Northern California: From San Francisco to Tahoe - Part III
Updated: May 30, 2022
“Wherever you go becomes a part of you somehow”
– Anita Desai
Thursday, March 24, 2022
There are lots of things you can count on and control for as a result of diligent research and meticulous planning when you set out on your vacation: transportation, accommodations, food, tours and entertainment. There's one thing, however, that you just can't always count on -- good weather. That is especially true when your travel includes a tour of such diverse geographical themes as ours did. That’s why we were absolutely thrilled when each new day continued to bring more sunshine. We had won the meteorological lottery. Blue skies and mild temperatures followed us from the ocean to the low interior valley on up into the higher altitudes of the Sierra Nevada range. Outdoor activity options abounded, and we intended to make good use of our good fortune.
The four of us all slept in later that morning. It wasn't until around 10 when we left our rooms and started our day. Breakfast was down US 50 at IHOP where once again we had a good meal at a reasonable price. After we returned to the hotel at around noon, we decided to inquire about the magic show. Shirley had entered the online drawing for two free tickets the day before, as did Matthew. When she checked her email that morning, she was delighted to see that she had won! As for me and Matthew, we would be able to get our tickets in the gift shop adjacent to the Vinyl Room. When we inquired, we wanted to make sure we could all be seated together. Unable to confirm seating arrangements for us, the employee in the gift shop phoned Alex Ramon, the star of the show, who was staying at the hotel. She mentioned to Alex that Matthew had just opened a combo cabaret and tearoom space in Mt. Vernon, Washington where he would be featuring magic acts. In a matter of 10 minutes, he came down to the gift shop to greet us and meet Matthew, and after a few minutes of the two of them sharing stories of working with mutual talents in the magic world, Alex comped us the remaining two tickets and arranged for all four of us to sit together next to the center aisle. He took us inside the theater space and talked to us about his show's run at the Hard Rock, and his upcoming road tour following the end of this show. He was planning an aggressive schedule of 37 consecutive venues and shows, each lasting just one night. Humble and friendly, we thoroughly enjoyed meeting him which amplified our excitement about seeing the show later that evening. He shared his favorite places to visit and his favorite restaurants in the Tahoe area -- for dining, he highly recommended Kalani's in Heavenly Village. I immediately made reservations for the four of us for that evening. The plan was to go have dinner, and then see the show.
In the interim, we entertained ourselves with slot play and roulette, moving from casino to casino. Matthew and I had the best luck at Bally's Lake Tahoe (f/k/a Montbleu) where, in a shocking reversal of fortune, I left the casino ahead of the game, making up for some of the losses from Tuesday. Time passed quickly that afternoon and before long, it was time to go to dinner. Decked out in our dressiest travel clothes, we walked the quarter mile from the hotel to Kalani's, crossing back into California along the way. Heavenly Village was jam-packed with people that evening, and for the first time since we arrived, we came to appreciate just how many shops, pubs and eateries were clustered in this tidy, upscale commercial development.
Kalani's did not disappoint in the least. The service staff was extraordinarily attentive, and the entrées were exquisitely prepared and presented. I ordered the Wild Caught Halibut with asparagus, mascarpone parmesan basil risotto, and lemon caper beurre blanc. Matthew ordered the Miso-Yaki Chilean Sea Bass with kula greens, Thai basil mashed potatoes, in a ponzu butter sauce. Prices are what you might expect for a higher-end dining establishment -- average entrées went for $40 a plate.
From the restaurant, we returned to Nevada, and the Hard Rock Casino where we were seated for Alex Ramos's "Real Magic" show, his last performance before going on tour. As we anticipated, the show was enormously riveting and entertaining. Alex involved the audience early and often with his great sense of humor and mesmerizing sleights of hand. We felt so fortunate that we were able to catch his act before it closed for good at the Hard Rock.
Friday, March 25, 2022
This would be our last full day at Tahoe. We had been talking about doing some kind of snow-related activity since before we even arrived in San Francisco the week prior, and a consensus seemed to be forming around the idea of finding a place where we could innertube down the slopes. We came well prepared with gloves, scarves, jackets, wool caps and other winter gear. Friday would be our only shot at making this happen.
