Hotel California
Such a lovely place is Tahoe’s Northstar California
By lori Knowles

I’m poised to reveal a secret. It’s a secret so delicious I’m compelled to keep it—but for this job, I cannot. Such is the travel writer’s struggle… and folly. She finds a perfect place—a complete escape. And yett, because she has found it, she must blow it open to the world.

Forgive me, Californians. Your place in the sun has served Northstar California Resort to you for decades. You know it well, hiding as it does in Tahoe, in the midst of the High Sierra, not far from Truckee, and 194 miles from San Francisco. Warm by day. Flowing, fluttery snow by night. A cool California vibe that strums through it like the sounds of a Spanish guitar. But this soft ski light of yours has been largely unseen by Easterners, by Midwesterners, by Canadians, Brits, Japanese, and Europeans. “Northstar?” we say. “At Tahoe?” We squinch our noses. We know Heavenly. We know Squaw. But Northstar? “Never heard of it.”

My mission now is to tell those who’ve been missing out all about it. With reticence I will talk of the magnetic pull of this  Northstar—how it has reached out with some invisible power and pulled me to it. And will keep on pulling me to it.

I have found this perfect place by accident. I am traveling along the twisting roads of Tahoe in my rented SUV, sucking too much gas and swiveling my head to see the South Tahoe sights: the lake, the Harrah’s, the Harvey’s, the motels, and all those little wooden A-frame cabins. I become so completely entranced I whizz right by the Northstar entrance. By the time I stumble back upon it, darkness has fallen—no, blackness. Yet, up ahead in the distance, there it is… nestled. Yes, Northstar is nestled among mountains and snow and redwoods. Soft yellow lights glow in welcome. Welcome to the Hotel California.

Tahoe’s Northstar California

My room inside the Ritz-Carlton Lake Tahoe is bathed in the colors of caramel. The robe and the slippers and the special coffees are placed just so. The in-room stereo’s been cued to calm me. There are flames in the fireplace. The floor of the bath is warm, the marble cool. Heavy drapes blanket the view; when I draw them back I can see the lights of Northstar’s lift towers twinkling. I sleep soundly.

Then it is morning. Where is everyone? Northstar and its Ritz are silent. The lobby’s few patrons are but tiny dots in this great room’s immensity. The lobby is circular—like a massive wheel with a soaring stone fireplace as its hub. It is all wood and rock, styled to mimic one of those huge California trees. The center fireplace acts as its trunk. Interesting.

A peppy server brings a quirky green eggs and ham to the table. Manzanita, inside the Ritz, is known as one of the village’s finest dining establishments. Indeed, it tastes so fine I wolf down my breakfast a little too hastily. “Now,” I declare, “I am ready for a day of skiing.”

The Ritz’s ski concierge helps me on with my boots. Even though I don’t need help with my buckles, it is part of the experience. And it is divine. So I let him. Then Tim, my private guide, meets me outside on Northstar snow.

About Tim. He is Austrian. Wait, no… he is Norwegian. Irish? But with all that shaggy blonde hair he must be a surfer. He is Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart mixed with Sean Penn in Fast Times at Ridgemont High… so definitely American. The accent though, is Austrian. I’m perplexed. Turns out Tim is a Norwegian-slash-Irishman from Montana who works as a ski pro in Tahoe and speaks as if he is Austrian. It’s all very “out there” and “California.” Tim quotes regularly from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, from Hemingway, from Edgar Allen Poe—sometimes even from Woody Guthrie. “What are you reading?” Tim asks everyone.

Tim does his “Follow me and bend zee knees” routine as he tours me around Northstar. Instantly I am smitten by the mountain. We zoom up the Tahoe Zephyr Express and lollygag down a blue-squared screamer. We take the super fast Comstock Express to Northstar’s peak—the 8,610-foot tip of Mt. Pluto. Off East Ridge we ski black diamond chutes with names like Dutchman and, well, The Chute. We needle through bumps—loads and loads and loads of California bumps that are soft, even in January. Finally we make it to Martis Camp, which I declare Nirvana.

Yes, Nirvana. Martis Camp is akin to a private ski area within a ski area. Indeed, Martis Camp is private—its public slopes feed the private luxury community of the same name, which Barron’s ranks as North Lake Tahoe’s best place to own a second home. Its inviting timber clubhouse snuggles at the base of Northstar’s Martis  Camp Express.

But all this good fortune isn’t why I love Martis. I love it for its tree skiing, plain and simple. The Sugar Pine and Lookout glades at Northstar’s Martis Camp keep me occupied for hours. They are so perfectly spaced, and the snow between them so soft and subtle, that I don’t want to go anywhere else. For a skier such as me, this place is perfect.

Now I’ve told you my secret. There is more, of course. Northstar has a reputation as being family-friendly. I can see why. Plenty of its slopes roll and uplift and meander, like snakes slithering through an undulating California forest. Kids love that kind of twisted adventure. Northstar team athlete and Olympic redhead Shaun White helped design its 22-foot superpipe. There’s a 9,000-square-foot skating rink in the Village and a teen center. Plus, Northstar’s signature s’mores—ooey-gooey chocolate, graham, and marshmallow—are served outside by the Village fires every day at three. I’ve never met a kid who isn’t smitten by a s’more.

As for the Village at Northstar, it’s, umm… sleepy. Upscale and sleepy. Its pedestrian-only streets were designed in the 2000s by East West Partners and are now occupied by Vail Resorts. Indeed, the Village has a Vail feel—better yet, the velvet touch of Beaver Creek.

But my most treasured memory of skiing Northstar is of its warmth. Yes, the warmth of its fires. The warmth of its wood and rustic chic. The warmth of its snow, which consistently reminds me of butter-soft, ego-building spring skiing. And best of all, the warmth of the Northstar climate. Average on-snow daytime temperature is a pleasant 43°F, and that’s with 350 average inches of snow per season. When it snows, it really snows at Northstar. Then it’s sunny and nice again.

As I said, I’m livin’ it up at this Hotel California.  Such a lovely place. Perfect.