'Wooah!" said Jasmine, my 12-year-old daughter, gasping as we stopped to adjust gloves and goggles near the top of the Sky Express chairlift. It was the killer view, as much as the height at just over 10,000 feet, that caused her to catch her breath.
In one direction, beyond the Douglas fir and Ponderosa pine, lay Lake Tahoe, below a panorama of snowy peaks, glistening in the sunlight. In the other was a startling contrast: the flat, brown Nevada desert floor, far below, stretching out of sight behind a fold of mountain towards Carson City and Reno.
Heavenly has just celebrated its 50th birthday as a ski resort, with plenty to be cheerful about. These views, first enjoyed by the Washoe Indians, have been protected since Chris Kuraisa, owner of the local sporting goods store, put the first lift on the mountain in December 1955. And both the resort and the town of South Lake Tahoe are booming.
It is the installation of an eight-person gondola lift in the centre of South Lake Tahoe where most visitors stay that has proved the most significant catalyst to growth. It not only provides easy access to the slopes but has also sparked a big, tasteful redevelopment bringing new life downtown.
I was present, by chance, for the launch party five years ago. The wind closed the lift on opening day, leaving the dignitaries grounded. Now, at last, I know it's a thrilling ride. We were whisked in just minutes to Adventure Peak at more than 9,000 feet, enjoying sweeping views of the lake.
From here there is full access to 4,800 acres of mountain with a network of 30 chairlifts, evenly divided between California and Nevada, and five terrain parks for snowboarders. It's also a main meeting point on the mountain for ski and snowboard lessons (both highly recommended) from friendly local and Antipodean instructors. Other activities include tubing and snow biking, sledding and snowshoeing.
An equally dramatic, perhaps more surprising, consequence of the gondola has been the impact on South Lake Tahoe. I'm told it helped to convince Vail Resorts to buy Heavenly four years ago. Dozens of shops, galleries, restaurants, an ice rink, a multiplex cinema, spas and a Marriott hotel and apartments have sprung up around the base station in what's called Heavenly Village.
We stayed in neighbouring Embassy Suites, convenient and comfortable, offering well-appointed two-room suites with televisions, kitchenette with microwave and fridge, wireless internet connections, a splendid all-inclusive cooked-to-order breakfast, and free cocktails on our return from the slopes.
Outside the hotel, just across the street, lies Nevada, with the lure of slots, blackjack, poker and cabaret. To remain in California, turn left and you're in among the new shops with fashion labels prominent.
After our first day on the slopes, we bough silver-framed Scotts goggles and Hot Chillys, a stylish brand of thermals, for Jasmine at Sports LTD. She was able to wear the vest as an evening blouse later that evening at Kalani's, a smart Hawaiian restaurant offering sashimi and exotic rolls and a range of delicately spiced fish dishes.
The next evening, we turned right, and entered Harvey's Casino. We walked the gauntlet of neon, among whirring fruit machines and roulette wheels, and rode the lift to the 19th floor for dinner at the restaurant, suitably named 19, offering a Japanese flavour with Kobe meats.
Jasmine's favourite restaurant was Fire and Ice, a theatrical dining experience where you help yourself from a raw food bar and hand the bowl to chefs to stir-fry on a large circular grill. If you're not entranced by the knife play and bowl tossing around the grill, you can watch overhead monitors showing death-defying acrobatic thrills and spills from the slopes.
Returning to the hotel, Jasmine spotted, above us in the distance, the faint headlamps of snow-cats. They were grooming pistes sprayed by the snowmaking guns that can work through the night when needed.
We'd come to Heavenly to ski, but a warm, wet storm briefly shut down most of the lifts and turned conditions into - take your pick - mashed potato or Sierra cement. We therefore got a proper chance one afternoon to enjoy the shopping.
Jasmine needed a new pair of earrings after losing one of the studs in her recently pierced ears while on a chairlift - an offering to the snow gods, her New Zealand instructor had suggested. She soon found replacements in the shape of silver feet for $6 at High Chaparral, an American Indian clothing store.
At Up Shirt Creek she then struck gold by finding key rings featuring dice (an appropriate enough symbol for a casino town) that made perfect presents for her friends back in London, with whom she had recently formed a band named The Dice. (Their first demo, since you ask, is called "Something Better".)
To my relief, she was less interested in the high-fashion boutiques than the T-shirt shops. We watched the flooding of an ice rink, contemplated seeing King Kong at the eight-screen cinema and inspected the venue where you can go virtual bowling.
We also visited Raleys supermarketand picked up a menu from Bob Dog's pizza parlour. There was no time to try out any spa treatments, inhale at the oxygen bar or head for the 10-pin bowling alley.
I did, however, make a brief foray to a blackjack table in Harvey's casino, where I felt smug tripling in winnings the amount I had been prepared to lose. At the hotel, Jasmine drank a lemon and lime slush puppy, ate pretzels and gave her daily account of our adventures to the missing member of the family, her mum.
My spouse, a reluctant skier, prefers quality time with her parents in the Bay Area to snow. With day spas and decent food now on offer in Tahoe, next time, if and when we return, she'll probably want to join us.