Cut to the morning before in the hotel lobby. As the four of us were lounging on sofas in front of Reception, sipping our coffees freshly procured from Fuel, the discussion came up about what we were going to do to satisfy our desire to play in the snow. A few feet away from us was a well-stocked kiosk of promotional brochures advertising local attractions and activities, including snowmobiling. It didn't take long for us all to agree that snowmobiling would be far more fun and interesting than riding an innertube down the mountainside. None of us had ever been snowmobiling before -- it would be an entirely new experience and would give us an opportunity to see far more of the snowy alpine wilderness around Lake Tahoe than a day of yoyo-ing up and down a slope could.
We called the number on the brochure for Zephyr Cove Resort and reserved four slots for a guided group tour the next day (Friday). We could either each have our own snowmobile for $200/person, or double-up and share a snowmobile for $240/couple. We opted to double-up and share a machine. It was a pretty decent package deal considering that it included transportation and equipment rental. We were given instructions to be ready at the entrance to the hotel early the next morning where the shuttle would collect us.
And that's where we were first thing Friday morning -- bundled up, coffees in hand, ready at the hotel entrance for our day of adventure. Our shuttle bus took us to a staging location on the California side where we signed waivers and were fitted for helmets. There were about 100 people gathered for the tour. Two buses conducted us on a 20-minute drive up into the mountains south of town, right up California S.R. 89, then west on S.R. 88 to Hope Valley. As we climbed in altitude, the landscape became more heavily covered in snow. Brochure highlights promised elevations topping 9,000 feet over the course of our tour. When we reached the trailhead, we were divided into smaller groups of about 20 and assigned a guide. We were given a quick tutorial on how to operate our machines and some important safety information. Within a few minutes, we were firing up our snowmobiles and heading single file into snow country. Shirley and Wayne led the pack, directly behind our guide.
The experience was exhilarating. We started out moving slowly along the road leading up into the hills, traversing the intermittent patches of slushy, melting snow and exposed asphalt, gingerly negotiating the path and getting used to the machines. It helped us to acclimate to their handling. Within a few minutes, we had quickly accelerated, reaching speeds of up to 40 mph. We sailed over a path of well-groomed, hard-packed snow and ice as the wintery alpine landscape flashed by in a blur of green and white. The feeling of thundering over the snow on these machines -- through such a beautiful setting, on such a beautiful day, in the company of family -- is one I will always remember.
The outbound leg of our tour lasted about 45 minutes. Matthew and I took turns in the driver's seat; I was outbound, he was inbound. Our guide took us up into the mountains with a few stops along the way where we could get photos of our surroundings and of each other.
One of our stops was at the edge of a frozen lake. Out in the center, you could make out a break in the ice and snowmobile tracks running right through it. Our guide explained to us that, the day before, one of the groups was taken over the ice and as the last machine was crossing the lake, the ice gave way, and the machine sank halfway into the frigid water. Fortunately, the driver did not end up in the lake. It was a chilling image, pun intended. Though the odds of it happening to us were extremely small, it added a fresh new layer of awareness of the potential dangers lurking on the trail. And really, all went well for us on our tour ... until we returned to the trailhead. Our guide was directing us all to park our snowmobiles in a single file, with Wayne and Shirley leading the way; Matthew and I were 30 feet or so behind them. As Wayne and Shirley were coming to a stop, the snow below them appeared to collapse, their machine listed, and then slowly tipped to the right, causing them both to tumble into slushy, muddy water that was not even visible until they fell. It was a horrifying few seconds in which the frozen lake/sinking snowmobile story seemed to be playing out in slow motion right in front of us. By the time Matthew and I got off our machines and went to them, they were climbing out of what turned out to be a ditch deceptively concealed under a brittle layer of ice, laughing and unscathed, save for the waterlogged, muddy shoes and pants.
