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Lake Tahoe, Nevada - “If you feel the urge to vomit, try to aim it in the bag,” said my guide, Brad, giving the seatbelts one last tug. “It can get a little bumpy up there.” Of all the intrepid après-ski activities I've tried over the years - bobsleigh, dog-sledding, and yodelling to name a few - this was certainly the most unusual.
I'd been belted into the cockpit of a vintage glider, and was about to take to the skies over Lake Tahoe on the California-Nevada border. Never mind the prospect of turbulence, my stomach was doing backflips before we'd even left the ground. There was, however, a logic to scaring myself silly. I'd come to Tahoe on a week-long ski safari and the glider flight gave me an opportunity to put the area into perspective.
The lake itself measures 22 miles end to end - and in all there are 15 ski hills dotted around its circumference. But it was the seven “biggies” that I was interested in: Heavenly, Sierra, Kirkwood, Mount Rose, Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadow and Northstar. My plan was to ski all seven of them in seven days. But first I needed to get my bearings - and that's where Brad and his wonderful flying machine came in.
Within seconds of the canopy clicking shut over our heads, we were airborne, floating smoothly over the Sierra Mountains. Below us, Tahoe and its environs unfurled like a three-dimensional map, giving me a clear indication of where all the resorts lay in relation to each other.
“That's Heavenly,” said Brad over my shoulder, as we banked gently left for a closer look. Pure white pistes were dangled over the mountain like newly washed shoelaces, skiers slowly meandering down them. Heavenly is the largest of Tahoe's resorts, boasting a whopping 94 runs. It's also the best known to British skiers, which had made it the logical starting point for my Californian ski odyssey.
Getting to Heavenly from San Francisco had been a cinch: after grabbing a hire car I simply pointed it at Highway 50. Less than four hours later I'd rolled into town and was ready to hit the slopes.
Rather than waste precious time fumbling about with the piste map, I hired a guide who took me straight to the good stuff. Of which there is a lot. “Everyone assumes that Heavenly is just an intermediate resort,” said my host, Mike, as we shuffled our way on to the gondola for the 10-minute ride up from town to the slopes. “But there are some seriously steep off-piste runs here that'll get your attention, too.”
Peering down out of the lift, I could see what he meant. Between the trees lay a tangle of tramlines made by intrepid powder hounds; even from the comfort of the gondola it was enough to get my palms sweating. I opted to stick to the groomed stuff. After all, with nearly 5,000 acres of skiable terrain spread over four interlinked “hubs”, there's enough on-piste action here to keep you occupied for months.
Of all Tahoe's resorts, Heavenly is the most scenic. Many of the runs look out over the lake, and as we cruised our way down Big Dipper it felt as though we could simply fly off the mountain and swoop out over the water - no glider necessary.
Another novel thing about this place is that the pistes straddle the state line, from California into Nevada. On the slopes, the main difference between each side is the view - lake vs desert - but when it comes to the après scene the change is a lot more noticeable.
Heavenly's town (officially known as South Lake Tahoe) spans the state line, too, and in select bars on the Nevada side smoking in public and gambling are both legal. As are brothels, in certain parts of the state - as Mike pointed out, while whisking me over to the nearby town of Genoa.
Walking up to the town's eponymous bar, I caught a waft of cigar smoke curling out through an open window; with the wind whipping up the snow into mini cyclones, the only thing missing was the sound of a cowboy's spurs on the wooden pavement.
As we sat at the bar with a line-up of baseball-cap-wearing, moustachioed locals, Mike regaled me with tales of the town's past. “Back in the 1800s this place was seriously rough,” he said, sipping the froth off a pint of Sierra Nevada. “A real mix of gunslingers, Bible-bashers and ladies of the night.”
It's all very civilised these days, of course - even more so back in South Lake Tahoe. Later that evening I headed back there, to Riva Grill in the marina, for some fresh fish tacos and a glass of Napa Valley white wine.
Although I was skiing for just one day at Heavenly, South Lake Tahoe made a great base for exploring resorts two and three on my list. Next up was Sierra, just 20 minutes down the road. Built in the Sixties by a legendary local character, Vern Sprock, Sierra is a blast from the past. Old-fashioned it might be, but Sierra has turned out some world-class winter athletes, three of whom scooped podiums at the last X Games in Aspen, including local girl Jamie Anderson who won slope-style gold.
It's great for beginners, too, with a specially shaped run for snowboarders that makes it easier to link turns, and a Star Wars-themed park for kids as young as three, where a large carved Yoda keeps an eye on everyone's progress. With its mix of serious terrain, mellow groomers and laid-back, “big family” atmosphere, Sierra is one place I've got earmarked for a return visit.
The other must-see resort in the South Tahoe area is Kirkwood - number three on my list - about half an hour further south. Like Sierra, this is much more of a locals' hill than Heavenly. It's a place where you're likely to get whole pistes to yourself. Grab the Cornice Express lift up to Wagon Wheel bowl and you'll find a bunch of black runs that will (as Mike from Heavenly would say) “make you pucker”. However, there's plenty of mellower stuff here, too, such as the bunch of cruisey blues closer to the resort base, bordered by evergreens swaying gently in the breeze.
Whichever way you tackle it, steep or steady, you can pack in some pretty hefty mileage here; lift queues are almost unheard of, especially on weekdays, so the only question is how long your thighs can hold out.
In my case, the answer was not quite long enough. After only three days I was already feeling the burn. But there was no time to rest: I had to kiss goodbye to Tahoe's South Shore and discover what the North had to offer.
