Posts Tagged ‘Skiing’

In 1999, after a decade skiing in Austria, Italy and France, my wife and I decided to switch from Europe to the United States for our winter sports “fix”. We chose the beautiful resort of Heavenly on the south shore of Lake Tahoe – and had skied there ever since.


Aside from the size of the skiing area (it is the fifth largest on the North American continent), it had the added bonus of being only a three hour drive to San Francisco. Our skiing holidays therefore became a twin break affair – up to a week in Tahoe, followed by a week or more in the City by the Bay.  On some occasions we even threw in Las Vegas, San Diego or Los Angeles.


Over the course of those two decades we had discussed the possibility of skiing elsewhere. We had always wanted to visit Vancouver in British Columbia, which again could be combined with a trip to San Francisco, so Banff and Whistler became strong candidates. We also researched Vail and Breckenridge in Colorado.


But every time it came to the final decision, we stuck with Heavenly for a number of reasons – the scenic beauty, snowfall records, size and accessibility of skiing area and the proximity to the Californian coast. We usually stayed on or very close to Stateline, the physical border between California and Nevada, where playing in the casinos (admittedly only the penny slots) became an integral part of our apres-ski experience.


But this year we finally took the plunge and abandoned Heavenly for Whistler, not least because it had become prohibitive to stay for any length of time in San Francisco (which we would still visit in the autumn). The decision had been made easier by the recent relocation of English friends, who had originally emigrated from North Kent in 2007, from Ontario to British Columbia. If we were to visit them, which we were keen to do, it made sense to find a ski resort in the “neighbourhood”.


We didn’t make this decision lightly. We knew virtually every inch of the Heavenly ski area and were very comfortable with the environment, whereas Whistler, the largest resort on the continent by some margin, was an unknown quantity. Both the village and terrain were completely unfamiliar to us. Furthermore, the weather forecast for our week’s stay was discouraging, including a fair amount of rain, our least favourite skiing conditions.


So it was with a degree of trepidation that we stepped off the Skylinx shuttle bus after an overnight stop in Vancouver on the third day of April and settled in our Airbnb on the edge of the village centre.  We had already determined that we would use the first day to acclimatise ourselves with the place, collect our pre-ordered lift passes, skis and boots and stock our apartment with provisions from the local grocery.


We had purchased a four day lift pass to span the six days we were staying in the resort. So it was the second of those days before we queued up at the base of the Whistler Village Gondola shortly before 10 o’clock on Friday morning.


Unfortunately, the weather lived up to the forecast – cloudy and misty with alternate rain and snow showers. As a result, we did not venture too far from the area at the top of the mountain on that first day. Poor visibility, unfamiliarity with the terrain and first day nerves contributed to my falling twice on the first run, though after an early morning tantrum, things improved before the persistent wet snow drove us back down the mountain.


The day took a turn for the better when we wandered into the araxi restaurant for ten Reid Island oysters, prepared by Nigel, and a cool glass of Okanagan Pinos Gris. Technically, this was a happy Hour deal, though the resulting bill argued otherwise.

As much as we loved eating out, the cost of doing so had increasingly forced us to eat in our apartment on recent trips. But on this occasion, we had an excellent meal at the Beacon Pub and Eatery in the village square.


With three days left on our lift pass, we had to make a decision as to which days to ski. Our final two days in Whistler had consistently promised the best weather, so we were committed to those. The forecast for both Saturday and Sunday was horrible, with the latter day marginally better. Our original plan of two days on, one off and then two days on needed revision, leaving us skiing for the final three days straight.


Our judgement was vindicated as, even in the village, it rained all day. It did not, however,  deter us strolling around all afternoon, hopping in and out of the attractive coffee houses and gift shops.


Although, in part due to the inclement weather, we had been unadventurous on our first two days on the mountain, we did not want to leave Whistler without taking the awesome and, some might claim, frightening, PEAK 2 PEAK gondola, which had been invisible on our first few days, over to the Blackcomb skiing area.


After a few runs around the top of Whistler, we took the tram on our outward journey between the two largest lift terminals in the world. Although we were not deterred by the prospect of travelling in one of the glass-bottomed cabins, we eschewed the wait and took the first available one.


At this point, I could bore you with lengthy statistics about the PEAK  2 PEAK Gondola, but I will confine it to a few:

  • the “longest unsupported span between two cable car towers” 3.024 kilometres (1.88 miles);
  • the “highest cable car above ground” 436 metres (1430.45 feet); and
  • completes the longest continuous lift system in the world.

Inspired by the ski lifts in Switzerland, at its highest point, it soars 5,280 vertical feet from the valley bottom.


After lunch in the Roundhouse Lodge at the top of the Whistler Village Gondola on the first two days, we ate at the Rendezvous restaurant alongside the top of the Blackcomb Gondola on the last two, whilst exploring several trails around the peak.


Once more, the weather forecast had lived up to expectations, and the conditions on Monday and Tuesday, especially Tuesday, were benign with sunshine replacing the periodic precipitation that had blighted our first couple of days. My skiing improved proportionately, though I still wasn’t wholly comfortable with the unfamiliar surroundings.


Skiing is an expensive pursuit, and I think it is not unreasonable to claim that we might not have had the full value for our outlay, certainly during the first two days when we were still acclimatising ourselves to the vast terrain under wet, gloomy skies. But by Tuesday afternoon, with a deep blue sky and warm sun beaming down upon us, life was good.



So what was our overall verdict? We liked the village of Whistler – it had a lively, friendly atmosphere and boasted some good bars and restaurants. It was likely to be even more boisterous over the coming weekend as preparations were underway for the hosting of the World Ski and Snowboard Festival. We were a little disappointed, however, that its relatively low elevation meant that it rarely saw snow on the ground.



