I’m just back from a couple of days on the road, where I headed up to Lake Tahoe. The trip was really a way for me to simply break things up for a bit, unplug and reset, and get out of the familiar for a bit while trying to focus on some planning and a special project.

Yes, one person organizations can benefit from retreats, too. Being a native California person who’s lived in Silicon Valley since the 1980s, I suppose it’s strange having to admit I can’t tell you the last time I was in Tahoe, but it was long enough ago that I don’t remember it, and visiting the place didn’t stir up any latent memories like I find happens.

One reason I went there was because I did want to get away from my tendency towards doing things by habit. I’d thought about heading down to Morro Bay again, or up into Oregon (again), and just didn’t find either trip that interesting. Most of the other ideas I had either involved more driving than I felt like doing or places heavily impacted by the ongoing wildfire problems here in the Western States. That’s when the “Why not Tahoe?” idea hit, and that settled things.

I ended up booking a room at Harvey’s, which is part of the Caesars group and right next door to its big brother Harrah’s. I went for one of the big hotels because it was easy and had everything close at hand (and I’d been thinking I might want to spend some time in the casino. More on that in a minute), including restaurants. I could literally never leave the place and do okay, or walk around to nearby places. I ended up at Harvey’s because it was enough cheaper that I figured what the heck.

I drove up Sunday, arriving 4ish after watching a long string of cars heading downhill at the end of their weekend (being able to do this mid-week has its advantages, one is cost).

Harvey’s Lake Tahoe: the Good

I got an upgraded room (2 queens, not cramped), which was large, comfortable and had a decent view both of the pool and the lake. Quite nice, actually, but you could tell this was an older building that’s been retrofitted, because the electrical outlets are in wonky places, but that’s why I always carry an extension cord.

First night I wanted to grab a quick bite and do some reading, so I wandered down to the Casino floor to the Sports Bar and had a rather good burger and an even better blonde beer on draft while watching the first half of the Cowboy’s game.

Dinner the second night was at Sage’s, which is an old-old-old school steakhouse. We’re talking black tie on the servers, lots of dark wood, lots of dark red fabric and the lights turned very low. They also did a Steak Diane, flambeed at your table, and lots of big hunks of meat. I ended up with the Onion Soup and an Elk Chop, which I was surprised to see; I haven’t had Elk since my Yosemite trip in 2014. The onion soup was quite good and not overly salted so someone cared about making it. The Elk was lean and delicious. I had a class of the Norton Malbec from Argentina with it and have no regrets at all.

The dessert menu was about what I expected: the Lava Cake, the Creme Brûlée, the Bananas foster bruleed at your table (but of course). It was exactly the kind of “classic” steakhouse you’d expect to see in a place catering to people who don’t often eat out at real steakhouses. Not a complaint: they treated the food well and I’d definitely eat there again.

Dinner the third night was at their other flagship Restaurant, 19, sitting not surprisingly on the 19th floor of one of the towers. I got an early seating, not my preference but it turns out the next convention was moving in and they were going to be full of larger party dinners most of the night. I ended up having their Caesar (people who know me know I eat many Caesars and judge harshly), then the 10oz Filet Mignon with a side of black truffled bacon Mac and cheese, and a Dutton-Goldfield Pinot Noir from the Russian River area.

The meal and wine were quite good and what I expect from a restaurant like this. I do want to comment on the Caesar a bit: they made it with a very tangy blue cheese instead of the more traditional parmesan. And you know what? It was outstanding. I’m going to steal this one..

Interesting side note: the menu at 19 noted their beef was dry-aged. Sages, the steakhouse, did not. Which I think points out Sages is aimed more at the “we’re upgrading tonight!” crowd. Being on the casino floor, not surprising.

So both of their higher end restaurants passed with flying colors with me. Not inexpensive, but I won’t complain.

I also ate — please don’t judge me — one lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe, mostly because it was right outside the elevator to me room so I didn’t have to walk through the casino to get there. The burger was decent but not as good as the one in the Sports Bar, but okay.

