Crossing over with Sinatra

A colourful Rat Pack history isn't the only drawcard of this year-round playground, writes Carol West.

Standing in the Indian Room at Lake Tahoe's Cal Neva Resort, Spa and Casino with one foot in California, the other in Nevada, the state line runs between my feet. This was quite a useful architectural feature in the good old bad old days when gambling was prohibited in California. "The slots were on wheels so any time the cops raided the joint, the machines were pushed over to the Nevada side," says Karl, a staff member with an interest in mobsters, Marilyn Monroe and the macabre.

Opened in 1926, Cal Neva quickly became the playground for celebrities and socialites who wanted to play away from the public gaze. It also ran the gamut of illegal enterprises, from gangster-era prohibition to its glory days as the most profitable casino in the US when Frank Sinatra owned the place.

Despite Sinatra denying his reported mob connections, he bought the Cal Neva Lodge in 1960 with mob boss Sam Giancana as his silent partner. The licence was his as long as no criminals were allowed on the premises, which is kinda tricky when you're in business with one.

I've walked in Winston Churchill's shadow in Gibraltar's wartime tunnels but never expected to walk in Giancana's. Yet here I am, crammed in a rabbit warren of tunnels under the Cal Neva Casino feeling like Alice in mafia Wonderland. Two trap doors lead from Sinatra's office into tunnels left over from the 1920s prohibition days; the system was foolproof until one night in 1963, Giancana had a fight with the manager of his singer girlfriend, Phyllis McGuire. Someone called the police, the tunnels were discovered and the Nevada Gaming Control Board revoked Sinatra's licence, closing him down.

The Cal Neva was revived in the mid-'80s and is harnessing its heritage by tastefully revamping 200 lake-view rooms, cabins and chalets spread over nine floors; the most popular places to stay, however, are three modest bungalows with unimpeded views of Lake Tahoe.

"Frank's was No. 5 and he had a thing about the colour orange. Even his luggage was orange," Karl says, as we pause outside the clapboard cabin. Members of Sinatra's "Rat Pack" occupied cabin No. 4 while No. 3 was reserved for Monroe.

"One of the tunnels leads to an extra-large wardrobe in Marilyn's cabin, used for nocturnal visits by the Kennedys, who used to stay on the other side," Karl says.

The Frank Sinatra Celebrity Showroom, where the Rat Pack entertained Hollywood's elite, powerful politicians and babes, was built with a balcony over the stage where Sinatra's mobster mates could watch the show unseen by other diners. Sliding in to one of the plush red velvet booths, Karl gives me the skinny on seances he's held in the room. "The Godfather Part II filmed scenes here and the room's crawling with spirits from the past 80 years," he says. His "evidence" is smudgy outlines of white wraiths photographed on stage in the dead of night and sketchy sound recordings.

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I may be an avowed skeptic but all it takes for me to swim from California to Nevada and back again is a few strokes. The state line runs clean through Lake Tahoe, and the Cal Neva's modest pool, where guests enjoy cocktails in Nevada and dinner in California.

This split personality works for Lake Tahoe, a natural year-round playground that is a haven for sailing, while eight ski fields deliver Olympic-quality skiing and the lake's north shore brings a woodsy outdoors vibe with cafes, a cinema and classic alpine accommodation.

In Tahoe City, flower-filled bowers decorate clapboard shop fronts, quaint cafes and wood-fired pizza joints with faux Bavarian alpine exteriors. Strolling along the lakefront walk, plaques recount a Native American history where Washoe Indian families came to to fish, hunt, gather pine nuts and weave baskets. Today, as the wind ripples across the lake's 490-square-kilometre expanse, yacht club members gear up for a spot of sailing while ski and snowboard stores prepare for the snow.

Walking and cycling tracks fringe part of the lake, whose circumference of 114 kilometres is also one of the most beautiful drives in the US; we decide to head south on Highway 89 to Emerald Bay, one of the region's most photogenic locations.

By mid-afternoon, the wind drops and the lake glitters like polished sapphires. Plaques dotted around the lake suggest that, like Cal Neva, it holds a few secrets. One tells of the time Jacques Cousteau is believed to have dived here and found Model T Fords, human remains and even an elephant that had been lost overboard.

The Washoe built houses of interlocking poles covered with bark on Emerald Bay's shore long before heiress Lora Knight purchased 96 hectares for $250,000 and built her Scandinavian castle, Vikingsholm, in 1929.

Looking down on this gleaming slice of emerald perfection, it's easy to see why the Washoe still believe Lake Tahoe renews the spirit of those who visit.

The writer was the guest of V Australia and California Tourism.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

V Australia has direct flights to Los Angeles from Sydney, phone 138 287, see vaustralia.com.au. From LAX, take a domestic connection to Reno, Nevada, before hiring a car for the 90-minute drive to Lake Tahoe, California.

WHILE THERE

The 50-minute Sinatra tunnel tour at Cal Neva Resort, Spa and Casino costs about $8 and runs from Tuesday to Saturday, Cal Neva, 2 Stateline Road, Crystal Bay, Nevada, phone +1 800 225 6382, see calnevaresort.com.

FURTHER INFORMATION

See visitinglaketahoe.com.

To order a California brochure, drive guide or state map phone (02) 9361 0660, see visitcalifornia.com.au.

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