South Lake Tahoe offers nonskiers sleigh riding, ice skating, soaring in a hot-air balloon, and cruising on a paddlewheeler.
We'd heard snide remarks and catty reports. Friends who'd long vacationed on the north end of Lake Tahoe advised us to steer clear of the south end of this 12-mile-wide, 22-mile-long jewel. With its casinos and budget motels, South Lake Tahoe, they said, was cheesy, less exclusive—West Egg to the north lake's East Egg.
It's a good thing we paid no attention. I learned during three days in South Lake Tahoe what Jay Gatsby failed to grasp in 240 pages of The Great Gatsby: Just because a few blue bloods look down their noses at it doesn't mean you can't have a hell of a good time in West Egg.
Prepare to be underwhelmed, should you pay a visit, on the approach to town. The profusion of seedy motor courts called to mind (for this English major) the lodgings favored by Humbert Humbert in Lolita. Dennis Crabb refers to such eyesores as "forty units on a parking lot." Crabb served as South Lake Tahoe's city attorney from 1979 to '96. He says dozens of such properties were "thrown up almost overnight" in anticipation of the 1960 Winter Olympics in nearby Squaw Valley. In the years and decades that followed, the ability of environmental activists to stymie almost all development ensured that those structures could not be razed or renovated. The result, he says, is that South Lake Tahoe became "a museum of bad 1960s architecture."
In the 1980s, with tourism flagging and water quality in this incredibly pristine lake declining, the business and environmental communities agreed to work together. A redevelopment plan was hammered out. One hotel was planned at State Line Avenue, another a half-mile west on Ski Run Boulevard. Much of the old development between them was stripped out and converted to bicycle trails and open space. The plan hit some rough patches, but it worked well enough to encourage other local business owners. "They said, 'OK, we see this can work, and we want to create a center of activity in the State Line area,' " recalls Crabb.
They succeeded. One result of all the renewal is the gleaming new Heavenly Village, a winning blend of hotels and condos with 95,000 square feet of commercial space: art galleries, restaurants, retail stores, and a recently opened eight-screen theater. Impossible to miss from Lake Tahoe Boulevard, the main drag through town, the Village covers several blocks just west of the California-Nevada border. (My kids got a kick out of parking in Nevada and walking to our hotel in California.)
With its heated cobblestone sidewalks, open bonfire pits, and arched walkways, the complex strives for the flavor of a European village. While it doesn't work for everyone, it is indisputably a vast improvement over the T-shirt shops and tacky motels that preceded it.
In addition to serving as anchor for South Lake Tahoe, the Village gives tourists something to do other than haunt the casinos that jut up on the Nevada side of the border. You can ride a gondola that offers stunning views of the lake and access to nearby Heavenly ski resort. And for those not interested in skiing or snowboarding, there's still plenty to do. You could go on a sleigh ride, soar in a hot-air balloon, or cruise Lake Tahoe on the paddle wheeler MS Dixie II. The boat's informative narration tells, among other things, why this lake is so extra-ordinarily blue: Its exceptionally deep, clear water makes it a faithful mirror of the sky. How deep is it? The deepest part ever measured is 1,645 feet. "A stone thrown from Rubicon Point," we were told, "will sink 1,000 feet."
Our cruise turned around at Emerald Bay. From there we could see Vikingsholm, a castle created in 1929 by one Lora Josephine Knight, whose guests included Charles Lindbergh and Will Rogers. A few hundred feet off the shore is rugged-looking Fannette Island, upon whose 150-foot granite peak Mrs. Knight erected a miniature castle that served as a teahouse. Its vandalized skeleton called out to my 8-year-old son like a siren.
The lake never freezes over, which is not to say there is no ice-skating: South Lake Tahoe has a new indoor rink. You could try snowmobiling or cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, or tobogganing, after which you might enjoy a soak in one of the nearby hot springs. You could tie a fly—fishing on Lake Tahoe is best in winter, local guides say—or tie the knot. The area teems with wedding chapels.
However far we ranged we returned, again and again, to Heavenly. If the Village serves as this town's anchor, its gondola anchors the anchor. Our trip up the mountain and down proved the highlight of the journey. Children's chatter ("They'll owe us a million bucks if this thing goes down and we live!") subsided as we rose and the lake presented itself to us. Soon we could make out Emerald Bay and the Dixie II, which from our vantage point looked the size of a splinter. The higher we got, the more indigo the lake appeared. At last we could see the mountains ringing the North Shore, whose inhabitants don't tend to make it down this way. Their loss.
Photography courtesy Heavenly Mountain Resort
This article was first published in January 2005 and updated in January 2016. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.