In all, the tour lasted about an hour and a half, and as fate would have it, because of the rapidly melting snowpack, our tour was the second to the last to go through. The group that came in immediately after us that day buttoned up the season. And though we decided at the last minute to do the tour, it turned out to be one of the most stimulating and memorable experiences of our entire trip.
Back in town it was lunchtime and we had worked up a ravenous appetite. With our adrenaline-soaked bodies and minds still humming, we walked over to McP's Taphouse Grill (530-542-4435). Sitting on the corner of Lake Tahoe Blvd. and Stateline Avenue, it faces the intersection that separates Nevada from California -- Harvey's Casino is directly across the street. The restaurant was busy when we arrived and it appeared they were short on waitstaff, as was the case in so many places where we dined. Our server, though frenetically scuttling from table to table, managed to keep her sense of humor, showed exceptional patience and made us feel welcome. The food and drink were outstanding and menu prices were moderate by Tahoe standards. It was exactly what we needed to cap off a thrilling adventure.
Saturday, March 26, 2022
Eager to start the next chapter of our travels, we got up early and checked out of the hotel, getting cups of coffee from Fuel for the road. We headed out east on US 50 which hugs the southeastern shoreline of Lake Tahoe for 10 miles or so before turning inland toward Carson City. Alex had told us about a place called Cave Rock that he considered one of his favorite places to visit around Tahoe, and we genuinely kept an eagle eye out for it as we drove along US 50, but signage didn't point the way. We couldn't even find it on a Google search -- we ended up driving right past it as we later discovered. If you've been there, please let me know your impressions in the comments below.
It took less than a half hour to get to Carson City from South Lake Tahoe. We decided to drive north up Carson Street, the main drag through town, to see the state capitol building and find a breakfast house. We ended up going into the Carson Nugget at the corner of Robinson and Carson where they have a good-sized diner that was, at the time, not very busy. Known as the All-American Eatery, the restaurant's décor appeared to be frozen in time and the menu prices were reminiscent of the golden age of the $2.99 steak-and-egg specials that were ubiquitous in Reno and Vegas up until the '90s. The few patrons there, with faces that belied untold stories of hardship, stared at us quizzically as we took our places in a booth. It was the kind of place where you could still play keno while sipping coffee and having breakfast. Wayne and Shirley had never played keno before. The Carson Nugget has its own keno lounge and an employee who walks through the restaurant between games and solicits completed keno cards. The man who was working that day, a barrel-chested, garrulous, born-again Christian, was happy to explain how to play the game at our table and offered tips on how to get the best odds. None of us won anything, but at a dollar or two per game, it was a cheap form of entertainment. And breakfast was surprisingly delicious! I would venture to say that it was better than any of the typical establishments, like IHOP or Denny's, and far less expensive.
After breakfast, we wandered through the casino and found a replica (one of just a few extant versions) of the original Batmobile on the floor near the entrance.
Catty-corner to the casino is the Nevada State Museum which houses the original Carson City Mint where coins were punched out from 1870 to 1893. As a coin collector myself, I was extremely interested in taking a tour of the space. Fortunately, my group was willing to indulge me on a visit to the museum. As we approached the building, I noticed a Lincoln Highway marker mounted at the corner of the property in front of the mint. Check out my blog post on The Lincoln Highway for more information. Nearly 3,000 of these markers were installed along the entire coast-to-coast route in September 1928 by legions of Boy Scouts who had fanned out across the country. Only a few of these concrete markers remain today.
Admission to the museum is just $10/adult and gives you access to every exhibit in the complex which is a combination of an original older building and a modern section. The architect designed the connection point to look like a mine headframe.
The original footprint of the Carson City Mint is small, compared to the rest of the museum's space. It is contained within the original stone building and occupies just a few of its rooms. Though small in square footage, it is packed with history. On Saturdays, they conduct demonstrations of the coin press -- you can purchase a silver medallion from the gift shop, and they will strike a commemorative coin for you. As luck would have it, we arrived on a Saturday. A woman dressed in period clothing was giving an interpretive lecture on the history of the mint and how coins were struck there in the late nineteenth century. The coin press itself, however, was out of commission that day, sitting idle while a needed part was being refurbished. Known as Coin Press No. 1, this giant green machine is the only operating coin press in the Unites States. Our friendly docent was happy to answer questions about the minting process.
