Wednesday, April 16, 2014

California rambling: Heading inside this winter

THE UNBUCKLE LODGE features music and go-go dancers. Photo courtesy Heavenly Mountain Resort

Heavenly Angels encourage skiers and boarders to Unbuckle, apres ski. Credit - Heavenly Mountain Resort

From page A4 | November 11, 2013 | Leave Comment

Snow began falling on El Dorado County’s three ski areas: Heavenly Mountain Resort, Kirkwood at Tahoe and Sierra-at-Tahoe the last week of October. With the West’s largest snowmaking system at Heavenly, snowflakes will continue to fall until the area opens — as planned presently — on Nov. 22. All that snow, however, may not be enough to keep skiers and boarders from heading inside this winter.

That’s because of what ski areas are doing to improve the après ski experience. This year, the biggest investment made at a ski area in El Dorado County is a $5 million investment been made at Sierra-at-Tahoe on U.S. 50 near Echo Summit, where a new base mountain facility is being built.

Located at the bottom of the Broadway trail, the new plaza is designed to become the nucleus of Sierra Resort’s skier services and is a short distance from Easy Rider, the ski area’s super-reassuring beginner lift.

The central feature of Sierra-at-Tahoe’s new plaza is a sprung structure containing 9,000 square feet of interior space, including an equipment demo center, expanded retail shop with a broader selection of snowsport fashion and gear, and Solstice, a restaurant that will feature fresh California fare, as well as California wines and craft beers.

Outside, a 20,000-square-foot deck will embrace the new base lodge, with conversation-inducing fire pits, lounge chairs, table service and live music performed at a concert and events venue. The concept is to induce guests to linger at day’s end and is similar to popular après ski plazas at Heavenly, Northstar and Squaw Valley USA.

However, this isn’t just an “après ski” phenomenon. Social base facilities of the type Sierra-at-Tahoe is building aren’t just for skiers and riders. They’re appreciated by people who don’t ski or snowboard, but who want to experience the ski lodge atmosphere.

Years ago, there wasn’t much thought given to ski area base facilities. Boxy base buildings were just large enough to handle average loads of skiers who’d crowd into them midday, to brown bag it or carry trays of chili dogs to cafeteria tables stacked high with extra articles of ski clothing guarded by non-skiing friends. If these non-skiers weren’t guarding a table, they were consigned to sit near a fireplace, reading or knitting while waiting for their skiing buddies or family members to return, then depart.

For the most part, ski area managers ignored what happened inside the lodge. After all, they reasoned, skiers and riders come here for what’s happening on the mountain, not at the base facility. But then they began to recognize that a successful base facility was a profit center that didn’t need to be dependent upon how well the mountain operation was doing.

Ski areas began to realize they weren’t just about snowplay, they were in the winter resort and recreation business.  That meant entertaining guests not just by operating ski lifts and grooming snow, but by providing a complete winter recreation experience.

Ski lodges and base facilities now have as much or more going on inside them, as is occurring on the mountain. Ice rinks at Squaw Valley and Northstar are surrounded by gas heaters or fire pits and served by waiters who deliver latte and hot chocolate orders, as music entertains and nearby attractions provide amusing diversions. Shops and art galleries engage these captive audiences, while restaurants and bars are filled with festive interactions. The nearest warm-weather comparisons to this is what happens at a major theme park. Major League Baseball comes close.

An example of this is experienced atop Heavenly’s gondola at Adventure Peak. Already featuring tubing and sledding, the mountaintop winter recreation area is reopening a 3,000-foot zip line this season. At nearby Tamarack Lodge, “the ultimate après ski party” happens Thursdays through Saturdays, from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. at “Unbuckle.” It’s an ongoing après ski experience, complete with go-go dancers, called the Heavenly Angels. At Lakeview Lodge on Heavenly’s California side, Gunbarrel Grille has been remodeled and is being reintroduced as “Booyah’s Exotic Burgers and Brews” featuring 97 micro brews, one for every run at Heavenly.

This kind of lively après ski scene is now attracting non-skiers and boarders to ski resorts who find they can have fun without ever going out onto the mountain. It’s also encouraging skiers and boarders come off the mountain whenever they’ve gotten enough runs in for the day, or when weather conditions are less than ideal.

Today’s high-speed lifts mean that snow skiers and boarders make a lot more runs in a day than they used to do, years ago.  Skiers and riders feel like they get their money’s worth from the cost of their lift tickets much quicker, because of high-speed and high-capacity lifts.

In the past, without an inviting place to gather, if skiers and riders got tired or it got cold or blustery, they’d head down the mountain or back to their cabin. Now, they’re heading inside. That’s great for El Dorado County’s skiers and riders, its ski areas and for the county. As, every time an après ski party cash register rings, we all benefit.

John Poimiroo of El Dorado Hills is a travel writer who specializes in California destinations.


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