Postcards everywhere you look

Jun 19 2011 - 9:58am

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Tony Hicks/Contra Costa Times
Hikers get a view of Emerald Bay from the top of Eagle Falls in the Lake Tahoe area of Nevada.
Tony Hicks/Contra Costa Times
Hikers get a view of Emerald Bay from the top of Eagle Falls in the Lake Tahoe area of Nevada.

ZEPHYR COVE, Nev. -- We were flying a few thousand feet above the sunny Carson Valley, high enough to see the deep blue of Lake Tahoe over the snow-frosted mountains to the left. I was just getting comfortable, checking out the view from the glider's back seat as a small plane pulled us with a tow rope.

Then the pilot released the rope, and the plane veered away from us. It got quiet -- real quiet. We were alone. Without an engine.

It was fantastic.

For 20 minutes we rode the winds down, up and around the valley with all the control of an airplane, just without the noise.

The glider company, which operates out of Minden, Nev., calls itself Soaring NV for good reason. Nestled in the mountains east of Tahoe, Soaring NV couldn't be in a more spectacularly scenic place. With the glass cockpit covering us on three sides, there was a postcard wherever we looked.

Add T-shirts and a DVD of your 40-minute flight, captured by a small camera on the glider's wing, and the trip was nothing short of an amazing experience. Plus, it was only a half-hour from Zephyr Cove, our home base during a two-day trip to Lake Tahoe.

Finding one spot to hunker down really helps to maximize the vacation experience, especially in Tahoe, with its 72 miles of shoreline. A growing number of activities and attractions increases the appeal for the longtime summer staple for families.

For my family, Zephyr Cove turned out to be the perfect home base. In the same morning, we could swim off Tahoe's best beach, then fly thousands of feet above it. The cove was only a few minutes from South Shore's casinos, but lacked the traffic and noise of the California side of town.

At Zephyr Cove Lodge, 28 cabins sit only a few dozen yards from the lake. Our cabin could sleep six, easily, with a large master bedroom and upstairs loft. Especially useful were the fully functioning kitchen and large gas fireplace in the living room, both of which came in handy during our stay. Next to a large general store, which doubles as the registration desk, is the lodge's restaurant and bar, with wide windows allowing for lake views, and a surprisingly abundant menu. Like anything with the word "lodge" in its name should, portions are hefty and range from fresh fish and burgers to Mexican fare.

From Zephyr Cove, it's a short walk to two of Tahoe's best attractions: Mississippi paddle-wheelers the Tahoe Queen and M.S. Dixie II. We took the latter across the lake to Emerald Bay in the afternoon

The 2 1/2-hour trip was peaceful and scenic, with views of the entire lake front. Especially riveting were the approaching mountains of the lake's west side, which seemed to rise straight up out of the water to the snow line, where the colors change from deep green forest to sky blue.

Everything gets bigger once the boat slows inside Emerald Bay. At one end of the bay is Vikingsholm, the giant Scandinavian-style house built in 1928 and owned by Lara Josephine Knight. The M.S. Dixie II also travels around Tahoe's only island, Fannette Island, on top of which Knight occasionally would entertain visitors in a now-crumbling stone tea house.

For an equally stunning view of Fannette, you can trek to the top of Eagle Falls. Accessible on Highway 89, the falls are about 500 feet above the lake and running hard at this time of the year. Visitors even can sit on the rocks at the very top. Nearby is a staging area for a mild hike to the 200-foot tall Cascade Falls.

After a day of sightseeing, we dined at Capisce, a family-owned Italian restaurant a couple of miles south of the cove that was packed, even at 8 p.m. The wait after we ordered was long, but the server kept us stocked with bread and appetizers. And it was well worth the wait. Just know that the word is out about this place, so don't expect to pop in for a quick bite. You'll likely leave with a bag of leftovers, as we did.

With summer here, there's plenty of family-friendly activities around Zephyr Cove and South Shore. A mile of private beach is sheltered in the cove, with parasailing, wakeboarding and watercraft rentals available during the summer. At Tahoe Trout Farm, no license is needed, and owners provide bait and tackle for kids, then clean the fish that they catch. The Taylor Creek Visitor Center is a hub for self-guided tours on hiking trails.

Also, the Heavenly Gondola is now open, carrying visitors to the observation deck near the top of Heavenly ski resort, with 360-degree views of the lake and the Carson Valley. Look carefully and you might even see a glider.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: Take Highway 50 to South Lake Tahoe. Zephyr Cove is approximately four miles past the casinos on the Nevada side. Or you can fly into the Reno/Lake Tahoe airport, which is about 40 miles from Zephyr Cove.

WHERE TO STAY: Zephyr Cove Lodge, Highway 50; 800-238-2463; www.zephyrcove.com. Cabins range from $169 (studio cabin) to $499 (cabin that sleeps 10).

WHERE TO EAT:

- Zephyr Cove Lodge Restaurant -- convenient and has a solid, varied menu, with a full bar.

- Capisce -- 178 Highway 50, Zephyr Cove; 775-580-7500; www.capiscelaketahoe.com. It's a trendy, family-owned Italian restaurant, boasting authentic Italian food. Call ahead for reservations.

- Red Hut Cafe -- 229 Kingsbury Grade, Stateline; 775-588-7488. Does breakfast well in both quantity and quality, also open for lunch.

WHAT TO DO:

- Soaring NV -- 1140-B Airport Road, Minden, Nev.; 775-782-9595, www.soaringnv.com. Glider flights $99-$259.

- M.S. Dixie II or Tahoe Queen -- from the dock at Zephyr Cove; 530-543-6191, www.laketahoecruises.com. $15-$39 for daytime cruises, $41-$75 for sunset dinner cruises.

- Watercraft rentals -- at Zephyr Cove; 775-589-4901; www.zephyrcove.com. Powerboats from $149 an hour; waverunners from $109 an hour; pedal boats, canoes, kayaks and paddleboards from $20 an hour. Parasailing from $59. Beach chairs and umbrellas are also available to rent.

- Tahoe Trout Farm -- 1023 Blue Lake Ave., South Lake Tahoe. 530-541-1491.

- Taylor Creek Visitor Center -- three miles north of South Lake Tahoe on Highway 89, entrance just past the Tallac Historic Site and Fallen Leaf Lake Road; 530-543-2674. Open daily through October.

- Heavenly Gondola -- one-half block west of the California-Nevada state line; 775-586-7000; www.skiheavenly.com; operates 10 a.m.-5 p.m. June 10-Sept. 5. General gondola-only tickets cost $32, gondola and summit tickets are $40.

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