True Northstar

No: I am not going to begin this dispatch with the free champagne toasts at Tost, up on the East Ridge of Northstar California, discovered just seconds after you’ve seen the best view of Lake Tahoe in the resort. Nor am I going to extol the equally free S’mores divvied up in the center of the village every afternoon by the ice skating rink.

But I will tell you this: if Northstar is trying to position the resort as California’s answer to Beaver Creek, then it’s mission accomplished. After all, the fizz in the champagne will ultimately dissipate; the S’mores will devolve into chocolatey slop; but the memory of a place devoted to luxury skiing—with a phalanx of inevitably young, invariably helpful Vail Resorts employees—will not only linger but adhere around memories of six completely sunny days two weeks before Christmas in the mountains above a lake never less than majestic.

The comparison to Beaver Creek in Colorado is not only apt but necessary—and literally right on the money. Both Northstar and Beaver Creek are owned by Vail Resorts, and both deliver that extra level of service for a premium price. Both are encompassed by the Epic pass, the one that becomes more and more epic as Vail buys more and more resorts across the country. In Tahoe alone, the company owns not only Northstar but Heavenly and Kirkwood.

And Vail Resorts really knows how to run a mountain. With a dearth of snow in early December, the full muscle of Northstar snowmaking was on display during my week in the California sun. After an epic season for California snowfall last year, Northstar was making do nicely with only a modicum of snow under nearly worst-case conditions. Don’t get me wrong: many of the runs were closed and I would love to re-visit after a massive dump. Still I had multiple choices after deplaning from the village gondola—from lifts like Arrow Express, Comstock Express, Vista Express, and Zephyr Express. Zephyr, in particular, should not be missed because the Zephyr Lodge at the top has extensive outdoor seating and a to-die-for view of the Sierra Nevadas.

For skiers and snowboarders, Northstar California has a plethora of beautiful blue runs, and everything I encountered in a week of skiing was wide and accommodating (if a bit scratchy by the end of the day). The Backside, with copious single-black-diamond runs, was unfortunately out of reach for want of precipitation, and still beckons. But there was both consistency and variety to the blues, and I was grateful to be outfitted expertly by, in the village, with Volkl Kendo rockered skis that were just the ticket for my week at Tahoe. Those looking for more extreme skiing by the lake would be happier at Heavenly or elsewhere.

For snowboarders, the resort is home to the Burton Snowboard Academy Northstar: the week I was there, teachers dispatched from HQ were making sure the Burton dude philosophy of snowboarding had risen above the level of the down low.

The resort is also home to a fleet shuttle system to ferry you to and from rental properties to the village in minutes. Download the Northstar Transportation app, type in just the number of your temporary home—and the app tracks the arrival of the shuttle in real-time. It works almost as like an on-demand adjunct of the lift system.

The village is the gem. Unlike many if not most resorts, Northstar has a real center that bespeaks a sense of community for families and Millenials who linger around the fire pits by the skating rink, surrounded by retail stores (Patagonia, North Face, Burton, True North) and even a Starbucks. One neat place to eat is Tavern 6330, great for après-ski and elegant dinners. Don’t miss the $8 lobster mac-and-cheese that just might be the best deal in all of Northstar. And Truckee, the town next door, has a way-cool vibe devoid of downtown chain stores. No wonder so many Silicon Valley millionaires are now calling it home.

A final word about just who you might find at Northstar. I met at least five software engineers from Silicon Valley riding the lifts, and that helped to give Northstar an entrepreneurial feel that was outright fetching. But I also met Paul Piper, the founder of Piper Sports Racks, who sold his company and lives about an hour away, alternating his leisure time on skis on snow and water. In the end, Northstar felt far less corporate than a Beaver Creek more buttoned-up than bitchin’. I was in California, after all, and not Wall Street. The California sun was shining the whole time, and it was impossible not to want to come back to Northstar.

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