Straddling the Nevada-California border, Lake Tahoe’s immense cobalt blue oval — unfrozen thanks to the lake’s depth — stands out against the snow-covered mountains like a colossal eye staring into heaven. This May, Tahoe’s wilderness will be even more accessible with JetBlue beginning daily direct flights between J.F.K. and Reno-Tahoe International Airport. The lake’s vastness can be absorbed only by being there — or better yet, skiing the dozen resorts surrounding it, their trails like frozen white waterfalls cutting through the fir-lined mountains. Lake Tahoe has two distinctive areas: the north side, where cowboy-chic cabins and semi-isolated shops and cafes overlook a quiet shoreline; and South Tahoe, which glitters with casinos, clubs and a slew of new upscale boutique hotels hovering above the lake. Skiing both sides in one weekend is an ambitious undertaking, but the lake’s wilderness spirit and surprising contrasts are compelling enough to pull you into its adventurous orbit.
1. History Lesson | 3 p.m.
Winter is a dramatic time to visit Donner Memorial State Park ($8 entry per vehicle) for a bracing insight into the travails of the 87 members of the Donner Party who were snowed in here during the winter of 1846-47 and resorted to cannibalism to survive. The Visitor’s Center gives a grim but inspiring overview of what Donner & Co. went through in their drive to overcome the High Sierras. It’s an especially touching and surreal experience to stand by the boulder that formed the wall of one of the party’s cabins with the nearby roar of Highway 80 drivers clearing the once-daunting Donner Pass in minutes.
2. Trampolines and Tubing | 4:30 p.m.
Beloved by the local younger set for its intimate slopes, night skiing and Camp Woodward year-round indoor training facility (trampolines! foam pits!), Boreal, perched on a scenic stretch of Donner Pass, is now celebrating its 50th year. Because of its five terrain parks, including the newly opened pirate-themed Neffland, Boreal is especially attractive to snowboarders, having hosted the United States Snowboarding Grand Prix in 2009. Boreal lights up its mile-long runs for night skiing, 3:30 to 9 p.m. Take the lift to 7,300 feet and wait for the stars to emerge above while carving through the fir trees back to the valley. You can also take the hills closer to ground on the dedicated snow-tubing park next to the parking lot (night lift ticket $29 or two-hour tubing session $34). Night skiers also have another great opportunity on Saturday when Squaw Valley, half an hour’s drive south on the Lake, illuminates its long runs with a new high contrast lighting system. (3 to 7 p.m. Lift tickets, $49)
3. Truckin’ North Shore | 7:30 p.m.
The old railroad town of Truckee, with its upscale hippie vibe, is the cultural and night-life nexus of the North Shore. For a rustic overview of this colorful town, tuck into Cottonwood Restaurant, a cozy spot perched cliffside above the Truckee River. The restaurant’s giant garlic romaine Caesar salad has become a local institution. Dinner for two around $65. For true epicures, there’s Trokay restaurant on Truckee’s main drag where the chef, John Weatherson, has found his haven from the Michelin-starred Restaurant Daniel in New York. For the last four years he and his wife, Nyna, have pioneered French-inspired, locally sourced cuisine such as venison with sunchoke, or green apple granita with celery, pomegranate and, yes, snow. A prix fixe dinner with wine pairing starts at $125. Still awake? Wander a block north into the cross hairs of Truckee nightlife: Moody’s Bistro Bar and Beats, in a cozy niche of the Victorian-era Truckee Hotel. The hotel is a creaky-planked affair that incongruously adjoins the sleek, hip, jazzy bar that could just as well be in Paris. Belly up for the smooth barrel-aged Negroni ($14) or hot-buttered rum from house-made ingredients ($9) to go with the colorful whatever-happens-happens local musical acts — Paul McCartney, a regular vacationer to Tahoe, has joined in a couple of times.
4. Northern Exposure | 9 a.m.
With a labyrinth of intermediate ski runs, the off-piste feel of the Backside, and some outstanding daredevil terrain parks — including a two-story halfpipe designed by Shaun White — Northstar is perhaps the most family friendly of Tahoe’s diverse slopes. Having just gone through a four-year $30 million upgrade and expansion after its purchase by Vail Resorts, there’s usually great snow even on a warm T-shirt ski day, thanks to state-of-the-art snow-making machines that look as if they came out of a “Star Wars” movie. One-day adult passes are $120.
5. Mid Mountain Splurge | 1 p.m.
One of Northstar’s tastiest additions has occurred mid mountain with the Ritz-Carlton. Pop off the skis, head into Manzanita restaurant and warm yourself by the open fire before dipping into refined yet hearty continental dishes made with local ingredients. The homemade tagliatelle with Sierra pine nuts has become one of its signature dishes for energizing the afternoon runs. If you’re not in a hurry, check out the lengthy wine list rich in Northern California grapes. Lunch for two around $90.
