Craig Tansley discovers a most unusual ski resort, complete with legends of dead mobsters and thousands of slot machines.
BELOW this place they call Heavenly, hell awaits those who double-cross the Mob.
Around here, urban legend has lake fishermen reeling in human ears and human hands. They say that far below all that fluffy powder snow and those perfectly spaced pine trees and all that sunshine; and way down below the surface of the huge alpine lake the Indians call Lake of the Sky, lies an underwater wax museum of perfectly preserved Mafia gangsters with bullet holes in the middle of their foreheads.
Locals say it's just part of the charm of South Lake Tahoe and Heavenly Ski Resort.
But any big American town that grew from the coffers of casinos has a stack of dead gangster tales; in Heavenly there are more stories than there are ski runs — and there are 94 of those.
For this is one funny town; in essence, it's a spectacularly pretty ski resort built around six 24-hour casinos, with 7051 slot machines and 411 gaming tables to relieve you of your greenbacks. Nature's done its best to supply the assets and the scenery - think big blue lake and jagged mountain ranges - but there's far too many cheap motels with concrete gardens and names like Paradice to call this place beautiful.
Most of the folk who visit aren't even here to ski; they're Californians crossing the border to do what they can't do at home: gamble. I doubt they even know there's a ski resort up in the sky above the neon lights and screaming slot machines - the only runs they're interested in are the lucky ones on the roulette wheels that never stop spinning.
But this ski resort - the one they call Heavenly because it looks like the kind of place in which skiers might spend the afterlife - bridges two states of the US, receives more than 900 centimetres of snow a season, comes with 94 ski runs and 30 high-tech lifts and gondolas and has the biggest vertical descent of any ski resort in California (more than a kilometre).
It's also perched above the Earth's largest alpine lake, Lake Tahoe - so big that if they drained it, it'd cover California to a depth of 35 centimetres. On a fine sunny day - and there are plenty of them in this part of the US, more than 300 days a year - there's no ski resort prettier in the world, which just makes the concrete and neon light show down below all the more bizarre.
Many Australian skiers may never have heard of Heavenly; maybe the only thing they'd know is that Sonny Bono experienced his fatal tree run here in 1998. But Heavenly is one hell of a mountain. For gamblers who like to ski, or skiers who like to gamble, could there be a better destination on Earth?
Ride the gondola to the top of the Sky Express and you'll see the blue sapphire of that great lake Mark Twain described as "... the fairest picture the whole world affords". Behind it stretch the granite mountains of the Sierra Nevada, covered in snow. Should you tire of the view, you can ski to the other side to Nevada and look out across a different world altogether: a desert that stretches to Colorado.
There are apres-ski huts perfect for catching the sunshine and the red and white fir trees give this place its reputation as having the best tree runs in North America. The runs are long and challenging, the snow is deep and dry and the mountain huts are solid log timber.
Then the sun sets and the night turns Heavenly into another kind of place altogether.
There's a gruesome side to Heavenly; it's as I walk by Lake Tahoe in the growing dark that I think of those bodies.
Steve, a ski instructor at Heavenly who shares some local legends with me over a beer, tells me famous marine explorer Jacques Cousteau once tried to bring a submarine into Lake Tahoe but local casino bosses of the day refused to allow it. Then there's the story Cousteau did go down with a film crew but Mob bosses confiscated his footage; and then there's the story that Cousteau decided himself that the world wasn't ready to see what lay beneath the waters of Lake Tahoe.
Geological surveys have so far failed to find any bodies, neither have modern fishermen with advanced fish-finding technology, but still the locals hold on to their legends. "They don't find bodies around here," Steve tells me. "They sink to the bottom; you go in there, you don't come out."
It's the near-freezing water, many say, that prevents the creation of gases that would otherwise bloat and float a corpse to the surface. Locals maintain there are hundreds of bodies down there, perfectly preserved. Fishermen even call an area of it The Grave. That's where, the story goes, a fisherman jagged something huge just offshore but whatever it was broke free. When he reeled in the line, a human ear was still on the hook. Then there's the story of renowned gangster Three-Fingered Tony who met an untimely demise nearby, his hand reeled in later by another unlucky fishermen.
These days South Lake Tahoe seems more about convenience than controversy. If you're seeking a traditional apres-ski environment, you've come to the wrong town. You won't find the standard Tyrolean-themed ski bars here; when the ski boots come off, the glad rags go on. There are fancy restaurants, lounge bars and the kind of amenities you'd normally associate with a city like Vegas; there are even wedding chapels if you feel the urge.
What's more, it may well be the only ski resort in California to let you party all night long, because half of it's in Nevada. In Nevada they don't care what time it is, you can drink till sun-up (in California the fun stops at two o'clock).
However, if you still haven't got your fix of glitz and glamour you can always factor in a visit to Beverly Hills on the way home.
The writer travelled courtesy of Heavenly Ski Resort and V Australia.
V Australia flies direct to Los Angeles from Sydney from $1199 return (vaustralia.com.au, 13 82 87), then fly to Reno-Tahoe Airport with South-West Airlines, southwest.com, 96 kilometres from Heavenly. Rent a car (all leading car rental companies operate at the airport) or organise shuttle transfers through South Tahoe Express, return transfers cost $US46.50 ($47). southtahoeexpress.com.
Sleep right next to all the action at the Embassy Suites Lake Tahoe, just a five-minute walk from the gondola at Heavenly, embassytahoe.com. Experience the glitz and glamour of Beverly Hills on the journey home at the Thompson Beverly Hills. thompsonhotels.com.