It was clear too that the village was extremely proud of its performance as host to the 2010 Winter Olympics and Paralympics Games, with impressive monuments dotted around town and on the mountain.




And we would certainly ski there again – there are still large parts of the terrain we have still to explore – provided the weather plays ball!

But we missed Heavenly – the lake views, the familiar trails, the mountain restaurants, even the casino bars and the drive up from San Francisco.


The major lesson we learnt, however, from this adventure was that we had to get fit before skiing in future – irrespective of whether we were in Heavenly, Whistler or Avoriaz or La Thuile in Europe. Although we never caught our breath as we had often done in the much higher resort of Heavenly, we ached more each morning and found it generally more tiring than it had been before. Age may have been a factor, but weight was a greater one. In the past, we had always spent the first couple of months of a new year aiming to lose weight and get relatively fit. We hadn’t this year – and it showed.


Ageing and aching are an unavoidable fact of life, but at least we can do our best to minimise their impact if we shed a stone or two and exercise more in those crucial months before we set foot on the slopes again.




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I haven’t always been obsessed with San Francisco.

There was a time when I was obsessed with Italy.

My affection has never diminished for the land of olives, arias and elections. It’s just that since we first – belatedly – discovered the United States, and San Francisco in particular, the siren call from across the Atlantic has invariably proved too hard to resist.

But for a decade in the eighties and nineties, it was Italy that held us in its thrall.

Our first date, however, did not go well.

Midway through a twelve day cheese and wine driving tour of France, we made a short detour into Italy via the Mont Blanc Tunnel. That excursion might have lasted a little longer had it not been for the fact that, having realised we had the taken a wrong turn on the outskirts of Courmayeur, we reversed onto the newly laid tarmac driveway of the startled, and more worryingly, burly owner.

Fortunately, our hire car had sufficient power to outpace him, his even sturdier wife, three small children and fearsome German shepherd dog as they gesticulated in a manner that seems to be every Italian’s birthright.

Having lain low from Interpol for a couple of years,  diplomatic relations were restored when we snuck back on a ten day coach tour that included Rome, Florence, Pisa, Venice and Assisi (our earliest encounter with San Francisco?).

Over the next few years we took short breaks to Florence, Venice and Milan. Longer holidays followed to Sorrento (twice), Lakes Garda and Como and, loveliest of all, Taormina in Sicily. We even abandoned France one year to base ourselves in the Aosta Valley resort of La Thuile, from whence we could ski over the border to La Rosiere.

No matter that public life was mired in scandal and corruption, and that television was a boorish blend of babes, boobs and Berlusconi baloney. We were now besotted with the breathtaking natural beauty, history, sense of style and the ravenous appetite for life of the people. We enjoyed la dolce vita, worshipped la bella figura, and did our best to blend seamlessly into la passeggiata every evening. Puccini, Giotto and Michelangelo became my cultural icons. The whole country was one large show and we loved it.

Climbing up from Piazzetta Michelangelo to San Miniato al Monte in Florence, coming upon the Campo dei Miracoli in Pisa for the first time, getting lost among the remoter calle in Venice, gazing on Santa Lucia in Naples, walking the Circus Maximus……the list goes on.

In 1992 I began to learn the language (that, acording to Lord Byron, ” sounds as if it should be written on satin”) in earnest, and attained a Royal Society of Arts Level 1 diploma with distinction.

And then there was the calcio.

Serie A was at that time the most glamorous football (soccer) league in Europe. Real Madrid and Barcelona may still have attracted many of the bigger names, but La Liga was not televised on British television as it is now, or if it was, only to a miniscule satellite audience. And the Premier League in England was only in its infancy.

But Sunday afternoon on Channel 4 was one of the highlights of my week, when a top Italian league game was televised live. The Saturday morning magazine show, Gazzetta Football Italia, presented by the witty and well informed James Richardson (did he ever drink that cappuccino or eat that gelato that shimmered on the table in front of him?), showed highlights of all the previous week’s games and featured interviews with the top players, including Paul Gascoigne and Paul Ince, who took the rare route of moving from England to Europe.

It was bliss to an Italophile like me.

Roberto Baggio with his languid style, pony tail and hip Buddhist beliefs, and Franco Baresi, the epitome of the Italian hard man defender, became my footballing heroes. We even named our pet rabbits, Baggio and Schilacci after their namesakes’ exploits in Italia ’90. The spectacle and drama of that World Cup tournament only endeared me to the country more. I could not even get downhearted when the host country beat England 1-0 in the third place play-off.

And then, five years later, I realised an ambition and attended the San Siro where, in front of 83,000 fans, AC Milan “welcomed” eventual Scudetto winners, Juventus. I’d always thought that English football supporters were passionate, but the fervour and fanaticism in that stadium that evening was astonishing. One elderly gentleman next to me spent the entire game clutching his prayer beads and yelling at Milan’s mercurial Yugoslav playmaker, Dejan Savicevic, to produce a moment of magic for the hosts, but to no avail.

Discretion being the better part of valour, I kept my allegiance to La Vecchia Signora (Juventus) firmly under wraps as they strolled to a 2-0 victory with goals from Gianluca Vialli and Fabrizio Ravanelli, both later to star in the Premier League. The contrast with the last match I had been to, between Gillingham and Bury four nights previously in front of little over 3,000, could not have been more striking.

It was later in that year that we made our first fateful trip to the American West. We didn’t abandon Italy immediately as we visited Lake Como two years later. But it was another decade before we renewed acquaintance with La Serenissima as part of my wife’s fiftieth birthday celebrations.

And now, another seven years later, we are finally returning for a third time to Sorrento. We may only be there for a week, but that will be enough to enable us to go back to Capri, Pompeii, Naples and the Amalfi Coast (Positano, Amalfi and Ravello).

