Lake Tahoe's winter shoulder season just might be its coziest time of the year

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Coziness is standing with your back to a wood-burning stove so you can feel the heat on a cold almost-winter morning.  

It’s coming back to the car after a brisk hike and turning the heat onto full blast.

It’s drinking hot coffee out of an oversized mug and sitting next to a window so you can see the forest, the lake and the snow-capped mountains. 

November is a waiting time in Lake Tahoe. The aspen leaves have mostly fallen to the ground, which is frozen but still bare. And the whole region is quiet with anticipation for winter, when the basin fills again with tourists visiting for the season. But to me, this in-between time has always offered a slow-paced easiness and comfort that I do not take for granted. It’s the coziest time of year in Lake Tahoe. As soon as the snow arrives, the hectic ski season and the holidays kicks into high gear. 
Thanks to Instagram, an onslaught of advertising has conditioned us to think that, to be cozy, you need a long list of requisite items: an organic soy candle, weighted blankets that cost a lot more money than you’d think, chunky wool socks that would be terrible to wear on a hike and thus serve a purpose more like slippers than as true, functional socks. 

In Lake Tahoe, a cozy morning is much easier to come by. It’s as simple as zipping up a jacket and taking a walk on the bike path that heads down the East Shore to take in some of the most panoramic views of Lake Tahoe you can find. 

Here’s a short guide to getting cozy in Lake Tahoe.

For breakfast

A small breakfast joint is a go-to on frosty mornings, and my pick is always Fire Sign Cafe in Sunnyside, on Tahoe’s West Shore. It’s a popular place on lazy weekends, so if the wait is long, I’ll step into the annex in the back and order a cup of coffee to pass the time before our table is ready. The second I step inside the restaurant, I feel the warmth and intimacy of the wood-paneled walls and old-timey tables and booths. There’s a stone hearth and a menu crowded with omelets, pancakes, soups, baked goods and, my favorite, eggs Benedict.

Down the street, the smell of fresh-baked pastries wafts out the front door of Tahoe House Bakery. I recommend the almond biscotti with chocolate-dipped tips and a cappuccino. The back room is all couches and small tables next to a huge stone fireplace. 

For good coffee, stop by one of the many roasteries that were started by Tahoe locals: CoffeebarPacific Crest Coffee Co. or Drink Coffee Do Stuff on the North Shore. In South Lake Tahoe, head over to Black Cabin Coffee.


For wandering and browsing

Books are mandatory on days like this. Word After Word is a bookstore in the middle of Truckee’s historic downtown row. Alongside bestsellers, the bookstore has a curated selection about Lake Tahoe, Truckee and the greater Sierra Nevada. Audiophiles should head down the stairs to the basement to flip through the record collection.

If you’re in downtown Truckee, do not leave without stepping into the worlds of Bespoke and Atelier. This store, with the tagline “made and maker,” brings new meaning to the word cozy, with equal parts stationary/art/jewelry/apothecary/home goods. Whether I’m looking for new art supplies or a journal, candles or a cookbook, or just a good card to write to someone, every time I walk into this shop, I swoon.

Recently, I discovered a new favorite coffee shop/bookstore in South Lake Tahoe. I’d heard about Cuppa Tahoe from a co-worker who visited earlier in the summer, and when I finally visited, I immediately understood the appeal. Cuppa Tahoe is a bookstore, a coffee shop and a co-working space. But my favorite nook was in the front, where bookshelves surrounded vintage couches. On the shelves, tags that say “read me” stick out of the pages of the books, inviting anyone to sit down, read something new and stay awhile. 

For sipping

Happy hour can’t come soon enough on cozy days, and Jake’s On The Lake in Tahoe City’s Boatworks mall has a great one from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m., Sunday to Thursday. Full disclosure, I spent many years waiting tables here to sustain my ski habit. But even so, this place has a homey and intimate feel. A waterfall cascades over stone behind the long copper bar, and floor-to-ceiling windows frame a long view of Lake Tahoe. And happy hour is perfectly timed with the sunset, when the lake takes on as many shades of pink and purple as you can imagine. Also, the bartenders make a great hot toddy. 

Another place with a cult following is Cottonwood Restaurant & Bar, which is perched on a hill that overlooks downtown Truckee. It used to be an old ski lodge, and the place has stayed true to its roots in that it continues to invite the cold and the hungry indoors for a warm meal and a beverage. 

At the far north end of Lake Tahoe, the Lone Eagle Grille is a place where you could easily sidle up to the bar and sip wine next to a billionaire camouflaged in flannel. This restaurant, located at the Hyatt, likely wins the award for biggest stone fireplace in Lake Tahoe. It’s an enormous monument to what coziness should feel and look like in the mountains. 

For merriment

To roast marshmallows and make s’mores, go to the Village at Northstar. Fire pits surround the ice rink, so you can warm up after skating a couple of laps. 

But to me, the very definition of coziness in Tahoe comes on the longest, darkest winter nights, when a huge storm takes the power out. When the electricity is gone, out come the candles and the headlamps, the board games and the tea. I pull on thick socks and I cuddle up in as many blankets as I can find. That’s all you really need.

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