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South Tahoe: Variety Spices the Vacation Menu

by Mitch Kaplan

Lake Tahoe; photo courtesty of North Lake Tahoe Resort Association; by Dan Wittman Mark Twain’s ghost dallies mirthfully over South Lake Tahoe. But, I don’t think kids care about that.

Twain spent time on this magnificent lake - somewhere between his newspaperman’s stint in Virginia City, Nevada, and when he proclaimed "the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco." He marveled at the lake’s many splendors - its clarity, depth, pristine purity and magnificent mountainous surroundings, as well as the character-rich and congenial people who inhabited the place.

All of which remains true today.

But, the kids don’t care about that. The kids want to swim. Or play miniature golf. Or bike. Or ride the ski gondola. Or hit the video game rooms. Or cruise in a paddle-wheeler. Or ride jet skis.

All of which they can do in South Tahoe today. And more.

I first came to South Tahoe to ski. But most folks, it turns out, come here in summertime. It’s understandable. The weather’s magnificent - warm in daytime, cool at night. The scenery’s matchless - a huge, crystal clear lake dramatically surrounded by mountains. The activity range is endless - from any outdoors pursuit and scenic drives to shopping, theatre and casinos. And, the lodging choices run the full gamut from mom-and-pop motels and cabins to luxury condos and high-rise hotels.

Only one problem: what do to first?

In addition to pursuing already beloved outdoor activities - which for me would be golf, mountain biking and hiking - a trip to such a place affords the chance to try something new. I ventured to a place called Sorensen’s to learn to fly fish.

Sorensen Bears, photo by Mitch Kaplan Sorensen’s, located about 20 miles south of Tahoe in Hope Valley, is a family resort with lodging in cabins. When you see carved wooden bears "fishing" by a pond, well, the word "cute" comes to mind. The place is not only family-perfect, their rustic little café serves up some super grub (I dare you to resist the homemade pies).

I’d not come to stay, however, but to play. Sorensen’s folks can set you up with guides and outfitters of many ilks. They matched me and fellow traveler Dennis with Jim Crouse of Alpine Fly Fishing. Jim operates a private reserve, Pleasant Valley Fly Fishing Preserve, through which runs the East Fork Carson River and Pleasant Valley Creek.

Jim came right to the point. "I’m going to condense three-days’ learning into an hour. Don’t know if that’s going to be too effective." It wasn’t. Oh, Jim tried. He introduced us to casting, reviewed basic fish behavior, and helped us execute the basics. Nary a nibble. But, we did actually see a fish. It swim past us. (Haughtily, I thought.) No matter, Jim’s a master, and a place like Sorensen’s would be a primo facility at which kids could learn to fish - or to do almost anything outdoors.

I was more comfortable mountain biking at Camp Richardson, a lakeside resort near sparkling Emerald Bay. Kayaking had been on the agenda, but a serious wind rose up, causing high seas on the lake. But, hey, that’s a nice thing about Tahoe: when you can’t fulfill one activity, you substitute something equally as fun.

The biking is superb. Indeed, there’s something - from easy road biking to gnarly single track - for everyone. Our small group spanned a large range of cycling abilities, so we stuck to some wide and mostly flat off-roading, darting towards and away from the lakeshore. Even though we kept to relatively mild terrain, we boys (being boys) discovered a large, rocky mound. Did we spend fifteen minutes pedaling up the its back side and hurtling down the steep front? You know we did.

What’s true for the biking here is true, too, for the hiking. Something for everyone, from a short stroll to strutting strenuous backcountry stuff.

Because Dennis and I had gone fishing, we missed a lunch-and-gondola-ride at Heavenly Resort. We skiers know that the views from up there - heck even the views revealed while traveling up there - are fantastic. A definite must-do for those who haven’t skied Heavenly.

We didn’t miss the barbecue dinner at Zephyr Cove Resort, another combination facility. What does Zephyr combine? RV park, campground, cabin site, fishing spot, boat rental and jet ski place, beach, stables . . . you get the idea. Me, I just stood on the beach and watched the sunset.

The town of South Tahoe shares its location with Stateline, Nevada. And Nevada, of course, means gambling. Four large casinos line Stateline’s main drag. Now, I’m not into gambling. Don’t know a poker face from a roulette wheel. But, if you are, you’ll stay amused. Your kids, if they’re old enough and you bend that way, can inhabit the casinos’ arcades. Or, you can drop ‘em off at the new movie theater by the Heavenly gondola.

I did stay at the Horizon Hotel & Casino. The non-gambler in me was a bit concerned about being overwhelmed by the gambling environment. I did okay - even though I had to cross the main casino to travel nearly anywhere in the building (or sometimes, it seemed, to travel anywhere at all). One casino upside: terrific food, and plenty of it in many styles.

Fire + Ice, photo by Mitch Kaplan Indeed, South Tahoe satisfies just about any food preference. You can dine upscale at a place like Kalani (fantastic Hawaiian-influenced cuisine and sushi), or the "improvisational" Fire + Ice (food cooked with flair on an over-sized round open grill), or down-home at the Driftwood Café (fresh-squeezed OJ with breakfast) and Dixon’s (15 micro brews on tap). There’s pizza, inexpensive Mexican and fast food aplenty. Or, indulge in a lake dinner cruise. A visit to Cold Stone Creamery for homemade ice cream is just about required.

This South Tahoe visit demanded one more stop. The Tallac Historic Site, listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, holds eight turn-of-the-twentieth-century buildings. The Valhalla Arts & Music Festival is held here through July and August. Performances range from concerts in all styles and a much-locally-heralded singing contest to legitimate theatre and movie nights. They also stage a Renaissance Fair in June, and have an art gallery on-site. Nothing like a little high culture to round out the Tahoe experience.

"It is from experiences such as mine that we get our education of life," Mark Twain wrote. "We string them into jewels or into tinware, as we may choose."

The kids won’t care. But, they’ll surely string their Tahoe experiences into jewels.

More On . . .

General Info:
Alpine Fly Fishing:
Camp Richardson:
Zephyr Cove Resort:
Tallac Historic Site:

......Mitch Kaplan is the author of The Unofficial Guide to the Mid-Atlantic with Kids, The Cheapskate’s Guide to Myrtle Beach and The Golf Book of Lists. He is a contributor to The Unofficial Guide to New England & New York with Kids and to the annual guide Ski America & Canada.

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