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Travel: Lake Tahoe

This is a tale of clandestine tunnels, a lake called Tahoe and, maybe, a goddess, with a cast of supporting 20th-century beefcake to spice up the action.

Well, that's my story.

Tahoe for most of us means a fabulous winter distraction surrounded by mountains and forests, a playground for ski nuts spoilt for choice on the picturesque pistes of its dozen resorts. Whether you cartwheel down the runs like a Mr Bean or perform like a 007 stuntman, there's a slope to make you buzz.

I've been there, done that - carving a track in a snowmobile to view sunset from the peaks of the eastern rim, or bumping and slaloming down the intermediate runs of Tahoe Donner to the north or, hairier still, at Sierra-at-Tahoe tackling the runaway tailormade snowboarding runs of the south. Other seasons are also available.

Early summer is my favourite. The sheets of ice that form a rink around the edge of the wintry lake suddenly crack and split into float-away giant wafers. Mountain peaks are etched by a swathe of perfect blue sky. It is hard not to blink.

"Looks like picture-postcard candy," growls Ernie, a fellow aficionado of all things bountiful. I had met him the night before, propping up a bar in the neighbouring town. It is 10am and Ernie is tanked - in the great tradition of dissolute living that marked Tahoe's heyday, the sixties.

The lake before us divides invisibly - Nevada to the east, California to the west. Across that divide sprang up the Cal/Neva Resort, where we're staying, a famous gambling den with connections to the Mafia. It was here, at the Cal/Neva, that sex and gambling fell in love and attracted some of the biggest names on the Hollywood A-list to come and make whoopee.

Cue the tunnel, the goddess, the icons. Ernie and I are taking a tour of a lakeside cabin, not as strange as it may seem, and not just any cabin either. Ernie is staring out the window at sailboats. I am staring at the wall. The image of the poster-girl of her era is smiling back at me, looking voluptuous. "This is the cabin we know she stayed in," says the guide, Cynthia. 'Though not in that bed. Frank had the cabin right next door."

The Frank in question is Frank Sinatra. The "she" is Marilyn Monroe. Whose bed she slept in and what they got up to on long winter nights here does not require imagination. "It's rumoured that Frank sometimes loaned the cabin to his buddy, John F Kennedy. Shall we go inspect the canoodling nest?" says the guide.

Frank's cabin is darker, the view less spectacular. No picture of Frank hogs the wall. "But something more interesting," says the guide, who knows the Cal/Neva's salacious history like a night owl. "Here, in the corner, stood a closet." She pauses. "Behind it, coming up from directly below was Frank's secret tunnel." We picture Frank coming out of the closet into the room. We picture Marilyn, purring in readiness. "Let's visit the tunnel," Cynthia says.

She takes us through the Cal/Neva's casino to the cabaret auditorium. "When Frank had finished his set, he dashed off stage, down into the tunnel - and straight to … bed."

Cynthia, tall and flaxen and willowy, is more glamorous than the tunnel, which is lit with naked lights and has walls of breeze block, and trips with pipes and electric wires. To think of Sinatra here, high from the gig, his famous blue eyes already excited, is not romantic. "It's rather sad," says Cynthia, pausing at the only point of interest. Gouged on the wall, the initials AG are gathering dust. "Ava Gardner, the love of Frank's life. He carved them himself and never got over her," says Cynthia. "She dumped him."

"Let's get a drink," suggests Ernie. "Have fun boys," says Cynthia, packing up her anecdotes. "This is supposed to be a fun palace, after all."

Ernie goes off to drown Frank's sorrows. I head for the pool beneath the rays of the sinking sun. The pool has been built to bestride the state line. Taking the plunge, I glide underwater from California into Nevada, coming up to partake of the fabulous lakeside vista, to think about dinner, a spot of blackjack perhaps, and a nightcap of Frank's favourite tipple: a bourbon sour.

The whole of Tahoe is a "fun palace", Cynthia might instead have added. Next day I explore its possibilities.

The Cal/Neva lies on the swish, exclusive north shore at Crystal Bay close to Incline Village. A Ritz Carlton hotel has opened nearby on the upmarket ski slopes of Truckee. The Nevada shore is quieter, barely developed, while the western, Californian side is more rugged, twisting and necklaced with sandy coves beneath the densely forested slopes.

I drive west and south on Route 28, passing Agate Bay, reaching Tahoe City, a fast-food and wood-smoke town, catering for kayakers, hikers, backwoodsmen and skiers from nearby Squaw Valley. A few miles south lies the hamlet of Sunnyside where I lunch on steak and eggs, sun-soaked on the lakefront deck of the Sunnyside Resort restaurant.

