The year 1960 was a big one for Lake Tahoe’s north shore. That’s when Squaw Valley hosted the Winter Olympics, and it’s when Frank Sinatra bought the Cal Neva Lodge. In fact, the 60s overall were a big time for the region’s opening up as an middle class vacation destination for the Bay Area and Sacramento. Interstate 80 opened through Donner Pass in 1964 and Squaw’s aerial tram began operating in 1968.
A number of classic mid-century motels and motor courts still line the shore in Kings Beach and Carnelian Bay, and the classic old casinos of Crystal Bay remain largely unchanged, as I saw on a visit last week. It occurred to me that one could simulate a weekend visit circa 1960s, which for us mid-century enthusiasts could be a real kick. So here’s a suggested itinerary.
Friday, 4 p.m.: Duck out of work an hour early and hit the road. Traffic will be nasty heading out of town, and you’ll probably be hungry by the time you make it out of Vallejo. If you’re anything like me, you’ll stop at In-N-Out Burger in Fairfield for a classic treat. Fun fact: The chain, which opened in 1948, started selling Animal Style burgers in 1961. Get one.
Friday, 9 p.m. or so: By the time you arrive in Kings Beach you’ll be tired but I always find the excitement of the vacation outweighs the exhaustion of the trip. For me, this is the night to go out. If you book a room at one of the Crystal Bay casinos such as the Cal Neva Lodge, Crystal Bay Club, or the Biltmore, you can spend the night gambling, drinking, and carousing without ever having to get behind the wheel. Rates can get quite low during the spring and fall off-seasons. Last year I stayed at the Biltmore in June for $30.
But true history buffs will want to stay in one of the cabins at the Cal Neva, where Sinatra cavorted with the Rat Pack and Marilyn Monroe posed for some of her last-ever photos at the resort’s wedding chapel. Hans Weig, who leads the highly recommended tunnel tour, informed me that Monroe stayed in Cabin no. 3, while Sinatra preferred Cabin no. 5, poolside. Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and the rest of the boys bunked in Cabin no. 4, as did the Kennedys when they visited, Weig told me.
Friday, 10 p.m.: After you’ve checked in wherever you’re staying, start with a drink at the Cal Neva’s Circle Bar, with its incredible stained glass ceiling and lake view. If there’s a show going on in the Frank Sinatra Showroom definitely drop by, if only to see the classic venue, largely unchanged from the days the Rat Pack performed there.
Alas, the Cal Neva has stopped offering table games. Its pool is also empty at the moment, and the place seems a bit threadbare in general, but it’s such a classic it remains my neighborhood favorite. The neighboring Crystal Bay Club and the Biltmore, across the street, offer as much blackjack, roulette, and slots as one can afford.
Saturday, 11 a.m.: After a bacon-and-eggs breakfast in the Cal Neva’s dining room, consumed with a lake view and, if necessary, the aid of a bloody Mary, it’s time to take in a classic, vintage tourist destination: The Squaw Valley aerial tram.
It being summer, my recent visit included some lounging with a mai tai and a pair of excellent fish tacos at the 8,200-foot-high poolside restaurant. The tram is worth the trip for the views alone, but the swimming pool at High Camp is a lot of fun, and the seemingly endless alpine hiking will satisfy even the most avid trekkers. Olympic buffs mustn’t miss the lodge’s museum, full of artifacts from the 1960 games.
A fun fact our tram operator shared on the way up: Walt Disney, who chaired the Olympics’ “Pageantry Committee,” modeled Disneyland’s Big Thunder Railroad on the reddish, bulging rock formations the tram passes on its journey.
During the winter, advanced skiers can explore the slopes of KT-22, the peak that was the site of the women’s downhill and men’s giant slalom. The men’s downhill, on Squaw Peak, is still accessible via the Siberia chairlift, Squaw spokeswoman Amelia Richmond told me.
Saturday, 4 p.m.: Time for a bit of après ski or après hike refreshment before heading home. Richmond recommended the Olympic House, one of the resort’s 60s-era buildings where the Olympic Plaza Bar was renovated for the recent season.
Saturday, 7 p.m.: Back at the hotel, this is where I would find myself pleasantly exhausted and ready for a big, leisurely dinner nearby, followed by a lot of sleep.
During the winter, especially, I’m fond of Lanza’s Italian restaurant, in Kings Beach. It’s a classic old-school place of the red sauce and checked tablecloth variety, and the current inception dates back to 1974. Before that it was known as the Riolo Inn, also an Italian joint, and much of the atmosphere remains the same. Modest prices and large plates make it good for the family.
Summertime might lend itself more to a dinner at Gar Woods, the dockside restaurant in Carnelian Bay that opened in 1988 but sits on the site of the former Carnelian Bay Hotel that dates to the 1870s. Gar Woods takes its name from the wooden speedboats that once raced in Carnelian Bay in the 1930s and 40s, and while it’s not exactly a vintage place, it works very hard to cultivate a mid-century atmosphere: lots of dark wood, boating accoutrements, and classic Americana fare. The drinks are strong and the views are great, both perks that will be represented in your bill.
Sunday, 10 a.m.: We all know what a nightmare Sunday afternoon traffic can be heading into the Bay Area, so I’m in favor of getting an early start after some decent little breakfast. To that end, the 50-year-old Brockway Bakery, in Kings Beach, is your best bet. They’ve got sandwiches, coffee, and pastries, a seat outside if the weather’s nice, and treats for the dog.
If there’s time on the way out of town, boaters will relish a stop at the Sierra Boat Company to ogle some of their wooden beauties. Their showroom has a number of speedboats from the 30s through the 2000s
Pile back into the car and hit the road back to the 21st century after a totally vintage weekend.