The kayak rental man demonstrates how to oar: ‘Anything beyond the waist is a waste. Small strokes work best,’ he says. With that, he waves us off on a three-mile row to lunch.
My 12-year-old daughter, Nathalie, is sharing my kayak, leaving her twin brother, Gabriel, to partner Hannah, ten, while my husband Marcis is allowed to go solo.
Our destination is Sunnyside Cafe, on the west shore of Lake Tahoe in Northern California.
Lake Tahoe is a four-hour drive from San Francisco. It is contoured by snow-capped mountains carpeted with firs, and its laid-back vibe is known as ‘Tahoe Time’ by Californians
The restaurant’s waterside terrace is easily accessed by road, but many guests arrive by boat.
The lake is 22 miles by 12, and its shimmering azure water is so clear we can see right to the rocky bed. It’s no surprise locals drink from it.
But where is our destination? We have been paddling for 30 minutes and my arms are starting to object. Row, row; ache, ache; bay after bay.
Eventually, after an hour and a quarter, tell-tale red umbrellas are spotted on a terrace. Never have I been so happy to see a restaurant.
We order heartily: buffalo chicken wings, crispy zucchini sticks, fish tacos made from beer-battered mahi-mahi, impossibly light and with just the right amount of kick.
Signature dessert Hula Pie eaten with a ‘spork’ (a cross between a spoon and fork) is a decadent wedge of macadamia ice-cream on a frozen fudge base, smothered with hot chocolate sauce and whipped cream. One is enough for five.
Invigorating: Lake Tahoe offered challenging kayaking for Jo Kessel and family (pictured)
Lake Tahoe is a four-hour drive from San Francisco. It is contoured by snow-capped mountains carpeted with firs and its laid-back vibe is known as ‘Tahoe Time’ by Californians.
In summer, there’s hiking and water-sports (the lake is warm enough for swimming); in winter, the draw is skiing.
Our base is West Shore Inn and Cafe, with half-a-dozen lavish rooms in the pint-sized village of Homewood. Our one-bedroom suite has a balcony, a living room (where the children sleep) and two bathrooms, one with a massive Jacuzzi.
We are in pain after kayaking for six miles but it’s a nice pain — a pain born from achievement, a pain which the Jacuzzi bubbles soothe away.
Recuperated, we head to the fire-pit on our inn’s private pier, lit so guests can make s’mores — a traditional U.S. camping delicacy which involves roasting marshmallows to sandwich between a slab of Hershey’s chocolate and two plain Graham crackers. They’re as sinful as Hula Pie.
Jo and her family spent part of their break at West Shore Inn and Cafe, which has half-a-dozen lavish rooms in the pint-sized village of Homewood
To burn off the calories, the following evening we book a sunset kayak tour and the guide dishes out gossip as we row. Cher’s thought to own a house here. Robin Williams used to. Tommy Hilfiger just sold his for $48 million.
The piece de resistance is the sinking sun, which casts an orange-pink Alpenglow across the mountain tops.
Lake Tahoe straddles two states. The rugged west coast (where we are) is in California; the east sits in Nevada. Keen to experience both sides, we relocate.
A 20-minute drive takes us to the state border and the difference once across is instant. It’s not quite Las Vegas (which is 450 miles south-east), but flashing neon and casinos line the strip.
Our hotel, the Hyatt Regency, is in upmarket Incline Village and has cottages as well as rooms.
The modern two-bedroom cottage we have booked has two bathrooms and a living room-cum-kitchenette that is bigger than ours at home. Patio doors open on to a deep, white-sand beach and the pool is super-sized.
The upmarket Incline Village (pictured above) is situated on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe
The next two days are spent lazing, swimming or pedalling along cycle trails that circumnavigate the lake.
We do get back in a boat, only this time we enjoy a ride on the Hyatt’s catamaran, sipping Chardonnay as we float for one last time on the lake.
We sail close to the former home of wealthy George Whittell Jr, an Art Deco mansion called Thunderbird Lodge. One of the founding fathers of Lake Tahoe, Whittell owned 20 miles of Nevada shoreline from 1930 to 1969.
There is something magical about Lake Tahoe. It’s not only marshmallow-roasting we’re addicted to. It’s the lake, the vibe, the glitz, the air — and knowing our children have seldom been happier.
Travel Facts: Plan your own escape to eastern California
Eight-night California Family Adventure (americaasyoulikeit.com, 020 8742 8299) from £4,505 for two adults and two children (under 12).
Includes return flights to San Francisco, three nights at the Hilton Union Square, San Francisco, three nights at the West Shore Inn Lake Tahoe (including use of kayaks) and two nights at the Hyatt Regency, plus car hire (gotahoenorth.com) .