For those keen to polish off the calories, there are bikes for rent. I resist and drive towards Homewood, where tiny fishing boats try to lure me with their promises of mackinaw and rainbow trout. But soon I am gliding past Tahoma, resisting the golden sands at Meek's Bay, on to Calawee Cove and the vista-filled Rubicon Trail which meanders above the "big blue" (the name for Tahoe hereabouts), a walk of four miles to my destination: Vikingsholm Castle, the jewel of Emerald Bay State Park.

As jewels go this pile overlooking the fjord is described as "offbeat Scandinavian". It is certainly eccentric, a posthumous tribute to kooky heiress, Lora Knight, who built it in the twenties. Admirers dub it her "dream", detractors her "knightmare". Its towering roofscape is covered in turf (insulation, or another oddball whim?). Today a carpet of late spring wildflowers gives it the look of a rainbow toupee.

Out in mid-lake, a Mississippi paddle steamer chunders through the flat water from its dock at Zephyr Cove on the farthest shore. When it touches the ice-floe around the fjord it slows, turning sideways, drifting closer to the castle, allowing passengers to gawp while munching burgers or pointing phones. I return to the car and drive the few miles past a string of mostly empty beaches. Lake Tahoe Boulevard, at the entrance to the town of South Lake Tahoe, is crammed with fast-food joints, clubs and motels. It's a neon ambush all the way to the south-east corner, where the lake creeps into Nevada again.

There my bed for the night at Embassy Suites lies cheek by jowl with Casino Land - shabby Caesar's, The Horizon (where Elvis once canoodled), and the glitziest of them, Harrahs - sin on steroids, or what my granny would have labelled "dens of iniquity".

The happy hour at Embassy Suites is a two-hour binge of everything: spirits, wines, beers and sodas. "Cocktails too!" says Ann, the bartender. After dinner I sidle towards Harrahs - for two much less happy hours playing craps abetted by booze, followed painfully by a long lie in next morning, before my drive to Zephyr Cove and the MS Dixie, to take that paddle on the lake.

There, through the churning of the paddles and the "story of the lake" playing through the PA, you appreciate the magnificence of the "picture-postcard candy" as Ernie had said, in all its 360 degrees.

Taking lunch on board the Dixie allows me time to finish my lake-loop, driving north, tracing the shoreline tramped by Mark Twain. This western wilderness is unspoiled, thanks to George Whittell, a playboy turned recluse who bought 27 miles of shoreline and there, by the lakeside, built his getaway, Thunderbird Lodge.

When he died in 1969, he left his estate to the US Forest Service, who opened it up to the public gaze. He must be spinning. You get to inspect the sheer outlandishness of George's decor- trophy heads, movie projectors, radios, African carvings, not to mention jaw-dropping views of Tahoe itself through the picture windows. George had rebelled against his parents, married a prostitute, played the stock exchange and invited selected buddies for macho weekends with Bill, a pet lion, and possibly Whittell's closest friend.

Thunderbird Lodge feels like a shrine - elk heads, animal skins, photos everywhere of Whittell kissing Bill. Outside stands the lighthouse Whittell built to send urgent signals across the lake when he wanted girls brought over for "fun", the tour guide tells us. Outside, in a dry dock, sits his super-polished speedboat, silent, mothballed.

Last comes the tunnel, all the way down and hewn out of granite, 600 feet long, to Whittell's gambling den. Beside it Frank Sinatra's tunnel seems little more than a short cut. "Here he hung out with his buddy Howard Hughes. A pair of recluses. When they argued one or other came up for air."

Did George ever entertain Sinatra? "Ah … that whole Rat Pack thing," says the guide in a tone of rebuke, "was not George's thing. He preferred to keep his vices quiet." And, in a parody - maybe consciously - of Sinatra's famous signature, the guide adds, "He only ever did it one way - and that was George's way, his own."

TRAVEL NOTES

GETTING THERE

British Airways (britishairways.com) flies from Glasgow to Reno via Heathrow and Chicago from £748 return.

WHERE TO STAY

The Cal/Neva (calnevaresort.com )has standard double rooms from £78 per night. Embassy Suites (embassytahoe.com) has double rooms from £98.

WHAT TO DO

Tunnel Tour at the Cal/Neva (tahoeculture.com ) is a £5 bargain. Tour Thunderbird Lodge (activitytickets.com ) for £24 adult, £10 child - includes transport from Crystal Bay. Cruise Tahoe on the MS Dixie (zephyrcove.com/cruises), £24 adult, £12 child.

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