My Blue Heaven - Ski Mag

My Blue Heaven

Travel Pacific
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My Blue Heaven 1103

As a skier, I've always dreamed in white. But the more I ski, the more I prefer my white mixed with a bit of blue. Here at the top of Heavenly, on a crisp March morning, I'm gliding down the corduroy-coated Orion trail, enjoying the absolute blueness of the moment. Above, a cloudless sky extends to a horizon of snowy Sierra Nevada peaks. Below, the inland ocean of Lake Tahoe shimmers. The effect is blue fading to white fading to blue—and it's one inspiring scene.

I'm not concerned about the snow depth, about a stingy winter that coughed up few flakes. There's no use lamenting nature's shortcomings, because there's still too much great skiing to be had on this monster of a mountain. Last night, snowguns laid a fresh coat on three-quarters of the runs, then snowcats tilled them to perfection. Following Blaise Carrig, Heavenly's energetic COO, I waltz down Comet, Olympic Downhill and Liz's—all ego-boosting blues that are typical of the mountain's terrain.

With roughly half of the resort in California and the rest in Nevada, Heavenly's 4,800 acres are divided like an open clamshell. California has the dazzling lake views, especially from the 8,250-foot summit of the Heavenly Aerial Tram, while Nevada has typically drier snow and longer runs. The California terrain has an upside-down layout, with the radical stuff—1,700 vertical feet of steep, moguled runs—at the bottom, under the Gunbarrel Chair. By contrast, Nevada's big nasties are at the top, from Milky Way Bowl through a series of double-diamond chutes in Mott and Killebrew canyons. On both sides, the best intermediate runs are above midmountain, which is where most skiers go on days like today, when the only fresh snow is manmade. Even so, Heavenly's sheer size ensures that crowds are the exception, not the rule.

That expansive terrain—and the 935,000 skiers it lures each season—helped attract new owner Vail Resorts to Heavenly, the first ski area Vail has acquired outside of its Colorado cocoon. Vail CEO Adam Aron, who engineered the purchase last year from the American Skiing Company, talks about Heavenly like a landlord who just bought a fixer-upper and is eager for change. Since taking over, Vail has spent close to $17 million on upgrades, including new signs and recontoured trails on the mountain. This season, Aron says, Heavenly will unveil a new high-speed quad, a new beginner's area and a renovated restaurant. Over the next five years, there's a budget of $40 million to further spruce up the mountain and the three base areas—one on the California side that has a few worn buildings, a big eyesore of a maintenance yard and a parking lot, and two smaller, equally dated lodges in Nevada.

What wasn't part of Vail's purchase is Heavenly's new South Lake Tahoe village, which is where Carrig and I head for lunch after a few hours of pleasure-cruising. Getting there requires a 12-minute descent by gondola over 3,000 vertical feet of precipitous, rocky terrain that precludes skiing. The view from the gondola is hypnotizing, a cerulean panorama of sky, mountains and water. The village emerges like a mirage, but it's real enough—a vibrant ski community with all the trappings Heavenly and South Lake Tahoe have been promising for the last decade. There's a clock tower, two Marriott interval-ownership hotels, and a bevy of shops and restaurants, with a steady stream of skiers bustling from one to the other.

A few years ago, such ski-centered activity would have hardly seemed possible on Tahoe's South Shore, just a block from the ritzy casino hotels of Stateline, Nev. Though Heavenly's runs loom large above the adjacent Stateline and South Lake Tahoe, they've always been window dressing to the real action—the betting and the boozing, the cabarets and the crooners. Skiing? Sure, you could do that if you wanted to—and if your hangover had settled down to a dull throb by late morning. Then you'd get into your SUV or, if you were too beat to drive, catch a shtle bus to one of the ski area's three obscure portals. These were tucked away at the end of steep access roads, well removed from the main artery of Highway 50. Instead of a conventional ski town, you had your choice of a long string of aging motels (filled mostly with nickel-slot addicts) on the California side or Stateline's towering casino hotels. Where was the heart of South Shore?

Perhaps it beats here, in the new village. I woke up on this particular ski day in a sumptuous suite in the Marriott Grand Residence Club, a 199-unit condo-hotel reminiscent of early 1900s Tahoe, with gables, dormers and rock-and-wood accents.

When I checked in the night before, I drove into the porte-cochere and was greeted by a throng of valets. While one parked my SUV in the underground garage, another hustled the luggage up to my room, or rather, rooms: a full-size gourmet kitchen, a dining area, a living room and a separate bedroom with a balcony that overlooks the swimming pool and a ring of steaming hot tubs. Downstairs, the lobby resembles a bona fide ski lodge, with people in Gore-Tex suits rushing out the door and others in swimsuits sauntering toward the spa.

This morning, I walked just 30 yards from the lobby to the gondola. It was rush hour, with skiers pouring in from every direction—converging on the gondola's clock tower building from the brick walkways that meander through the village, renting gear at Heavenly Sports, ordering coffee from an outdoor kiosk. The gondola ride is just about long enough to enjoy a double latte before you land near the California/Nevada border.

It wasn't always this easy to get from one side to the other. Skiers once had to take three chairlifts from the California base area to the summit, then ski a long traverse called the Skyline Trail to the Nevada side—all of which usually took up to an hour—or drive up the winding roads to the other base areas, then ride a pair of long lifts to the top. Now, just a couple of blocks from the lake, skiers can walk to the gondola from any of about 5,000 hotel rooms. They can scoot three-quarters of the way up the mountain in the space of a coffee break, stop at an observation deck for a gazillion-dollar view of Tahoe and ride back in the afternoon for the usual guilty pleasures of shopping, spa-ing, eating and drinking—all without ever reaching for their car keys. And while in its first season the village was a bit spare in its diversions, more shops and restaurants will open this winter. If you're looking for local charm and character, however, you won't find it here: Chains such as Quizno's and Cold Stone Creamery are the rule.