Torna a Surriento!




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We had not skied Heavenly since 2011, although we had visited in both of the intervening years.

In 2012, a planned three day break slotted between visits to San Francisco coincided with both of us contracting flu and being physically too weak to ski. And last June, logs, pipes and assorted wooden debris were all that lay on the mountain.

And for much of this winter the signs were ominous.

The guaranteed snow levels normally associated with Tahoe, and Heavenly in particular, had failed to materialise. Every day since Christmas, we scoured the webcams and weather forecasts, only to discover that many of the lifts and trails remained closed and the famed snow making operation was being pressed into overdrive.

We have always skied late in the season in the expectation that a) the snow would be plentiful and b) spring sunshine would dominate. So when we heard when we arrived in San Francisco at the beginning of the week that the long awaited snowfall would be pulling into town at the same time as us, and staying for the duration, we had mixed feelings.


But we have been incredibly lucky.

We had purchased a four day lift pass, taking the Saturday off when the worst (or best depending upon your point of view) of the storms was projected to arrive.


And it worked to perfection.

Although, with the exception of our final day, sun was in short supply, the wind that often affects resort operations, closing the higher lifts and restricting the capacity of skiers and riders to travel between the Nevada and California sides, was equally ineffective.


The intermittent gloom and smattering of snow flurries of the first couple of days enabled just to take some satisfyingly moody photographs.


We were able to ski virtually the entire mountain over the four days. Only on the first day were we prevented from cruising both states, being confined to the California side due to the closure of the Tamarack chair. This was welcome, however, as we tend to spend more time on the longer trails in Nevada. With the Sky Express chair leading to the highest point in the resort open, we were allowed to spend time on our favourite trail, Ridge, which arguably provides the best views of the lake, and the High Five trail that we had not skied before.


We also managed morning hot chocolate stops and lunch breaks at all the major mountain lodges – California, Tamarack (pictured), East Peak, Sky Deck and Stagecoach – that were open.




My only regret?

Not having the presence of mind to reach for the camera as Janet struggled to get to her feet, having fallen on the Galaxy trail only minutes after she had joyfully proclaimed ONE NIL when I had suffered a similar indignity.

Ah well, you can’t have it all.

We may not have seen the last of the snow as we look set to grapple with the next big storm on our return to San Francisco tomorrow.









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During our tenth visit to San Francisco last June, we took the short walk one morning from our Noe Valley apartment to Bernal Heights, ascending the hill from Precita Park, having lunch at the Progressive Grounds coffee house and buying provisions for our evening meal at the Good Life Grocery before taking the surprisingly short stroll back to 28th Street.

We enjoyed the superlative 360 degree views from the top of the hill and the ambiance of this “village within the city” so much that we vowed to base ourselves on our next trip in what has subsequently been dubbed the “hottest neighborhood in America”.

That trip is now imminent.  After a week’s skiing in Tahoe, we arrive on the first day of April (St. Stupid’s Day) at our Bernal cottage where we will be staying for the next two weeks.


This will be the fifth year we have rented an apartment in one of the neighbourhoods. In addition to Noe Valley (twice), we have also stayed in Hayes Valley and North of the Panhandle (or the Western Addition to traditionalists).

Although we will be doing some things that are unashamedly “touristy” (after all, it is those that attracted us to San Francisco in the first place), we have striven increasingly to “live like locals” when in the city. And a good starting point to achieve that aim is to stay in someone’s home (albeit their second one).


No maids knocking at our door early in the morning anxious to clean your room, no loud conversations going on outside our room at three in the morning and no lift bells ringing or washer/driers humming at all hours.

Our time has taken on a different, more relaxed, you might even call it ordinary, tenor, one that more closely mirrors our home life. Being in San Francisco has become such a familiar and habitual (in the best sense of the word) part of our lives, somewhere we spend more of our time than anywhere else, other than our permanent UK address.

What has happened is that OUR version of San Francisco has shifted both geographically and metaphorically from the waterfront to the neighborhood we have chosen to live in for a few short weeks (oh, that it could be more).


If all we want to do is “hang out” at the apartment in the morning, watch the news on KRON4 while catching up on household chores, before strolling out to a local café for lunch, followed by food shopping and a return to the apartment for a glass or two of wine on the outside private deck, then so be it. We might then have dinner in the apartment – or try out one of the local restaurants. Or we might decide to take a trip downtown and eat in Chinatown or North Beach.

We feel no pressure to conform to the expectations of others, to be perfect tourists (if that is not an oxymoron), although, inevitably, as the trip draws to a close, the realization will again dawn on us that we haven’t seen and done as much as we would have liked!


But what of our stay in Bernal?

It would be disingenuous to claim that we will be spending the majority of our time in the neighborhood. But we will be exploring the celebrated stairways and gardens, not to mention every square inch of the hill itself, and patronizing the cafés, restaurants and stores (but, sadly, not Badger Books). And we could not visit without seeking out bargains at the Alemany flea and farmers’ markets.

I will be posting photos and thoughts on my blog and other social networks throughout, and would welcome any feedback from neighbours.

But, firstly, ou sont les neiges?

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Born in October 1952 on the day tea rationing ended in Britain (good timing that, given my mother’s obsession – and subsequently mine – with the brew) and, as an only child, I enjoyed a happy childhood, revolving mainly around football and cricket.  I had the good fortune of growing up during the sixties, the music of which provided a thrilling soundtrack to my that period.

I attained a BA (Honours) in English and European Literature at Essex University, writing my dissertation on the novel At Swim-Two-Birds by Irish novelist and journalist Flann O’Brien.  This was followed by studying towards an MA in Anglo-Irish Literature at Leeds, majoring on James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and W.B.Yeats, including writing a treatise on the novels of Patrick Kavanagh (The Green Fool and Tarry Flynn).


