For the first time in what feels like, well, forever, California ski areas have extended their seasons—in a year that had them opening sooner than they had for the first time in many, many un-snow-capped moons.
"This year's ski season in California is on pace to be one of the longest seasons in the past several years due to the abundance of mountain snow that El Niño has delivered," says meteorologist Brian Lada of AccuWeather.com.
Take Tahoe Donner Downhill Ski Area—please! Last season it closed on Jan. 29, but this year it will be running through the middle of this month. Resorts from way up north down to Big Bear have announced the U.S. Forest Service has granted them permission to remain open past an original April 17 end date. Heck, a couple more storms and June Mountain may live up to its name.
"This season has been our best yet and we can't wait to see what else Mother Nature brings us [next] season," says Ashely Quadros, Tahoe Donner's marketing content coordinator.
It has gotten easier for Orange Countians to touch skis and snowboards to Reno-Lake Tahoe area snow. I found this out on March 16, when I rode on the inaugural Alaska Airlines flight from John Wayne Airport to Reno International (thanks to the airline, various Reno and Lake Tahoe visitor groups and the Abbi Agency).
I was even seen off by Snoopy! The Alaska Airlines (alaskaair.com) flight, which was delayed a bit due to a fuel gauge issue, was a trip. The pilot made a big loop around Catalina and came back to circle Orange County before heading north in the prop-driven craft. My puzzlement over what the hell was happening was suddenly erased when the pilot informed we'd be served a complimentary Cab from Ferrari Carano, one of my favorite Healdsburg wineries. I didn't even feel the plane touch down (ah, wino-ism!) and was greeted once inside the terminal by a pack of dogs (other than Snoopy).
No, Reno is not living up to the white trash reputation propagated by a certain mock police reality show from several Comedy Central seasons past. These are friendly service dogs in smocks that state "pet me" and their volunteer human handlers who meet passengers to soothe flight-frazzled nerves. Canines are not all that greet you. Squaw Valley Ski Resort (squawalpine.com) has a shop right there in the arrival terminal where, if you show them your plane ticket, you'll get a free lift ticket for use that same day.
This is most convenient to Orange Countians as the first, hour-and-change Alaska Airlines flight departs at 8 a.m. Other Reno and Tahoe resorts offer the same deal and some, like Mt. Rose, let you put $150 down on a season pass and make payments afterward for unlimited skiing the rest of this spring and all next winter. But my first stop was not to the snow but Peppermill Reno (peppermillreno.com), a mammoth resort and casino that's mostly decorated like a Caligula set. After dropping my bags, I managed to get lost in the labyrinth, eventually winding up in the arcade, which was begging for players at that hour.
Judging by the size of the room, a hundred of them could have fit with much space to spare. Dinner was in the resort's Bimini steak house, where I fulfilled my once-a-week beef quota with a 14-ounce boneless New York strip loin recommended by my ever-helpful waiter. Tip: If you order this, only eat half because I was so famished I finished the whole thing but felt as if it did not fully digest for two more days. Of course, the steamed asparagus, spinach and endive salad, rum battered coconut prawns and lump crabmeat stuffed mushrooms on the side probably did not help. What? I'm a growing boy!
Of course, I was not so full that I could not scarf down a huevos rancheros platter the next morning at the resort's Biscotti’s breakfast restaurant. It's pretty much the dish we all know so well—two eggs, black beans, tomatillo salsa, queso fresco, sour cream, guacamole, cilantro, lime wedges—but in addition to heated, handmade corn tortillas, they serve airy, deep-fried ones of the side. Fortunately, I was to walk that off during a tour of the whole place—including an owner's suite that was supposed to be unoccupied but wasn't—led by Dave Fuller. He's a longtime casino manager in Reno and Las Vegas who later in life made the switch to overseeing the hotel side as director of operations. It was amazing how many customers and regular guests he knew by name as we walked floor to floor.
I was supposed to go next to the National Automobile Museum (automuseum.org) in Reno, but I drove in the totally wrong direction, something I did not realize until I reached the Virginia City turnoff. By the time I turned around, I was already late for lunch date at a Reno gastropub that would even impress San Diegans.
The old world style ales and lagers at Brasserie Saint James (brasseriesaintjames.com) have won so many awards that a second location recently opened in San Francisco. But while you'll come for the suds, you'll stay for the grub. After my party of three started with house made pretzels, chicken wings, French fries and poutine with duck (or you can get pork or just plain), I figured we were done ordering. Nope, it was on to an entree, and my sandwich has to go down as one of the best I have ever vacuumed. The Cubano de Santiago is made up of mojo de ajo marinated pork, jamon, havarti, pickles and mustard hot pressed and with a side of the red and green cabbage Mama Salad (think cole slaw with avocado chunks). I washed all this down with a very generous six-glass sampler I had the waitress pick out. I'd drink them all again, but must confess I was most partial to the Daily Wages, a Saison/farmhouse ale (6.7 percent ABV). I was able to walk off (or stumble off) this meal with a walking tour of Reno's funky Midtown (downtownmakeover.com), where one will find still more breweries and distilleries as well as one-of-a-kind shops, including several that gear themselves for those outfitting (literally) for the August Burning Man festival (burningman.org) a couple hours away. The city adopts many of the large art pieces that would otherwise be burned down at the end of Burning Man and sprinkles them around town as public art, including some outside the Nevada Museum of Art (nevadaart.org).
