Back in the day Northstar, a ski resort in the North Lake Tahoe area, was a country cousin to more hardcore Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows.
Some called it “Flatstar,” a place where those who preferred the steep and deep would find no satisfaction.
Enter Vail Resorts, which took a long-term lease on the resort in 2010, planned a remake, then spent $30 million and four years bringing its vision to life.
Voilà, Northstar is now one of the poshest ski hills in California, attracting upscale skiers who don’t want to deal with the crowds and attitude of some of of Tahoe’s other resorts.
What once was an unimpressive central ski village now has open fire pits, a skating rink, live music, a bungee trampoline, a movie theater, wine bars, a yoga studio and high-end shops and restaurants.
In other words, if you don’t want to ski, there’s no excuse for boredom in the Village at Northstar.
The mountain still has a vast swath of blue intermediate runs, making it appropriate for families with younger kids, but the newly expanded backside has a more off-piste feel and tree skiing that’s hard to beat.
On the main runs, there’s snow even if it’s not an El Niño year, thanks to state-of-the-art snowmaking machinery, so no one should fret that lift tickets — priced from $86 to $140 a day, depending on where and when they are purchased — will be wasted.
Northstar has introduced the Platinum Experience, which offers luxury-loving skiers day, weekend or all-season access to various perks. (These passes are in addition to a regular lift ticket.)
Hate waiting in lift lines? Get the Platinum Pass for $150 a day and head to the front.
Want a private guide to take you to the secret stashes of powder? Purchase the $940 (advance purchase) Platinum Primo Private, and you’ll have your own ski instructor for as many as five people.
Hate schlepping gear at lunchtime? Get the $275 weekend pass to the Platinum Club with access to the members lounge and ski valet service.
If you want to woo a date, shell out $85 for the Platinum Töst, which includes a bottle of Champagne, charcuterie board, baguette and a blanket.
For the rest of us, buy your lift tickets in advance online and download the EpicMix Time app, which does real-time reporting on chairlift and gondola line waits. When you see that post-lunch crush on-screen, you can sit it out.
The ski school at Northstar is one of the friendliest of any of the major resorts. The upbeat instructors inspire adventure, and kids come off the mountain apple-cheeked and exhausted. And you don’t have to be there at the crack of dawn as you do at other ski schools.
If you don’t want to downhill ski every day, the mountain offers cross-country, telemark and snowshoeing on more than 35 miles of groomed trails.
Then there’s the good old-fashioned fun of screaming down the 200-yard-long tubing run, with the luxury of a tow lift back up the hill. Ice skating in the evening on the 9,000-square-foot rink in the middle of the village is de rigueur for kids and teens.
Putting on the Ritz
The jewel at Northstar is the ski-in, ski-out Ritz-Carlton, which opened in 2009 at a cost of $300 million. During the holidays, you enter the cavernous lobby, ornamented with a floor-to-ceiling Christmas tree, and hear the buzz of après (or midday) skiers sitting by roaring fireplaces.
Besides the glamour of being in a Ritz, the best part of the day is walking from your room to pick up your skis at the on-snow concierge, clicking them on and skiing down to the gondola.
The Residences start at $2,400 a night, with two, three and four bedrooms and full kitchens so you don’t have to eat every meal in a restaurant. The standard rooms, from $349 a night, are 455 square feet with a gas fireplace and seating area. The suites, from $599 a night, range from 800 to 1,900 square feet and have a separate living room.
The staff goes to great pains to keep kids busy with a daily Marshmology gathering at the outdoor fire pit, where kids (and pushy adults) get complimentary s’mores; a games arcade; and a Ritz Kids winter program where you can leave your offspring while you ski or take a yoga class.
For dining in the hotel, there are many choices: Manzanita is the poshest, serving seasonal and locally sourced ingredients on gorgeously presented plates. The Backyard Bar & BBQ is a great place to go for lunch if it’s not freezing, and the Living Room is popular for both lunch and après-ski cocktails. For a grab-and-go smoothie or panini, there’s Café Blue in the lobby.
The Ritz is not the only place to stay near the slopes. Condominium complexes and private homes in or near the village are available for rent. The best way to check is to go to Village Real Estate on the Northstar website.
Truck on over to Truckee
Northstar is a 15-minute drive from the historic railroad-mining town of Truckee, location of the Donner Party tragedy of 1846.
The town resembles a scene in a western, only with Teslas and SUVs parked outside the restaurants.
Original 1800s storefronts, pretty Victorian houses and hotels, shops and restaurants create a vibe equal to that of any of the better-known Western ski towns.
There’s nothing like Christmas shopping in Truckee’s stores, where you can acquire designer clothing, art, jewelry, interior design, kitchenware and candy. Forget the days of stolid outdoor wear and alpaca sweaters; the chic set has come to Truckee.
Eating in this little town is also exceptional, with fine-dining restaurants such as Trokay, which is the best in town, as well as the Truckee Tavern & Grill and Moody’s Bistro, the latter which has live jazz, inventive cocktails and gourmet pizzas.
And it really would not be right to skip Bar of America, with an old-time saloon vibe, flannel-shirt-wearing regulars and classic chili, burgers and ribs.
If you go
THE BEST WAY TO RENO, NEV.
From LAX: Southwest, American and United offer nonstop service to Reno, Nev., and Southwest, Delta, Americn and United offer connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip fare from $176, including taxes and fees. Truckee is about 35 miles southwest of Reno.
WHERE TO STAY
Ritz-Carlton Lake Tahoe, 13031 Ritz-Carlton Highlands Court, Truckee, Calif.; (530) 562-3000. From $626 a night during peak holidays. Prices drop in January, starting at $313.