Eventually, I exchanged academia – via portering in a major department store and “making” sultana cookies and other exotic (for the time) biscuits – for the last refuge of the modern scoundrel and joined the UK civil service in March 1980.  I subsequently spent 29 years in the Department for Work and Pensions and its many antecedents, latterly in human resources and diversity before poaching early retirement in March 2009.


My interest in the subject led me to undertake a Level 3 BTEC Advanced Certificate in Travel and Tourism via home learning.  I completed the course in December 2010, achieving a Distinction in all three elements – understanding the travel and tourism industry, tourist destinations and tour operations.  My ambition now is to concentrate on writing and, hopefully, to publish on a regular basis.  I have been focusing principally on my passions of San Francisco, cricket and travel, though I am not able to resist on pontificating on life in general from time to time.


This blog has now been active for nearly two and a half years. But I want to do more than that. At present, I am in the final throes of co-writing a book on the centenary of Kent County Cricket Club’s fourth County Championship title in eight years, and future writing projects include a series of short stories based in San Francisco and an expansion of our U.S. road trip diary of September / October last year.


Aside from the above topics, my other serious interests are walking, skiing, baseball (a fan from afar of the San Francisco Giants), association football (a life long fan of Gillingham), music (principally folk, blues, country and West Coast rock borne of the original Summer of Love in 1967), going to the theatre and eating out.

I feel extremely grateful to have the health and energy to pursue all of those interests, as I am also for the support and encouragement of my wonderful wife Janet whom I married in Vegas on Halloween 2009 after 27 years together (that makes it 31 now!).

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We hadn’t intended to ski this year.

And we didn’t.

But between those two statements lay a four month long gallimaufry of resolution, indecision, confusion, excitement, frustration, relief, misery, hope and resignation.

Following last year’s trip, our seventh, to Heavenly ski resort on the southern shore of Lake Tahoe, we decided to give skiing, at least in the USA, a miss this year, and perhaps even next.

But as the British summer shrugged its way into autumn, and our equal determination not to visit San Francisco this year,  dissipated, the prospect of not skiing at all became increasingly unpalatable.

With a major holiday planned for later in the year, we could not afford – in both senses of the word – more than two weeks away. We arranged, therefore, to spend a week in an apartment in San Francisco, drive up to Tahoe for four nights, skiing for three days, before returning to the city for the final weekend prior to flying home. Flights and accommodation were duly booked in the New Year, the lateness of which illustrated how we had prevaricated about going at all.

I have written elsewhere that my wife and I are “fair weather” skiers, liking nothing better than cruising perfectly manicured trails in warm spring sunshine. With that in mind, we booked to ski Heavenly between Wednesday 18th and Friday 20th April inclusive, providing us, we hoped, with a felicitous combination of good weather and a healthy accumulation of snow (2011 had been a record year).

So we were “sorted”, looking forward to what was fast becoming our annual American skiing fix.

Or so we thought, for that’s when it all started to unravel.

In deciding to ski late in the season, we’d given no thought to when the resort might be closing. After all, last year it had remained open until early May and only a few days prior to that the previous year. We were not only going to enjoy wonderful weather and spring conditions but would also get some great end of season bargains in the shops. 

I suppose we should have seen the warning signs earlier in the season as snowfall had been uncommonly sparse, weeks passing with barely a single natural flake bedding down with the undeniably impressive but limited layer of artificial snow provided by the resort’s convoy of groomers. Much of the skiing terrain remained closed.

But even at the end of February there appeared to be no cause for concern. Major storms were surely lining up out in the Pacific, ready to deposit the white stuff soon enough. And Heavenly would be prepared to stay open as long as possible to compensate for the relatively poor conditions of December through to March. Wouldn’t it?

How wrong we were.

Firstly, we discovered that Heavenly had planned all along to close on Sunday 15th April – nearly three weeks earlier than last year and, more alarmingly, THREE DAYS BEFORE we were due to arrive! A succession of frantic e-mails, Facebook and Twitter messages over the next 24 hours confirmed this to be the case.

At least we had not incurred great expense at this stage – just the first night’s accommodation, which could be cancelled up to 72 hours before arrival anyway. Unusually (we must have known), we had not booked our lift tickets and we would not obviously have hired equipment until we were in the resort.

But what were we going to do?

I devised eight alternative options for the middle leg of the vacation. These included remaining in San Francisco, driving down the coast and spending nights in San Luis Obispo, Carmel and Monterey, or in the opposite direction via Mendocino and Bodega Bay, even still travelling to South Lake Tahoe but amusing ourselves in other ways.

But the thought of not skiing at all, when the conditions were likely to be the best they had been all season, was too painful to contemplate. And, of course, you guessed it – by this time, those slothful storm systems had swung into town with a vengeance, depositing seven feet of snow in a week!

Having decided that we had, if we could, to ski somewhere, we found ourselves forced into doing what we had often spoken about but never got around to doing before – slide down some other slopes than Heavenly’s.

So perhaps it was all a blessing after all – provided we could find other resorts that were open whilst we were in the area.

The next few weeks were spent anxiously trawling the websites of, and sending e mails to, Sierra-at-Tahoe, Kirkwood, Homewood, Alpine Meadows, Sugarbowl and Squaw Valley to establish what their closure plans were.

Whilst, in one respect, we were now becoming increasingly excited at the prospect of skiing elsewhere, this threw up several practical issues. For example, if we were to ski near the north end of the lake, we would need to find alternative accommodation, and it was extremely limited in some resorts, particularly at such a late stage. We would also need to take a different route to the one we were accustomed to to get to the lake.