Anyone who wants to rub shoulders with the locals hangs out across the street from the Marriott at Pub Tahoe, where après-ski means quaffing a Guinness, munching on a pita sandwich or grooving to the band du jour. Owner Pete Joseph is buoyant about the ripple of energy and prosperity that swirls around South Shore now. "Business is up probably 25 to 30 percent for us," he says. "And the clientele is definitely moving in an upward direction."

Though the gondola has been operating for three years, it didn't exactly draw crowds while it was surrounded by dirt, cranes and chattering jackhammers. Now that the construction dust has cleared, Heavenly's esteem has risen in the eyes of local skiers from Reno to San Francisco. They've been flocking here because of a popular $299 season pass, an incentive that Vail borrowed from its Colorado playbook. While many Tahoe regulars used to leave the resort to the out-of-towners, it's now possible, even probable, that you'll sit on a chairlift with someone who actually lives here. Or maybe you'll hook up with a Marriott condo owner. They represent the vanguard of the newly arrived, upscale second-home buyers, who didn't have much to shop for in South Shore until the village came along. They tend to be professionals who until recently were more likely to flock to the upper-crust enclaves near Squaw Valley on the North Shore. Typical of these newcomers is Jeff Robinson, an industrial commercial real estate broker from Watsonville, Calif., two hours south of San Francisco. When the opportunity arose, he didn't buy just one quarter-share at the Grand Residence Club; he bought all four quarters. He's got a two-bedroom, second-floor residence that works just fine for he and his wife, Linda, and their two children. "The gondola is 92 steps from our door," he says, and you can bet that he's counted each step. While Jeff and the kids hit the slopes, Linda, a nonskier, can browse through the shops or enjoy a deep-tissue massage at the Club's swank spa.

Although Robinson, an expert skier, considers Heavenly's terrain somewhat mild, he likes being close to the gaming and nightlife. From the Marriotts, it's a brief stroll to Harrah's, Harveys, Caesars and Horizon, where the roulette wheels roll 24 hours a day and where entertainment includes cabaret shows and concerts by the likes of Tony Bennett and Boz Scaggs. Robinson has been hooked on this scene since the late 1970s, "when I used to stay in fleabag motels on the strip," he says. Clearly, his days of flea-flicking are over. Tonight he'll be chilling a bottle of Chardonnay and phoning a restaurant to order rotisserie chicken for a party of 14 friends and family members. "The best thing about this place," he adds, "is that I don't have to drive anywhere." Indeed, a new transit center next to the Village sees a constant ebb and flow of buses and vans that serve just about everywhere in South Shore.

That kind of ease also attracted Tony Damore, a Bay Area gynecologist who bought a quarter-share in the Grand Residence Club after canvassing Tahoe for 30 years in search of just the right second-home spot. "There's a lot of mountain here, glorious views of the lake from the top and a brand new South Shore," he says. "What's not to like?"

I mull over Damore's question as I settle into the gondola again at the end of the day. My afternoon has been filled with more high-speed cruising on both sides of the state line—rarely touching the same run twice. Now the seductive Tahoe vista pans out before me, shades of blue folding into more shades of blue as bursts of pink and mists of orange spill over the North Shore peaks. Lights begin to twinkle along the South Shore, and I realize that, for me at least, the answer will be a long time coming.

Click below for a Slideshow, Details and a Mountain Tour of Heavenly, Calif.

near Squaw Valley on the North Shore. Typical of these newcomers is Jeff Robinson, an industrial commercial real estate broker from Watsonville, Calif., two hours south of San Francisco. When the opportunity arose, he didn't buy just one quarter-share at the Grand Residence Club; he bought all four quarters. He's got a two-bedroom, second-floor residence that works just fine for he and his wife, Linda, and their two children. "The gondola is 92 steps from our door," he says, and you can bet that he's counted each step. While Jeff and the kids hit the slopes, Linda, a nonskier, can browse through the shops or enjoy a deep-tissue massage at the Club's swank spa.

Although Robinson, an expert skier, considers Heavenly's terrain somewhat mild, he likes being close to the gaming and nightlife. From the Marriotts, it's a brief stroll to Harrah's, Harveys, Caesars and Horizon, where the roulette wheels roll 24 hours a day and where entertainment includes cabaret shows and concerts by the likes of Tony Bennett and Boz Scaggs. Robinson has been hooked on this scene since the late 1970s, "when I used to stay in fleabag motels on the strip," he says. Clearly, his days of flea-flicking are over. Tonight he'll be chilling a bottle of Chardonnay and phoning a restaurant to order rotisserie chicken for a party of 14 friends and family members. "The best thing about this place," he adds, "is that I don't have to drive anywhere." Indeed, a new transit center next to the Village sees a constant ebb and flow of buses and vans that serve just about everywhere in South Shore.

That kind of ease also attracted Tony Damore, a Bay Area gynecologist who bought a quarter-share in the Grand Residence Club after canvassing Tahoe for 30 years in search of just the right second-home spot. "There's a lot of mountain here, glorious views of the lake from the top and a brand new South Shore," he says. "What's not to like?"

I mull over Damore's question as I settle into the gondola again at the end of the day. My afternoon has been filled with more high-speed cruising on both sides of the state line—rarely touching the same run twice. Now the seductive Tahoe vista pans out before me, shades of blue folding into more shades of blue as bursts of pink and mists of orange spill over the North Shore peaks. Lights begin to twinkle along the South Shore, and I realize that, for me at least, the answer will be a long time coming.

Click below for a Slideshow, Details and a Mountain Tour of Heavenly, Calif.

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