nights when fresh snow has arrived and grooming machines must be out on the trails getting them ready for the next day. We suspect units in other parts of the Village don't have the same problem.
The skiing at Squaw Valley - as you might expect - is some of the best you'll find anywhere. The variety of trails seemed endless and many of the runs were long and sometimes exhausting. Interestingly, many of the intermediate runs are reached by riding a gondola to the 8200-foot level. Up there you can also access a couple of intermediate runs off the backside of the mountain - in fact, about 45 percent of the mountain is rated intermediate. Everywhere you look are high-speed chairlifts - in all, there are seven express chairs on the mountain along with a cable car and a couple of gondola lifts.
Squaw features an entire village high on the mountain at the end of the cable car lift. Called High Camp, this area includes several restaurants, a sport shop, an Olympic museum and even an Olympic ice rink. And be sure to leave plenty of energy for your trip back to the base area - it's a great three-mile run from mid-mountain that will leave your legs burning.
The experience at a ski resort is often colored by the weather and even the best ski areas are not especially fun in foggy, icy or windy conditions. We did encounter some blizzard-like conditions for part of one day that we were at Squaw, but the pattern on this particular February trip seemed to be one day of poor-to-moderate conditions followed by one sunny day of absolutely perfect conditions.
That's where the Village comes in. During our off time we enjoyed exploring the Village, dining in the Village restaurants and stopping in for some apr-s-ski merriment at the local lounges. We especially liked the Irish pub with its excellent selection of imported draft beers. And spouses who send their partners off skiing for the day will find plenty of shopping close by - although cost-conscious husbands will want to know it probably would be cheaper in the long run just to buy the extra lift ticket.
WHERE: Squaw Valley is just northwest of Lake Tahoe, close to Tahoe City and Truckee. It-s easily accessible via Interstate 80 and California Highway 89.
WHAT: A historic, yet modern ski resort with 4,000 lift-served acres and a modern ski village at the base. Everywhere you turn are reminders of the 1960 Winter Olympics that made the ski resort famous.
WHEN: Winter and spring skiing is available, while chairlifts run in the summer and fall to take hikers to mountain trails.
WHY: Squaw Valley represents one of California-s best and largest ski areas and was home to the 1960 Winter Olympics.
HOW: For more information on Squaw Valley USA, please go to www.squaw.com or phone 800-401-5471. Adult all-day lift tickets are $65 but there are several ways to get discounts if you go to the website. For information on accommodations at the Village at Squaw Valley, please phone 1-800-545-4350.