South Lake Tahoe’s in makeover mode

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.

Much 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 reckoned.

So 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, yes, we all yearn to “Keep Tahoe Blue.” But how about this for a bumper-sticker sentiment: “Make South Lake Tahoe New”?

Slowly, incrementally, and not without its share of false starts and dashed hopes, it’s happening.

South 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.

That clatter, friends? It’s the sound of gentrification.

And 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.

It’s 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, block-long redwood and granite facade obscuring the skeletal remains of the previous venture.

“The 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.”

A 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.

Not 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.

Basecamp 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 court.

Down 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 every evening.

Across 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 $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.

Once 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 new-found sense of refinement, a budding genteel vibe wafting over the town.

Travelers, already, have noticed.

“When 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 long time.”

Her husband, Alan, shook his head, muttered, “Old souvenir shops, T-shirt shops, stuff like that.”

“Those 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 impressed.”

‘Rustic chic’ finds a home

Nowhere 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.

But 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 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.

“You 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.”

He 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.”

Still, 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.

“It’s 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.”

With 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.

“It 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 people.”

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 of 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.

Another 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 glow-in-the-dark stars.

Under 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.

“One 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.”

Feast for the senses

Or 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.

Jimmy’s 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.

Less 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.

Anyone who wandered the lonely corridors of Heavenly Village in past years cannot help but be taken aback by this new-found 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.

“Our owner, Ted Kennedy, wanted music to draw people and provide jobs for the musicians around town,” Base Camp Pizza manager Kerry Walker said. “It grew from there. Now you can walk around the village and hear music everywhere.”

The strains didn’t quite reach across the street to the new shops at the Chateau – four now, with several spaces bearing hopeful “Coming Soon” signs, including Mr. P’s Taphouse Grill, the anchor tenant – but the sound of cash registers rang out.

At Bonanza Boot & Leather, manager Tara Brennan had just sold another $900 pair of tan suede cowboy boots. She formerly worked in Heavenly Village, at western-wear store High Chaparral.

“For five years, I used to look across the street and see the fencing around Ta-Hole, and it was depressing, a blight, pretty much,” she said. “It’s nice to know somebody with money finally came along.”

With South Lake Tahoe’s ambitions of catering to a higher income class, some feel a pang of nostalgia for the old days.

“Up and down the street, there used to be mom-and-pop souvenir shops,” said tourist Linda Darr of Placerville. “I gotta tell you, those were the shops I liked. That’s the way things go.”

Darr might be heartened to note that one of the tenants at the Chateau is a souvenir shop – though not named as such. Though the worker wore a polo shirt bearing the name “Up Shirt Creek” – and established nearby business with the same owner – the newly opened place has moved on up with this high falutin’ moniker: Black Bear Trading Co.


• Basecamp hotel: 4143 Cedar Ave. (530) 208-0180;

•  968 Park Hotel: 968 Park Ave. (855) 544-0968.

•  The Landing Resort & Spa: 4104 Lakeshore Blvd. (855) 700-5263.

•  Jimmy’s: 4104 Lakeshore Blvd. (855) 700-5263.

•  Base Camp Pizza Co.: 1001 Heavenly Village Way (530) 544-2273.

•  Azul Latin Kitchen: 1001 Heavenly Village Way (530) 541-2985