Mount Rose was next, about 45 minutes' drive from South Lake Tahoe. This turned out to be the most scenic commute of the whole trip, as Highway 28 led me alongside the lake's eastern edge, where petrol-blue water lapped away gently at sandy shores the colour of butterscotch. Before long I was climbing up into the wooded hillsides, with Tahoe stretched out below - a view that reminded me of my glider ride a few days earlier. Then I swapped the car for my snowboard and headed for the hills. As with Heavenly, Mount Rose looks out over the Nevada desert. From the comfort of the aptly named Grandview Express lift I had the whole of the Truckee Meadows valley laid out before me; beyond, the town of Reno lay scattered on the valley floor like a collection of Lego.
As with Sierra and Kirkwood it's very much a day-skiers' hill, with no accommodation at the resort itself. Instead, most people commute from Reno - or, like me, from Heavenly. It might be smaller than some of its neighbours, but the terrain here is spectacular, particularly the series of chutes that take you between powder-packed boulders, where you have what seems like the whole of Nevada at your feet.
If you prefer your snow with a corduroy texture, there are some laid-back groomers leading off the Grandview chair, too. Traversing my way along the ridge, Lake Tahoe away to my left, I veered right, back towards the base - laying out huge carving turns all the way to the bottom.
Spacious slopes and a lack of lift queues became an abiding theme throughout the week. From Mount Rose I headed on to Squaw Valley, my base for the remaining three days. All week, South Tahoe locals had been talking about the difference in atmosphere between north and south, which I'd put down to native rivalry, but as I arrived in Squaw it was immediately apparent what they'd meant.
In contrast to up-tempo South Lake Tahoe - with its casinos, nightclubs and big hotels - the lake's northern resorts are more low key. At Squaw, for example, I found a purpose-built “village” with condominiums, restaurants and chi-chi boutiques - à la Canada's Whistler or Arc 1950 in France - with everything huddled around the resort base.
But forget all that. The real reason to come here is the ski-through Starbucks - said to be the first in North America - which opened last February at the Gold Coast mid-mountain station. Perched up at nearly 2,500m, it takes high street coffee to a whole new level. Come to Squaw between March and May, and there are pool parties at the nearby High Camp station - featuring barbecues, DJs and a sea of white bodies sporting comical goggle tans. Personally I prefer my semi-nudity a little less public, so after a brief pause to soak up the sights, I carried on notching up some more piste miles.
As with all of Tahoe's resorts, Squaw has a character all its own - with some challenging moguls and cliff-drops for those crazy enough to try that sort of thing. For the rest of us, there are 4,000 skiable acres to explore - including wide, open groomers where you can let it all hang out.
With my legs feeling the strain I dropped down into the nearby Resort at Squaw Creek for a much-needed massage - followed by a deliciously rare steak at the resort's Six Peaks Grille.
All too soon I was facing my penultimate day - with just two resorts left to explore. Next on my list was Alpine Meadows, another local-style hill with a laid-back Cali atmos', just 15 minutes from Squaw village. The ethos here is “ski what you can see”, and from the padded seat of the Summit chairlift I spied some off-piste blacks that were tempting me to play. Alpine is ideal if you're here in a mixed-ability group, as everything generally funnels back to the base - making it easy to regroup without reaching for your mobile phone.
With six resorts under my belt in as many days, there was only one left to complete my mountain septet: Northstar. Similar to Squaw, the purpose-built village here is pretty new - with quirky local eateries such as the Earthly Delights deli.
After loading up on home-made quiche I spent the final day riding an array of blues and blacks - my favourite being the aptly named Burnout. Seven resorts in seven days? My thighs will never be the same again.
LAKE TAHOE: NORTH VS SOUTH
Wherever you go in Tahoe, there are two things that you'll keep coming up against: good food and fabulous wines. With Napa Valley just two hours' drive away, there are some well-stocked cellars around the lake - not least at Stella (001 530 582 5655; cedarhousesporthotel.com/stella), in Truckee. About 20 minutes' drive from Northstar, this upscale eatery is like a scene from the film Sideways, with superb wine served alongside delicious dishes such as roasted bone marrow.
Another north Tahoe foodie haven is the Six Peaks Grille (001 530 581 6621; squawcreek.com) at Squaw Creek, where you can soak up epic views through the floor-to-ceiling windows.
In South Lake Tahoe, meanwhile, the nightlife is less resort-centric and more local. One of the best meals I had was at Lakeside Casino (001 775 588 7777; lakesideinn. com), in its Seventies-style restaurant, Latin Soul. The menu there is bang up to date - a blend of Mexican and Peruvian dishes infused with fresh citrus flavours.
If you feel the need to cut some rug, then the Montbleu Casino is the place (001 775 588 3515; mont bleuresort.com), with two nightclubs and regular pool parties.
Matt Carroll stayed at Forest Suites, in South Lake Tahoe (001 800 310 8057; forestsuites.com). Doubles start at US$160 (about R1 500), B&B.
In north Lake Tahoe, he stayed at The Village at Squaw Valley (001 530 584 1000; thevillageatsquaw.com). Doubles start at US$99, room only.
skiheavenly.com; sierraattahoe.com; kirkwood.com; mtrose.com; squaw.com; skialpine.com; northstarattahoe.com; California Tourism: visitcalifornia.com. Nevada Tourism: travelnevada.com - The Independent on Sunday