Eureka! 1st Place Award Winner: California’s Sugar Bowl

DIPPING INTO CALIFORNIA’S SECRET SUGAR BOWL

California’s Sugar Bowl – There’s money, and there’s old money. Sun Valley is old money. So are Vermont’s Mad River Glen, Utah’s Deer Valley, and Switzerland’s Gstaad and St. Moritz.

Sweet-secrets-(cover)You’ve heard of them all, but perhaps not of the slopes where California’s old money skis. Though it’s San Franciscans’ favorite mountain and contains a wealth of skiable terrain, deep snow, rich history, and the only snowbound village in America, I’d never heard anyone speak its name until I moved west.

Welcome to Sugar Bowl, more than 75 years old and founded by Austrian ski visionary Hannes Schroll, Walt Disney (who has a peak named after him), and many of the notable families of San Francisco. Like Sun Valley, it was frequented by Hollywood’s leading lights including Robert Stack, Jean Arthur, Claudette Colbert, Errol Flynn, and Marilyn Monroe.

This venerable and venerated ski area is a mix of private village and public base lodge, haute-Tyrolean and haute-Californian architecture, a historic lodge, and state-of-the-art sports center. Sugar Bowl also mixes ages and lifestyles; at the Village’s Belt Room Bar, the same San Francisco families who keep our museums open and our symphony thriving share stories with Sugar Bowl Ambassador and Olympian Daron Rahlves and his adrenalized cohorts.

It was frequented by Hollywood’s leading lights including Robert Stack, Jean Arthur, Claudette Colbert, Errol Flynn, and Marilyn Monroe.

My days at Sugar Bowl begin as its village residents and overnight visitors do—leaving the car and being escorted to the gondola. My skis and luggage are loaded into one cabin; I’m directed to another.

The gondola crosses the headwaters of the South Yuba River, the pristine trails of Royal Gorge cross-country ski resort, and the tracks of the Union Pacific Railroad. Ten minutes later, I stroll into the rustic lobby of the Sugar Bowl Lodge, the resort’s honored (and only) hotel.

Why the unusual transport? Because, apart from day trippers, who can drive to the base of Mount Judah, home owners and Lodge guests are staying in that snowbound village. The only ways in are on the gondola or on skis.

Sweet-Secrets2I love this. Like genuflecting in church or taking a cleansing breath before yoga, leaving the car behind helps leave the world behind. Arriving at a car-free, snow-covered village is like gliding through the looking glass into a quiet, peaceful, enchanted world.

I arrive too late to ski, but not to eat. For dinner at the Dining Room, the Lodge’s contemporary-cuisine restaurant, I enjoy pan-seared New Zealand venison deglazed with brandy and garnished with huckleberries. My vegetarian dining companion chooses Swiss chard stuffed with Asiago cheese, squash, Cipollini onions and tomatoes. We share a delicious bottle of 2014 Napa Valley Peju Sauvignon Blanc. We also share dessert: Meyer lemon tart garnished with mandarin, fresh mint, and crème anglaise.

After this most satisfying dinner, I chat with longtime residents, ski racers, and guests in the Lodge’s Belt Room Bar. Its name comes from the infamous ski races that took place at Sugar Bowl yearly from 1940 to 1975—a shiny silver buckle as the winner’s prize. On the way to my room, the bar’s famous Bloody Mary in hand, I study the black‑and‑whites of competitors past that line the pine-plank walls.

The Lodge is strictly old school, which means its 27 rooms tend toward small, tidy, and un-lavish. The old-timers figured you’re spending most of your off-slope time in the public spaces, enjoying the company of other guests. Although contemporary American hotel designers go in for ever-larger rooms and suites, the traditional view is the view I share.

Sweet-Secrets4Early next morn, after a quick breakfast at Village Espresso, I’m upward bound… all I have to do is decide where. Sugar Bowl, the ski area nobody outside California has heard of, has four peaks, 103 trails spread over 1,650 acres, and 13 lifts. As a firm believer in the efficacy of the warm-up run, I opt for the Disney Express to the top of Mt. Disney; then, to keep the theme going, ski onto Donald Duck. It’s beautifully groomed, and after a few turns, I find my rhythm. My ski song finds me. This time it’s MIC-KEY MO-US-E.

I opt for the Disney Express to the top of Mt. Disney; then, to keep the theme going, ski onto Donald Duck.

Next, I drop into the sustained steep of East Face. It’s freshly groomed and sparkles in the early morning light. Making short turns at first, toward the bottom, I open it up and head for Mt. Lincoln Express, leading to Sugar Bowl’s highest point, Mt. Lincoln’s 8,383-foot summit. As so often happens when skiing Tahoe, the view takes my breath away. It’s 360 degrees and includes beautiful Donner Lake. In its honor, I consider skiing Lakeview Run, an intermediate groomer. But since there are 10 inches of fresh powder, I go for Silver Belt ungroomed, still largely untrammeled, choose-your-own-adventure terrain. Somebody’s whooping… oh, that’s moi.

By now, hunger for sustenance is trumping hunger for turns, and I cruise back down to the Village Lodge. A light lunch at the hotel’s Belt Room Bar turns out to be not as light as I’d intended. I can’t resist their signature French onion soup, don’t resist the jalapeno fries, and by the time I get to the Angus beef cheeseburger, resistance has disappeared like the last snow of spring.

Sweet-Secrets1And so has my plan to ski Crow’s Nest Peak, the area’s newest lift-accessed mountain. Instead, I stroll through America’s only snowbound village.

It’s made up of 130 single-family homes, most of them architecturally rooted in Bavarian and Tyrolean style, sprinkled with just enough California Contemporary to remind you you’re in the Sierra, not the Alps.

After my post-prandial stroll, I head for Sporthaus, an exemplar of what can be accomplished with careful planning, deep-seated commitment, and 20 million American dollars. It’s a year-round athletic fitness-and-training facility that includes two spas, a yoga studio, cardio and weight-training resources, and a pool with dedicated lap lanes.

I could practice yoga, lift weights, and swim enough laps to delete all this food and wine from my body… or get a relaxing massage. Think I’ll go for the massage. I’ll ski Crow’s Nest tomorrow.