Lake Tahoe’s Relaxing Side Points North

Lake Tahoe, CA  |  By David Dickstein
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Kings Beach at the upper-most section of North Shore, has some of that side’s best boutique shopping. Photo courtesy North Lake Tahoe/Ryan Salm
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A sandy beach on Crystal Bay offers serenity and majestic Alpine views. Photo by David Dickstein

Lake Tahoe is 22 miles long, 12 miles wide and is 42 trillion gallons full. As California’s second-largest lake and the nation’s second-deepest, the scope of statistics associated with this body of water is as lengthy as its surface area (192 miles). One piece of data you won’t find on a list of Lake Tahoe facts, however, is how vast the difference is between North Shore and South Shore.

Answer: Worlds apart.

Each side has a distinct vibe and contrasting tangibles. Enjoy being part of a crowd? South is best. Sour on urban sprawl? The sparser North is the ticket. Want nightlife? Party down in the South. Feeling lucky? Towering Harrah’s, Harvey’s, Hard Rock and MontBleu are all in South Shore, though “gaming” isn’t completely foreign in the north. Need a lift? The North has the highest concentration of ski resorts, but the South is no slouch with Heavenly and Kirkwood. Looking to relax? Well, if the North was an herbal tea, it would be chamomile.

The casino-dotted South Shore woos the majority of Tahoe’s estimated 24 million annual visitors, the bulk driving in from the Sacramento and San Francisco areas. The rest settle in between Tahoma on the West Shore to Sand Harbor on the East Shore. Few take in both shores on a single vacation. Maybe it’s the two hours of driving roundtrip to and from the extreme points, or a desire to not mix atmospheres.

Having done Tahoe a dozen or so times over the decades, always on the South Shore, this native Californian has recently benefited from some refreshing and enlightening northern exposure. Let’s hit the main vacation categories.

Alpine Accommodations

On the high end, and we don’t mean just being 6,250 feet above sea level, there’s a Ritz-Carlton nestled mid-mountain on the Northstar ski resort, considered by many as California’s best. Those five stars get you nothing ritzier on either shore, but no closer than a 20-minute drive to and from the water. Dropping a star gets you the waterfront Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe, North Shore’s premiere hotel-casino in Incline Village.

As you’d expect from a major Alpine destination, lodging of all shapes, sizes and prices are found on both sides of the state line. On the California side, Cedar Crest Cottages is an unassuming gem on low-key West Shore. This quaint, family-owned inn has nine recently renovated units, all named for a bird with hanging pictures to match. Located across the street from a shared beach, Cedar Crest is a great property for those who want rustic, yet contemporary, non-chain, yet strict on standards. Cottages of one, two and three bedrooms, all private with lockable doors, feature a fully equipped kitchen, washing machine and dryer, living area and the most modern blackout drapes this pitch-dark-needing sleeper has ever seen – Hunter Douglas, not cheap. Cedar Crest Cottages feels more like a woodsy timeshare than motor lodge, so you’re trading such amenities as an adjacent restaurant for, say, a romantic firepit. It’s also located a 10-minute drive from a real town, so plan ahead for late-night hungries. Rates for a one-bedroom range from $260 to $320 a night with a two-night minimum.

Lakefront Fare

Ask a local or a seasoned North Shore visitor for restaurant recommendations, and the same names always come up. Here’s a quick take based on personal experiences at the most cited:

Gar Woods Grill & Pier, Carnelian Bay – Prices are about $5-10 more per entrée than the North Shore competition, but it’s so worth it when that gets you the whole package of laid-back fine dining, a most hospitable and competent staff, a fun, rum-favoring bar menu and a stunning bayside view and pier from a heater-ready outside deck. Loved making supper of two starters: pomegranate-glazed pork ribs ($20) and shrimp and lobster bisque ($13). The prime rib French dip with gruyere ($22) also was generous enough for dinner. Gar Woods’ signature drink, the “world-famous” and copyrighted Wet Woody, is an improved rum runner. Open for lunch and dinner.

Jake’s on the Lake, Tahoe City – The grilled Ora King salmon in miso broth ($36) and wild seabass with ginger saffron coconut risotto ($34) called to us on the carnivore-catering dinner menu and didn’t disappoint. Wonderful panoramic views of the marina.

Lone Eagle Grille, Incline Village – The Hyatt Regency’s top restaurant offers lakefront views while dining off a diverse lunch or dinner menu. Winning picks include the ahi poke with avocado and wakame salad, and a day boat scallop salad with toasted pine nuts and a champagne vinaigrette.

Fire Sign Café, Tahoe City – Expansive breakfast and lunch menus with a heaping of inviting specials, including savory crepes in the morning and a breaded chicken sandwich with homemade chipotle aioli in the afternoon. Just don’t ask to substitute a pecan waffle for pancakes with the “Cakes & Eggs Combo” ($13), even if offering to pay the $1.50 difference. That’s greeted with a flat “no.” Why? “Because the computer isn’t set up that way,” said the unapologetic server. So much for the laminated card on everyone’s table telling patrons that the restaurant’s “number one priority is to provide great service” and “dining with us today means that you are part of the Fire Sign family.” Decent food, but they sure waffle on their pledge, pecan or otherwise.

Rosie’s Café, Tahoe City – Great vibe, great grub and great décor. Vintage knickknacks hang from the eatery’s two-story rafters, keeping hungry eyes busy until the food arrives. The breakfast and lunch menus are comparable to Fire Sign’s, but Rosie’s also serves dinner, from real fried chicken to Italian schnitzel (both $17.49). Plus, they’ll happily substitute a waffle for a pancake without charge or attitude.

Explore North Shore

Engaging in outdoor recreation, be the activity dry, wet or icy, is way more serene on North Shore, even in the peak seasons of winter and summer. So is playing tourist when not snow skiing, water skiing, hiking, boating, sunbathing, swimming, paddleboarding, cycling, rafting, parasailing and many other -ings.

Attractions-wise, one of North Shore’s best-kept secrets, except to Lake Tahoe’s elite, local historians and the lucky schoolchildren who come here on field trips, is Thunderbird Lodge. George Whittell Jr. – millionaire, recluse, eccentric, philanderer, speed demon, lover of exotic animals – built this six-acre property on East Shore starting in 1936. He was no Sarah Winchester, but construction was certainly unusual and fairly constant until his death in 1969. Perched above a sandy beach, the main house, built of stone and by mostly local high schoolers, is an oddity like the rest of the place – a cross between Hearst Castle and Michael Jackson’s Neverland. But beyond the mansion, the Lighthouse Room, the opium den and servant’s quarters with the original kitchen, is a 600-foot-long tunnel leading to a boathouse where, when it’s not out for a spin, is arguably Whittell’s priced possession.

Any boat that can overshadow the pet elephant and lion who once trumpeted and roared on the estate, has got to be special. Thunderbird, the legendary wooden speedboat built for him in 1940, was just that. Twin 1,100-horsepower Allison engines — the same used in World War II fighter planes – power this double-planked mahogany beauty that entertained presidents and the Hollywood elite before its present-day role of serving as a floating fund-raiser for the non-profit Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society.

 Tours of this National Register Historic Site are given every day but Mondays through Oct. 19. The 75-minute walking tour costs $45 for adults, $19 for children 6 to 12. If you want to add some specialty wine and cheese to your visit, a better bet for the 21 and older set might be the $100 tours offered at 2:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Fridays from July 9 through Oct. 18.

Other attractions include a maritime museum, science center, ropes course and walkable cute, little towns with browsable cute, little shops – favorites being Tahoe City, Kings Beach, Incline Village and the proud host of the VIII Olympic Winter Games, Squaw Valley.

If You Go ….

North Lake Tahoe Visitor Bureau – 888-434-1262; www.gotahoenorth.com

Cedar Crest Cottages – 530-412-9222; www.cedarcrestcottages.com

Thunderbird Lodge National Historic Site – 800-468-2463 (for tours); www.thunderbirdtahoe.org

Kings Beach at the upper-most section of North Shore, has some of that side’s best boutique shopping. Photo courtesy North Lake Tahoe/Ryan SalmA sandy beach on Crystal Bay offers serenity and majestic Alpine views. Photo by David DicksteinTours of George Whittell Jr.’s storied Thunderbird Lodge include the boathouse of the estate’s namesake wooden speedboat. Photo by David DicksteinCharming Cedar Crest Cottages is a gem of a find on Lake Tahoe’s West Shore. Photo by David Dickstein