I write this with my suitcase open, my boarding-pass printed and the Heavenly webcams up on my laptop. Tomorrow, I’m going skiing in California. And there’s an extra buzz on top of the usual sense of ski-trip anticipation.
Why? Well, here are five reasons for starters.
It’s California. California!
Point Break, The Graduate, Chinatown, Charlie’s Angels, Apple computers, Google…damnit, my whole life I’ve been guzzling images and ideas from and of California. Okay: so sometimes the diet’s been a bit repetitive. Occasionally, bland. But for the most part…well, can you imagine the modern world without California? Like any English-speaking person of the late-20th/early-21st century, it seems to frame half my thoughts.
So when I get out of the plane at San Francisco airport tomorrow, eight hours of jet lag is going to wash straight off me. Even sitting in a traffic jam on the I-80-is going to be exciting, as I match up all my subconscious expectations with the reality of the place. And then, at the end of a four-hour drive, I’ll be going to sleep in a ski resort. A ski resort! Fantastic.
Every ski holiday is also ski safari
Of course, many Europeans don’t even know you can go skiing in California. But the fact is Lake Tahoe, 190 miles east of San Francisco, is ringed with slopes.
South Lake Tahoe is the obvious place to stay, and you can catch a gondola from there straight up to Heavenly. It’s the biggest and highest of the Tahoe ski areas, and is packed with all kinds of terrain – easy, intermediate-friendly pistes, murderous mogul fields, terrain parks, secret powder stashes in the trees. But you’d be mad to go all that way and not sample at least a couple of other area: Kirkwood, for example, which in 2010-2011 got 20.4 metres of snow in a single winter – and maybe Northstar or Squaw Valley to the north. Getting into the car and saying, “Right, where are we going to ski today?” is an integral part of the experience. (In fact, a six-day Heavenly lift pass will let you ski in Kirkwood and Northstar for free – but not Squaw.)
There’s a rich diet of skiing to sup on
On its own, none of the Tahoe ski areas is especially big, compared to European mega-areas. But together, they add up to a rich skiing experience – which is in its way just as rich as you’ll get in the Three Valleys or the Grand Massif in the Alps. The quality of the tree-skiing is one reason for that. Another is the variety of slopes – from smooth, flattering pistes (called trails on this side of the Pond), to ludicrously steep canyon walls. Plus of course there are terrain parks ago-go in between. If you want to push your skiing in a new direction, then this is a great place to do it. Just remember to budget for a bit of tuition: I’d hate to think of anyone taking on Gunbarrel – Heavenly’s famous mogul-field – without having absorbed a few bump-skiing tips beforehand.
Midweek, you’ve got the place to yourself
Tahoe is mostly skied by Californians, and mostly at the weekend. Midweek, especially Monday to Thursday, the slopes are quiet. For anyone raised on the hustle and bustle of an Alpine ski resort, it’s a revelation.
South Lake Tahoe is unlike any other ski town you’ll ever visit
There’s nowhere quite like South Lake Tahoe: a place that can’t decide whether it’s a casino town or a ski resort. And no wonder: the California-Nevada state line runs through the middle of it. On one side of the street you’ve got the Heavenly gondola, ski hire shops and ski-style accommodation: on the other, a wall of big gambling halls. Visually, it looks a bit of a mess. But there’s no doubting the energy of the place, especially at the weekend, when the twentysomethings of San Francisco pour into town, wash across over the slopes, and settle each night in the big casino nightclubs. The gambling floors themselves add an utterly bizarre element to the proceedings, too. Where else in the world does apres-ski involve shooting craps with a bunch of whooping, high-fiving Americans?
Now, if you love the convenience of ski-in, ski-out resorts like La Plagne, or the swank of Vail, Aspen or Val d’Isere, South Lake Tahoe won’t be for you. But if you’re bored of the usual ski-resort schtick, or fancy blowing off steam in a proper party town, then put it on your hit-list. It feels like you’re getting two holidays for the price of one. (If you add some time in San Francisco or the Californian winelands to the end of the trip, you can make that three holidays for the price of one.)
Oh yes, South Lake Tahoe has one other surprise in store. When you get to the top of the Heavenly lift system, the view of the lake will blow your mind. On one side of the horizon there’s a socking great lake: on the other, the Nevada desert. It’s unlike any other mountain view I’ve seen.
With Virgin Holidays, a week skiing in California, based in South Lake Tahoe, starts from £785pp, room only, including flights and hire car.