The fact that we would be skiing only a day, possibly two, at a new resort would also mean we would be unfamiliar with everything there – the terrain, transport, equipment hire and so on  – to the extent hat we might not derive much enjoyment from it.

But beggars can’t be choosers, and, after all, it meant we could ski.

And then……Heavenly decided to extend its season!


We could now avoid all the complications of staying and skiing elsewhere and return to our familiar, much loved Plan A of skiing in Heavenly for three days.

Or so we thought.

Rather than extending by a full perhaps two, to allow its customers to enjoy the fresh snow, the resort proposed to close as planned on 15th April and reopen for the next two weekends only (Friday to Sunday inclusive). The upshot of this would be that we would have ONE day in which to ski!

Again we considered different scenarios, including skiing only on the Friday, our last day. Better than nothing.

But we rather liked the idea now of skiing somewhere else too, and plumped for a day at nearby Sierra-at-Tahoe.

Now, neither of us had been fully fit in our last couple of days in San Francisco, suffering from sore throats, coughing, headaches and general tiredness. So we decided that two days skiing would be sufficient.

The final plan now went like this. As it was conveniently located just off the I-50, we would call into Sierra-at-Tahoe on our drive from San Francisco on Tuesday and familiarise ourselves with the resort. We would then take our first full day off and perhaps drive to Carson City, before skiing at Sierra on Thursday and Heavenly on Friday.

What could now go wrong? After the twists and turns, and mangled emotions, of the past three months, we were going to be skiing for two days, one of which was going to be at, for us, a new, exciting resort, and the forecast was for brilliant blue skies and warm temperatures.

Well, one three letter word ending in a vowel was about to be replaced by another and destroy those plans. 


On the journey to South Lake Tahoe, we both started to deteriorate dramatically, to the extent not only that we abandoned the diversion via Sierra-at-Tahoe, but that we were only able to leave our room – reluctantly – in the next 48 hours to stock up on pharmaceutical supplies (and the occasional Starbuck’s). Dinner on our first evening consisted of a $1 packet of Dorito’s from the vending machine along the corridor.

It was only the last – fourth – night that we were both able to do any justice to an evening meal when we dragged ourselves to the Hard Rock Café in our hotel. Even then, we had had to cancel our reservation beforehand at the Riva Grill. We did manage, however, to drive around the lake during the day, as the last post testifies.

We had both been so debilitated during our stay that walking alone proved a challenge. As much as we wanted to, we could not have skiied. 

At least we saved on meals, ski hire and lift tickets  – although the colourful cocktail of pills, infusions and liquids – enough to have taken the weight of our baggage over the allowance had we been flying back to San Francisco – were not cheap!

We hadn’t intended to ski this year.

And we didn’t.

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“I’m coming home again…..never to roam again” the song continues. Well, sadly, I will be roaming back to the UK in no time, but not until I have spent the next fortnight back in the “one in all the Golden West”.

Many of my previous posts attest to my love for The City, especially  http://www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2011/10/29/my-san-francisco-top-ten/ .

Those of you who have stayed the course with me will be relieved to learn that I’m not going to dribble on about cable cars, bay views and hippie Haight in this post – well I might find myself unable to avoid rapping a little on the last one……..man.

No, as our upcoming ninth trip approaches, this post looks ahead to some of the less touristic experiences that await us. Some are perennial joys whilst others will be savoured for the first time.

In the best “traditions” of TV reality shows (so I am reliably informed), they are presented in no particular order:

1. Eating Sourdough bread

Taking that first bite from an authentic sourdough loaf will almost certainly be the first, and last, taste sensation of our visit. Whilst, allegedly, I can purchase sourdough bread from a farmer’s market or wholefoods supplier in the more enlightened towns and cities of the British Isles, it will not be made from the Boudin “mother dough” and, therefore, not carry the unmistakably tangy taste of the San Francisco original.

If you want to read more about the genesis of the Boudin sourdough, you can do worse (just) than read my article at:


2. Riding on the MUNI

“I get sourdough bread but MUNI – are  you crazy?” I hear any resident or informed visitor exclaim. “The “service” is totally unreliable, the drivers insolent and a sizeable number of its customers are so weird that they’d fail the audition for any self-respecting freak show”.

Ah, but there be the rub, me hearties. It is the “all human life is there” quality that makes it so endearing – provided, of course, that you’re not planning to be any place soon or are of a squeamish disposition.

I wrote about one particularly entertaining and ingenious tableau in my diary from last year’s vacation:

http://www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2011/04/03/western-diary-day-17-hittin-the-heights-and-muni-delights/ .

3. Watching the Giants play an MLB game at AT & T Park

Two actually – the (Pittsburgh) Pirates on Opening Night, complete with fireworks, on Saturday 14th April and the (Philadelphia) Phillies two nights later. An earlier post documented my initiation into baseball, and following the San Francisco Giants in particular:


Visiting the City that little bit later this year has meant that we can finally graduate from attending desultory pre-season games featuring squad players to joining a full house crowd at a “real” game, or rather two, with heavy hitters, or rather pitchers, such as Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain.

Oh, and eating those fabulous garlic fries – and taking cover from the dive bombing seagulls towards the end of the game.

4. Getting to Know New Neighbourhoods

After successful stays in Hayes Valley and North of the Panhandle in the past couple of years, we are staying further south this year by renting an apartment for the first week in Noe Valley, or “Stroller Valley” as it is affectionately known for the preponderance of resident families with young children.

We aim to “stay local” as much as possible that week, exploring unfamiliar neighbourhoods such as Noe Valley itself and semi-mountainous Bernal Heights, Potrero Hill and Twin Peaks, as well as re-familiarising ourselves in particular with the Castro and Mission districts, much neglected on our previous trips. In fact, we are venturing further out of the City than we have ever done before, though public transport will whisk us briskly downtown should we, in the unlikely event, crave a fix of the wharf or corporate shopping at any time (that said, our two appointments with the Giants will steer us towards the bay on those days).

