Chateau, a shopping center, recently opened in South
Lake Tahoe at the front of a space left partially
built for years known locally as the Hole. The
circular building will house a future pub and
LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — Seen from this lofty vantage point,
near the tree line atop the Van Sickle Trail, the south
shore divides into bookends of vivid primary colors, all
greens and blues. In the middle, like some scar or
deformity, lies a jagged expanse of civilization, garish
polychromatic swaths of development blending into one
another with only jutting casino high-rises and the slash
of Highway 50 serving as compass points.
as the eye might want to blot out the offending image,
Photoshop it out of existence and daub more verdancy onto
this screen-saver panorama, the reality of human
habitation, and its concomitant messiness, must be
if we are stuck with what we’ve wrought in South Lake
Tahoe — and though nature will ultimately win out in
future epochs, man’s meddling cannot easily be undone
— then why not make the best of what’s there? Why not
a civic makeover, one about, oh, several decades overdue?
yes, we all yearn to "Keep Tahoe Blue." But how
about this for a bumper-sticker sentiment: "Make
South Lake Tahoe New"?
incrementally, and not without its share of false starts
and dashed hopes, it’s happening.
Lake Tahoe, and to a lesser extent its sister city across
the border, Stateline, Nev., is shedding its image as a
haven for low-roller gamblers to the north and purveyor of
low-rent roadside dive motels for ski bums to the south.
Granted, both still are in evidence as you inch along with
the weekend traffic on Highway 50, yet you’ll also note
a significant increase in bulldozers, scaffolding and
workers in hard hats wielding tools of the building trade.
clatter, friends? It’s the sound of gentrification.
its epicenter is the patch of real estate on the west side
of the highway, mere yards from the Nevada side. This site
was once blight, what had been the long-abandoned
construction site that locals derisively call
"Ta-Hole." For years, the massive
concrete-and-rebar abyss served as the region’s largest
metaphor for the great recession of the late ‘00s, the
husk of what had been a half-billion-dollar dream of a
convention-center-hotel-retail development meant to make
South Lake Tahoe more than just a place to crash after a
tiring day of chasing powder.
harder to see the Hole these days because a shopping
center has interposed itself. Two months ago, the first
four stores at the Chateau at the Village opened for
business, its handsome, blocklong redwood and granite
facade obscuring the skeletal remains of the previous
hope," said Carol Chapin, executive director of the
Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority, "is that (the Chateau)
will attract financial investment in that area in the back
— the rest of The Hole."
gussied-up strip mall with a fancy foreign name is merely
the start of South Lake Tahoe’s attempts to address its
gaping maw of tackiness.
a poker chip’s toss from the Hole is perhaps the city’s
most celebrated modest success, a boutique hotel called
Basecamp, which has been lauded for its simple luxury by
both mainstream arbiters of taste (The New York Times:
"playful, arty, affordable") and hip
trendspotters (7x7 magazine: "rustic chic").
Opened two years ago from what essentially was a
snowboarder flophouse, Basecamp has now expanded, buying
and razing another rundown motor court, adding 24 rooms
(74 in all), meeting spaces and a hot tub large enough for
the entire Swedish ski team to take a soak.
is one of several re-imagined roadside dives. Another is
968 Park, an eco-friendly, LEED-certified boutique hotel
in which everything from the granite in the bathrooms to
the wood used in the elevator, from the kinetic metal
sculptures to the corten steel exterior, is recycled from
the remains of the previously hideous shell of a motor
the street toward the beach, the Landing Resort & Spa,
an upscale boutique hotel, opened less than a year ago and
has gained a five-star rating from various travel
organizations and recently was named by TripAdvisor as one
of the "World’s Top 10 Picture Perfect Lakeside
Hotels." In May, its small-plate restaurant, Jimmy’s,
hired celebrity chef Maria Elia. The Lake Tahoe Resort
Hotel at the base of Heavenly Mountain Resort is far from
"boutique," but it, too, has undergone a $5
million remodel. And Heavenly Village, the open-air mall
with the gondola running through it, has trended away from
chain restaurants to upscale eateries with live music
the street, in Stateline, Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course is
bulldozing nearly its entire site for a proposed 154-room
lodge, 10,000-square foot spa and 120-seat restaurant. And
the late, though not lamented, Horizon Casino high-rise is
undergoing a $60 million renovation and hopes to re-open
"by ski season" as the Hard Rock Casino. In
typical Nevada understatement, the renovation was kicked
off in August with the gimmick of having the South Lake
Tahoe SWAT team crash through the front doors for a
"training exercise"-cum-publicity stunt.
all the dust clears, South Lake Tahoe will be subtly
transformed. Not an extreme makeover, mind you. There
still are plenty of cut-rate, ski-bum haunts — lodging
encircling the elegant 968 Park include the Paradice
Motel, the Black Jack Inn and the Mark Twain Lodge — and
a Burger King remains cleverly disguised in Heavenly
Village near a fancy new Latin restaurant, Azul. But there’s
a newfound sense of refinement, a budding genteel vibe
wafting over the town.
already, have noticed.
we bought (a second dwelling) here in 2003, they kept
telling us things were going to change," said Ellen
Berkowitz, of Mill Valley. "We’ve been waiting a
husband, Alan, shook his head, muttered, "Old
souvenir shops, T-shirt shops, stuff like that."
things were fine, I guess, when they were first built in
the ‘60s for the Olympics in Squaw (Valley)," Ellen
added. "But it wasn’t supposed to be permanent. We
never used to bring people here because it just wasn’t
nice. But I’m heartened (now). We bring people from
other places in the country, and they’re
is this civic sprucing up more evident than at Basecamp,
which formerly was a snowboarder motel called The Block,
which welcomed guests by handing over a sixer of Pabst
Blue Ribbon along with the room key.
where others saw blight, Christian Strobel saw promise.