Next it was off to South Lake Tahoe (tahoesouth.com), where I checked into the family friendly Lake Tahoe Resort Hotel (tahoeresorthotel.com). I'd actually stayed steps away from the place years ago, at Harveys, and my how that village has changed. I don't even recall there having been a village before. It kind of reminds me of the shops, entertainment and skiing facilities around Mammoth Mountain or on the north side of Lake Tahoe at Northstar. But South Lake Tahoe's seems less snooty, more everyman. That night brought drinks, dinner and magic show at Loft Theatre (thelofttahoe.com), which is a short walk from the resort and past a gondola that takes one up to the slopes. Turns out magician/illusionist Tony Clark hails from Los Angeles and the Magic Castle. After breakfast at the newest of three Red Hut Cafe (redhutcafe.com) locations and picking up rentals at the Rainbow Mountain shop (rainbowskirentals.com) on the way to the Heavenly parking lot, it was finally time to ski.
The snow was a tad icy in the late morning, but it quickly softened to powder by noon. The great thing about Heavenly, which is the only South Tahoe resort I'd skied before, is it suits every kind of alpine skiing: tree, trails, groomers, moguls, back country. Runs are wide enough where you never feel in danger of getting clipped by a newbie (or snowboarder). I recall looking from the bottom to the top of one run on the more rustic Nevada side and not seeing a single soul on it. The views of the lake on the California side and the Nevada flatland on the other were breathtaking.
I had dinner that night at Edgewood, an upscale restaurant on the grounds of the golf course of the same name that for the past 25 years has hosted the American Century Celebrity Golf Championship. That tournament has apparently led to frequent player Charles Barkley being unofficially adopted by South Tahoe, he is so beloved. At dinner, where I had an amazingly refined red snapper dish and white wine I could never afford, I sat across from Christina Procter, a longtime newspaperwoman who "graduated " to public relations. She represents Lake Tahoe Resort Hotel and, get this, its sister property the Anaheim Majestic Garden Hotel. It was the Sheraton back in the days when I was parking cars at Disneyland (back in the days when Disneyland had a parking lot). What I found most amazing about Edgewood was how the view from my table, even on a chilly winter night, reminded me of one I had during an intimate dinner on the sand in Kauai.
Perhaps it was that chill that caused me to wake up at 2 in the morning in my Lake Tahoe Resort Hotel because my chest was inflamed. (As I write this, I'm still saddled with the cough.) This was unfortunate because breakfast would be followed by a trip to Mt. Rose Ski Resort, which is 20 minutes or so from Reno, for more skiing. I thought a stop at CVS for one of those daytime/nighttime cold medicine combos would get me through the day, but I was just flat-out miserable. On one trip down a steep chute—with snow that was icy where it was not slushy, although that could have been my foul mood talking—I caught an edge and landed hard on the back of my head. Thank God for helmets.
I then skied down to the lodge for some Jameson's "cough medicine" and in no time had my head affixed to a barside table. I decided to go back and catch some Zzzzzz's in my Jeep rental. A car alarm woke me and I looked at the clock to see it was 4:40—and I'd be getting picked up for dinner in Reno back at the Peppermill in 20 minutes! Fortunately, the clock in the Jeep was two hours past the actual time. As I fumbled around the back of the SUV, I discovered why I had been in such a fog all day: I had not taken daytime cold medicine; I had actually purchased a two-pack of nighttime cold medicine. Doh!
Even though I left the resort on time, I had little time to make myself presentable for dinner at Wild River Grille. But owner Chuck Shapiro, who used to live in Orange, made me feel right at home. Or perhaps it was his locally sourced short ribs braised in a port and shallot demi glace. (Excellent. And yes, I did exceed my once-a-week beef limit. What happens in Reno ...) Dinner was followed by what my itinerary had listed as "7–9 p.m. Reno Bike Tour with Matt Lush." First of all—WTF?—I'm riding a bike in the dark in a city I barely know? B) Yes, that is an apt description of me, but it is still not polite to call this Matt a lush.
As it turned out, Matt Lush was my Abbi Agency host for the evening, and we and about 10 others would be peddling the Reno Brew Bike, which looks like what would result if a bar and a bicycle had a baby. Believe it or not, drinking in public is not allowed even in everything-goes Nevada, so our rowdy party rode the tandem bike from bar to bar for an ever slowing pub tour. I was proud to see a couple selections from Bootleggers of Fullerton in one of the joints. Now, doing a partially outdoor pub crawl while sick is not recommended, and neither is what I did next: force my eyes to remain open at Peppermill's EDGE Nightclub. Four dudes and I had a large private room that seats 12 and $250 Bulleit Rye bottle service that I surely would have appreciated more were I not feeling like such a wreck. Needless to say, my head hit the Peppermill pillow hard that night.
Indeed, I was illin' so hard I slept through my appointment for an 80 minute Bindi Herbal Body Rejuvenation at Peppermill's Spa Toscana the next morning. Instead I camped in the sauna and steam room on the men's side of the spa in hopes of breaking up what had the inside of my chest in a vice grip. Next it was off to my Weekly colleague Taylor Hamby's favorite place: Virginia City.
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You may know that name from teevee's Bonanza, and it still looks like you could film an episode there now. Several gray-haired townsfolk even dress the part. Separate mine and trolley tours of the 1800s mining boomtown were very interesting and highly recommended, as is the totally time trippy Bucket of Blood Saloon. Later it was on back to the Peppermill for a sweet and sour soup dinner at the bar of the Chi Chinese restaurant, a deposit of $4.99 in a casino slot machine (I kept my 1-cent voucher as a souvenir), a return engagement with that pillow and then an Alaska Airlines departure the next morning for home.
I'm already plotting a summer return the area because of all the cool things I learned happen in Reno-South Tahoe that time of year. In fact, the plan is to write about that in an upcoming print edition. But before that, I am going to get my eyes checked so I make sure to get the right medicine next time. Hang on, Snoopy, Snoopy hang on!