Slope off to California

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The snow is thin on the ground in the Sierra Nevada at the moment, but when it comes, Lake Tahoe is the place to ski. Ben Ross has an early-season preview

Steve McQueen might not have agreed, but driving the notoriously steep streets of San Francisco feels a teeny bit like navigating a ski slope. En route from Union Square, which sprouts a huge Christmas tree at this time of year, to the bars and restaurants of Fisherman's Wharf, I piloted my vast hire car down Powell Street via a series of brutal rollers, the squelchy suspension a reasonable facsimile of my own rather dodgy knees. At busy intersections – most without traffic lights – it was almost as if I'd reached the junction between two mountain pistes ("Danger: look up the slope!"). So I played it safe and gave way to those who knew the terrain far better than me.

This particular journey would have gone considerably faster had Lieutenant Bullitt been at the wheel, but he might not have been quite as concerned about getting to the bottom in one piece. I celebrated my safe arrival with some après-SUV carbs at Bistro Boudin: clam chowder in a bread bowl made from San Francisco sourdough, washed down with a soothing glass of Californian-brewed Lagunitas IPA. Over on Pier 39, sealions barked; beyond them, Alcatraz glowered in the dusky half light.

It's a solid three-and-a-half hours' drive from those sealions to the northern tip of Lake Tahoe – and it's a journey that starts well. The Bay Bridge over to Oakland is a stunning span, and the new eastern end, which opened in September and sparkles in the morning sunshine, is a gracious partner for the grittier, quake-damaged double-decker of old, which still rises alongside. Soon after that treat, though, the I-80 hits low-rise urban sprawl and the flatlands of the Sacramento Valley, with not a red run in sight. Be patient: as you drive onwards, the Sierra Nevada starts as a blue blur on the horizon and soon resolves itself into the rippled mountain range you've come to ski. It's time to leave the main road, give the local hub of Truckee a swerve, and point your vehicle upwards, to Northstar.

Perched close to the shore of Lake Tahoe, Northstar (1,929m) is a snug little place that gently projects a vision of homespun, small-town America to its skiing guests. The freshly cobbled streets at the centre of the pedestrianised main village tuck round an ice-rink, where parents watch anxiously as their children glide and tumble. In the evening, carol singers stroll in Pilgrim-era dress, crooning "Winter Wonderland" in close harmony, families huddle round firepits and people dressed as gingerbread men proffer free candy canes, just for the heck of it. If you want to warm up a little, helpful vendors in the cabana bars will sell you hot cocktails such as Dirty Snowman (cocoa, vanilla vodka, Irish cream and hazelnut liqueur) or, er, Knob Toddy (bourbon, lemon, honey and cloves).

Of course, the US always does service with a smile. At Northstar, young, enthusiastic, uniform-clad lift operators are forever greeting you with a cheerful "Enjoy the snow!" or "Ski safe!" or "Cool jacket, man!" (This last aside not directed at me, I hasten to add.) Imagine that happening in Alpine France ("Votre veste est très élégant, monsieur"). The most you can usually expect is a muttered Gallic curse as you fall off a clattering button lift.

The infrastructure at Northstar is also impressive: 97 runs, including plenty of gladed routes among the trees, plus several terrain parks and a superpipe for the sportier snowboarder, endorsed by Olympic legend Shaun White. It's all compact and easy to access, with a total of 20 lifts. And, fortunately for me, there are also snow-making facilities. Lots of snow-making facilities. Despite the blizzards that hit much of the US this month, it's been a slow start to the season way out west – and when I arrived 10 days ago, an extra flurry hadn't helped things on much.

Nevertheless, Northstar had managed to get five lifts open (there were 11 up and running by last weekend) and the man-made snow was groomed to perfection. I headed up Comstock Express and started a loop down Burnout (a relatively easy one-black-diamond trail cut through the trees) to the Backside Express chairlift, then to the summit of Mount Pluto (2,624m) once more, to carve down the Drifter blue run. There was also plenty of unchallenging skiing off the Vista and Zephyr Expresses – and when the snow is deeper, the options expand enormously, with a range of far more serious terrain available in the Lookout Mountain area.

Mid-mountain is where many of the lifts converge at Northstar, and where the Ritz-Carlton stakes its claim to skiing luxury. Here, the 170 rooms each have faux-log fires that spring into life at the flick of a switch, deep tubs in which to sooth your aching thighs, and balconies that overlook the white-sprinkled hills or deliver views of the lake. The central part of the hotel has been constructed around what looks like an enormous chimney, a slate-grey creation that reaches high above the foyer. Two wings radiate outwards from this point, housing such delights as the True North ski shop, a spa and the delicious Californian cuisine offered up by the Manzanita signature restaurant.

And then there's the ski concierge, of course.

