Monday, August 11, 2008

Lake Tahoe's Emerald Bay and Vikingsholm

My fascination with international travel sometimes blinds me to the superb natural beauty just a short drive from my own house. I dream of hiking in the Swiss Alps and revisiting Austria’s Lake District, but I often forget that some of the world’s best places are so close. Last week, I decided it was time to go to Lake Tahoe, and visit the part I feel is the most beautiful, Emerald Bay.

While Tahoe has a host of lodgings, from the cheap to the quaint to the luxurious, this trip was all about camping. My family and I stayed at the D.L. Bliss campground, which is just a short drive from Emerald Bay, and walking distance to the lake in general.

We arrived to the news that bears were frequenting the campground, and I was ecstatic. I’ve only seen one bear in the wild, and I wanted to get a good shot with my new camera. Eating lunch at the Old Tahoe Café in Homewood a bit later, we saw pictures on the wall of when a bear had stopped by in April, sneaked in the back door just after the lunch rush and made himself at home. We drove back to camp to set up, and I kept my eyes open for one.

Reluctantly leaving the possibility of seeing a bear, we went to Emerald Bay. Standing at the overlook above Vikingsholm, I gazed out across the long, narrow inlet with Fanette Island rising prominently out of the deep blue water. Sailboats, a paddle-wheeler and a bevy of kayaks and powerboats cruised and darted throughout it, and the tree-covered mountains rose above the shores.

As darkness fell, we drove to the next overlook, a short jaunt down Highway 89. Having gotten our fill of Emerald Bay for the day, we headed to Southshore to eat at a brewpub and saw the sunset from the nearby beach.

Back at camp, sitting around the fire an hour later, I had my camera ready to get a great shot of the bear I was hoping would be attracted by the dogs’ food. I grew tired, and decided the bear would have to wait for another day. I stepped out onto the campground’s road and looked up to see the Milky Way.

Staring at the stars is one of my favorite pastimes when camping, and though I’m no astronomer, I like locating the major constellations while I wait to see a falling star or a satellite passing by. After two falling stars and one satellite, my neck was aching from staring up, and I was really, really tired.

The next morning, we all rented kayaks and paddled around Meeks Bay, then went back to Emerald Bay to do something I have always wanted to, but haven’t in the 25 years I’ve lived so close.

On the shore of Emerald Bay at the shortest distance to Fanette Island sits a structure that looks like it was transplanted from the colder regions of Europe, and that was exactly the idea when Lora J. Knight had the house built in 1929.

Knight was a wealthy woman who seems to have been as obsessed with travel as I am. She had traveled to many foreign countries, including those in Scandinavia. Emerald Bay reminded her of the fjords in those countries, and she was determined to recreate the architecture and style of the buildings there and live in the result in California. To make sure she and her nephew, the architect, got it right, they traveled back to Scandinavia and took photographs of a multitude of buildings.

The foundation was laid in 1928, but did not get any further until 1929, when a construction crew numbering from as little as 25 at times to as many as 200 at others finished the house and the small 16’X16’ tea house on Fanette Island which can still be visited by boat today. She called her new home Vikingsholm.

The hike down to Vikingsholm follows a winding path that isn’t quite a road. I was there on a Saturday, and it was very crowded, with parking at a premium. After finally finding a spot, I followed the path down the mountain. Evergreens rose on both sides, and the wildlife scampered across the ground and flitted from tree to tree.

As I passed a family carrying lunch down to the shore, I noticed everyone was speaking French. It turned out that they were from Paris and were there on vacation. It was a great reminder that Lake Tahoe remains one of California’s premier attractions.

When I reached the base of the mountain, I walked a short distance along a winding path through the trees to come to the stone and wood Vikingsholm. Though I had seen the front side from the overlook several times over the years, I never knew that the home was so big, set up in castle fashion with an interior courtyard, servants quarters and a garage housing a 1936 Dodge.

It cost a paltry $5 to get in and take the tour, and it was well worth it. The guides explained the sights and furniture, some of which is original and some of which was reproduced during the 1920s to mimic Scandinavian designs.

One thing I was truly amazed at was the scope of Knight’s generosity. She was fantastically wealthy, but apparently didn’t let it get to her head at all. Though it was the height of the Great Depression, Knight kept a full household staff – in duplicate so they could have days off. She gave her workers paid holidays and even financed their downtime in the Tahoe Tavern in Tahoe City (which has since burned down). She set up some of her servants’ children with college funds and allowed their families to visit them at her home. She even willed them all $1,000 for each year of service that they received when she died in 1945.

The generosity evident at Vikingsholm isn’t just limited to Knight. The second long-term owner was a man named Harvey West. He agreed to donate half of the appraised value of the site to the state if the state would pay the other half. The state readily agreed, and took ownership in 1953 for a bargain.

As I walked through the carved wood door with its iron strap hinges so reminiscent of fairy tales, I appreciated what an effort went into building the house. The materials all came from nearby, and it turned out that my great-grandfather worked at the mill where much of the wood came from at the time the house was built. I ran my fingers along a portion of the wall and found myself wondering if I could be touching the same piece of wood as one of my ancestors whom I never had the fortune of meeting.

The décor inside was authentic to Scandinavian designs, and it was a perfect way to get a sense of what Scandinavia is really like since going there doesn’t exactly fit into my current budget and plans.

Once I was done touring the inside, I stepped into the courtyard and shook my head in wonder at the sod roofs on some of the buildings. They replicate a Scandinavian style, and used to sprout wildflowers, though they no longer do, at least until they are restored. Above the roofs rose the ever-present mountain views Tahoe is fortunate to have. Rocky peaks reached skyward a couple thousand feet above me, and I could imagine I was actually in one of the fjords Lora Knight was reminded of when she envisioned Vikingsholm.

When it was time to go home, I couldn’t believe that it took me 25 years and so many trips to Lake Tahoe that I’ve honestly lost count before I visited Vikingsholm. Not only are the stories of Lora Knight and Harvey West inspiring, but the serenity of the natural surroundings is second to none. And, speaking of nature, I never did see that bear, though I did get to see a great sunset when I wandered from the camp in search of one of the beasts.

1 comment:

Natasha said...

I love Emerald Bay! It so beautiful. And I love that walk down to the shore. Good times for sure.