5. The Flower Power Walking Tour

For all my reverence for the Dead, the Airplane and the late sixties San Francisco music scene, I have resisted, in the past, signing up for the flower power walking tour of Haight-Ashbury, expecting it to be too clichéd, preferring to truck around the area on my own. But the testimonials are so compelling, and the bona fides of the individuals conducting the tour so intriguing (they lived through the Summer of Love), that I now anticipate it with relish.

6. Exploring the Old and Public San Francisco

Aside from our initial, guided trip 17 years ago, we have never explored Nob Hill in any detail. We have clanked past it on the California and Powell/ Mason and Powell/Hyde cable cars (sorry, I know I promised I wouldn’t mention them) many times but given little heed to Grace Cathedral, Huntington Park or the grand hotels – until now.

We will aim to combine that with a morning skulking as much of the public buildings that comprise the Civic Center as we are permitted to enter. I am particularly keen to visit the public library.

7. Breakfast with KRON4

Preparing for the day ahead in San Francisco has never been complete without the accompaniment of local TV station, KRON4, informing me of the weather prospects, the state of the “Bay Bridge commute” or the latest Giants news. Whilst Darya Folsom is my favourite presenter, I’ll also confess to having followed Sal Castenada’s traffic reports on rival station KTVU too for many years.

8. Skiing the Sierras

The full story of our miscalculation over the short skiing leg of our trip in Lake Tahoe will have to wait for another day. Suffice to say that the outcome is that we will finally be forced out of our customary torpor and ski somewhere other than Heavenly this time. Sierra-at-Tahoe and Kirkwood beware.

We return to the City for the final three nights of the trip, staying in a hotel on Fisherman’s Wharf. Our sixth performance of Beach Blanket Babylon and meals at two of our favourite eating places, the North Beach Restaurant and Cliff House await. And much else besides.

So, San Francisco, “open your Golden Gate”, don’t let this supplicant !wait outside your door”.

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It was March 2002, a mere half year since that brilliant, terrible morning in New York City that changed our lives forever. The world, and especially the United States, remained in a state of anxiety and foreboding about the direction in which it was moving.

Security was tight, therefore, as we landed at San Francisco International Airport on a damp, dismal Tuesday afternoon.  With an eleven hour flight and early check-in, we had been travelling already for eighteen hours. We were already regretting the decision to drive the 180 miles direct to South Lake Tahoe that evening for our holiday in Heavenly ski resort.

After dragging our heavy luggage from the arrivals hall to the car hire centre at the far side of the airport, we were informed that a large storm was approaching Tahoe, and advised that we should seriously consider upgrading to a 4×4 vehicle.  Whilst subsequent experience has taught us that this is a regular ploy to extract a significant chunk out of our holiday spending budget before we have even left the terminal, this appeared a more plausible scenario on this occasion.  However, we declined the upgrade but collected our obligatory snow chains before searching for our car.

We drove away from the airport at around 4pm, the beginning of the evening commute, just as the rain that had been threatening since our arrival set in.  Experience had taught us that rain at this level meant snow at much higher elevations.  How would we be able to attach the snow chains to the car?  We had never done it before.  And when would we know it was the right time to do so? Fortunately, at a small price (this is America after all), these decisions were made for us later in the journey.

The run to the Bay Bridge was frenetic, and, as the rain got heavier, so did the traffic.  Our wipers were working overtime through the stretch of the I-80 from the Oakland end of the bridge past Emeryville, Albany, El Cerrito, Richmond, Vallejo, Bernicia, Fairfield, Vacaville, Dixon, Davis and all the way to Sacramento when we joined the US 50.  Between Folsom and Placerville the incessant rain turned to sleet and then full-blown snow, obscuring the intermittent views of the Sierra Nevada mountains that we would customarily enjoy.

The road narrowed from a relatively straight freeway to a constantly twisting single lane, and the tyres struggled to cope with the ever-thickening snow.  As quickly as they had created a groove it was covered over again, awaiting the next vehicle to attempt to carve through it.  We had only, in terms of distance, a sixth of our journey left, but we feared that this would be the most challenging and potentially frightening part of the journey.


We passed a handful of “lookouts” with their signs warning of “snow removal equipment” and of snow chain installers at work. It was only, however, when we reached the distance marker denoting that South Lake Tahoe was twenty nine miles away, that we were brusquely hailed down by the abominable snowman who installed the chains efficiently if a little grumpily. We may have been another $20 light but a small measure of reassurance had been restored.

After all, it was “only” twenty nine miles wasn’t it?  How bad could it be?

We’d negotiated steep mountain passes in the Alps before, hadn’t we? Of course we had, piece of cake then.

Oh, but hold on a minute, we’d been sat on a coach whilst an experienced native of the region took the wheel. Not so simple then.

Yes, but, once this was over, we had a hot meal and a stiff drink awaiting us on our arrival in South Lake Tahoe. And just think how exciting it will be to ski on all this fresh powder tomorrow morning.

British stiff upper lips notwithstanding, we both silently fought our fears.

The snow was now pounding against the windscreen, at least that is what we assumed was accounting for the only sound assaulting the silence high in the mountains. The intermittent cracks in the white darkness, were the headlights of oncoming trucks hurtling past in the opposite direction. The drivers had seen it all before.

Although we could hardly have been moving more slowly, no other vehicle passed us on the entire journey. There had been seven others at the lookout when our snow chains had been installed. Where could they have gone? There was no other road to take. Perhaps they had given up for the night – something we had not for one second contemplated, however bad it got, because that would have been even more dangerous.  We had to press on – we may have been doing barely ten miles an hour at this point, but every rotation of those snow chained gripping tyres got us a little closer.

