Lake Tahoe is a vast blue bowl of snowmelt ringed by the Sierra Nevada mountains. The lake and surrounding Washoe Indian territory were first seen by the explorer John C. Fremont in 1844, and swarmed with silver prospectors just a few decades later. Affluent San Francisco families soon began building summer lodges, and the postwar boom brought highways, casinos on the Nevada side (poor Fredo took his last fishing trip here in “The Godfather Part II”) and the 1960 Winter Olympics.
The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe, has an ideal location at the base of the Northstar ski resort, five miles northwest of the lake. Most of the terrain here is eastern-facing, so it is protected from the prevailing winds and ski lifts rarely close because of inclement weather. There are plenty of broad boulevard and mogul runs, as well as terrain parks for the adventurous, plus a highly lauded ski school. The hotel sits right off the bunny slopes 200 yards from the main lift, and has a relaxed and friendly ski valet service.
The good news is that Lake Tahoe finally has a premier ski-in, ski-out resort. The bad news last season was that there wasn’t much snow. We seemed to catch the bulk of it on our drive up from San Francisco, a six- hour crawl that entailed tire chains and a lot of patience. The roaring fireplace just inside the porte-cochère was a welcome sight. But the next morning, the surrounding Martis Valley looked like a holiday card, and the hotel’s young employees were visibly elated.
With 170 accommodations, including 17 suites, this is a large resort that manages to feel relatively intimate, thanks to a grand octagonal lobby that acts as an informal living room. Here, couples and families nibble on sandwiches, drink hot chocolate, read books and play with gadgets all through the day. The Ritz Tahoe is exceptionally family-friendly in dining options and kids’ club activities: For an extra $100, the hotel will set up a small camping tent in your room for a little one to sleep in.
The lobby is dominated by a huge granite fireplace column with broad ceiling beams radiating from its top. Overall, the resort is a clever update of the grand mountain lodge tradition, with comfortable interiors of slate and cedar that offer floor-to-ceiling views of thousands of Jeffrey and ponderosa pines scattered across the valley.
Our 485-square-foot Deluxe Guest Room was accented with gentle reds, yellows and greens. A king-size bed came with a pleasantly firm mattress, and a comfortable leather reading chair sat in front of a fireplace that sprang to life at the flip of a switch. The well-lit bath had a twin vanity, a stand-alone shower and a generous soaking tub. A minor complaint: We could have used more vestibule space for crawling out of our ski clothes, which is never a decorous undertaking.
The main restaurant, Manzanita, serves the French- inspired California cuisine of Traci Des Jardins, a James Beard award winner. We started with a salad of heirloom tomatoes laced with burrata prior to enjoying a tender filet mignon with porcini mushrooms. For dessert, there was hot apple and huckleberry crisp with salted caramel ice cream. And as in most ski resort restaurants these days, putting on a knit sweater counted as dressing up.
Guests are also a gondola ride away from the Village at Northstar, located 1,000 feet below the hotel’s 6,900-foot elevation. (This isn’t like visiting Cusco or Lhasa, but you may want to consider taking it easy on your first day to adjust to the altitude.) A relatively new retail-pedestrian complex, the village is excellent for shopping and ice skating, but less so for dining. For that, I recommend the nearby north shore town of Truckee.
Service was solicitous throughout our stay. Overall, I am pleased to recommend this property and hope that it inspires some friendly new competition around Lake Tahoe.
The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe 93 Deluxe Guest Room, $650 (high season); One- bedroom Suite, $1,200. 13031 Ritz-Carlton Highlands Court, Truckee, California. Tel. (530) 562-3000. ritzcarlton.com