There are exhibits of actual circulated coins that were minted there in the late 1800's -- all bearing the trademark "CC" stamp on the reverse. The Nevada State Museum is more than just the mint, however. It has a large section devoted to local geology, dinosaurs, and ancient mammals. When we arrived, a local numismatic club had set up tables in the main lobby for people to learn more about coin collecting -- they even had piles of foreign coins for kids to comb through and take home as a souvenir. Besides the mint, the old building contains an exhibit of settlers’ houses and handicrafts, and a simulated mine in the basement complete with ore cars and rails. This is the entrance leading down into the "mine."
Leaving Carson City, we headed east out on US 50 for a few miles, then turned north on SR 341 and began the steady climb up into Virginia City. The city sprang into existence as a boomtown during the gold and silver mining bonanza of the late 1850s and became one of the first settlements in the Nevada Territory. American writer and humorist Samuel Clemens lived and worked in Virginia City as a reporter for the Territorial Enterprise newspaper and first used the pen name Mark Twain in February 1863 during his time there. At its peak, Virginia City was home to more than 25,000 people. The city today is much smaller with a population of just under 800, yet it draws in tourists in droves and has an unmistakable frontier vibe. Wild west themes dominate storefronts along the main street through town with wooden plank sidewalks and saloons with swinging doors. The town is perched precariously on a mountainside where streets are narrow and laid out precipitously in a tight grid east and west of Highway 341. Parking was difficult to find that day, and we noticed that a lot of businesses were flying pro-Trump and anti-government flags out front which didn't make us feel comfortable walking around. We settled for drive-by photos instead. Here are a few that we captured during our brief visit:
As you continue north on SR 341 and exit Virginia City on the north side, you begin your winding descent back down into the valley and the southern suburban sprawl of Reno. Within a half hour, we were downtown, driving south on Virginia Street, the prime meridian around which the city is laid out. We checked into the Renaissance Reno Downtown Hotel & Spa, located on the south bank of the Truckee River at the corner of Lake and Center Streets. The hotel is truly one of the finest properties I've had the pleasure of staying in. The staff is super friendly, the public spaces are clean and modern and adorned with captivating artwork, and the rooms are comfortable, spacious havens lacking nothing.
This would be our final night together as a group. Wayne and Shirley's flight home the next day had been moved to an early morning departure time which meant they would have to get up at four in the morning in order to shower, pack and get to the airport on time. We decided to spend our few remaining hours together touring the casinos of downtown Reno which were just a few blocks from our hotel. On our way there, we paused to get this photo of the original iconic Reno welcome arch just outside the hotel (the "new" one is flashier and decked out in multi-colored neon and located at the corner of Virginia Street and Commercial Row).
Our casino tour took us through Cal-Neva, El Dorado, the Silver Legacy and Circus Circus. We were hoping to have better luck here than we did at Tahoe, rationalizing that with so much more competition, casinos would loosen the slots. That did not turn out to be the case. In fact, I really didn't see anyone winning that night. After two hours of steady losses, we called it quits and found a restaurant on the third floor of Cal-Neva. It turned out to be one of the poorer choices of eateries we made on our trip. Though convenient and well-priced, the food was sub-standard, and the service was abysmal. When we left the restaurant, we made a beeline for the hotel where we spent our final few hours together as a group.
Sunday, March 27, 2022
Wayne and Shirley boarded their flight back to Jacksonville early that morning; Matthew and I took an Uber to the airport in the late morning and arrived in Seattle that afternoon. Our time together was indescribably enjoyable. It was fun and exciting and precious and packed with experiences that will serve as a fount of cascading memories lasting the rest of our lives. It had been -- for all of us -- one of the best vacations, ever.
Until next time, dear travelers, may all your journeys be safe and rich in experience!