The historic railroad stop-turned-ski town of Truckee hasn't just made a comeback from the recession. It has catapulted back with enough energy to prompt Sunset, National Geographic and Travel & Leisure magazines, among others, to recently rank it among the best ski towns in the West.
And you don't get one of those rankings without having plenty of "amenities and culture" beyond the ski slopes, as one article put it.
But who needs their endorsement when you can experience it for yourself?
The "March miracle" that Truckee residents and merchants had been hoping for after a spate of dry days indeed made an appearance, sparking a stampede of powder hounds back up the hill.
As the first flakes drifted down at the highest altitudes, snowmobile tour operator Larry Hahn, whose Coldstream Adventures takes clients to beauty spots in the High Sierra, was among many who breathed a sigh of relief. "Tomorrow, we'll be back to business as usual," he said.
Indeed, the next morning, residents of Truckee woke up to a winter wonderland.
Snow or no snow, visitors to Truckee will find a smorgasboard of activities to keep them engaged in the mountain lifestyle.
"The mountains, the clean air, all the fun stuff to do outdoors ... it keeps you young," says Daron Rahlves, the former alpine racer who is now the name behind Rahlves Banzai Tour, a high-profile ski- and boarder-cross competition that concludes March 15-16 at Sugar Bowl.
Outdoor activities aside, infrequent visitors to Truckee will notice that many new shops and restaurants have blossomed downtown, filling storefronts that went dark during the downturn. Raised planters, sidewalk pavers and small trees wrapped in twinkling white lights line streets that date to the 1870s. And, alas, with the changes came paid parking.
Among new dining spots earning buzz this season is Marg's Taco Bistro, the fourth location for owner Kevin Sloane, who found a successful formula in three Denver outlets serving internationally inspired cuisine -- Mexican, Indian, Vietnamese, Korean, Greek, Italian -- presented in fresh, homemade tortillas. It's not all tacos, however: the shrimp-stuffed poblano pepper is a standout among appetizer selections, while the habanero margarita delivers a potent, eye-opening punch. Marg's, located downtown on the north side of Donner Pass Road, sports roll-up doors that will open in summer onto a covered patio with outdoor seating.
More modest in scale, with indoor seating for only a dozen customers, is Morgan's Lobster Shack & Fish Market, which opened last summer for just a few weeks before the interior was gutted by fire. Repairs took five months, but owners Shawn and Heather Whitney, a young couple from the East Coast, got an enthusiastic reception when they hung up their welcoming lobster buoys and reopened in January. Walls in the tiny restaurant are decorated with photos of Maine lobster shacks (Heather has family in the business), and fresh seafood is flown in six days a week. "Everything else we try to buy locally," Shawn says.
Small it may be, but Morgan's fills a gaping hole in the Truckee restaurant scene. Its menu includes generously stuffed lobster rolls (the California version is dressed up with avocado and Sriracha); succulent crab cakes; several chowders and stews; and a lobster/bacon mac 'n' cheese dish that takes comfort food to decadent new levels. On a more nutritious scale, the menu board invites customers to pick their fish (halibut, scallops, salmon, lobster, etc.), choose a cooking method (grilled, fried, sautéed or steamed), select a seasoning (eight choices, from blackened to Greek) and have it served as a sandwich, a wrap or atop salad greens.
In summer, Morgan's will sprout outdoor umbrella tables with Truckee River views and seating for about 40.
Elsewhere downtown, Moody's Bistro & Lounge, a cornerstone of the Truckee dining scene for more than a decade, has new investors who have made a few changes and also have pumped money into renovating the upstairs Truckee Hotel.
The restaurant, re-branded Moody's Bistro Bar & Beats, now sports an inviting sidewalk seating area with bright-red Adirondack chairs and blazing fire pits. A revised menu retains old favorites and adds new dishes such as a starter, billed simply as "avocado, farm egg, pork belly," that adds up to far more than its understated description.
Moody's continues to showcase a diverse group of musical talent on weekends, with an emphasis on jazz. Across the street, the lively Bar of America and Pacific Crest Grill have merged into a single entity serving a casual, unified menu. Just next door is the newish Restaurant Trokay, which has expanded from a tiny bakery to a noteworthy restaurant taking reservations weeks in advance for its French-inspired New American cuisine.
Visitors in search of inspiring libations in Truckee will find haven at two seductive new wine bars and shops, Uncorked Truckee on the main drag and Pour House Wine Shop & Tasting Bar a block over on Jiboom Street.
