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Shore bets

Editor's note: Last Sunday, we reported onthe first half of our circumnavigation of LakeTahoe's 72 miles of shoreline. Today, we concludewith a look at Cal-Neva Resort, theThunderbird Lodge and South Shore.

We've left Tahoe City behind as we continue on Highway 28, passing through Cedar Flat, Carnelian Bay, Kings Beach and Brockway. Soon we arrive at the Cal-Neva Resort in Crystal Bay, near the Crystal Bay Club and the Tahoe Biltmore.

The Cal-Neva straddles the California-Nevada state line. Literally, you can swim from state to state in the hotel pool. The property is steeped in legend, much of it involving celebrities, politicians and high rollers (Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack, Marilyn Monroe, Ava Gardner, Juliet Prowse, John and Bobby Kennedy), some of it involving organized crime (in the early 1960s, Chicago mobster Sam Giancana was a not-so-silent partner).

It was a drunken knock-down-drag-out between the persona-non-grata Giancana (he was banned from the property) and singer Phyllis McGuire in a cabin one night that ultimately led to the Nevada Gaming Control Board revoking Sinatra's gaming license.

"The Lady of the Lake" was built in 1928, burned down in 1937 and rebuilt. It went through a succession of refurbishings and owners, including Sinatra (1960 to 1963).

The Cal-Neva (2 Stateline Road, 800-225-6382 or 775-832-4000) changed hands again last February and a multimillion-dollar upgrade is now getting off the ground. "We definitely want to preserve the history of the property while improving guest services and amenities," insists managing director William Hanley.

Good plan, as it's the history that's the main draw. We get plenty of that in juicy detail from security manager Rick Talbot, who guides fascinating free tours at 7, 8 and 9 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, and at other times and days by special request (775-832-4000). He points out the cottage where Sinatra lived (No. 5) and the one that sheltered Marilyn during her visits (No. 3). Talbot also shows us the underground tunnel that once led from a hidden door near the old showroom to the closet in Sinatra's cabin. Be sure to ask him about Marilyn's ghost.

Tour or not, there are three highlights the drop-in visitor should see:

The 3,400-square-foot Indian Room is a tribute to the Washoe people who summered in the area for centuries. The former showroom is all plank walls, granite, wood floor and exposed beams, with 8-foot-tall kachina dolls and other Indian artifacts, and photos from the Cal-Neva's glory years.

Sinatra built the Frank Sinatra Celebrity Showroom to replace the antiquated Indian Room. It's a time capsule dominated by two murals and by a series of burgundy-colored plush velvet banquettes where guests sipped champagne while being entertained by the likes of Nat "King" Cole, Dean Martin, Judy Garland, Lena Horne and, of course, Sinatra. You can walk on the stage and test the acoustics.

The Circle Bar - which has appeared as a set in a few movies -- sits beneath a marvelous glass dome made of 7,000 pieces of hand-cut German crystal, flanked by two murals of Emerald Bay.

A few miles down the road is perhaps the best beach on the lake -- Sand Harbor State Park, a pristine stretch of white sand overlooking granite boulders huddled in the water. It's a wonderful picnic site and home to the annual Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival, Wednesday through Aug. 21 (800-747-4697).

Luxury on the lake

Soon we reach Incline Village, a town that oozes wealth and is well worth exploring if you're into seeing multimillion-dollar homes with views of the lake.

We turn right onto Country Club Drive and pull into the valet parking area of the Hyatt Regency (775-832-1234).

There are several things a day-tripper can do here without checking in, including a look-see at the spectacular lobby. The Hyatt group invested $60 million in the property in 2003, and the lobby is one of the places it shows.

Dining options include Sunday brunch at the four-star Lone Eagle Grill (10 a.m. to 3 p.m.), which could be a body double for an "Old Tahoe" lodge.

Action Water Sports (775-831-4386) on the beach rents kayaks, pedal boats, power boats and Seadoo personal watercraft.

The jewel, though, is the multimillion-dollar, 20,000-square-foot Stillwater Spa, the largest and most luxurious on the lake. For $24, you can use the spa facilities that include a steam room, sauna, showers and lots of attention to detail: background music, lockers, robes, coiled-rope baskets, shaving gear and a relaxation room with comfortable chairs in front of a fireplace.

Treatments are extra, of course, and there is a long menu of options - massages, facials, body wraps, scrubs and more. The 16 private-treatment rooms get a fair share of local walk-in business -- "Ten to 15 percent," says marketing director Terra Calegari. One of the two couples-only massage rooms has a stone fireplace, the other an oversize Jacuzzi. Life can be good.

The fabulous Thunderbird

Our next stop is on the outskirts of Incline Village, the incredible Thunderbird Lodge. The multi-structure estate was built between 1936 and 1940 by George Whittell Jr., a stubborn multimillionaire playboy who loved to party and gamble. A few things about the man: He once traveled with the Barnum & Bailey Circus; pulled $50 million of his fortune out of the stock market shortly before the crash of 1929 and bought 40,000 acres of lakeside property, which represented 27 miles of Nevada shoreline; owned airplanes and boats (including a 55-foot mahogany and brushed stainless-steel speedboat that still zips around the lake); traveled throughout Europe and Africa and was fluent in seven languages; owned a pet lion named Bill (among other exotic animals, including elephants); and regularly visited the Cal-Neva Lodge in search of fellow high rollers. These he would boat back to his lodge for all-night bouts of poker and drinking; one of the regulars at the card table was his neighbor, baseball Hall-of-Famer Ty Cobb. Whittell died in 1969 at age 87, a recluse who asked to be interred in his favorite ermine coat.

