My family usually likes to travel on a moderate budget, but every now and then, we find opportunities for a little luxury travel. One of our favorite spots for a splurge is the Ritz-Carlton at Lake Tahoe, which is located on the ski slopes at Northstar California.
During the height of ski season, the hotel averages about $800-$900 a night for the most basic rooms. Yikes! We have always avoided having empty wallets by cashing in Marriott points instead (Ritz and Marriott are partners). At 50,000 points a night, it isn’t exactly a value, but we are often swimming in Marriott points and like using them for a true splurge.
We had the chance to spend a weekend at Northstar in February and stay in this hotel again. Our stay coincided with the last few days of Northern California’s ski week, when many schools take a week-long break. Northstar is usually flooded with families of school age kids during Ski Week, and this weekend was no exception.
Our stay was quite good, but that is to be expected for a hotel as nice as the Ritz. We did notice some service lapses that were not present during our first stay at the hotel in 2011. When a hotel charges $800+ a night, its guests expect something close to perfection, and we definitely thought there was room for a little improvement. Perhaps the crowded ski week was partially to blame, but the hotel should be able to function at full capacity without lapses.
Now down to the details…
Rooms at the hotel are very spacious and comfortable, which is great for a family of three or four sharing a room. Our room had two queen beds, a sitting area with two armchairs (and a fireplace!), a desk, and room for Baby C’s hotel-sized crib next to the window. The bathroom is well laid out, with double sinks, a tub so large your child can go swimming in it, a shower, and a separate toilet area with door.
My only critique is that I wished that the hotel had more drawer space. There was ample hanging space, but I think most ski clothes are of the type that you want to shove into a drawer rather than take the time to hang. And I certainly needed more drawer space for the kids’ clothing.
There are a few places to eat at the hotel itself. Manzanita is the hotel’s high-end restaurant. We didn’t spring for it this time since we had small children, but we did notice quite a few families eating there.
The main place to eat is the Ritz-Carlton lobby itself (“The Living Room”). You can sit down on one of the couches or at the smallish round tables that sprinkle the lobby, and a waiter will come take your order. Fare in the lobby is high-end pub food: burgers, salads, sandwiches, etc. We found the food to be quite good, but we ate there several times and wished the menu had been a bit more varied and extensive. If you are there for more than a night or two, you will certainly tire of it quickly.
There is also a BBQ joint located outside on the back patio where skiers often grab lunch. And there is a small cafe near the lobby open for breakfast with coffee, bagels, breakfast sandwiches, and the like.
Service was generally quite good. Sometimes, I feel uncomfortable and out of place at high-end hotels where staff can come off as snooty, but the Ritz staff successfully walks the fine line between being formal and respectful while still being genuinely nice and accessible.
I did have a few critiques of the service, however. On this trip, we thought the hotel was a bit short-staffed in places. We waited in lines and sometimes had to look for someone to help us. I know things were busy because of ski week, but if I had actually been paying the rack rate of $800 or $900 a night, I would have been annoyed. And we aren’t the tough customers who probably frequent Ritz-Carltons!
The second critique comes from the front desk’s inability to just level with me on the day of our check-in. Here’s what happened: we arrived about 3 hours before the 4:00 pm check-in time on Friday. With it being ski week, we certainly weren’t expecting to be able to get into our room that early, but it never hurts to ask. When we asked if our room might be ready early, the front desk clerk told us “Housekeeping is servicing that room right now, but I really can’t say for sure. We’ll call you on your cell phone when it is ready.” We went upstairs and had a meal, and checked in with him more than an hour later. Same answer. At this point, I just wanted a ballpark estimate so I could know whether to put the baby in the carrier for a nap or wait a few more minutes so he could nap in a crib in the room. Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t get the clerk to utter anything but the same platitudes. I suspected he really didn’t know what housekeeping was doing. I tried with him again an hour later, but got the same response. Finally, we were notified that our room was ready about 5 minutes before the 4:00 pm check in time. This was a small lapse, but it was just annoying to continually get worthless and non-committal answers for 3 hours straight. I would have much preferred that he simply tell me initially that they were very busy and would try to have our room ready early, but that it was likely going to be close to check-in time before he would have us in a room. That way, I wouldn’t have been sitting around in the lobby for 3 hours thinking that the room was going to be ready in the next 15 minutes, again and again and again.
The final service lapse was in the lobby restaurant. We often sat down and waited quite awhile before we saw a waiter who could come serve us. Since the lobby is a hybrid of a lobby and a restaurant, I think the staff sometimes has trouble distinguishing between someone who was sitting down to rest and someone who was sitting down to eat. In any event, having more eyes out on the floor would solve this problem.
The Ski Amenities
The best part about staying at the Ritz in Lake Tahoe is that you never touch your skis. The staff takes them off of your car as you pull into the hotel to check-in and passes them off to the hotel’s Ski Concierge. When you are ready to hit the slopes, you pick up your boots just steps away from the slopes at a convenient desk right next to the hotel’s ski shop. You then walk a few steps outside, where the ski valet will have your skis waiting and will put them on the snow for you. Snap them on and start skiing.
If you’ve gone skiing with small children before, you likely know just how hard it is to lug all their gear plus your own through parking lots, ski resort villages, and onto gondolas and lifts. We didn’t do one bit of that at the Ritz, and that is (almost) priceless.
For those of you who need to rent ski equipment and buy lift tickets, the Ritz couldn’t be more convenient. There is a separate ski shop (run by Northstar) right in the hotel and they can handle all the same transactions as the ski shop at the base of Northstar’s gondola. We rented our daughter’s skis there on the day of our arrival. The shop is much less hectic than the main shop at the bottom of the Northstar gondola in the village.
The Other Amenities
Our family is a family of skiers, so we don’t spend much time on other amenities when we are at a ski resort. We did take a dip in the hot tub after a long day on the slopes and enjoyed that a lot. The hotel has a sizable pool area on the back patio of that includes a large heated pool, small kids pool, and two hot tubs (one is adults only, although we saw lots of families ignoring the signs).
There is a bar area near the pool, but it unfortunately closes too early for my taste. By the time we got off the slopes and into our bathing suits, the bar was shut for the night, even though it was well before dinner time. Not exactly ideal for those who want to grab an apres ski beer while relaxing in the hot tub. I certainly can’t be alone in wanting to do that, right?
The hotel also has a very large fitness center (my thighs were burning too much from the skiing to work out though), and an award winning spa at the hotel. Since I was nursing a little one, I didn’t have a chance to take a break for a massage at the spa. Next trip!
But the bottom line is that if skiing isn’t your cup of tea, don’t swear off the Ritz at Lake Tahoe. There are still plenty of things to keep you busy.
The Final Word
We give the Ritz a B+ for this trip. We’ll definitely be back, but we aren’t likely to stay there if we are paying cash unless the price comes down a bit.