New since December is Truckee Oil & Spice, an olive-oil and vinegar tasting room in the iconic Flying A gas-station building on the south side of Donner Pass Road. Owner/manager Gail Ozanich, inspired by travel to Tuscany, has more than 50 varieties of oils and vinegars from around the world on display in shiny stainless-steel containers called fustis.
Visitors can tap them for tastes served in tiny paper cups -- or, better yet, ask Ozanich to suggest a pairing such as baklouti pepper-infused olive oil from Tunisia blended with ginger balsamic vinegar from Italy, which makes a great basting sauce for chicken or fish.
New boutiques also have made an appearance in downtown Truckee -- Kitsch for hipster clothing, Bespoke for artisan jewelry and accessories, California 89, Nox and Tahoe Blu among them. Riverside Studios, an artists' collaborative that has been around a few years, has a new partner in Pat Blide, who produces sculptures in iron and has watched business stay surprisingly strong all winter despite the snow drought.
Blide and other merchants credit mild weather, clear roads and pent-up demand for a record Christmas season, packed Presidents Day weekend and fairly steady business in between. "Over Christmas," he says, "I counted 55 people in here at once. You could barely walk down the sidewalk; it was like a New York City street."
Given the new snow, there are bound to be more days like that.
Contact Janet Fullwood at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lodging: Lots of choices, from the five-star Ritz-Carlton Lake Tahoe (www.ritzcarlton.com/laketahoe) at Northstar California to funky cottage places. In Truckee's downtown dining and entertainment district, the recently renovated Truckee Hotel (www.truckeehotel.com) and nearby River Street Inn (www.riverstreetinntruckee.com) are within walking distance of all the action. On Highway 267, Cedar House Sport Hotel (www.cedarhousesporthotel.com), with its sleek, Euro furnishings, avant-garde restaurant and recreational programming, is a refreshing change from the norm. More economical but plenty comfy is Hampton Inn & Suites (www.hamptoninntruckee.com), where free Wi-Fi and a hot breakfast are included in the rates.
Dining: New kids on the block include Marg's Taco Bistro (www.margstacobistro.com) and Morgan's Lobster Shack (www.morganslobstershack.com). For pizza and salad, Best Pies (www.bestpiestruckee.com) can't be beat. Fine-dining venues on downtown's main drag include Restaurant Trokay (restauranttrokay.com), Dragonfly (www.dragonflycuisine.com) and Pianeta (pianetarestauranttruckee). A short drive away are the stellar Stella (www.cedarhousesporthotel.com/stella), the historic Cottonwood Restaurant & Bar (www.cottonwoodrestaurant.com) on a hill above town, and the elegant Lodge at Tahoe Donner (www.tahoedonner.com/the-lodge).
Nightlife: Catch live music at Moody's Bistro Bar & Beats (www.moodysbistro.com), Bar of America (www.barofamerica.com), Cottonwood (www.cottonwoodrestaurant.com) and other downtown venues.
Shopping: Park in the lot beside the train station, feed the meter and let serendipity be your guide.
Just for kids: The Truckee Ice Rink (www.tdrpd.com) in Truckee River Regional Park, a half-mile from downtown, offers public skating daily.
Woodward Tahoe (www.woodwardtahoe.com) at Boreal, about 20 minutes west of Truckee on Interstate 80, is an action-sports training center with trampolines, BMX/skate park, skate/ski ramps and programs for all ages.
Alpine skiing/boarding closest to Truckee: Northstar California (www.northstarcalifornia.com); purchase tickets online three or more days in advance for best deals. Sugar Bowl (www.sugarbowl.com) now sells one-day advance-purchase tickets at a discount. Squaw-Alpine (www.squaw.com; www.alpinemeadows.com) offers skiing at two resorts on one ticket; check websites for discount deals. For more short-notice discount deals, check in with Liftopia.com and GetSkiTickets.com.
Nordic skiing: Tahoe Donner Cross-Country (tahoedonner.com/cross-country), with 100 kilometers of groomed trails, is about 15 minutes from downtown Truckee.
Good for a stroll: The Truckee River Legacy Trail (www.legacytrail.org) includes a paved, multiuse trail and a dirt path running 2.5 miles from Truckee River Regional Park northeast along the river.
Events: Rahlves Banzai Tour (www.rahlvesbanzai.com) is a skier- and boarder-cross event with an $80,000 purse; final sessions are March 8-9 at Alpine Meadows and March 15-16 at Sugar Bowl. Spectator access requires a lift ticket. North Lake Tahoe SnowFest (www.tahoesnowfestival.com) features wacky events at various locations; through March 9.