Readers frequently ask where is the one place I haven't been that I really want to go. After 24 years as a travel writer, the list is dwindling. There are a few I haven't ticked off my bucket list: Cambodia (mostly to see the ruins of Angkor Wat); Kenya (especially during migration season), and India (who doesn't want to see the Taj Mahal?).
As for the United States, last year, I made it to the destination at the top of my most wanted list: serenely beautiful Lake Tahoe, although, sadly, the visit was cut short by last fall's forest fires (more on that later).
If you're into statistics on Tahoe, whose name is derived from the Washoe Indian word "da ow," meaning lake, here they are: 12 miles wide, 22 miles long; North America's largest Alpine lake (with 72 miles of shoreline), and after Crater Lake in Oregon, its deepest (maximum depth, 1,645 feet).
On its eastern shore is Nevada; on its western, California, with the state line running through the lake.
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Harder to pinpoint is its sheer physical magnificence, nestled in the often snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountain range and boasting such famous beauty spots as Emerald and Carnelian Bays.
Then there's the almost mythical aura surrounding the lake, which has captivated visitors from Mark Twain, who first saw it while working as a Nevada newspaperman in the 1860s, to Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack, who frequented the infamous Cal-Neva Lodge a century later.
On this trip, my two best friends and I eschewed the casino-laden Nevada side in favor of the more placid California side, with stops in Tahoe City, Squaw Valley and Truckee. With some of America's best scenery to explore and no rigid schedule, our Tahoe adventure was the perfect girls' getaway.
First up was Tahoe City on the lake's northern end at the headwaters of the Truckee River. It's not a city but a picturesque hamlet with a collection of rainbow-hued bungalows that are home to restaurants, bars, shops and accommodations. Located 14 miles southeast of the Donner Pass, Tahoe City's altitude of 6, 250 feet takes a bit of getting used to if you're from flatter lands. .
Getting acclimated is an excuse for taking things at a leisurely pace as we did, starting our first morning with breakfast at Rosie's Café, where bountiful breakfast platters are served in a rustic setting. Along with freshly brewed coffee, our friendly server offered suggestions for places to visit.
One was the Tahoe Maritime Museum, a gem of a place that was equal parts fact and fantasy. You'll learn that while Tahoe remains one of the world's clearest lakes, it is, nonetheless, ecologically threatened, losing about a foot of visibility every year.
Still, I was more drawn by the fantasy, particularly the legend of the water babies, playful creatures that lived at Cave Rock on the Nevada side. According to Washoe lore, the smaller lakes surrounding Tahoe were formed after one of the weasel brothers stole the hair of a water baby, whose brethren magically flooded the area until the weasel brothers gave the hair back. In later years, the Washoe people claimed to know the mood of the water babies by watching the rising and falling shoreline.
Before we knew it, it was time for lunch on the patio at Sunnyside, a venerable lakeside resort. With glasses of California wine in hand, we toasted a golden sheen over the lake. The afternoon stretched lazily on and we ordered more wine and watched the gulls circling above us.
A visit to the quirky Indian Basket Museum preceded our return to Tahoe City where we had dinner reservations at the heartily recommended Christy Hill Restaurant. (Are you beginning to sense a theme here?) This time, there was a silver glow over the lake. That, and the seasonal California cuisine, proved so delightful that we returned several nights later.
Squaw Valley and Truckee
Just a 20-minute drive from Tahoe City is Squaw Valley, best known as the home of the 1960 Winter Olympics. This time of year, it's a virtual paradise for skiers and snow boarders who, with one ticket, can get access to 6,000 acres of Alpine meadows and 270 ski trails.
With an annual snowfall of 450 inches, Squaw Valley lures skiers of every level during the season, which is the day before Thanksgiving to mid-May.
You can go high, to the 6,200-foot Village at Squaw Valley — with its array of shopping, restaurant and accommodations options — or higher, a ride on the aerial tram to the 8,200-foot summit, High Camp. Once on top, admire the views from the poolside café, and ski — or the rest of the year, hike — one of the trails from the Camp to the Village.
If you love small town America, don't miss Truckee, a collection of 19th-century buildings housing one-of-a-kind shops, bars and restaurants. Named after a Paiute chief, Truckee began as a railroad town and is still a stop on the Amtrak line from Chicago to San Francisco. The old depot is one of those buildings that belong in every coffee table book of Americana.
Truckee's attractions range from Donner Lake and Memorial Park just outside of town to the Old Jail Museum, a block off the main drag. Dating from 1875, it's one of the West's few remaining 19th-century jailhouses, and over the years, has housed desperadoes such as Baby Face Nelson and "Machine Gun" Kelly, who sampled its hospitality after getting caught shoplifting in the Truckee General Store.
Don't leave town without having breakfast at the original Squeeze-In, where the line snakes out the door and down the main street. Once inside the tiny café, where every surface area is covered in scrawled messages from admirers, you'll join other devotees of dishes such as the Racy Tracy, a gargantuan omelet featured on the Food Network's Throwdown with Bobby Flay.
In fact, the TV chef was honored with his own menu dish, the Spanish Flay, thinly diced red bell peppers and potatoes sautéed with smoked paprika in butter and folded with jack cheese into seasoned eggs. Pair it with a goldfish bowl-sized Bloody Mary and you're good to go.
As it turned out, we weren't good to go. Heading south to Emerald Bay, a National Natural Landmark, we found the ominous gray tinge to the sky and acrid smell of burning brush from the wild fires that had been slightly noticeable at the northern end of the lake was getting stronger. After a quick consultation, we reluctantly decided to end our trip earlier than planned.
Driving back to Sacramento, we got a glimpse of Emerald Bay through a gray curtain of haze. Peering through the thick veil, I could just make out the granite cliffs and pine and cedar forests that encircled the bay. It was beautiful in a black-and-white-movie kind of way.
So, now when people ask me where is the one place you really want to go, I'll have an answer: back to Emerald Bay on a sunny day to see the Technicolor version.