We may not have been able either to rationalise or articulate it in such terms at the time, but we had both adopted an, at least outwardly, calm, practical demeanour – Janet maintaining a steady, straight course, building fresh, deep grooves in the snow whilst I, as much by intuition than calculation, assessed our proximity to the side of the road, instructing her to make slight adjustments to the car’s position as necessary. Hearts skipped a beat every time I recommended a small movement to the middle of the narrow road just as a truck sped past, or what seemed, directly at, us!

The alternative was worse. The slightest twitch to the right would have had us plunging into the Eldorado National Forest. The sporadic fencing would not only have failed to prevent our fall, but also it was not visible as a guide to our proximity to the edge.

Height markers were barely decipherable on the hairpin bends, though we managed to make out Strawberry at 5,800 and Camp Sacramento at 6,500 feet respectively, providing comfort that we were closing in on the highest point of Echo Summit at 7,377 feet.

But our journey was not over. The snow chains had done their job so far, but now we were beginning our steep descent towards South Lake Tahoe.  Would the brakes work?  Would the chains grip the road sufficiently to prevent us running away?  Again, these thoughts went simultaneously through our minds, though nothing was spoken other than the now customary “steer slightly towards the middle” and “keep straight” admonitions from the passenger seat.

Our unease was unwarranted.  The chains performed impeccably as we descended smoothly towards our destination, braking at regular intervals.  The final challenge was to negotiate the steep, twisting hill that drops down to the lake basin. Relief, even euphoria took hold as the “Y”, the intersection between South Lake Tahoe Boulevard and the continuation of I-50 up the western side of the lake came into view.  Never had we been so grateful to see the welcoming neon of McDonald’s and Starbucks.


During the descent the snowfall had relented, and the home straight into Stateline was just wet.  That final twenty nine miles had taken four hours to negotiate which meant that, by the time we had checked into the Embassy Suites resort, there was no hot food available.  But after 25 hours travelling we were too weary to venture out, so decided to just have a drink before retiring.

Over a glass or two we spoke for the first time of our ordeal, and how composed and worried at the same time we had been. We resolved that we would make tomorrow our non-skiing day.  As it happened, that decision was academic as the four feet of snow and high winds closed the resort anyway, allowing us to spend the day recovering and re-acclimatising ourselves to the area.

This was not to be the only harrowing experience of this particular holiday, though the week’s skiing went relatively smoothly after that. We have made the same drive six times since that night, but, sensibly, only during the day after a night’s rest in San Francisco.  And the weather has, ironically, been fine on each occasion.

But there’s always the next time.

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If you’ve had the doubtful pleasure of reading my recent post about Heavenly ski resort (www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2012/01/20/heavenly-thoughts-returning/), you ‘ll be aware of my love of skiing, particularly on the snow rich slopes of Lake Tahoe. But had circumstances been different a quarter of a century before on my first winter vacation, that may have been a pleasure forever denied me.

Encouraged by another couple, already experienced skiers, my girlfriend and I agreed to accompany them on a two week holiday to Austria in late February 1987. But before that, we had to locate our ski legs and take the first tentative, or in my case, petrified, steps on snow, or rather, artificial Dendix mesh.

The ordeal began with a course of evening lessons at the Crystal Palace Sports Centre dry ski slope in south London. Sadly, I recollect little of the first lesson other than it took me more than half of it before I was able to a) wedge my feet into the concrete boots, b) stand up and c) begin to tramp around in them in a manner reminiscent of Boris Karloff in the early Frankenstein movies.

The “slope”, if it could be dignified with such a noble word, was a terrifying 60 metres long and of a gradient that would barely have qualified it to be called a green run i.e. virtually flat, in any self-respecting European resort. But, for me, the distance from top to bottom resembled a pit of writhing, seething snakes.

Half way down, in the middle, stood a menacing, 8 foot high tree that called to me, like the Sirens luring sailors to shipwreck in Greek mythology, every time, and there weren’t many, I had managed to plod back to the top to make my next descent. Either side of this monster were run-outs to the bottom. It was not until the third lesson that I succeeded in routinely reaching the end without having had an intimate encounter with that tree along the way.

A couple of long, agonising months later the fateful hour arrived when we set foot – blessedly freed, for now, from those concrete blocks – on a flight to Munich, praying that the worst of the winter conditions were over and that we would catch some spring sunshine. Our destination was Auffach – notoriously difficult to pronounce after a couple of glasses of schnapps or jagertee (a potent mix of overproof rum and black tea) – in the Wildschonaü region of Austria, an area allegedly ideal for beginners.

My girlfriend and I spent the first week in ski school whilst our friends enjoyed themselves.  She was marginally, well much, better than me in the initial test, which amounted to nothing more than being able to stand up in the skis for more than 3 seconds, and was, consequently, placed in a higher standard class.

I was consigned to the lowest group which comprised one Austrian girl and half a dozen boisterous (is there any other type?) Dutch men. The instructor, who at least had the decency to be gorgeous, even in a pink Michelin (UK) or Stay Puft (US) Man outfit, spoke Dutch fluently and used it as the default language for the week. 

Unfortunately, the only Dutch I knew, other than the names of the national football team that came so close to winning both the 1974 and 1978 World Cups, was of the double variety, though I do profess to being quite fluent in that. At least I had found a ready made excuse for my ineptitude.

And that spring sunshine? Forgeddaboutit. Snowfall had been a stranger to the area since Christmas and it was conspicuous by its continued absence during our stay. Whilst the weather was generally bright it remained cold, rendering the surface thin and icy.