Virgin Holidays (0871 222 0308; virginholidays.co.uk) offers a seven-night fly-drive holiday in Heavenly from £879 per person, based on two sharing, between 15 February and 25 March. The price includes return flights from Heathrow to San Francisco, car hire and seven nights' b&b at the five-star Embassy Suites Resort. Car taxes and insurance, equipment hire and lift passes cost extra
1 Shopping in Heavenly
WHY GO? It's not just the skiing and the spectacular views over Lake Tahoe that make Heavenly such an attractive option. You can get some serious retail therapy at this Californian ski resort, or, cross the state line and try your luck at the roulette tables in Reno, Nevada.
MORE INFORMATION? California Tourism (0906 577 0032, calls cost £1.50 per minute; www.visitcalifornia.com). Heavenly tourist board (skiheavenly.com)
Additional research by Leanne Meaney
2 Go gourmet in Megève
WHY GO? The pretty Savoyard resort of Megève became the French equivalent of St Moritz at the turn of the century, thanks to a string of glamorous visitors, including the Rothschild family. These days, its gourmet credentials attract just as many visitors as the skiing. Of the 90 or so restaurants dotted around the village and surrounding slopes no fewer than eight are Michelin-starred eateries.
MORE INFORMATION? Megève Tourism (00 33 4 50 21 27 28; www.megeve.com)
3 Monkey magic in Nagano
WHY GO? Japan's Nagano district hosted the Winter Olympics in 1998. This sprawling ski resort in the heart of the Japanese Alps is about an hour's bullet-train ride from Tokyo. Happo-one in the Hakuba Valley is one of the most popular areas to hit the slopes. But you can also visit local sake breweries, bathe in hot springs or visit Hell's Valley to see snow monkeys lolling in the warm waters.
MORE INFORMATION? Japan National Tourist Office (020-7734 6870; www.seejapan.co.uk)
4 Whistler and whale-watching
WHY GO? The Whistler/Blackcomb ski area is one of Canada's premier winter resorts. Whistler has one of the longest ski seasons: the official closing date is 4 June, which means that nature lovers can spend some time visiting Victoria. Here you can see grey whales during their migration in March. Or take a trip on the new Whistler Mountaineer scenic railway, scheduled to open on 1 May.
MORE INFORMATION? Tourism British Columbia (0906 871 5000, calls cost 75p per minute; hellobc.co.uk, www.tourismwhistler.com)
5 Olympic spirit in Sestriere
WHY GO? Sestriere may not be the obvious choice for the non-skier, but this year is different. With the neighbouring resorts of Sauze d'Oulx, Cesana, Bardonecchia, Pinerolo, Pragelato and Turin, it will be one of the hosts of the Olympic Winter Games between 10 and 26 February. As the location for the Alpine skiing events, Sestriere will be in the thick of the action, and Turin is just a train ride away.
MORE INFORMATION? Italian State Tourist Board (020-7408 1254; wwww.enit.it, torino2006.com)
6 Hot stuff in Bad Gastein
WHY GO? High in the Austrian Alps, wedged in a narrow gorge only 90 minutes from Salzburg, is Bad Gastein. This quintessential ski resort and spa town is home to 17 thermal springs. They produce millions of litres of mineral-enriched water, which bubbles up from deep under the ground and is pumped into baths found throughout the resort.
MORE INFORMATION? Bad Gastein Tourist Board (00 43 643 23393; gastein.com). Austrian National Tourist Office (0207-4403830; www.austria.info/uk)
7 Fiesta in the Sierra Nevada
WHY GO? For the perfect mixture of powder and partying, the Spanish ski resort of Sierra Nevada, Europe's most southerly mountain range, is only half an hour's drive from Granada and its beautiful Alhambra, which dates back to the 9th century. Visit during February to catch Granada's street carnival, which coincides with the beginning of Lent.
MORE INFORMATION? Spanish National Tourist Office (020-7486 8077; www.spain.info). Sierra Nevada
Tourist Office (00 34 9 02 708090; cetursa.es)
8 Super-active in Geilo
WHY GO? This classic Norwegian resort is located in the southerly peaks between the cities of Oslo and Bergen. And it's been a favourite ski destination for more than a century. Unusual xperiences off the slopes include ski-joring (skiing along while being towed by reindeer), snowshoe hikes, ice fishing, snow-mobiling and even kite-skiing.
MORE INFORMATION? Innovation Norway (020-7389 8800; www.visitnorway.com). Geilo tourist board (00 47 32 095 900; geilo.no/)
9 Wine tasting in Wanaka
WHY GO? Set in the South Island's southern Alps, Wanaka is one of New Zealand's most popular ski resorts. But the snow isn't the only attraction - just a few miles from the slopes you'll find the picturesque Rippon Vineyard, which opens daily for wine tastings. There you can sample fine Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Merlot and Osteiner, a wine that is produced exclusively at Rippon from a new grape variety.
MORE INFORMATION? Tourism New Zealand (0906 601 3601, calls cost 60p per minutes; www.newzealand.com).
Rippon Vineyard (00 64 344 38084, www.rippon.co.nz/)
10 Beach and snow in Dubai
WHY GO? For the sheer novelty of experiencing beach and snow within minutes of each other. Ski Dubai, which opened in September, is an 85m-high dome containing an indoor ski resort replete with green, blue, red and black runs, trees, log cabins and an ice maze. The five slopes are blanketed with 6,000 tons of artificial snow.
MORE INFORMATION? Dubai Tourism (020-7839 0580; www.dubaitourism.ae). Ski Dubai (skidxb.com/)Reuse content