Chief of operations Frank Ackerman gave us the hour-and-15-minute tour that included a walk through a 600-foot-long tunnel blasted out of granite; it connects the gorgeous main house with the massive boathouse. The estate is a total eye-opener and the tour left us in awe.

The lodge is overseen by the nonprofit Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society, currently renovating parts of the estate. It will host three fund-raising dinners prepared by area chefs, today, Aug. 14 and Sept. 11 (775-832-8750 or www.thunderbirdlodge.org). Also, the lodge can be rented for special events (775-832-8753).

There's no parking at the lodge, so tours must be arranged off-property via reservation:

Meet at the Incline Village Visitors Bureau (800-468-2463) to be bused to and from the lodge. Tours are $25 general, $10 for ages 5 to 17.

As for these options, call for prices:

Aboard the "Sierra Cloud" catamaran out of the Hyatt Regency (800-553-3288 or 775-832-1234).

On Woodwind Cruises' classic motor yacht "Tahoe" out of the Tahoe Keys Marina (888-867-6394 or www.tahoeboatcruises.com)

On a Chameleon Charters' bus from Stateline on the South Shore (530-544-9186).

On Tuesdays, kayakers and bicyclists can show up at the lodge for tours.

A Heavenly interlude

After the tour, we meander down Highway 28 to where it joins Highway 50 and pull in to South Shore, home of the hotel-casinos. This is where the action is and where the crowds converge.

We begin by exploring Heavenly Village, where we find a warren of restaurants and shops selling everything from clothing and crafts to fine art and T-shirts.

A few places caught our eye: Rock Your World (530-542-2826), with extraordinary polished stones, jewelry and unusual greeting cards; Rain Urbana (530-544-1700) for its heavenly scented Blue Wick and Pacifica candles; Kalani's restaurant for the fresh Hawaiian fish (530-544-6100); and Fire & Ice restaurant for its unusual interaction between the cooks and patrons (530-542-6650). Whatever you do, stay out of the Nestle Toll House Cafe (530-543-3300) or the comforting aroma of freshly baked cookies will compel you to buy a dozen.

The nearby eight-passenger gondolas at Heavenly Village that whisk skiers to the mountaintop in winter is open for summertime rides (775-586-7000). There are two stops. At the first, we find a 14,000-square-foot observation deck with telescopes, picnic tables and a cafe. At the second, higher stop is a rock-climbing wall, access to hiking trails and another cafe.

We enjoy an eagle's view of the lake, the Carson Valley and Desolation Wilderness. The ride costs $24 general, $22 for ages 13 to 18 and $16 for ages 5 to 12.

And, finally, the clubs

The hotel-casinos dominate South Lake Tahoe, naturally, and continue their game of musical chairs. In summer 2001, the Harrah's group bought Harveys. Last month, the Federal Trade Commission gave Harrah's permission for its $5.2 billion purchase of the Caesars group - except for the Caesars at Lake Tahoe, which was recently bought by the owners of the Horizon.

Steadfastly sitting on the game board is tiny Bill's Casino (775-588-2455), which opened in 1987 and is owned by Harrah's. We like it for its quaint penny slot machines and William's Back Door Blues Club, but especially for one of the best deals in town - the "Dog and a Draft." For $2.50, we scored an Oscar Meyer hot dog and a draft beer or soda of our choice. Two other deals: the William, a one-pound burger for $8.99, and a 22-ounce marinated steak for $17.99.

Next door at Caesars is one of the South Shore's best-kept secrets -- the spa (775-586-3515, ext. 3450). For $20, walk-ins can buy a day pass to the spa and pool. The spa has a weight room, steam, sauna, cold plunge, Jacuzzi, lockers and a post-workout area with a big-screen TV. The pool is housed in a fake-rock grotto. "It's really a hidden hot spot," says publicist Shannon Johnson.

The sauna has left us a bit dehydrated, so we walk next door to the lobby area of Harrah's for chocolate malts and fruit smoothies (775-588-6611, ext. 2659). They hit the spot.

We take our fun where we find it, including the arcade at Harveys (775-588-6611, ext. 2638). It's loaded with overly loud video games, most of which involve driving cars at high speeds, or shooting aliens and bad guys. The Harveys arcade caters to teens and immature adults like us, while the Harrah's arcade is focused on families with younger children, and thus much gentler amusements (775-588-6611, ext. 2633).

When at Harveys, we usually eat at one of these two restaurants:

"Red Rocker" Sammy Hagar opened his Cabo Wabo Cantina in May 2004 (775-586-6847). Its rip-it-up, tequila-soaked style is so successful that the restaurant-bar was expanded big-time. We pause out front to admire one of the cars on display from Hagar's collection - a sleek black Ferrari Berlinetta Boxer, the co-star of Hagar's "I Can't Drive 55" video and the recent replacement for his red 427 Shelby Mustang GT500.

The Pacifica Seafood Buffet opened in May 2003 and hasn't had a slow night since (775-588-6611, ext. 2901). Some 300 items are on offer at a dozen specialty stations. Entrance into the $7.5 million, 20,000-square-foot restaurant is $29.99 general and $13.99 for ages 6-12. The buffet is open Thursdays through Sundays.

We go next door to the front of Embassy Suites, where Jaqueling Soohoo and her equine pals are stationed with Borges Carriage Rides (775-588-2953). We end our trip with a leisurely horse-drawn clip-clop along the lakeshore, getting one more perspective of the Lake Tahoe experience.

It sets us up for our next adventure -- a really long nap.

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