6. Haunting Drive | 6 p.m.
Get back in the car and head down Route 89 to South Lake Tahoe while there’s still daylight, as the road twisting along the west side of the lake has a haunting grandeur reminiscent of the movie “The Shining.” Time yourself so you can catch sunset at the Inspiration Point turnoff, 35 miles south of Northstar, perched next to a series of hairpin turns overlooking Emerald Bay. From this spot 600 feet above the shore you can watch the shadows of the Sierras engulf the lake’s electric blue waters and the stone tea house atop the crags of Fanette’s Island rising like a ghost ship on the bay.
7. On a Snowy Lane | 7 p.m.
Finding Cafe Fiore is half the fun, as the restaurant is a tiny alpine gingerbread cabin hidden in one of South Lake Tahoe’s snowy back lanes. Make a reservation and leave your “Godfather II” jokes behind as you are seated at one of the restaurant’s seven coveted tables. The chef, Gilberto Ramos, has spent the last two decades building up a loyal following with refined yet post-ski-worthy dishes such as fresh lobster over fettuccine, veal scaloppine with wild mushroom or the house special, scallops and other fresh seafood sautéed in lemon and wine and tossed with linguine. Dinner for two with wine is around $100.
8. Vegas by the Lake | 10 p.m.
The antidote to the sporting mountain life is a stroll from the tree-shrouded streets of South Lake Tahoe across the Nevada state line into the incongruity of the neon-lit mini Vegas-by-the-lake casino strip, where nonstop drinking, gambling and indoor smoking is probably a lot closer to the original 49ers’ vision of Tahoe than the ski resorts. Start at the mirrored high-rise of Harveys, a poker-chip’s throw from the state line, for old-school casino action, right down to surf and turf meals on the panoramic 19th floor (dinner was $114 for two). Then head up the block to the new Hard Rock Hotel & Casino that opened in January and check out signature retro bands like the Stone Foxes or the English Beat. To end the night on a Day-Glo note, cross the street to Opal Ultra Lounge ($10 admission for men, admission free for women until midnight), in the MontBleu Resort Casino & Spa, where strobes, a body painter, go-go dancers, bachelorette parties and their inevitable hangers-on swirl on the red concrete floor, many no-doubt powered by the genre-ambitious D.J.s and vodka Red Bull specials ($7).
9. Rude Awakening | 8 a.m.
Beloved by locals and virtually unknown by tourists, Rude Brothers Bagels doles out fresh-baked pastries, bagel sandwiches stuffed with anything from hummus to cranberry turkey ($4.35 to 6.95) and the sort of eccentrically exuberant smoothies — granola, peanut butter, ice cream and milk, anyone? ($4.95) — to fuel a day on the slopes. It’s a spacious, informal place operating out of a strip mall, so you don’t need to feel self-conscious wandering in here in ski boots.
10. States of Skiing | 9 a.m.
Heavenly Mountain Resort straddles the border between Nevada and California, with excellent varied terrain. Skiing between states is now easier thanks to the 2012 extension of Skyline Trail that runs across the ridge above the resort. For perhaps the most iconic run in Tahoe, ski underneath the Sky Express chairlift, with its broad exposure directly onto the lake. Day passes are $115.
11. Heavenly Haus | 5 p.m.
Tahoe’s cool California vibe comes with a Bavarian accent at the Himmel Haus’s après-ski scene. Snuggle next to the roaring fire amid Black Forest décor for a sampling of half a dozen tall drafts of Teutonic brews like Warsteiner, Hofbrau or Hacker-Pschorr ($10 to $12 a liter) and a haus pretzel topped with mustard, cheese and bacon onion jam ($6 a pair). A broad range of local characters breeze through here after the lifts close, and it’s a sociable place to exchange tall tales of the day on the mountain. Prost!
The vanguard of trendy remodeled lodges in South Lake Tahoe, the Landing Resort & Spa (4104 Lakeshore Boulevard, 530- 541-5263, thelandingtahoe.com) is a stylish upgrade of a 40-year-old motel overlooking the lake a 10-minute walk (or three-minute shuttle ride) from the Heavenly Gondola. Also has an outstanding Greek restaurant, Jimmy’s. Doubles start at $184, including resort fee.
The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe perched mid mountain on Northstar California Resort (13031 Ritz-Carlton Highlands Court, Truckee, 530-562-3000, ritzcarlton.com) sets the new standard of luxury on Tahoe. Steaming outdoor pools set beneath the hotel’s turreted contemporary version of classic National Park design and cozy outdoor fire pits heat up the panoramic views. Doubles start at $499, including resort fee.