I still remember my first glimpse of Lake Tahoe, more than a decade ago. I'd lived all my life in the East and South, and whenever anybody talked about Lake Tahoe, their descriptions tended to begin and end with "It's beautiful." It seemed pretty silly that they would be reduced to a cliche.
Now, here I was, peeking between the pines on a mountaintop, and as I turned to my family, all I could say was, "Wow. It's beautiful." This alpine lake more than 6,000 feet above sea level, which is as much as 22 miles long and 12 miles wide, inspires so much awe that sometimes, words simply fail.
What's to do there? Plenty. Winter activity pretty much revolves around snow-related sports, but the best time to visit Lake Tahoe is during the summer, when it's a lot easier (not to mention much more pleasant, considering the mild summer temperatures) to get around.
The four main settlements on the lake are Incline Village and Stateline on the Nevada side and South Lake Tahoe and Tahoe City on the California side. If you're not familiar with the area, a good way to orient yourself is to take a drive around the lake. It'll probably take you a couple of hours to drive the 70-mile loop, because in most places the road is rather curvy, and traffic can be heavy on summer weekends. But even if you're stuck in traffic, or held up by road-construction work, you can breathe the cool, piney air through your open car windows, and a glance to the left or right (depending on which way you're headed) reveals a view of the lake.
All of the towns around the lake have their own charm and offer numerous restaurants, hotels, campgrounds and activities, but we tend to be partial to the neighboring settlements of Stateline and South Lake Tahoe, California, for the exceptional scenery and rich variety of activities. There are casinos on the Nevada side, with their entertainment and gambling opportunities, but across the border in California things are more rustic and offer a reminder of a gentler age.
An example of that would be Vikingsholm, which is on Emerald Bay near the south end of the lake, a few miles west of South Lake Tahoe. This was the summer home of Lora J. Knight, who owned 239 acres on the bay. Knight had become fascinated with Scandinavian culture after seeing the home of her nephew by marriage, who was a Swedish-born architect. Inspired by that and noting Emerald Bay's visual similarity to a fjord, Knight and her niece and niece's husband traveled to Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden in 1928 to gather ideas.
The result was the aptly named Vikingsholm, which incorporates numerous classic Scandinavian architectural and other design elements, such as carvings around doorways that evoked similar work around church entrances in Scandinavia, and dragon-headed beams on the living-room ceiling. More than 200 workers, who were housed in a barracks on the property, began work on the house in the spring of 1929 and had finished it by the end of the summer. Wood was hand-hewn and hand-carved and metal elements were hand-forged on the site.
There is no ferry service to Vikingsholm, though it is accessible by private boat -- and that would be a great way to get a closer look at Knight's tea house on Fannette Island, the only island on the lake. Those visiting by land park in a small lot off Highway 89 (and you'll want to get there early, as it tends to fill up quickly with Vikingsholm visitors and beachgoers), then walk down a steep path about a mile long. Limited handicapped access is available; call ahead to arrange.
For a different, loftier view of the lake, go to the Heavenly ski resort in South Lake Tahoe, which offers numerous summer activities including 2½-mile gondola rides. Once you reach the end, you can take a chairlift to get even farther up the mountain and access a range of hiking trails. Heavenly also offers two zip line choices, three ropes courses, tubing and a climbing wall.
Most of the activity on the lake itself does, as you would imagine, center on sailing, powerboating, waterskiing and related sports, and one Fourth of July weekend we saw so many people tubing on a nearby stream that it was tough to see the water. You can rent boats and personal watercraft at various locations around the lake.
Another option is a boat charter or tour boat. The Tahoe Queen, which is based in Zephyr Cove, also near the south end of the lake, is a 312-passenger Mississippi paddlewheeler, newly renovated in a style evoking the early 1900s, that makes 2½-hour sightseeing cruises, as well as sunset dinner cruises.
There's plenty to do on land, too. At various locations around the lake, horseback riding, rock-climbing and tours on various types of off-road vehicles are available, as well as golf, disc golf and on and on. The Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival takes place from July 10 to Aug. 23, outdoors on the shore at Sand Harbor State Park in Incline Village on the north end of the lake. The Lake Tahoe Music Festival is a five-day series -- Aug. 18-22 this year -- of classical music concerts at various outdoor locations.
But maybe the best way to enjoy the lake is to sit back, relax and take in that vocabulary-shattering beauty. A prime spot to do that is Gar Woods Grill & Pier on Carnelian Bay near the north end of the lake. It's named for Garfield "Gar" Wood, who won the world powerboat record in 1930. Wood also designed beautiful mahogany-trimmed boats, many of which, made in the '20s and '30s, still cruise the lake and inspired the restaurant's Wet Woody series of cocktails.
Sit on the deck and sip a Wet Woody, Dark 'n Stormy or iced tea while contemplating wonders such as this. It's beauty that I'll never take for granted.
Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at Hrinella@reviewjournal.com. Find more of her stories at reviewjournal.com and bestoflasvegas.com and follow @HKRinella on Twitter.