When North Lake Tahoe vacationers take in the bluest of blue water and greenest of green mountains, they have Capt. George Whittell Jr. to thank. The son of a San Francisco business magnate, Whittell had the great fortune of liquidating a chunk of his wealth months before the 1929 crash. He used it to purchase 40,000 acres and more than 20 miles of the Nevada shoreline, initially planning to build a high-end resort. Instead, he created his own private waterfront escape, Thunderbird Lodge, where he would navigate through 600 feet of underground tunnels, past an opium den and a subterranean pool, to his poker room, which over the years saw the likes of Ty Cobb and fellow recluse Howard Hughes as visitors.
Much of Whittell’s property was handed over to the state after the eccentric tycoon’s death, and since the turn of this century, the public has been free to tour the estate from May through October. Visitors will hear about the time Whittell ran away with a woman from the circus, among other escapades, as they roam from the grotto to the gazebo and peek inside Bill the lion’s now-empty cage—Mingo the elephant had his own barn.
For your own taste of a lavish lifestyle, travel some five miles upstate from Thunderbird Lodge and post up at the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort, whose guest rooms, suites and private cottages sprawl throughout 80,000 square feet. Your top priority after check-in: getting the lay of the lake. It costs $5,000 or more to charter Whittell’s sleek mahogany and steel speedboat (which famed naval architect John Hacker designed to mimic the millionaire’s private plane), but the Hyatt’s 55-foot catamaran, Sierra Cloud, is a suitably luxe substitute that departs daily at noon, 2:30 and 5 pm for two-hour rides. Lounge on the boat’s trampoline while guides pass out cheese and beer, the water—clearer even than the Caribbean’s—rushing by just below you.
The Hyatt can set you up with kayaks, jet skis and paddleboards for other aquatic adventures, but once you dock, grab a drink on the floating Pier 111 Bar, which hosts live entertainment on Thursday nights. If you’re looking for more solid ground, stroll 275 feet down the landing to the private beach to find umbrella-shaded chairs and cabanas.
The resort is located in the town of Incline Village, which lives up to its name, perched at an elevation of 6,000 feet. You can climb even higher on a number of hiking paths, like the Flume trail, which follows a deserted water chute that dates back to the late 19th century, or the trail to Diamond Peak, where panoramic vistas await. Those who’d rather not work for their bird’s-eye views can hop the tram to summit Squaw Valley’s High Camp, located 45 minutes from the resort just over the California border. While you’re there, duck into the Olympic Museum for highlights from the 1960 Winter Games and gorge on chef Jack Connell’s picks at PlumpJack Cafe.
If you’d prefer to stick to the shoreline, there’s plenty to do. Tahoe Flow Arts Studio holds a number of indoor classes, from aerial yoga to hula-hooping, though if you’re lucky you’ll catch a session in the great outdoors, the edge of the water lapping up to your mat. The lake also provides a scenic backdrop for the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival, where culture vultures can seek out entertainment from the Bard, Sierra Nevada Ballet and the Reno Philharmonic seven nights a week in July and August. Pack a picnic, grab some wine and take in the action on the amphitheater’s pine-tree-flanked stage while kicking back in an Adirondack chair, toes in the sand.
Photo Credit: Brent von Twistern
For more R&R, head to the Stillwater Spa & Salon. As you disrobe in your treatment room, you’ll eye the large windows overlooking the year-round lagoon-style pool. Not to worry—the frolicking guests can’t see you. Opt for a treatment like the wild herbal relief wrap, which cocoons your body in linens steeped in ginger and rosemary while you receive foot and scalp massages. Cap off your visit under a European shower tower, and you won’t want to leave. Luckily, for $24, you can return a second day to revisit the sauna, steam room and other amenities.
Of the multiple dining options onsite, the Lone Eagle Grille is a must—it’s one of the highest grossing Hyatt restaurants worldwide for a reason. Take a seat inside amidst the grand lodge-style trappings or reserve an outdoor spot, where you can also feast on the view. Peruse the impressive wine list with an iPad that’s programmed with plenty of information, though your friendly sommelier will be happy to offer suggestions as well. The steakhouse’s menu offers meat cuts and seafood galore, but vegetarians won’t be disappointed—especially by the desserts, which can turn even the staunchest crème brûlée naysayer into a believer. Or finish off the evening by toasting marshmallows, the fire pit’s glow warming your face and the starry sky shimmering above.
Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort, laketahoe.regency.hyatt.com; North Lake Tahoe,gotahoenorth.com; Shakespeare Festival, laketahoeshakespeare.com; Squaw Valley,squawalpine.com; Tahoe Flow Arts Studio, tahoeflowartsstudio.com; Thunderbird Lodge, thunderbirdtahoe.org