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Lake Tahoe: Sierra Nevada paradise offers more than stunning scenery
By Ari Burack
May 25, 2014 | SF Examiner
The streams of summer visitors to California’s great sapphire jewel in the Sierra Nevada might seem a little farther away when you’re dangling 40 feet above the forest floor, your brain a heady mix of pine-scented adrenaline.
Or you’re lazing in a kayak, adrift in the cool early morning air over the glassy water’s surface, shards of mountain framing the distant shoreline. Or maybe you’re perched on a volcanic outcropping a thousand feet above the lake with nothing but the wind in your ears.
Experiences like these draw countless visitors to the shores of North Lake Tahoe every year.
In Tahoe City on the west side of the lake, settle into one of cozy Sunnyside Lodge’s top-floor rooms and you will be rewarded with broad lakeside views, rustic comfort and a glowing sunrise that comes hurtling across the waters each morning.
This restaurant and resort — built on the site of a captain’s 1908 summer home and retaining only its proud stone fireplace — has been remodeling its 23 rooms, and some may still have an older feel. Boaters often dock at the marina outside to stop in for a meal or drinks. It’s a relaxed, almost familial atmosphere.
A guided tour with Tahoe City Kayak is a fine morning option, as there will be less boat traffic on the lake. Paddle along the west shore over cool, clear waters, and you will see the bottom green- and white-hued stones — and the occasional old pipeline or tragically mishandled cellphone. Glide underneath a pier that stretches hundreds of feet from the beach and out past floating buoys as your guide shares some of the geography, local color and history of the area.
In the afternoon, head into the forest, strap on climbing gear and pull yourself into the treetops at Tahoe Tree Top Adventure Park, located on the property of the historic Granlibakken Lodge inTahoe City. There, you will learn to balance on wire or tiny wooden boards that twist and turn underneath, navigate rope nets, and zipline from tree to tree and down to the forest floor.
Since 2012, this outfit has offered a variety of simple or challenging courses for kids and adults to scramble up and down for nearly three hours at a time, or until your arms have wearied and the 6-year-old on the perch behind you is politely urging you to hurry up.
The modest-looking exterior of Wolfdale’s in Tahoe City belies what could be one of the best meals in Lake Tahoe. Chef-owner Douglas Dale’s international-California fusion dishes are both delicious and beautiful. The focus of the frequently changing menu is on fresh ingredients and simple preparations, whether it be an artfully plated risotto or tender lamb shank, an appetizer of trout that’s been smoked on site, or a decadent pear tart dessert with caramel and salted ice cream.
If you have had similar dishes, you may not have had them cooked as well or in such a balanced way. Crossing into Nevada, the northern and eastern sides of the lake become more exclusive, but also less developed, and there are equal opportunities for scenic vistas, good eats, hikes and history.
The Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe in Incline Village is set in a serene, forested area just back from the beach. Upscale though inescapably corporate, the rooms are elegant, simple and pet-friendly at this 12-story hotel, spa and casino. There are also quaint lakeside cottages available for groups.
The rooms’ few windows and only glancing sightlines of the water are a helpful reminder (if you needed one) to get outdoors to the lake and surrounding mountains — the real stars of the show.
A hike through the Tahoe Rim Trail — a 165-mile circuit along the ridges surrounding Lake Tahoe — will take you into pine forests, alpine meadows and mountain paths at elevations between 7,000 and 10,000 feet, offering grand, panoramic views of the lake and beyond. The trails are treasured by locals who are dedicated to keeping them pristine.
The restaurant Bite in Incline Village offers a refined and reasonably priced dinner of California-style tapas — fried spheres of risotto, ahi sliders, fresh fish tacos, grilled nuggets of filet mignon. These tasty bites of re-imagined comfort food are accompanied by a selection of wines and artisanal cocktails.
A visit to North Lake Tahoe probably would not be complete without a tour of Thunderbird Lodge, the setting for one of the more eccentric characters in the lake’s history.
George Whittell built the lodge in 1936. He was an adventurer who inherited his San Francisco family’s fortune despite ignoring their wishes for his career and marriage, instead joining the circus and driving an ambulance overseas during World War I.
The lodge today remains one of the only structures on the otherwise undeveloped northeast side of Lake Tahoe. It’s unlikely another one will ever be built like it.
Whittell envisioned the home as his refuge and plaything, decorating it with waterfalls, secret doors and an underground tunnel, importing wild animals including a lion and elephant, hosting high-stakes poker games with celebrities, cruising the lake in his magnificent yacht and entertaining not only his wife but mistresses as well. The property is now maintained by a private foundation offering docent-led tours.
Travel should entertain, but it can also educate. The UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center on the campus of Sierra Nevada College in Incline Village has guided tours with hands-on exhibits and 3-D movies on Lake Tahoe’s environment, including geologic history, water clarity and fish populations. Not only will you learn about the forces — natural and man-made — that shaped and continue to shape the lake and its ecological health, but how to help keep it a natural wonder for generations to come.
Where to stay
– Sunnyside Restaurant and Lodge: 1850 W. Lake Blvd., Tahoe City. Rooms $295-$360.www.sunnysidetahoe.com
– Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe: 111 Country Club Drive, Incline Village. Rooms $199 to $529; cottages $399 to $1499. www.laketahoe.hyatt.com
Where to eat
– Bridgetender Tavern and Grill: Set along the banks of the Truckee River, the burgers are considered some of the best in Tahoe City. 65 W. Lake Blvd., Tahoe City.www.tahoebridgetender.com
– Wolfdale’s: 640 N. Lake Blvd., Tahoe City. www.wolfdales.com
– T’s Mesquite Rotisserie: A delicious, no-frills barbecue and Mexican joint where succulent, slowly rotating birds and slabs of beef are carved into sandwiches and burritos. 901 Tahoe Blvd., Incline Village.
– Mellow Fellow: The knowledgeable staff is slinging a delicious and varied selection of 40 craft brews on tap to sate nearly any taste. 9980 N. Lake Blvd., Kings Beach. www.mellowfellowpub.com
– Bite: 907 Tahoe Blvd., Incline Village. www.bitetahoe.com
What to do
– Tahoe City Kayak: Commons Beach, Tahoe City. Tours $40-$95. Ages 10 and up.www.tahoecitykayak.com
– Tahoe Tree Top Adventure Park: 725 Granlibakken Road, Tahoe City. $45.www.tahoetreetop.com
– Tahoe Rim Trail: Visit www.tahoerimtrail.org for maps and trail listings.
– UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center: Sierra Nevada College, 291 Country Club Drive, Incline Village. Tours free. tahoe.ucdavis.edu
– Thunderbird Lodge: 5000 Nevada Highway 28, Incline Village. Tours $39. thunderbirdlodge.org
Photo: Sunnyside Restaurant and Lodge. – ARI BURACK/SPECIAL TO THE S.F. EXAMINER