California Rambling: Tale of two mountains

By From page A4 | January 20, 2014

In this conclusion of a three-part series, California Rambling continues to contrast Whistler Blackcomb with Heavenly/South Lake Tahoe. 

Chris, a server at Jimmy’s restaurant at South Lake Tahoe, went about his work preparing tables for the night’s guests. He brightened when asked about his new restaurant and described, in mouth-watering detail, its wood-fired Greek seafood and locally sourced California cuisine that is inspired by British celebrity chef, Maria Elia.

He continued his impromptu tour, pointing out the restaurant’s minimalist black, grey and cream interior that is accented by faux black ostrich and velvet seating, a bookend onyx u-shaped bar and an exposed glass vault containing 2,000 bottles of fine California and imported wine. Such details and opulence are new to the California side of South Lake Tahoe and have arrived with the recent opening of El Dorado County’s first five-star resort hotel, The Landing Resort and Spa.

In the first parts of this series, California Rambling looked at Whistler/Blackcomb, asking why it has won so many accolades as “the No. 1 mountain resort in North America,” whereas Heavenly/South Lake Tahoe — with greater assets and an earlier start — has not… at least until this year. Today, improvements at South Lake Tahoe are fulfilling a promise as dazzling as Lake Tahoe is blue.

The long-planned redevelopment of the Lake Shore/Stateline motel district (encompassed by Lake Tahoe Boulevard, Stateline Avenue, Lake Shore Boulevard and Park Avenue) will attain a significant milestone in late summer with the opening of The Chateau development adjacent to Harvey’s Lake Tahoe and across Lake Tahoe Boulevard from the Heavenly Gondola.

The Chateau’s concrete foundations had long stood uncompleted and exposed, smack dab in the middle of El Dorado County’s busiest visitor destination, a decaying concrete and rebar pit, partially obscured by plywood and cyclone construction fences and known locally as, “the hole.” That locals can imagine the hole soon being filled by 27,000 square feet of new stores and restaurants in addition to many other renovations and improvements now occurring at South Lake Tahoe, has renewed optimism.

This mountain resort grew haphazardly from the arrival of gaming in 1944 through the 1970s, as individual entrepreneurs developed properties, resulting in a hodge podge of sprawling Swiss Miss ticky tack that swallowed forests and views and worsened the impact on Lake Tahoe’s fabled purity.

That began to turn around in 1988 with the establishment of the South Tahoe Redevelopment Agency and in 1969 when the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) was started. Guidelines were set requiring reductions in foot print to build new commercial structures, resulting in older properties being removed and replaced by open space and permitting limited development. However, TRPA was often seen as obstructing change regardless of its benefit.

That turned around following the Angora fire in 2007, said the Lake Tahoe Visitor Authority’s Mike Frye, “TRPA is now streamlining the permitting processes and making it easier to rebuild.” He said their approach is now greening Lake Tahoe in two ways: by benefitting the environment and by reinvigorating the economy.  South Lake Tahoe’s Vision Plan is similarly contributing to “significant changes all over town.”

At Lake View Commons, the first phase of a redevelopment plan for a 56-acre recreation area along El Dorado Beach, inviting tiered public spaces provide areas to enjoy views of the lake and cultural events.  Frye attributed the meteoric growth of stand-up paddle boarding there as now branding Tahoe South as ‘Stand-up Paddle City,’ in the same way redevelopment of Huntington Beach helped it idealize its identity as Surf City USA.

From the El Tahoe area to Stateline, newly installed sidewalks have improved the streetscape. Under consideration is the redesign of how traffic moves through Tahoe South. Through-traffic will eventually be diverted around the Stateline area, allowing Lake Tahoe Boulevard to become a more inviting visitor core, with pedestrian-friendly plazas leading to outdoor bandstands, climbing walls and bike trails.

That’s good news to local merchant Casey Methovich whose Pedego Electric Bikes is located beside The Chateau development. He has observed that Tahoe visitors are increasingly parking their cars to enjoy riding on 12 miles of bike path out to Camp Richardson where they can see black bear catching kokanee salmon as they run up Taylor Creek. They’re also riding BlueGo, Tahoe South’s clean fuel transit system that provides free shuttle between tourist areas.

Adding rooms isn’t in the cards for Tahoe South. The destination now has more than 12,000 rooms and between 15,000 and 20,000 beds. What’s happening is that existing properties are being renovated. One of them is the 20-room Avalon, a classic “old Tahoe” property with granite facade and chateau-pitched roof that has now been gutted and given design-inspired interior spaces.

Another of El Dorado County’s big lodging renovations has been a $5 million redo of all 400 suites at the Lake Tahoe Resort Hotel (formerly the Embassy Suites). New owners at the Timber Cove Best Western have spent $4 million renovating its 260 rooms. Meanwhile, Tahoe Beach and Ski is in the third of a five-year renovation. Even the U.S. Forest Service is improving campgrounds at Camp Richardson, at a cost of $8 million.

On the Nevada side, Ridge Tahoe has now spent $10 million to renovate its rooms overlooking the Carson Valley, the Tahoe Beach Club is in the midst of a major redesign and “The Park Family,” which has owned property at Tahoe since 1896, has taken back the Horizon and is considering placing a five-star hotel at Edgewood.

Though, The Landing will forever hold claim as Tahoe South’s first five-star hotel. That should keep Chris busy at Jimmy’s, serving plates of carrot keftedes with pomegranate skordalia, rabbit and white bean baklava with lemon chard salad, pulled lamb burgers with beetroot tzatzki and tahini chocolate and lime cake, further improving the South Lake Tahoe experience and fulfilling its promise as one of the world’s best mountain resorts. More is found at and

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

John Poimiroo

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