The boat slices gently through the gorgeous blues waters of Lake Tahoe on a perfect summer morning. Snow-covered peaks encircle the lake. I sit back and sip on a mimosa while the crew deftly navigates the “Sierra Cloud” down the East Shore toward the historic Thunderbird Lodge. Now, this has the makings for a perfect day in Tahoe.
Waiting to board on the morning cruise, standup paddleboarders and kayakers skim by nearly effortlessly off shore of the Hyatt Regency in Incline Village, Nev.; the homeport for the “Sierra Cloud.” Everyone marvels when someone whisks by on a standup pedalboard. It’s a paddleboard equipped with pedals and a handlebar for navigation (the woman on the board has also added an umbrella to shield her from the sun.)
Take a walk on the grounds of the historic Thunderbird Lodge on Lake Tahoe’s East Shore with The Tahoe Weekly’s Alyssa Ganong.
Everyone is jovial and full of anticipation for our morning cruise on “Sierra Cloud,” a catamaran that offers Lake Tahoe cruises, including one to the Thunderbird Lodge. We settle in for our voyage to the Lodge while the crew sees to the guests with coffee, pastries, fruit and Mimosas, while also getting us under way. The cruise is the perfect start to the day and we enjoy the sites of Incline Village and the East Shore, along with historical tidbits about Lake Tahoe, the East Shore and George Whittell Jr., who built the Thunderbird Lodge.
Enter to Win Check off No. 9, 26 on our Ultimate Tahoe Summer Bucket List contest.
As we approach Sand Harbor State Park, the crew sails in for a closer look at the already-packed beaches and the amphitheater that is home to the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival with performances offered until Aug. 27.
We continue across Sand Harbor and marvel as the historic buildings of Thunderbird Lodge come into view – the Boathouse, home of the famous “Thunderbird Yacht,” the recently restored lighthouse (the highest in North America), the Card House and the intricate stone walkways meandering through the grounds.
READ MORE: Explore the history of the Thunderbird Lodge
Our excitement grows as we step off the pier next to the Boathouse to explore the estate. We’re disappointed that the yacht is not in the Boathouse, but we’re assured she should return from her morning cruise before our departure.
The Thunderbird Lodge is one of the last and best examples of a great residential estate on Lake Tahoe from the period in which prominent San Francisco society built homes on the lake.
The Captain, as he preferred to be called, came from a wealthy San Francisco family who made the most of what life had to offer – he joined the Barnum & Bailey Circus as a young man, where he met the first of his three wives; joined World War I as a volunteer ambulance driver for the Italian Army before joining the Americans once the United States entered the war; had lavish cars, planes and yachts built to his specifications; would drive around with his lion Bill; and, most importantly to the Tahoe community, he enjoyed spending his summers at the lake.
Whittell began construction on his estate – Thunderbird Lodge – as a summer home along the 24 miles of the Lake Tahoe shoreline he owned in 1936. While Whittell’s originals plans were to develop much of the 40,000 acres he acquired around Lake Tahoe, his eccentric nature, desire for privacy and lack of interest in personal relationships led him to become somewhat of a recluse. After his death, the property changed hands several times and underwent a major addition before becoming a nonprofit foundation.
In addition to the Main Lodge, there is a Card House, Caretaker’s Cottage, the Cook/Butler’s House, an elephant garage, the Admiral’s House, the Boathouse and Gate House.
The tour goes throughout the property from the additions made by Jack Dreyfus to the Main Lodge, servant’s quarters, to the Card House with its secret staircase in the bathroom leading to the tunnel, which boasts an opium den, dungeon and an unfinished pool that Whittell believed to be haunted.
And, we were not disappointed on our trip, as the “Thunderbird” yacht cruised home just as we completed our tour. The yacht is a magnificent and opulent work of mahogany and stainless steel art that is not to be missed.
The Thunderbird Lodge is now operated by the Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society and is open to the public for tours through mid-October. Access to the estate is limited to preserve the historic structure, and tours are available by shuttle, boat, kayak and catamaran aboard “Sierra Cloud.”