California girls: Three girls take on the California Ski Safari

Andrea Selig

It’s no secret that the California ski resorts haven’t had the greatest snow year. Others may be put off by the fact the resorts of Lake Tahoe and Mammoth weren’t promising the epic powder conditions of Colorado and Wyoming but not us. We know how hard the snow cannons, piste bashers and resort staff in North America work to make the most of what they have. However, the California Ski Safari is so much more than just a ski trip. We knew we were going to have a fantastic time regardless.

After making sure we had left plenty of space in our suitcases for all the shopping we knew we would be doing (we were a group of three girls - what else would you expect!), myself, Andrea and our friend and ex-Ski Safari member, Sandra, set off for Terminal 5 and our movie marathon of a flight.

San Francisco is one of the longer flights for North American skiing but landing in gorgeous sunshine makes that first drive into the city much more pleasant than we expected. Pick up a left hand drive car, drive on the wrong side of the road through city traffic after an 11 hour flight? We had to draw straws for the privilege of that one and guess who lost! But actually it was very simple. The one-way system makes for some fun moments but the roads are nice and wide so even in my slightly befuddled state we found our hotel relatively quickly.

Knowing that the best way to beat the jet lag is to just keep going, we dropped off our bags and immediately headed out to explore. San Francisco is a big favourite in our office but I had only ever driven through it and the other two hadn’t been in years so we were all looking forward to reacquainting ourselves with this fabulous city. We had two nights here which is a really decent amount of time to experience it. We managed to cram a lot in to that full day including a trip to Alcatraz (book before you go), a lazy brunch at Fisherman’s Wharf in the sunshine, cheesecake and a cocktail at the top of Macy’s overlooking Union Square, a well-intentioned stroll to find the quirky shops of Haight Ashbury (ok, we got lost), a fantastic sushi dinner and, of course, a fair amount of shopping.

I definitely wanted to stay for longer but the first part of our road trip beckoned and so the next morning we set off for Lake Tahoe. The drive is about 3.5 hours but we took a little detour via the outlet shopping centre at Vacaville for some lunch and bargain hunting. Excitement began to build as we climbed up from gentle rolling hills to the steep wooded mountains surrounding Lake Tahoe. That first view of the Lake as you come over the top is breath-taking and, although there wasn’t much snow on the ground, we still got that buzz as we arrived in resort that all skiers and boarders will be familiar with.

Heavenly is not your typical ski resort, spread out along the southern shore of the Lake and with more than a little evidence that it is also a huge summer destination. Having a car really is essential to get the most out of it as there are loads of restaurants, pubs and shops to choose from. It was warm and sunny (very much the theme of this trip) so we felt a little out of place trudging around in our ski kit but that just meant that once we got up the mountain we had loads of room on the slopes. We were pleasantly surprised by just how good the conditions were and had a fantastic day skiing from one end of the mountain to the other.

Over the next few days we also skied Northstar, Kirkwood, Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows and that is what makes this area so unique. Each ski resort is different and has its own feel and its own highlights. We all had our favourites but agreed that we loved being able to try something new each day. The variety is endless and no matter what level of skier you are, each resort will offer some fantastic skiing.

After 5 nights in Lake Tahoe, which had included a beautiful afternoon sat on the lakeshore at the Hyatt Regency at Incline Village, sunbathing on our balcony in Squaw Valley and a hilarious night out in the casinos of Heavenly, we headed south for Mammoth. Over the course of the drive the wind picked up, the road signs started announcing closures and we realised that there was actually a pretty good storm on its way in. However we had left plenty of time so we didn’t feel the need to rush as the scenery down to Mammoth is quite impressive – particularly Mono Lake with its incredible salt sculptures.

We woke up in Mammoth the next day to a whiteout. Allowing a couple of hours for the winds to die down and the lifts to open, we then headed out and had an incredible day in the powder. Everybody else clearly thought this was a day to stay indoors but, as it was the first glimpse of fresh snow we had had, we couldn’t wait to go out and play. This cemented Mammoth as one of our favourite mountains ever. We barely scratched the surface over the day and a half we had here but we absolutely loved the big variety of runs, the laid-back atmosphere (no poseurs here, just skiers out to enjoy every aspect of the mountain simply for the love of it) and the welcoming ‘real town’ feel of the Mammoth Lakes town itself. It’s a little bit off the beaten track but if you haven’t been to Mammoth before then you have to go. It was my second time and I cannot wait to go back for a third.

With the skiing part of our trip done there was only one thing left to do - Las Vegas! We had already decided to take the detour via Death Valley because, you know, ‘it has to be done’ but we weren’t really prepared for quite how incredible this drive is. Picture any iconic road trip across America that you have ever seen in films or on TV and this journey just personifies it. Totally straight roads shimmering in the heat haze, cutting through vast plains of, well, nothingness. But that nothingness by itself is just awesome and actually surprisingly colourful. Have your road trip soundtrack ready, make sure your camera is fully charged (and that the car is full of snacks because there aren’t many rest stop options) and this will be a drive you will remember for the rest of your life.

Then we got to Las Vegas. You either love or hate this city but, if you are going there for the first time, there is little doubt you will be absolutely staggered by it. It has to be experienced to be believed but I love it - the casinos are mind-boggling (second time there and I still haven’t worked up the courage to hit the tables) and there is an endless variety of places to eat from Michelin starred restaurants to all-you-can-eat champagne breakfast buffets and Gordon Ramsay seems to be on a one man mission to take over the town. There is world class shopping (yep, we managed more shopping) and fantastic bars and clubs with well-known DJs appearing all the time. Plus the weather was gorgeous so if all that is just a bit too much then you can always take a few hours by the pool. Bet you wouldn’t get to kick start your summer tan on any other ski trip!

Ok so we didn’t have the record beating powder other members of the team have been waxing lyrical about, although we did have some knee deep runs at Mammoth and, as is just typical, the day we left Squaw Valley they received 5 ft of the white stuff. But that really didn’t matter. This trip offers so much more than just incredible skiing. It is still one of my favourite ski destinations and the other two girls were blown away by it, which is saying something considering Andrea is used to the epic powder conditions of Japan and Sandra grew up in the Swiss Alps. But when you factor in stays in two of America’s most vibrant cities, jaw dropping scenery at every turn, amazing food, warm and friendly locals wherever we went and nearly two weeks of gorgeous sunshine, you can see why this is a trip that you will never forget. I want to do it all over again!