Overall the service was fine, the rooms were clean, the valets were quick and the experience was overall quite good.

Harvey’s Lake Tahoe: the Not So Good

With… a few exceptions.

Like most hotels like this, Harvey’s charges a mandatory resort fee, which is layered on top of your room price but doesn’t show up when you search on room pricing. Everyone does this these days, but I’m going to call it out because I think these kind of fees are pretty bogus. In my case, I got free wi-fi out of it and access to a fitness center I didn’t use. I will note that the Wi-fi was fast and reliable the entire trip, even on the free tier, which puts them ahead of many hotels.

I ended up not doing any gambling. Why? Because Harvey’s is one of the hotels that still allows smoking in the casino (and most other places). So my trips to various parts of the hotel, or when I went over to explore Harrah’s, mostly involved walking through the Casino to get someplace (because all roads lead through the Casino, of course), then back to my room to take a Sudafed. After a couple of trips I ended up trying to minimize my time on the casino floors because I like my sinuses, but between that and the wildfire smoke and the high altitude dry air, I was getting mini nosebleeds by day three and eating Sudafed a lot. That killed any interest in handing them money in the poker room or at a craps table. I will make this note: you know those huge curved monitors the uber nerds crave these days? They’re being turned to portrait mode and used in electronic slots. Really kind of fascinating and funky use of the technology, very “suck you into the action” type things.

One thing I was hoping to find was a social space I could go and hang out in for the Apple keynote; a bar or lounge with good light, or outside on a patio. Not a chance. All roads lead to and through the Casino. The lobby of Harvey’s is tiny, dark and underground, and the lobby hang out space had four chairs in it. The Starbucks near there had three 2 seat tables. And no windows anywhere. All of the bars were either embedded in a restaurant or tied to the edge of the Casino (and the smoky air). All of which, when you think about it, makes sense, but it makes for a kind of dark and inward looking building environment. Which is, when you think about it, what they want since they want you in the Casino and everything is designed to encourage you in that direction.

I ended up at a Starbucks a couple of blocks away, where I had breakfasts and did my hanging out, and it was quite nice.

One final criticism of Harvey’s (and Harrah’s): their signage sucks. It’s not “go here for this restaurant” as much as “wander around the casino until you find it”. It’s also not always clear which eatery does what: as far as I could tell, I needed to head over to Harrah’s to find breakfast (or head over to Starbucks). Harrah’s in theory has a 24 hour Starbucks, Harvey’s opened at 5:30AM, and the one a few blocks away had a real outside area that was nice to sit in…

Oh, and there is an IOS app for Harvey’s and Harrah’s. I found it pretty useless, basically web views and constantly pushing you to the web site for stuff. And I had to go to OpenTable to get menus that were remotely accurate and make reservations, because the app simply failed every time I tried.

When I return…

How to sum this up? When I return, will I stay there again? Maybe, depending on situations. My complaints are pretty minor, the room and food pretty good. But because of the Casino smoking, I expect probably not. Smoke Free casinos are not a hot item in Nevada…

I did some scouting and found the Best Western, sort of my default chain, and it looked quite good. Before choosing to stay at Harvey’s I almost made the reservation at the Beach Retreat and Lodge, and I expect when I go back, that’s where I’ll stay. But I could see staying at Harvey’s or Harrah’s again, too. I think it depends on the situation, time of year and what I’m trying to accomplish.

The rest of Tahoe

My first full day I used to explore; I actually went around the Lake twice, once in each direction, as well as out to Carson City and some random wandering through the streets of S. Lake Tahoe. I was rather impressed at how the area has avoided getting touristy in the bad ways you see in other places. It felt real and inviting, not artificial or money grabby. South Lake Tahoe has four larger hotels (the other two being a Hard Rock and the Montbleu resort) and lots of smaller places.

