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Family Fun at Squaw Valley Rink


SQUAW VALLEY, Calif. — The day couldn't have been sunnier, the lift lines shorter nor the artificial snow more fine. But one full day of ski logistics and costs, separations for lessons and snow boarders zoom-zooming around like downhill surfers, was plenty for a three-day mother/daughter weekend in Lake Tahoe.

So, my 9-year-old traveling companion, Amanda, and I decided to head out for Squaw Valley and try something completely different--the brand new, top-of-the-mountain Olympic Ice Pavilion.

Opened on Thanksgiving Day, the artificially refrigerated, outdoor ice skating rink is still so new, the locals asked us as much about it as we asked them.

In 1983, an enormous snowfall collapsed the roof of Blythe Arena, a skate rink built for the 1960 Squaw Valley Olympics. Since then, nearly everyone, it seemed, has missed the skate rink as a family and nonskiers' alternative to nighttime or year-round fun.

Its replacement--built on a daring and spectacular mountaintop site--is part of a valleywide development drive that aims to create a four-season resort for people with varied interests, and includes the new 405-room luxury Resort at Squaw Creek in the valley.

Next summer, builders plan to construct the High Camp Bath and Tennis Club, a swimming lagoon with a shallow lane for children and several spas and hot tubs at the mountaintop next to the rink, which serves as the roof of a future retail complex. The tennis courts, built already, now lie covered with snow.

For our weekend, Amanda and I had taken a $66 room several miles away, above Sam's Deli at Northstar Village.

We took our time setting out to Squaw. Who, we asked ourselves, likes to rush around city-style on vacation? Not us. And Amanda even less than I. While she slept in, I went downstairs and bought bagels, shortbread and yogurt, apple juice for her, cappuccino for me. We ate our picnic on the way.

We arrived late morning, still early enough to be the only two passengers on the 125-passenger cable car.

As the cable car left the valley, we could see pale-blue islands poking out of the fog covering Lake Tahoe like a double-decker lake. Beneath us, the chubby rock precipices looked cartoonish and made Amanda think of Disneyland.

Once on top, the operator oriented us to the sophisticated, multilevel, open-steel frame--complex worlds away from the simple metal platform that served the tram when it opened in 1968.

Now, the designer complex (red and purple outside, pink and teal inside) comprises indoor and outdoor observation decks, a shop, a ski-school office and a half-dozen choices of places to eat and drink that range from inexpensive to moderate.

Some tables in the Terrace Deli, a glassed cafeteria with cathedral ceiling, and Alexanders, a sit-down restaurant, have views of the rink. The Poolside Cafe overlooks the swimming lagoon and spa site.

Each restaurant has a bar. The cafeteria's Bar North includes an oyster bar. At the Bakery Cinnamon Hut, there are pastries, espresso, coffee drinks, hot chocolate and juices.

We found the skate facility, with lockers and rental skates, across a deck and down a spiral staircase. Two hours of skating (without the package that includes the cable car) costs $5 for adults and $3 for children. Lessons were not, then, available.

We shed our heavy coats, put on rental skates and, decked out in sweaters and mitts, wobbled out onto the ice. Though railings and plastic-covered hay bales line the Olympic-sized oval rink, we still had the sensation of skating right up to the cliff's edge. After a few tentative laps, we skated gloved paw in gloved paw for nearly two hours, sometimes backwards, to the good-natured tunes of Jimmy Buffett coming from a pair of outdoor stereo speakers.

Friendly strangers took our pictures as we skated, with a backdrop of the green-and-white-speckled Sierra that seemed to curve with the horizon.

The early-afternoon crowd grew to include small packs of preteens, young families, older couples and a few seniors--from never-ever to professional-looking skaters, wobbling, strutting, whirling and dancing to the feel-good, soft-rock sounds.

From an indoor observation deck, I people-watched while Amanda retreated to her own interior play world, pretending this mountain castle was hers and all these people were her guests.

We ate tacos and sipped root beer at Alexanders, explored our castle and took a nearly full tram back downhill to the real world.

So far, the operator told us, the largest crowds turn up Friday and Saturday evenings. After dark, the rink is illuminated by floodlights until 9 p.m.

On a clear night, they skate under a full moon and above the twinkling lights of Tahoe City. It might rival a midwinter's day. But that's another trip.

GUIDEBOOK: Ice Skating in Squaw Valley

Olympic Ice Pavilion hours: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, year-round.

Costs: Including cable car and two-hour ice skating package: $14 for adults, $7 for children under 12. Cable car alone: $10 for adults, $5 for children; included in the price of all-day lift tickets for skiers--$38 for adults and $10 for children. Skating alone (including rental skates): $5 for adults, $3 for children. Operators will take ATM cards if the machine is working.

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