Lake Tahoe: It is simply Heavenly

AS our eight-man gondola inched its way up the mountain, the neon-lit casinos, motels and wedding chapels lining the highway shrank to toytown proportions before vanishing entirely beneath a ridge.

At last Heavenly was living up to its name. We found ourselves in a hushed, Narnia-esque world, with bear tracks criss-crossing the pine forest, branches creaking under layers of snow and Lake Tahoe's sparkling waters, far below, reflecting the peaks of the Sierra Nevada range.

Holidaying in Heavenly on the south shore of Lake Tahoe, which straddles the California/Nevada border on America's west coast, means wholeheartedly embracing the resort's dual personality.

By day, our group was 3,000 metres above sea level skiing on immaculately-groomed runs, revelling in spectacular views of the cobalt blue lake on the Californian side and the rusty expanse of Nevada's desert on the other.

After dark, having abandoned any notion of traditional, gluhwein-fuelled apres-ski, we joined the punters, margaritas in hand, trying their luck on the green baize tables in giant, Vegas-style casinos clustered on the Nevada side of the state line.

At Harrah's, a casino-hotel with almost 5,000 square metres of gaming space, we watched Arthur "Arty" Hervey entertaining the highrollers, swingers and bachelor parties with a repertoire of hits ranging from Frank Sinatra to Justin Timberlake.

Playing the keyboard with one hand and mic in the other, Arty was obviously an old hand at enticing crowds away from blackjack and roulette tables. His rendition of Shaggy's Mr Boombastic had a group of pensioners swaying their hips as they fed coins into slot machines.

Across the road in California, where gambling is prohibited, nightlife tends to be much quieter. But the mountain terrain is enough to keep even the most adrenaline-hungry skier or boarder busy.

Near the top of the gondola is the beginners' area with a smattering of easy runs and a confidence-building "magic carpet", a conveyor belt that also serves as a lift for tobogganing and snowtubing.

Many of Heavenly's 94 runs are cruisy blues flanked by widely-spaced pines, making it an ideal for intermediates keen to tackle tree skiing for the first time.

Experts

Strictly for the experts are the double black diamond chutes in Mott and Killebrew canyons in Nevada, accessed via gates that close at 3pm. And over in California, the Gunbarrel, a mogul field that will make even hardiest thigh muscles scream for mercy.

For those who like their snow sports extreme, or "gnarly" as the locals say, four terrain parks provide a daunting assortment of kickers, table tops, boxes, rails and half pipes. And for super-size thrills and possibly spills, Heavenly boasts the biggest super pipe in the Tahoe area.

Luckily, our affable instructor Pat Medau, who runs a ski boot fitting service when he's not guiding people around the mountain, steered us away from pipes and icy moguls towards the best snow and almost empty slopes.

He also explained something that had baffled us since we rode our first chairlift in Heavenly: why there were dozens of bras, knickers and strings of pink plastic beads dangling from branches.

Apparently we had arrived soon after Mardi Gras week when those brave enough to strip off, or skilled enough to remove their underwear from beneath layers of ski gear while on a chairlift, fling it into the treetops to "decorate" the resort.

But you don't need to ski and party hard to have a great time in Heavenly.

One alternative to the casinos is to join the starry-eyed couples celebrating engagements and anniversaries on a sunset dinner cruise aboard the Tahoe Queen, a paddlewheel boat which steamed up and down the Mississippi in the early 20th century.

On another afternoon, our group swapped skis and snowboards for snowmobiles.

We roared along zig-zag trails, through forests of towering pines and aspens, to the top of the mountain to find such picture-perfect views of the lake that I half expected a stagehand to appear and start raising the backdrop.

Our ski instructor, Pat, warned us about Tahoe's abundant black bear population, and has caught several sifting through the his rubbish bins. The pristine backcountry is also home to chipmunks, racoons, bobcats and mountain lions.

But hopes of spotting some of the local wildlife were dashed by the combined din of revving Yamaha engines and shrieks as our group grappled with unfamiliar steering and brakes.

Tahoe, the Native American word for "big water", is the world's second biggest Alpine lake after Titicaca and, not surprisingly with its breathtaking scenery, one of America's most popular skiing areas.

Bought in 2002 by Vail Resorts, which also owns four ski areas in Colorado, Heavenly is the largest of seven resorts dotted around the lake, attracting around a million ski and board visitors each year.

Hit

Its proximity to hubs like San Francisco in California and Reno in Nevada make the resort a huge hit with day-trippers and weekenders as well as inter-state and long-haul visitors.

After the four-hour drive back to San Francisco to catch the flight home, we checked into the newly refurbished Sheraton Fisherman's Wharf for a 24-hour visit.

It's close to Pier 39, once a working fishing port and now packed with souvenir shops, street entertainers, cafes, restaurants and sunbathing sea lions.

On a dazzling spring day without a wisp of that soupy fog that so often shrouds the Golden Gate Bridge, we stretched our legs with a bike tour.

Despite killer hills like Lombard Street with eight switchback turns, San Francisco is very bike-friendly, offering routes with flattish or gently undulating terrain past key landmarks.

From Fisherman's Wharf, we followed the curve of the Bay, our guide Hans pointing out wetsuited swimmers at Aquatic Park braving chilly waters and close encounters with playful sea lions weighing the equivalent of three sumo wrestlers.

Around each corner we caught glimpses of the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge and eerie, semi-derelict cell blocks of Alcatraz Island, home to some of America's most notorious prisoners between 1934 and 1963.

San Francisco, with its thriving foodie scene, pulsating nightlife and laid-back, hippy vibe, was the perfect way to round off a rather Heavenly

TRAVEL FACTS

Rosamond Hutt was a guest of Virgin Holidays, which offers seven nights in California including Virgin Atlantic scheduled flights ex-Heathrow to San Francisco, five nights at the 5V Embassy Suites Hotel in South Lake Tahoe and two nights at the Sheraton Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, both on B&B, from 978.

Connecting flights ex-Manchester, Glasgow and Edinburgh start at 99 return.

Prices (based on two sharing standard room) include car hire and apply to early December departures.

Virgin Holidays reservations: 0844 557 3859 or www.virginholidays.co.uk, or visit one of 30 stores located in Debenhams and House of Fraser stores nationwide.

More information about snowmobiling and cruises available at www.zephyrcove.com

San Francisco CityPASS (40 for adults, 24 child) includes admission to five attractions, including Alcatraz, and unlimited cable car rides for seven days. See www.citypass.com/city/sanfrancisco

One of the luxury lodges.

Travel: No complaints to lodge after great Lakes break that ticks all the boxes