Winter-tastic fun in Lake Tahoe, Reno
by Heather Cassell
It's no secret that skiers and snowboarders in California, Nevada, and Oregon were starved last winter by spring-like weather in the Sierra. But not this year. The snowpack is, well, packed, making a winter wonderland trip to Lake Tahoe and Reno a great adventure for LGBT travelers.
"The snow is fantastic. It's really, really good – come up and have a good time," said Paco Poli, publisher and editor of Reno's Gay Page.
Gay ski weekends
Lake Tahoe's premiere gay ski weekend is WinterFest, which is held at Heavenly and Northstar ski resorts.
This is the 18th year of the weeklong LGBT snow party, according to Kevin Ray, coordinator and co-host of WinterFest, which takes place March 3-10.
Founded in 1996, the ski weekend originally was founded by the Nevada Commission on Tourism, but when it couldn't sustain the event any longer, representatives asked Ray, an openly gay man, to produce the weekend. The tourism commission and the Nevada Gay and Lesbian Visitor and Convention Bureau now sponsor the ski weekend.
WinterFest inspired the development of the gay visitor bureau that was founded by Ray and a group of friends to promote Lake Tahoe to LGBT travelers and help guests to the area feel welcome, he said. Ray didn't provide the cost to produce the annual event.
Ray, a project coordinator who lives in northern Nevada, also produces Reno Gay Pride, usually held in August.
WinterFest isn't all snow and nothing else. There are a variety of events to bring guests together from meet ups and receptions to the two main events: Comedy Night with out lesbian comedian Dana Goldberg on March 8 and the Dinner and DJ Dance Cruize on the Tahoe Queen March 9.
This will be the third time Goldberg will be performing at WinterFest, but it's been nearly six years since her last appearance, she said.
"I'm beyond excited," said Goldberg, who added that she doesn't ski but loves making gay men and lesbians laugh.
This year WinterFest is attracting guests who are flying in from as far away as Australia and France, the East Coast and the South, and of course many Californians from the Bay Area and Los Angeles, Ray said. Guests also represent a variety of ages, with most being in their 30s and 40s.
"WinterFest attracts the friendliest people from around the globe: skiers, boarders, and non-skiers alike," said Ray. "Everyone is there to have fun and so many new friendships are made."
The ski weekend is affordable, too.
"Everything is coordinated to make your vacation fun and easy," Ray added, pointing out that the event can be easily accessed by people with varying budgets and physical ability on the slopes.
There is no need to rent a car as there's shuttle service from Reno-Tahoe International Airport. Once at the Aston Lakeland Village Beach and Mountain Resort, the host hotel, guests can take the free shuttle service to the slopes at Heavenly or Northstar and nightly events.
Lakeland offers a variety of lodging options ranging from studios to five bedroom condos and the ski resorts offer discounted lift tickets, Ray said.
Saga North, the gay and lesbian ski, snowboard, and recreation club of the San Francisco Bay Area, also offers a variety of weekend ski trips to Lake Tahoe and other gay ski weekends.
In February, Saga North will hit the slopes at Northstar (1-3) and Squaw Valley (8-10). To learn about other snow trips and club membership, visit http://www.saganorth.com.
Lake Tahoe doesn't have a local gay watering hole, but Tahoe Pride has been bringing the Sierra LGBTs and allies together, hosting social mixers at venues mostly in South Lake Tahoe. The group is celebrating its three-year anniversary this month, said Dawn Harkins, 57, a straight woman who is a volunteer member of Tahoe Pride.
Harkins encouraged LGBT travelers interested in connecting with locals to go through Tahoe Pride's Facebook page that is 700 strong, or the organization's website.
Lake Tahoe offers a downsized dining, spa, and shopping experience for powder pushers and non-skiers, but on a recent trip to South Lake Tahoe with my girlfriend, I have to say we were quite blown away by a dining discovery.
Tucked away at the back of the Montbleu Resort Casino is Ciera Steak and Chophouse, an AAA four-diamond rated restaurant for five years in a row. The restaurant is quite possibly the place we would choose to have our last meal if we were going to die. It's that good. The service was impeccable and the food was so flavorful it was like a dream.
The Montbleu, where we stayed, was completely the opposite: Disappointing. It is still Ceasar's Tahoe. Very little has been done to update or maintain the decor since its rebranding.
Other South Lake Tahoe fine dining options that are worth checking out are Friday's Station Steak and Seafood Grill and the Edgewood Golf Course Restaurant. Edgewood is typically closed mid-October through mid-December, but opens on a limited basis depending on the flow of visitors into Lake Tahoe during those months. Call ahead and be prepared for only a prix fixe menu. The rest of the time the restaurant is open normal hours seven days a week with its regular menu, said restaurant manager Jimmy Kelso.
My girlfriend and I happened to catch the Edgewood while it was open over this past Thanksgiving weekend and had a delightful meal.
Travelers not wanting to break the bank can find a bevy of moderate to cheap eats around the lake. In South Lake Tahoe we like going to the Brewery, conveniently located across the street from Lakeland Village.
Hungry travelers looking to eat in North Lake Tahoe can check out lesbian-owned and local favorite Jack Rabbit Moon and the five-star Lone Eagle Grille poised lakeside at the Hyatt North Lake Tahoe.
