In My Neighborhood: Lake Tahoe Is So Not Las Vegas

By Lisa Bellavin

A couple weeks ago, we spent two columns on the wonders of Las Vegas. There’s really nothing like Las Vegas, and that’s a good thing. If there was a Las Vegas in every state, each with its own Caesar’s Palace, Cirque du Soleil show, and Wayne Newton, it would be too, too much.

I prefer Lake Tahoe. It’s as diverse as any place on earth. It’s beautiful and active in summer and winter. The north shore’s totally secluded and isolated, and the south shore’s right off the highway and up for anything.

No matter what they like to do, families or singles can probably do it in Tahoe. They can hike and bike and zipline and kayak and windsurf all day, and gamble and party at casinos and clubs all night – in two states, no less. Look, I’m in Nevada! Walk five feet. Look, now I’m in California! Try that in Vegas.

Here’s my list of not-to-miss spots for every season.

Best Casino – Lakeside Inn and Casino: Friendly, fun and not too corporate, Lakeside is where the locals go when they get gambling fever. The rooms and restaurants are impressive for the price, and it has some really great old-Tahoe charm (definition: orange-and-purple shag-carpet ‘70s décor, a cone-shaped red fireplace in the middle of the room, and a soundtrack of Eagles, Eagles, Jackson Browne, and Eagles). At $19.99, the beloved steak-and-lobster dinner is always a hit, and the Tavern Bar in the lower level has the area’s best sports viewing and betting.

Best Transportation – Reno-Tahoe Airport Shuttle: Don’t rent a car when visiting Tahoe unless you’re hitting the backcountry or hiking in the Tahoe National Forest. Transportation in and around South Lake Tahoe is generally clean and timely. The Reno-Tahoe Airport Shuttle takes you directly from the airport to all main cities surrounding the lake starting at $100 for two passengers, and most ski resorts run free and efficient shuttles from hotels and bus stops to the mountain. The South Lake Tahoe transit system, BlueGo, can get you almost anyplace you need to be within the city limits, and a day pass starts at $5. So take the bus – and save your money for the slots.

Best Views – Heavenly Resort Gondola: It’s one of the most touristy things on the list, but the Heavenly Scenic Gondola makes any Tahoe trip complete. It’s a 2.4-mile ride up the mountain, with panoramic views along the way. At the top, the Observation Deck supplies a 360-degree view of Carson Valley, Desolation Wilderness and a full-on view of the lake – one of the world’s most beautiful sights in any season. Fares range from $39 for adults to $21 for children, and kids under four are free.

Best Lunch – Sprouts Café: Eat where the locals eat! South Lake Tahoe residents love Sprouts, where you can get delicious and fresh vegetarian foods, usually for less than $10. Try a glass of freshly squeezed juice and the Rice Bowl Cadillac for enough healthy energy to power any day hike or mountain cruise. (Sprouts Café, 3123 Harrison Ave, South Lake Tahoe. Open daily 8 a.m.-9 p.m.)

28212_405509281725_7425591_nBest Mountain Resort – Sierra-at-Tahoe: If you’re looking for a place where everyone in your group can find something they like to do, whether or not they’re into snow sports, Sierra is the place. A favorite among locals and the home mountain of gold-medal Olympians Hannah Teter, Jamie Anderson and Maddie Bowman, Sierra is also the choice of many other sponsored athletes and celebrities. If you’re looking for a real triple-black-diamond experience, the Sierra Park Crew does a phenomenal job of building progression parks throughout the season. Novices will find plenty of green and blue trails to cruise on, and lessons and tubing are available for little ones. The patio bars are stocked with friendly folks and local brews, making it easy for you relax in the California sun. Equipment rentals are available, and there’s even a daycare. What more could you ask for?

Best Off-Piste Drink Spot – The Divided Sky: A favorite spot of local ski and snowboard bums and local and international mountain crews due to its location in Meyers, an intersecting point between Sierra-at-Tahoe and Kirkwood, The Divided Sky is a great alternative to the hustle and bustle of the more touristy South Lake. A hearty menu, plentiful drinks and regular live music make it the perfect stop on your way back to town after skiing, snowboarding or hiking. Opens at 2 p.m. daily.

beautiful-romantic-restaurantMost Romantic Dinner – Café Fiore: Rated as one of the “Best Places to Kiss in Northern California,” Café Fiore is very small and intimate. How small? It only has seven tables! Café Fiore is a wine-lovers’ paradise where it’s imperative to arrive thirsty and save room for the homemade white-chocolate ice cream. Located off Ski Run Boulevard in the middle of the city, Café Fiore is easily accessible from most popular hotels and resorts. Just be sure to make reservations and bring your credit card; it’s a tad pricey, but worth it for that kiss, right?

deflate_01-1One-of-a-Kind Adventure – Lake Tahoe Balloons: Any interest in combining breakfast, boating, world-class sightseeing, and hot-air ballooning, all before most people wake up? You bet! Hosts Tammy and Harley Hoy and their crew offer a trip on the world’s only Coast Guard-certified balloon-launch-and-recover vessel. In layman’s terms, they take guests out to the middle of the lake on a 21-ton, two-deck catamaran, blow up a hot-air balloon, and launch and land it right on the deck of the boat in the middle of the water. Simply watching the crew in operation is worth the trip itself, but once you’re up 8,000 to 10,000 feet above the Tahoe Basin, you’ll be nothing less than breathless. Nothing shows you Tahoe like this. It’s truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

For the History Buff – Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival: Do you enjoy the fine arts? Sunsets? Drinks on the beach? If you answered yes to any of these questions, the annual Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival is for you. Held nightly through Aug. 24 at Sand Harbor State Park, the festival treats patrons to a lakeside rendition of Shakespeare’s As You Like It. It’s billed as “The Most Scenic Venue in the World”. Tickets run from $15-$85 and shows begin at 7:30 p.m.

Best Hikes – All of the above, but seriously, Mt. Tallac: Tahoe is all about hikes. There’s far too many to complete in a week’s vacation, and everyone has a favorite. As far as challenges and rewards go, you can’t do much better than Mt. Tallac. Climbing Mt. Tallac is not for the (literal) faint of heart, but it offers a major payoff at the end in the form of a truly breathtaking view of the lake. You see what you imagine the Donner Party would have seen, had they made it that far. Just be prepared for extremes in weather and temperature, pack lots of water, and don’t forget your camera – because we want to see pictures.

Lisa Bellavin is community-relations and social-media manager at Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection.