The Sierra's Crown Jewels
Look out over the north shore of glistening Lake Tahoe this August and you’ll undoubtedly squint. The vast body of crystal mountain water shines, as do the nearby snow-topped Sierra Mountains. And then there’s the impressive glare generated by sunlight reflecting off the 20 or so coats of varnish applied to many of the dozens of pristine and fabulously expensive, show-ready, wood speedboats. The boats you see are here are at the end of their annual migration to the Lake Tahoe Concours d’Elegance, a highly contested competition, now in its 42nd year, that features some of the world’s finest and most beautifully preserved waterborne craft. While judges begin their duties on the preceding Thursday, the show is open to the public all day on Friday and Saturday, August 8 and 9. Walking the docks, as well as chatting with these prized boats’ restorers and owners, instantly transports a viewer back to an earlier era where vessels were as prized for their meticulous details and handcrafted workmanship as their size and speed.
San Franciscans reverently speak of the lake and its surroundings simply as Tahoe, and the term has been in the Bay Area vernacular for over a half-century. Lake Tahoe, which lies approximately 200 miles northeast of San Francisco (or about an hour’s drive from the RenoTahoe International Airport), straddles the California-Nevada border and is the second-deepest lake in the United States with an average depth of 1,000 feet. At 22 miles long by 12 miles wide, the lake is also vast, and it sits amid many small towns and communities as well as 72 miles of shoreline.
Native Americans were early Tahoe inhabitants, and by the beginning of the 20th century mining and railway industries brought more attention and people to the pristine, high-elevation (6,200 feet) waters. Many of the first Tahoe enthusiasts to build vacation homes on the lakeshore among the granite boulders and evergreens were the Bay Area’s elite and very wealthy. They also brought boats, including the wood speedboats that enjoyed a heyday from the 1930s to the 1950s. At the time the boats were costly— they could be as expensive as a house—and would ultimately become toys for silverscreen celebrities such as Elizabeth Taylor and Brigitte Bardot. Helping fuel the boom; Tahoe’s dry alpine air proved hospitable to the wood boats, which in more humid conditions were susceptible to rotting. Time ticked by, Squaw Valley’s Winter Olympics in 1960 came and went, and fiberglass emerged as a superior material for making speedboat hulls. Then in the summer of 1972, a dozen or so owners of wood boats along the lake brought their old rigs together for drinks and a casual gathering along the shores of Homewood, a west Tahoe community.
Since then, the meeting place, the scope of the meeting and the Tahoe area have all changed. Now called the Lake Tahoe Concours d’Elegance, the threeday affair is yet one more compelling attraction in a summer playground that nowadays tempts visitors with worldclass mountain biking, lake-view golf courses and spa treatments at the RitzCarlton. The Concours is currently held at Homewood’s Obexer’s Boat Company, which coincidentally became Tahoe’s first wood-boat dealership back in 1928. The Tahoe Yacht Club Foundation, the nonprofit organization that hosts the Concours, saw about 60 boats entered last year and expects roughly 50 entries this year. In 2013, approximately 5,000 people gladly paid $25 to $35 each to enjoy intimate looks at the exotic collection of polished wood and gleaming chrome. “We had entries that came from as far east as Florida and as far north as Seattle,” says Tahoe Yacht Club Foundation president Dave Olson. “The Tahoe show is known as shutterstock one of the most prestigious of all.”