Reno in winter
Winter vacationers of all stripes can expand their options and literally have it all by staying in Reno.
The snow is within a 30-minute car or shuttle ride to Mt. Rose, the nearest ski resort. There are up to 18 resorts within 90-minutes of Reno.
Many of Reno's resorts offer complimentary shuttle service to the slopes and back so guests can ski all day and wine, dine, and party all night if they want to.
The Peppermill, Eldorado, Silver Legacy, and other resorts all offer ski packages.
Couples and friends can enjoy luxury and skiing with the Peppermill's ski package. This double occupancy package runs from $89 to $129 per person depending on which tower you stay in Sunday through Thursday. Customized packages and weekend stays are also available.
Powder pushers and snow bunnies can take advantage of Eldorado's "Ski Tahoe, Play Reno" packages that include accommodations travelers can customize with transportation to ski resorts, lift tickets, meal vouchers, and more starting at $65. Silver Legacy's similar package starts at $69.
An added bonus is that LGBT travelers not interested in the snow won't be stuck sitting at the lodge if they stay in Reno. The Biggest Little City in the World offers a multitude of entertainment, dining, shopping, and relaxation without setting foot in the snow.
Reno's newest AAA four-diamond resort two years running, the Peppermill is a favorite among LGBT locals and not just because of its signature rainbow lights demarking the entrance of the casino resort.
The Peppermill signifies class from its LGBT-friendly service to its fine dining, nightlife entertainment, and spa. The Tuscany Towers, which include the Edge nightclub and Spa Toscana, were loosely modeled after the Wynn Encore in Las Vegas, said spokeswoman Julia Jeffers-Peaua.
I can't help but note that every time we stay at the Peppermill the number of other lesbian and gay couples checking in, dining at Bimini or one of the resort's restaurants, dancing the night away at Edge or enjoying the spa at Spa Tosca.
Edge is Reno's number one dance club. Its Vegas-style regularly attracts some drag queens out on the town for the night, said Jeffers-Peaua. The music has great beats, the go-go dancers are hot, and champagne ordered from your personal booth comes with its own fireworks. Often there is a fashion lineup of men and women spanning from the doorman to the registration desk. What's not to like?
Spending a day at Spa Toscana will make you feel like a star and repair that winter damaged skin in a jiffy. The three-level spa offers the latest treatments celebrities are using, such as intraceuticals petite infusion, an oxygen facial that plumps up and refreshes the skin without Botox, along with other popular treatments, said Morgan Brantner, director of spa, salon and pool operations at Spa Toscana. The spa features a fantastic steam room and an adult-only indoor pool with a terrace on the top floor.
Some of Reno's best restaurants are also not too far away from the Peppermill. My girlfriend and I love Bricks and recently enjoyed Lulou's. The restaurants are mainstays of Reno's food scene that is emerging so fast that we can't keep up. Every time we go to Reno there are new eateries we are adding to our list, such as Campo Restaurant.
Gay nightlife isn't too far away either. Carl's Pub, which came under new ownership, is only a few blocks down the street between the resort and Atlantis, Reno's other AAA four-diamond casino and resort.
The Eldorado and Silver Legacy are in the heart of Reno and the popular Riverwalk district is packed with new restaurants, bars, and more. These sister resorts are linked together with Circus Circus by an underground network so travelers can enjoy a wide variety of dining and indoor entertainment.
The Eldorado Showroom often attracts Broadway hits, celebrities, and unique shows. Magique is the latest award-winning show that opened January 22 and runs through April 14.
In February the Silver Legacy will be welcoming shows by Styx (1) and the Who (2) performing at Reno's Event Center.
Gay nightlife is within walking distance of the Eldorado and Silver Legacy, too. Reno's oldest LGBT casino bar, the 5 Star Saloon, is only a few blocks away next to the West Street Market, one of Reno's latest hot spots.
Reno's LGBT nightlife is experiencing some changes. Tronix moved its location into the old Neutron space, offering a larger dance floor, a ventilation system that sucks out the cigarette smoke, a brand new sound system, and an outdoor patio with a grill, said Yvonne "Vonnie" Allen, Tronix bar manager.
"It's been awesome," said Allen, talking excitedly about the changes.
Tronix also recently became the only 18 and over club in Reno, she said.
The club is also welcoming women. Every Friday night is ladies line dancing with lessons from 6 to 7 p.m. and dancing until 9:30. In February Tronix is welcoming Sental, a new ladies night on the first and third Saturday of the month, Allen said.
Every Saturday night the guys take over with Men at Play that kicks off with $3 well drinks from 2 to 8 p.m. served up by Sister Roxy Rawhide.
Getting to Reno and Tahoe
Lake Tahoe is also accessible by plane, via Reno-Tahoe International Airport, or train, courtesy of Amtrak, from Emeryville to Truckee to a bus into South Lake Tahoe.
Travelers coming from the San Francisco Bay Area should take Interstate 80 to Highway 50 to reach South Lake Tahoe and I-80 to Truckee for North Lake Tahoe. To get to Reno, continue on I-80 past Truckee and North Lake Tahoe. Take Exit 13 to downtown Reno.
A list of winter events and a quick guide to Reno-Tahoe is online at ebar.com.