What really caught my attention, though, was the northern side of the Lake, around Tahoe City. It really reminded me of how things were when we had the family cabin outside of Poulsbo years ago, and it made me want to explore it more. That area feels a lot more like where I want to be, but I’ll need to investigate it to figure out what I might want to do. At first blush, I’d say if I’m headed to Tahoe for a few days like I just did, a place in South would be best, but I’m loving the idea of renting a cabin on the north side for a couple of weeks. We’ll see what might happen down the road.

The primary thing you’ll see if you visit Tahoe today is: road work. Going around the Lake I think I ran into seven or eight work zones. Not surprising given they need to get it all done before the weather and winter kick in, but it does slow your transit a bit. I was also a bit disappointed, but not surprised, at how much of the lake seems to be behind fences and gates, especially on the Nevada side. On the other hand, I thought it’d be fun to rent a boat and grab the camera and see what I could find…

The rest of the trip

There was a bit more to the trip. Day 2 was the day of the Apple iPhone announcements, so I ended up grabbing a coffee at Starbucks, settling into the lobby in one of those four chairs and watching the iPhone event on the iPad so they could clean up my room for me. Then lunch at Hard Rock and back to the room, because I had work to do.

Because the reason I wanted to head off was that I’ve decided to dust off the novel and I wanted some “unplugged and away from everything” time to focus on building out the outline and deciding if the idea really was worth writing. The drive up gave me time to sit and think it all through and so I spent the rest of my 2nd day in the room typing away and complaining to myself, but I ended up with a good draft of an outline, and a whole bunch of unknowns and things I need to sort out. But I like it. I’ve also signed up for Nanowrimo to encourage me to schedule time to actually write it.

What is it? It’s the book I was working on when I decided to stop writing many years ago. I’ve spent the last couple of months digging out and going over my old notes on it, and then throwing them all out, because I’m not remotely the person I was then, and I’m a much better writer, too (or so I think). But the idea is sound and still relevant, so what the heck. Without giving too much away, here’s the open to the outline:

Marowan is a fantasy quest novel.

The world of Marowan is one where the Gods exist and sometimes visit humans and interact with them and grant boons, and the humans really wish they wouldn’t.

Consider the behavior of the classic Roman and Greek Gods; much of what the legends tell us are activities that most people would want to stay far away from. Because of this, the religions of the world have evolved into elaborate ceremonies honoring the gods and imploring them to please grant the wishes — of someone else.

It doesn’t always work; the book opens during one such ceremony being done as part of a celebration of the impending wedding of the happy couple TBD and TBD.

Suddenly in the sky the Godmount appears, floating in the clouds in the distance, and starts growing in the sky as it nears. Suddenly there’s a clap of thunder, and standing amid the members of the wedding party the god TBD appears.

And we’ll see how this evolves. And I’ll talk about it more when it makes sense to. But in reality, this is a case of “if not now, when?” and I’ve been wrestling with it on and off for months, and finally decided that this was where I wanted to focus my time and energy for now.

Getting out of Dodge

And I woke up way too early Wednesday, got in the car and drove home. I’d originally thought I might side trip over to Bodie, but in reality that would take a 4 hour drive and turn it into an 8 hour drive and between the weather (the weird storms that hit the Bay Area hit Tahoe as well with rain and lightning and winds) and my sinuses, I decided Bodie could wait (again). Maybe just as well, because a bit after I got home, word arrived that there was a funnel cloud — tornado — on the Lake, so the crazy weather got crazier and perhaps getting up way too early and leaving wasn’t a bad strategy…

Oh, and before anyone asks, didn’t even take out the camera once. I carried my stuff, of course, but the plan was to focus on writing, and I never saw anything that made me feel like taking it out and chasing a shot. But I did get some ideas of things I might chase in a future visit. This, of course, doesn’t surprise me, because I rarely shoot landscapes well from the hip. I need to look, think, and plan…

Not sure when I’ll get back to Tahoe, but it’ll be a much shorter time before I do than this trip was. And I can’t even explain why it hasn’t been on my radar for a place to visit…