Spend an afternoon or two at the wood-boat show and your eyes will encounter beauty that’s as seamless as the massive lake. The Tahoe show stands apart from the dozens of other woodboat shows held annually across the country because much of the watercraft you’ll encounter are a step far beyond what are called “user boats,” or boats that may be well-loved but are also regularly used. Many of the Concours boats, courtesy of careful restoration and/or preservation, are really pristine objets d’art and are judged appropriately. Boats don’t necessarily win awards at Tahoe when they’re better than the competition. They win for having been preserved at—or more likely returned to—showroom condition, even if those boats haven’t seen a showroom for a century. Walk down to the dock during the show and the first thing you’ll notice is the deep, rich wood used on the boats’ decks and hulls. You won’t find prettier wood on a Steinway. Whether it’s Spanish cedar, Honduran mahogany or timber from the Philippines, the vessels’ wood skins glisten under layers of marine varnish. The silhouettes are equally diverse and fetching. Some boat transoms are squared off , while others are rounded or shaped like torpedoes. There are many types of boats on display, from lakers, launches and runabouts to commuters. The boats can come with one, two and even three “cockpits,” or compartments with seats. Entries run as small as 16 feet and well over 30. Spotless chrome and brass hardware and trim shine brilliant against the deep blue sky. The engines gleam, as well. In fact, it’s really the unseen and seemingly prosaic mechanicals inside the motors that command the most attention and respect from the Concours connoisseurs and judges.
“Engines are the biggest challenge to restore. Back when these boats were built there were a wide variety of manufacturers,” says Terry Fiest, who’s been the Concours d’Elegance’s chief judge since 2008. “It’s hardest to come by the old parts.” Between the efforts made to scour docks, marinas and barns for usable parts, and the time and labor involved in custom fabrication of whatever can’t be found, Fiest says that an engine rebuild can cost upwards of $100,000. Complete, Concours-ready boats can take years to prepare and are valued anywhere from $40,000 to more than $700,000. Some boats featured at Tahoe are one-of-akind. Others might only have been made for one year as part of a limited edition, 100-unit production run.
Like Tahoe itself, some of the Concours boats seem almost too good to be true, and occasionally, in fact, they are. For all of the owners’ painstaking restoration eff orts, their boats may no longer carry the identities they once did. Sometimes engines are “overrestored” according to Fiest, with brass and copper parts that have been polished to look better than the original stock. “We always have to ask, ‘How close is it to how it left the original factory?’” Fiest says, who has competed in the Concours himself, and knows the anxiety of a snooping judge deducting points on a score sheet. “What we’re always looking for is authenticity.” The best in show is therefore the craft that best captures a very special place in time on the lake, back when it was less crowded, slower, quieter, but no less spectacular. If you’re lucky enough, you will be there when an owner fi res up the engine, and if you close your eyes, listen to the simple, throaty rumble of the engine and breathe in the crisp, clear air, you’ll transport yourself back to a simpler, and dare I say, more elegant time on Lake Tahoe.
Playground of the Fit:
Bike: Rent a mountain bike and ride the spectacular 22-mile (round-trip) Flume Trail high above the east side of the lake.
Golf: Tee off at the Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course, on Tahoe’s south shore.
Spa: Choose from the skin, water, touch and nail therapies available at The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe, located at the Northstar California Ski Resort near Truckee, Calif.
Dine: Make reservations cat Zagat-rated Evan’s American Gourmet Café, in South Lake Tahoe, for excellent seafood entrées and its wine selection.
Hike: Local favorites include hikes around the lake’s iconic Emerald Bay and up,-foot Mt. Tallac in the Desolation Wilderness. “Gamble: The casino at the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe, situated along the lake’s gorgeous northeast shore, is a scenic drive from either of Inspirato’s luxury destinations in the area.
Make Yourself at Home:
Lake Tahoe Squaw Valley or Northstar at Tahoe? Members can take their pick. The 5,000-square-foot Apex Signature Residence in Squaw Valley hosts 10 guests spread between five bedrooms in a secluded mountain-side setting. At Northstar, three Inspirato Signature Residences with two- or three-bedroom options await members who want to be at the center of the ski area’s summer activities. Both locations are a scenic drive to the crystal blue waters of Lake Tahoe.
Andie Johnson’s picks Inspirato Personal Vacation Advisor
Eat: Drive a car or rent a boat and cruise to the dock for lunch at Sunnyside Restaurant on the lake and take in one of the best views you can find in Tahoe.
Day Trip: The aerial tram at Squaw Valley takes you to 8,200 feet and the High Camp Pool and Spa. Take a dip, soak in the hot tub and breathe in the crisp, cool air.