My “progress” was tortuously slow. When I wasn’t trying to step off the precarious button lifts prematurely, obliging me to climb the remainder, inevitably slipping back with every other step, I was sliding down an icy incline in a permanent and deeply uncomfortable “snowplough”. I did, however, become highly proficient at trudging down the side of the run with a ski tucked under each arm, having surrendered any belief in my capacity to achieve the same result with them strapped to my boots.

My girlfriend’s experience was equally disappointing and we agreed to forego the final day’s test run, and the life-changing opportunity to dribble down the hill in front of the entire ski school and any other sadists residing in the village, in the forlorn hope of earning a certificate (that was probably written in Dutch anyway). 

Exhausted from the miles, or rather metres, we had carved up in the previous 5 days, we decided to take a coach trip to Salzburg, city of Mozart, chocolate and The Sound of Music. An otherwise enjoyable day was marred by the news of the capsizing of the Herald of Free Enterprise ferry shortly after leaving the Belgian port of Zeebrugge en route to Dover, resulting in 193 deaths. Skiing seemed even less important on that day.

I was prepared to come home at that point. However, we had paid for a second week, and there was a limit to the number of sleigh rides, bowling alleys and “authentic” Tyrolean evenings a man with his pride still narrowly intact could take, so I resolved to give skiing another chance.

And it proved an altogether more enjoyable experience. Our friends were very patient and supportive, escorting us around the whole mountain (much of which we had only dreamed of seeing before), and providing us with one to one tuition – in English! Whilst conditions underfoot were little better, it was much more fun, and we improved accordingly – though my propensity for leaping off button lifts before reaching the top continued well into my third Alpine season.

By the end of that second week, we were hooked and did not want to leave! Had the vacation only been for a week we may never have skiied again – and our subsequent holidays – and life – may have taken a completely different course.

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Firstly, if you have landed on this site expecting subject matter a tad more racy or devotional than skiing, please leave now!

After spending our formative skiing years in Europe, we decided in 1999 to try America for our winter vacation. Lake Tahoe caught our imagination, not only because of its innate beauty and impressive snowfall record, but because it could comfortably be combined with a trip to San Francisco (and other parts of both California and Nevada).

We fell in love with Heavenly and the unique California / Nevada Stateline atmosphere instantly, and despite acknowledging that we should expand our skiing experience to the Rockies or Canada, we have remained loyal to it ever since.  We were even on the verge one year of booking Whistler or Banff and spending our “city time” in Vancouver, but when push came to shove, we hadn’t the heart to abandon Heavenly.

Nor, in the face of numerous recommendations from people on chairlifts, in restaurants and on the street, have we skiied a single day in any of the other Tahoe resorts. Lame excuse though it may seem, we have, in a sense, not wanted to “waste” one of our precious skiing days at Northstar, Squaw Valley or Sierra-at-Tahoe.  And where would we get a better breakfast than at the Driftwood Cafe in the village centre, or seafood dinner at the Riva Grill by the south shore of the lake? 


After our initial vacation we returned in 2002, followed by further trips in ’04, ’06, ’08 and ’10.  With a mountain that rises to over 10,000 feet and the largest snowmaking and grooming operation on Lake Tahoe if Mother Nature should fail to deliver, snow conditions have always been excellent. The weather during our stays has, however, been less predictable (for example, warm sunshine in ’04 and incessant snowfall in ’06, including 4 feet the night before we were heading for Vegas).

The biennial strategy collapsed last year when we went again just 12 months after our last trip. This appeared at first to be a smart move as a record season was already in full swing when we arrived in early March. Now, we confess to being fair weather skiers, always going relatively late in the season, initially in late February, more latterly in mid March (and now April!). The theory is that there will not only have been substantial accumulations of snow already, but that the weather will have warmed up. Spring in San Francisco can be very pleasant too.

So we scanned the web cams and drooled over the daily Another Heavenly Morning broadcast on the internet, watching the snowfall count escalating. Surely, this will have abated and Spring will have arrived with a swagger by the time we pitched up in the resort, allowing us to enjoy several days cruising on a deep snow base in balmy, sun-soaked weather?

No chance! As the travel diary on this blog demonstrated (links below) the only thing we saw was snow, and, in the words of A.A. Milne, it just “kept on snowing”, even after we had left for San Francisco towards the end of the month:


www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2011/03/20/western-diary-day-4-Janet-falls-over-again-and-Tony-gets lost/



The year did, indeed, turn out to be a record one with a total 0f 529 inches snowfall (the average is anywhere between 300 and 500). But, after such a disappointing experience, we vowed that we would now leave it a couple of years before returning to Heavenly, perhaps even going back in the interim to getting our skiing fix in Europe again.  

But here we are in mid January and the itch needs scratching again (problematic when you are plodding around with several layers of clothing on, including an esapecially fetching pair of tights). The lure of both Heavenly and San Francisco has become too much, causing us to alter our vacation plans for the year. The four weeks travelling around the canyons and National Parks of the West to celebrate my 60th birthday later in the year has now contracted to two.

We are undaunted by the uncharacteristically puny snowfall so far this year. Although the resort has been open every day since November 18th, the total snow for the season has only reached 13 inches (lower slopes) to 22 inches (upper elevations), and the base depth is just 18 to 24 inches. Only 215 acres out of a total of 4800, and 27 of the 97 runs (trails), are currently open.  

Limited terrain aside, the resort has still managed to provide high quality, if limited, snow in fine weather, with the army of “midnight riders” (groomers) putting in more than 1,200 snowmaking hours. And we have faith that the storms will come. In fact, as I pen this article, 3-6 feet is being forecast for the next week. 

It can snow now until early April as far as we are concerned. But please, let’s have a few days sunshine after that!

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