Potter down from your room, and a helpful assistant is there with another sunny smile and your ski boots in hand. Your skis will already be laid out there on the slope, guarded by another beaming helper, ready for your short downhill run to the ski school. And at the end of the day? "I'll take those for you, sir. Why don't you grab some hot cider and gingerbread over there by the firepit? Nice jacket, by the way." This is stress-free skiing at its best.

The Ritz-Carlton even has its own gondola to the village: a chance for a beer or two at the Chocolate Bar or Tavern 6330, or a vast plate of sushi from Mikuni. But don't linger too long round yet another firepit (seriously, there are gas-fuelled versions of these everywhere in this part of California). The last lift back is at 10.30pm, and heaven – or rather, Heavenly – awaits.

Drive round the eastern shore of Lake Tahoe and you'll soon cross the state line into Nevada (the western, Californian, side has too many switchbacks to be used safely during the winter). Then, an hour or so later, you'll arrive at the city of South Lake Tahoe, back in California again. You can tell you've arrived because the gigantic casinos on the Nevada side (in an area imaginatively called Stateline) suddenly end and you're left with a series of low-rise blocks lined with ski shops and pizza places. Above, reached by an epic 15-minute gondola ride, lies the resort of Heavenly (2,190m), which is half in Nevada, half in California – indeed the gondola journey straddles the two. Sadly, the Californian side was not ready to receive visitors when I arrived. Whereas December 2012 mustered a total of more than four metres of snow, Heavenly has only received around 85cm so far this month.

Never mind: after parking up at the quirky, motel-style Basecamp Hotel (try the "Great Indoors" themed room, where you sleep in a tent next to your own fake campfire) I made my way up the mountain to try a short section of the California trail from the Tamarack Express before getting to grips with the Olympic run down to the bottom of the Stagecoach lift, favoured by Nevada-based locals as the easiest access to the resort. Despite the lightness of the snow cover, the runs were as beautifully groomed as they had been in Northstar, and the weather was perfect for skiing: bright and sunny. Again, the tougher stuff – including expert terrain at the Killebrew Canyons – will be available as soon as winter gets going properly and all 29 lifts are open. Don't be tempted under the rope before then, though: health-and-safety signs everywhere warn that your lift pass is in jeopardy if you try that sort of thing.

The most dreamy, dramatic element of Heavenly is, of course, the view. At the top of Dipper Express, Nevada's Carson Valley stretches out, grey-white below. Turn your head, though, and there's the expanse of Lake Tahoe to gawp at. Sometimes, just sometimes, it feels as if you're skiing right into it.

The Vail Resorts group runs Heavenly and Northstar, as well as the more gnarly Kirkwood, 50km south of Lake Tahoe. As I zipped up and down the runs, I'd occasionally be stopped by a green-clad photographer, anxious to photograph me for Epic Mix, a clever app for your smartphone which lists your achievements at all of Vail Resorts' ski mountains (there are four other US options to choose from in Colorado, and one each in Utah, Minnesota and Michigan) and then combines these with free on- and off-piste snaps. Skiing the combined equivalent of the height of Everest (8,848m) and taking Northstar's Zephyr lift eight times was about all I managed, but it's a nice touch that feeds your competitive side.

Things get a bit weird at times: the equivalent of the gingerbread men in Northstar turned out to be a cheery chap dressed as a cowboy proffering garlic fries at the bottom of the Stagecoach lift, while the après ski at Unbuckled at the Tamarack Lodge involved a pair of equally cheery, if rather underclad, ladies in pink furry boots dancing on a pair of podiums. But perched up there in the mountains, caught between two states, with blue skies bright above the slopes, it all makes a strange sort of sense. The snow, just for now, is mostly man-made, but skiing at Lake Tahoe is the real deal.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Ben Ross travelled as a guest of Virgin Holidays (0844 557 3859; virginholidays.co.uk), which offers a week in California for £1,549pp, based on two sharing, including Virgin Atlantic flights from Heathrow to San Francisco, one night's B&B at the Handlery Union Square (001 415 781 7800; sf.handlery.com) in San Francisco, three nights' room only at the Ritz Carlton (001 530 562 3000; ritzcarlton.com) in Northstar, three nights' B&B at Basecamp Hotel (001 530 208 0180; basecamphotels.com) in South Lake Tahoe and car hire. Based on 17 March departure. Ski and snowboard equipment is carried on Virgin Atlantic at no extra cost. To download Virgin Holidays' new digital ski and snowboard brochure go to: virginholidays.co.uk/destinations/ski-holidays

Skiing there

A six-day lift pass valid for Northstar and Heavenly costs from $426 (£284)

Eating there

Bistro Boudin, 160 Jefferson St, San Francisco (001 415 351 5561; bistroboudin.com).

Mikuni, 5001 Northstar Drive, North star (001 530 562 2188; mikunisushi.com).

More information

northstarcalifornia.com

skiheavenly.com

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