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WEEKEND ESCAPE

Some polish for tarnished South Tahoe

It stumbles here and there, but the lakeside town long known for its tacky tourist draws is working hard on rehabilitating its appeal.

October 26, 2003|Craig Nakano | Times Staff Writer

South Lake Tahoe, Calif. — The gondola took off with surprising swiftness, cables and pulleys whisking up the mountainside with silent precision.

From the horizon rose Lake Tahoe, a sapphire ringed in aquamarine and emerald. It was an uncommonly resplendent sight, but I couldn't help but divert my eyes back toward the gondola station, where we had left behind something even rarer: a second chance.

If ever there was a place that needed a second chance, it is South Lake Tahoe. While Incline Village on the north shore has grown into an affluent enclave and Squaw Valley is still fondly remembered as host of the 1960 Winter Olympics, the city of South Lake Tahoe and its Nevada neighbor, Stateline, never have been the resorts one might expect for a world-class destination.

Cheap motels, tacky T-shirt shops and unsightly high-rises have long been warts on the face of a natural beauty. Even as a child, when family vacations here were a summer ritual, I had trouble reconciling how our fresh-air haven of mountain hiking and lake swimming transformed into a nighttime landscape of smoky casinos and cheap buffets.

Now South Lake Tahoe has a second chance at respectability. Last month my partner, Todd, and I met my parents in south Tahoe, 60 miles southwest of Reno and 100 miles northeast of the Sacramento airport, which we chose because of lower fares. Our mission: to see $300 million worth of redevelopment, including a new gondola, greenbelts and pedestrian promenades, trendy shops and restaurants, and two Marriott lodges that opened less than a year ago.

The lodging scene has long been a problem, dominated as it was by four major casino-hotels and mostly charmless motor lodges strung along U.S. 50, also called Lake Tahoe Boulevard, the main thoroughfare. Travelers seeking luxury -- or even upper-mid-scale accommodations -- had few choices. When an Embassy Suites opened in 1990, regulars rejoiced.

The city's current redevelopment plan stipulates that approximately four old motel rooms must be bulldozed for every three new hotel rooms built. The effect is more open space and fewer -- but more expensive -- rooms.

We checked into the new kid on the block, the 332-room Marriott Grand Residence Club, a five-story "fractional ownership" condo-hotel hybrid. Marriott sells quarter-year stakes in "luxury" studio and one-, two- and three-bedroom suites. Unoccupied units are offered to the public just like hotel rooms.

Our studio, booked on the Marriott Web site for $128 a night with an AAA discount, was a half-step above the average midscale hotel. It had a well-appointed kitchen, an oversized bathtub with whirlpool jets, two DVD players and a gas fireplace magically burning inside one of two entertainment centers. Other features, such as granite counter tops and electronic climate control, were luxuries for a town where Formica and ceiling fans are standard.

Amenities, however, didn't prevent disappointments. The heavy-duty forest-colored carpeting looked similar to some in the Sacramento airport, and the furniture was more fit for a country townhome than a luxury residence -- not bad, just different from what we expected. The lobby? No ski-lodge grandeur here. The public areas were small and generic, an odd mishmash of Western, Southwest and could-be-anywhere decor.

Leave it to Mom and Dad to be our reality check. Friday night they drove from their time share to say hello and peek at our room.

"Oh," Mom said, surprised as she walked in. "Nice."

She was right: Quibbles aside, the Grand Residence Club is an improvement for this town. So is Marriott's Timber Lodge, the new 232-room hotel-and-time-share resort next door.

Lake vistas that impress

Saturday morning Todd and I walked to the Heavenly ski resort's new gondola, anchored between the lodges. The 2.4-mile line was completed three years ago as the first major element of the current redevelopment.

The view on the way up captured the splendor of a lake that's 22 miles long, 12 miles wide and prettier than I remembered. With a depth that reaches 1,685 feet, Tahoe is the third deepest lake in North America, inky black-blue in the center and vast enough to submerge the entire state in 14 inches of water.

It took only 12 minutes to gain 3,000 feet in elevation and reach the observation deck at 9,123 feet above sea level. Markers identified sights in every direction, including faraway Carson City, Nevada's capital, and Mt. Rose, whose summit is two miles above sea level.

From there the gondola traveled five minutes to the end of the line, Top Station, starting point for hiking trails. We huffed and puffed to a vista point, then cheerfully spoiled the fine workout with a good cheeseburger and a hearty steak sandwich at Top Station's restaurant.

We met my parents back at the base station and were off on a drive to Emerald Bay, where we spent an hour admiring a classic Tahoe postcard picture: a shimmering cove ringed with pines.

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