Strobel, former chief development officer at the Joie De
Vivre hotel chain, is an avid mountain biker who, when not
working in the San Francisco Bay Area, haunted the Tahoe
Rim Trail, which meant he also spent time in South Lake
Tahoe. He saw a need as big as the Hole.
don’t feel like you’re in nature when you’re in
South Lake Tahoe, and I’m trying to change that,"
Strobel said. "Listen, I love Tahoe, but there wasn’t
really any hotel that reflected what I think is the future
of Tahoe. South Lake has always revolved around the casino
industry, but its greatest asset is and has been the
nature and countryside around it. There are two ways I
could have looked at it: One, avoid, South Lake Tahoe
because it got run-down; or, two, believe that’s exactly
where the future of Tahoe should stem from."
chose to invest and revive. Strobel said his former bosses
at Joie De Vivre discouraged him, pointing out that South
Lake Tahoe is a bad bet because occupancy rates hover
around 40 percent and "when there is high demand,
many people rent out their homes."
he took the plunge, creating a hotel that reflected his
outdoor ethos. The name, he said, comes from traditional
base camps that mountain climbers encounter, a rustic
place of camaraderie among the guests who share a love of
nature and exploring.
for 50 people who want the experience of getting together
and celebrating the outdoors vs. staying in a run-down
roadside motel and maybe going to the casinos or
whatever," he said. "People seem to have
embraced it. We’re clear with people. We’re not a
resort. This is not an air-conditioned-corridor fancy
hotel. But it has character and soul."
wit and whimsy, Basecamp has taken the skeletal frame of a
typical roadside dive with long corridors and parking
underneath eaves and made it playful, chic and, with rates
starting at $89 a night, affordable. From the moment you
enter the lobby, which has a snarky "Get Lost"
sign above the doorway, you realize this is no Howard
Johnson. Warm and inviting, the lobby and dining area
features long, community tables hewn from reclaimed pine,
a two-seat bar that serves craft beer, a wood-lined patio
with a gas fire pit (they sell s’mores provisions for
$2) and, directly over the lobby, a hot tub.
kind of has a Brooklyn feel to it," meaning
hipsterish, but in a good way, said guest Kevin Coffer,
from New York City. He sat at the long dining table,
checking email and biting off squares of a blueberry
scone. "I think this is a good choice for
a certain type of traveler, that is, one who appreciates
artisan design work and homey touches but doesn’t need
to be pampered. Basecamp has themed rooms, among them the
Explorers Club, made for groups on multifamily trips. It
features four bunk beds — sleeps eight, in all, with 300
thread-count sheets — a high-definition projector and
screen with surround sound for epic Xbox battles, a
private patio and gear rack. At $199 a night, it’s the
most expensive, but expansive, room.
tricked out space is the "Great Indoors" room
($139 a night), which basically is camping indoors. The
bed is canopied with a canvas tarp, with a chandelier made
from four flashlights hanging above. Lanterns serve as
lamps, the carpet has the look and feel of grass, there’s
a faux rock-and-wood glowing campfire underneath wallpaper
that depicts a bucolic woodsy summer scene. When you turn
off the lights, the ceiling is illuminated with adhesive
less-skilled design hands, the "Great Indoors"
could’ve come off as hopelessly kitschy. But, somehow,
it works. Perhaps the key is Basecamp’s attention to
detail. Even in standard rooms (beginning at $89 a night),
small touches delight, such as real railroad spikes for
coat hangers and copies of the "Worst-Case Scenario
Survival Handbook" in the bedside drawer where other
motels put the Gideon Bible.
of the most important things about Basecamp," Strobel
said, "is that people hang out and make connections,
meet people they might explore with the next day."
they could just explore the Heavenly Village open-air
mall, as well as the new Chateau shopping center. Most of
the tacky T-shirt and souvenir stores have moved on to
other sectors of town. In addition to upscale chains such
as The North Face and Patagonia, South Lake Tahoe now
boasts two high-end sock boutiques. Its restaurant scene
has vastly improved in recent years. Though South Lake
Tahoe/Stateline always had nightclubs for younger
clientele (Opal Ultra Loungue and Blu), its restaurants
have lagged behind.
has filled the void for fine (read: expensive, white
tablecloth) dining, featuring Greek and regional
California cuisine. Example: wood-grilled lamb loin, with
goat’s curd, fava beans, peas and asparagus, $40.
pricey — and certainly less dressy — but just as high
quality is Base Camp Pizza, in the middle of Heavenly
Village, bordered by the miniature golf course, a movie
theater and the ubiquitous Starbucks. It offers an array
of gourmet pizza pies and an exhaustive craft-beer list
(Lost Coast Brewery’s tangerine wheat ale, anyone?) and,
in a nice touch, sends a waiter out periodically to hand
out free slices to passers-by and those who have lingered
to listen to the acoustic musicians who perform in lunch,
dinner and late-night shifts.
who wandered the lonely corridors of Heavenly Village in
past years cannot help but be taken aback by this newfound
bustle, which coincided with Base Camp Pizza’s 2012
opening. One recent lunch hour, a chanteuse belted out Ray
LaMontagne’s "Trouble," as pedestrians
inserted free slices into their mouths like debit cards
into ATMs. A festive air was palpable.