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Around the lake, the boom isn't about to quit

The economic boom of the 1990s may be over, but the golden eggs it laid around Lake Tahoe are just starting to hatch.

If you haven't been up the hill in awhile, prepare to be impressed: Tahoe has never looked better, and it's soon to look better yet.

More than $500 million in capital improvements are coming online this winter to put Tahoe on par as a ski destination with the upscale Colorado and Utah resorts that are its major competition. Changes large and small are everywhere in evidence, ranging from minor hotel renovations to major public works.

In Tahoe City, for example, new sidewalks and street lights have transformed a downtown that used to be a pedestrian's nightmare into a walker's delight. In Crystal Bay (which also has new hike-and-bike paths), the historic Cal-Neva Lodge and Biltmore Hotel are breathing new life after recent renovations. And just down the road in Incline Village, the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort & Casino has emerged from a $27 million interior makeover with what are perhaps the most visually stunning guest rooms and public spaces to be seen anywhere around the lake.

The Hyatt casino, with its two-sided fireplace and buffalo head hanging over the flat-screen monitors in the sports-book area, represents an especially determined break from the Vegas-inspired decor that still holds sway elsewhere around the lake.

"There's no other casino anywhere that has this lodgy, woodsy feeling," says Karen Vaughn, the resort's director of public relations.

The most visible changes in the region, however, are taking place in South Lake Tahoe and in Squaw Valley, where massive construction projects are changing the face of the land.

On the south shore, Marriott Vacation Club International has acquired development rights in two lodging complexes under construction on Highway 50 at Park Avenue, adjacent to the Embassy Suites hotel and just below the Heavenly ski resort. Both are part of an ambitious, $800 million south shore redevelopment plan approved in the early 1990s.

Heavenly had planned a hotel, to be called the Grand Summit, for the site, along with a timeshare condomium property. Mariott instead has reconceptualized both properties, placing them into branded vacation ownership programs. Its six-story, 262-unit Marriott Timber Lodge at Lake Tahoe and 199-unit Marriott Grand Residence Club, Lake Tahoe, scheduled to open in November 2002, will anchor the Village at Heavenly, an alpine-themed pedestrian complex with shopping, underground parking, an outdoor ice rink and a multiplex cinema.

Swooping down into the middle of it all is a new, $23 million gondola that already is whisking skiers and sightseers from Highway 50 to the slopes of the ski resort.

"For those of us who have been in Tahoe a long time, it's an extraordinary transformation," said Jan Vandermade, area director of marketing for the Mariott projects and a former marketing executive for Heavenly.

The impact of the Village on this congested strip of Highway 50 won't be felt until it opens late in 2002, but the Gondola at Heavenly already is changing skiers' habits. No longer do visitors staying at Embassy Suites, the casino hotels or other nearby lodgings have to take their cars or a shuttle bus to the Heavenly base area. Now they can just walk to the gondola.

Some 20 percent of Heavenly's skiers and snowboarders have been doing just that since the lift opened in December of last year, according to resort president Dennis Harmon.

"This has had a significant positive impact in terms of reducing the number of cars and shuttles driving to and from the mountain each day," he said.

A regional transit center, to open next year near the gondola base station, will serve shuttle buses and public transportation arriving from all around the lake, taking even more private vehicles off the road.

The gondola, meanwhile, is in itself quite an attraction. Its 138 eight-passenger cabins whisk skiers and sightseers up 2.4 miles of cable in about 12 minutes, offering to-die-for views all the way. A midstation observation deck provides a place to pause and let the vistas sink in: The 14,000-square-foot metal platform wraps like a doughnut around a granite outcropping to offer panoramic, bird's-eye perspectives.

The gondola and associated facilities are not just for skiers; they're intended for year-round use. The lift "gives people who aren't necessarily able to hike or ski a way to get up the mountain and enjoy the views," said Molly Cuffe, director of communications for Heavenly.

Gondola transportation is included in the price of an all-day Heavenly lift ticket. Nonskiing sightseers pay $20 -- $12 for children -- for the ride. In summer, hikers can step off the deck and walk away on any of three scenic trails radiating out from the mid-mountain area. Additional recreational facilities -- a climbing wall, Frisbee golf course, restaurant and 500-seat amphitheater -- are on the drawing boards.

No skiing is allowed from the observation deck level, but skiers and boarders can continue to the summit at 9,123 feet; from there it's just a short slide down to the Tamarack chair and access to dozens of Heavenly ski trails.

South of the lake, the Mountain Village at Kirkwood also is nearing completion; it includes a plaza surrounded by new retail and dining space, as well as an $18 million Mountain Club condominium hotel and three other new lodging complexes -- all of it geared to turn Kirkwood into a self-contained destination resort.

The other big project to debut this year is the much-'anticipated Village at Squaw Valley USA, a major development rising in the ski area's massive parking lot.

Like the new base-area developments at Heavenly and Kirkwood, this one, too, is designed to turn the ski resort into a year-round destination in the mold of Aspen or Vail, Colo., where visitors come to stay for several days or a week, rather than for just a few hours of skiing.

Intrawest Corp., the high-profile Canadian developer behind the project, has had huge success with similar base-area villages at Whistler, British Columbia; Mont Tremblant, Quebec; Keystone, Colo., and elsewhere.

The first phase of the upscale Village at Squaw Valley includes First Ascent, a ski-in, ski-out complex of 139 one-, two- and three-bedroom condominium homes scheduled to open by Christmas. Beginning in February, about 50 units will be available for rent to the public. Retail businesses, to open between Christmas and February, include Balboa Cafe, an offshoot of the San Francisco eatery; Mountain Hardware, a home furnishings and accessories store; Starbucks; and several sportswear and accessories stops.

A mosaic of plazas surrounding and connecting the various structures will be heated to keep them free of ice. Built into the design are numerous gathering places, including a stage and a fire pit.

"What we won't do is shuttle people through; we want them to stick around, to linger," construction manager Mark Gonda said during a hard-hat tour of the site in late November.

Phase II of the village, a two-building complex called 22 Station, also is under way. It will add 147 more homes, plus restaurants, shops, a nightclub and other venues by the end of 2002. The four-phase village is scheduled to be finished in four to five years.

A two-level underground parking garage, to open this season, will connect the various buildings -- and make available a perk never before seen in the Tahoe area: valet parking, at $33 a day.