Spending our days in one of the most beautiful places in the world, Santa Barbarans don’t impress easily. Fortunately we live in California, where awe-inspiring destinations are never far away. Maybe eight hours isn’t exactly short, but considering the reward, Lake Tahoe might as well be around the corner. Deciding to turn Valentine’s Day into a weeklong celebration, my fiancée and I embarked for the mystical mountain lake. Aside from romance, thoughts of snowboarding and spas danced in our heads. Little could we imagine the slice of heaven waiting for us.
Shifting our attitudes along with the altitude, we felt elevated immediately upon arriving in South Lake Tahoe. Ravena and I, along with our two dogs, stayed with an old friend for the first four nights. Scott, a notorious foodie, took us to what he called “the nicest restaurant in town.” In the heart of South Lake Tahoe’s Heavenly Village, Kalani’s has a hip Polynesian elegance. My high-priced dish was a knockout: Pan-caramelized miso-yaki seabass with Thai basil mash, balsamic kula greens, and ponzu beurre blanc. The 2003 Domaine Carneros Pinot Noir hammered it home.
Cruising for lunch on Valentine’s Day, the sign for the Blue Water Bistro led us to a two-story building attached to a long dock. Gazing across the mountain-nestled lake, we giggled at the perfection of our discovery. The view only got sweeter as we indulged in crab and shrimp cocktail, a bountiful mound of fresh shellfish drizzled with basil oil. Later we visited another friend whose backyard opens up to endless wilderness. Feeling like figures in a Robert Frost poem, we ventured through the winter wonderland with our furry friends. Emerging upon a frozen pond deep in the woods, we reveled in the magic of Tahoe’s secluded splendor. After marinating in Scott’s hot tub, we finished a relaxing Valentine’s Day by braving the masses at the Thai Orchid restaurant. Their delicious curry was worth the wait.
The timing couldn’t have been better for me to break a 10-year absence from the slopes. Atop Heavenly, the largest mountain on the West Coast, my pleas of “Let it snow” turned into “Good God, it’s snowing!” I yelled with ecstasy as I tapped into the forgotten source of adrenaline. Once my goggles fogged up, things got tricky. I made the mistake of taking a glove off to fix them and narrowly avoided frostbite. Blindly bombing down empty runs, it wasn’t long before I was stranded on the Nevada side of the mountain. The lifts closed, forcing me to take two shuttles back to the California Lodge.
While I was freezing my tail off in the whiteout conditions, Ravena soaked up the benefits of the Body Essentials Spa in the Marriott Grand Residence. Accustomed as she is to a high standard of spas, Body Essentials came up a little short. The steam room didn’t work and the sauna wasn’t hot enough. The overall amenities reflected a lack of attention to detail. Redemption came in the form of the $110 Pamper Package. Administered by a wonderful therapist named Gina Fox, the treatment included a salt scrub, mini-facial, and aromatherapy massage. Winding down in the outdoor hot tub overlooking the slopes, Ravena realized nothing could detract from Tahoe’s state of unfettered bliss.
The next day I returned to Heavenly, this time with my friend Adam. Snow had fallen through the night, so hopes were high for a “bluebird powder day.” Our first run on the tree-filled “Orion” was revelational, but apparently not enough for the jaded Adam, who quickly lost interest in the “dust on crust.” He pried me away from a mountain full of powder and my free lift ticket (a $70 value) to go on a mysterious snowmobiling mission. A lot of the hardcore Tahoe locals employ auxiliary methods to have their fun away from the crowds. Adam and his buddy Mike purchased high-performance snowmobiles specifically to access pristine snowboarding zones. Ravena and I hopped on the back of the powerful machines with boards strapped to our packs. I had no idea I was about to have one of the peak experiences of my life.
Full-throttling it to the summit was quite a rush in itself. The wind cascaded across the barren tundra, accentuating the rugged elements. Appearing like a mirage, the secret powder bowl beckoned us to play. Mike, Adam, and I took turns descending the untracked face like something out of a dream. Drawing huge S-turns across the marshmallow surface made me feel like a pro shooting a video in Alaska. At the bottom we all laughed at our good fortune while sipping glasses of Navarro Rosé. Why would I be surprised Adam had just so happened to bring a bottle from our favorite Mendocino winery?
Friday came and we reluctantly started out of town. Giant snowflakes poured from the sky, adding to already-treacherous road conditions. Lacking chains or four-wheel drive, we deemed ourselves snowed-in. As fate would have it, we landed at a cute little chalet called the Heavenly Lodge. The place was loaded with local charm and was dog-friendly to boot. We came to find out that the unsuspecting lodge was a spa of sorts, too.
We’ve always found that extending trips by a day creates the space for some essential activities that would have been missed. Our enchanting Heavenly Lodge experience was capped off with an evening stroll to the casinos. Starting at Harrah’s, we crossed over to Harvey’s, where we humored ourselves with a $10 victory at the slots. Over Hurricanes and piña coladas at the Hard Rock Café, we reflected on what a dynamic vacation it had been. Whatever your desire, Lake Tahoe offers something for everyone. Beware, though: Scoring fresh powder can be addictive. 4·1·1Kalani’s, 1001 Heavenly Village Way #26, South Lake Tahoe, (530) 544-6100, kalanis.com. Blue Water Bistro, 3411 Lake Tahoe Blvd., South Lake Tahoe, (530) 541-0113. Thai Orchid, 2180 Lake Tahoe Blvd., South Lake Tahoe, (530) 544-5541. Heavenly, (775) 586-7000 or (800) HEAVENLY, skiheavenly.com. Body Essentials Spa, Marriott Grand Residence Club, 1001 Heavenly Village Way, South Lake Tahoe, (866) 545-4SPA or (530) 541-3791, tahoespa.com. Heavenly Lodge, 930 Park Ave., South Lake Tahoe, (800) 884-4920, heavenlylodgetahoe.com, firstname.lastname@example.org. Harrah’s, (800) HARRAHS, www.harrahs.com. Harvey’s, (775) 588-2411, harrahs.com/our_casinos/hlt. Hard Rock Café, in Harvey’s Casino, Stateline Ave., Stateline, NV, (775) 588‑6200, hardrock.com.