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A vintner and a chef introduced each glass of wine and each dish of food during the five-course Mountain Table dinner atop the Northstar California ski resort. A Merryvale Vineyards employee raved about the Starmont Carneros Merlot, saying, “Merlot has gotten a bad name,” and praised the dessert wine, the Antigua California Muscat.
Executive chef Aramis Torres explained his creations, including the Wagyu ribeye, a grilled lamb chop and “Duck Three Ways.” (Yes, one of them was foie gras.)
The meal’s highlight, however, was its location: Zephyr Lodge, with floor-to-ceiling windows providing a panoramic view of the sun setting on the Sierra.
The Mountain Table dinner, which is served every few weeks in winter, is part of Northstar’s evolution into Lake Tahoe’s most luxurious ski resort. While other ski resorts have fine dining and high-quality hotels, none of them has the luxury options of Northstar. The Truckee-area resort is home to the region’s first “Five Diamond” hotel, the Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe, in addition to extensive dining and lodging choices at Village at Northstar.
During the last ski season, Northstar introduced its “Platinum” line of services, including valet parking, champagne lunch on the mountain and a ticket that lets you skip lift lines. Some of the services are intended to remove the hassle associated with crowded ski resorts, and others are simply about having a good time – “elevated California living,” in the words of Northstar spokeswoman Marcie Bradley.
I could not afford a vacation made up of such luxuries, but having sampled some recently, I would consider buying one or two of the luxury products to improve a day of skiing. Paying for a $150 Platinum pass to avoid lift lines might sound excessive, but you could end up skiing twice as much during a crowded day.
Unlike resorts in Aspen, Colo., or Jackson Hole, Wyo., Tahoe ski resorts are not known for their luxury. As Robert Frohlich explains in his book “Mountain Dreamers: Visionaries of Sierra Nevada Skiing,” places like Kirkwood, Squaw Valley and Heavenly were built by people with a passion for skiing and not a lot of money, giving the resorts a “mom-and-pop” feel that still lingers at some of the resorts.
In recent years, as outside companies have bought up Tahoe’s biggest resorts, including Northstar, they have added nicer places to eat and shop. But it was a company outside of the ski industry that pushed Tahoe into the luxury ski market – Ritz-Carlton, which opened its midmountain resort in December 2009.
Resort spokeswoman Robin Penning said the Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe, is the first and only hotel in the region to have earned AAA’s vaunted “Five Diamond” rating. According to the motor club’s website, the resort is one of 120 hotels in the United States, Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean to have earned its highest rating. Two other Tahoe-area hotels, Resort at Squaw Creek and The Landing Resort & Spa, have received “Four Diamond” ratings.
Ritz-Carlton decided to open at Lake Tahoe because of its world-class skiing coupled with fabulous views of the lake and its proximity to the Bay Area, Penning said. The resort will further capitalize on Lake Tahoe when it opens a waterfront club later this year.
The least expensive room during ski season is $699 a night – far out of my price range. But I’m glad I took a tour of the property with Penning. One reason: It’s gorgeous. Another: The public is welcome to visit, whether just to gawk at the architecture, sit in front of a fire or have a meal or a drink.
I’ll be returning to the Ritz for a drink. Here’s why: The staff makes you feel like a king (or queen) while you’re visiting their palace. It’s a “ski-in, ski-out” property, located next to the chair lift for a beginner’s trail. When you reach the Ritz, a ski valet helps with your skis and poles. Once inside the building, another valet will take your boots, offer you slippers and ask if you want your gloves and boots heated when you come back. (That’s right – heated gloves. Try it.)
The centerpiece of the resort is a 55-foot-tall granite fireplace that spans two floors, including an area with plenty of seating to enjoy the warmth while sipping a cocktail. The Ritz also has a fire pit on the patio, where patrons and visitors can enjoy the resort’s signature “Marshmology” – fancy s’mores – or seafood and champagne from a Moët & Chandon food stand.
If all this sounds luxurious, let me just say it gets far … ritzier. The Ritz-Carlton has 23 residences, including 12 available for rent, built into a private wing. Penning showed me some of these multimillion-dollar condos, and they were amazing: split levels, hardwood floors, huge picture-window views of the mountains.
But the decorative features of the Ritz, classy as they are, do not make the place. It is the service that sets it apart. As I got ready to leave the Ritz, putting on my freshly heated ski boots, I noticed a woman struggling to get her boots off.
Seconds later, a young man came up to her. “Do you need a hand?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said, relief spreading across her face.
Less expensive luxury can be found at Northstar. One option: champagne lunch on the mountain for $85. The Platinum Tōst is served in the same place where Northstar gives out 150 free glasses of champagne every day at 2 p.m., just off the East Ridge run, with Adirondack and yellow bean bag chairs spread out in the snow. (If you just want a free glass, arrive early – they go fast.)
The Platinum Tōst includes a bottle of champagne and more fruit, cheese, meat and sweets than you’ll ever want for lunch. The menu is perfect for a leisurely two-hour lunch in the sun, sitting on top of the mountain and looking out at Martis Valley. Such moments can really make a day of skiing complete.
If you’re like me and find it hard to sit when the runs are still open, you might consider one of Northstar’s Platinum private lessons. I spent a few hours with instructor Ali MacGrain, a native of Scotland who teaches half the year at Northstar and the other half in New Zealand.
After a long hiatus, I started skiing again four years ago and consider my skill level to be high-intermediate. I can ski any run at Northstar, but typically without grace and sometimes with great struggle.
In the morning I spent with MacGrain, he took my skiing to the next level. MacGrain keeps the lesson simple, giving you a single idea to focus on each run. The instructions build on one another, and it wasn’t long before I was making smooth, rounded turns, even on steep trails.
Want to enjoy skiing more? Learn how to ski better. You’ll be able to ski more of the mountain and feel less sore at the end of the day. Private lessons are expensive – $940 for a full day, $575 for a half. You could buy a new pair of skis with that kind of money, but they won’t improve your ability on the mountain nearly as much as a private lesson.