Utah is a great choice for a ski getaway with friends or family, where lodging choices abound, from elegant to relaxing and rustic, in the 11 resorts within an hour's drive of the airport.
Arriving in Salt Lake City, it seems like you've landed on another world. Huge snow-capped mountains stand like sentinels on either side of a long valley where the city is nestled next to the lake. The winter air is dry, but the sun is warm. Utah has a desert climate, and winter temperatures ranged from upper 30s to low-40s on an early February trip.
The majestic, awe-inspiring views and great conditions alone are worth the trip. Utah brags about what tourism officials have trademarked as "The Greatest Snow on Earth," but if you're from the East the conditions definitely seem superior.
Sundance Resort, Robert Redford's rustic yet elegant getaway in Provo Canyon at the foot of 12,000-foot Mount Timpanogos, is just under an hour from the airport and is a perfect spot for a girlfriends' getaway or a family vacation. The atmosphere is quiet and laid-back, and accommodations ($259-$1,199 in winter) range from charming cottages with fireplaces to five-bedroom houses, but Western is the common theme.
Stop in for a drink at the Owl Bar featuring restored rosewood woodwork which once graced an establishment frequented by Butch Cassidy's Hole-in-the Wall Gang in the 1890s. The elegant Tree Room restaurant, where I tasted the most tender buffalo tenderloin, is decorated with Redford's own collection of Native American art and film memorabilia.
Unlike some of the mega-ski resorts, Sundance is an intimate and friendly place, offering skiing and boarding on 41 runs with 20 percent beginner, 40 percent intermediate and 40 percent expert terrain on 450 skiable acres. New this season, too, is night skiing.
Ski all morning then take a break for lunch at Bearclaw's Cabin at the top of the Arrowhead lift. But be sure to stop and see the breathtaking 360-degree view that is like a glimpse of heaven.
Nature, the arts and relaxation are a big part of Sundance. We saw a Peruvian film, a "Best of the Fest" from this year's Sundance Film Festival, in the resort's private screening room. Visit the Art Shack and see Mexican glassblowers at work or visit the Foundry Grill that hosts a rotating gallery of work by various artists.
The Sundance Spa offers treatments based on the Native American concept of the Four Winds. I experienced a Sage & Sweet Grass Ritual, a 90-minute treatment combining exfoliation and hydration using aromatic healing herbs and mud from the Great Salt Lake.
Same time next year
A stay at Alta Lodge, in the Wasatch-Cache National Forest, means you'll get a taste of Utah's old-school ski tradition and history. And, you just might meet an athlete who will inspire you.
Like Naomi Wain, who spends two weeks of every month during ski season at Alta. On Tuesdays, she might join Alta Ski Area's free "Ski with the Girls" program, which offers camaraderie for intermediate to accomplished skiers. When the Santa Barbara, Calif., resident isn't skiing, Wain is one of the friendly regulars who likes to meet new guests for breakfast or dinner to swap stories.
Last season, Wain broke her collarbone when she fell skiing a double-black diamond run. But she got right back up and skied the rest of the way down the mountain and was later taken to a hospital.
The NASTAR national champ, who said she didn't start skiing until she was 40, is back this season tackling the famous steeps at Alta. Did I mention Wain is 87 years old? Now that's inspirational!
Alta Lodge is a 45-minute drive from the airport and offers ski-in/ski-out access to Alta Ski Area, one of just three areas in the U.S. that doesn't allow snowboarding. (The others are Deer Valley in nearby Park City and Mad River Glen in Vermont). Skiers can also access neighboring Snowbird ski area, giving you 4,700 acres of terrain to explore.
While Alta is known for its steep slopes, there were plenty of beginner (25 percent) and intermediate (40 percent) trails for me to explore. While I spent most of my time on the beginner runs off the Sunnyside lift, we also skied some of the intermediate trails from Sugarloaf.
At lunch, slip off your ski boots at the Collins Grill on the third floor of the Watson Shelter. They have soft slippers to give your tootsies a rest and a menu featuring local organic produce and meats and sustainable seafoods. A must-try is the daily Utah trout special, and for dessert a warm cupcake filled with chocolate sauce.
Since 1939, Alta Lodge has offered a "traditional" ski experience with personal service. With 57 European-style rooms ranging from slope-facing corner rooms to small dormitory rooms, the atmosphere is friendly, the beds extremely comfortable and the food fabulous.
The modified American Plan includes lodging, full breakfast and dinner ($108-$561/winter). After a hard day on the slopes, soak in the hot tubs or visit the Swedish sauna. While there's no spa, massages can be arranged in your room.
There are no televisions in the lodge's guest rooms, so bring a book or meet another friendly face in the lounge for a board game. The lodge has a library and a collection of DVDs people can watch together in the lounge. Before dinner, stop for a drink or play a game of chess in the warm and cozy Sitzmark Club.
That's where you might meet Alta Lodge owner Mimi Muray Levitt, an accomplished photographer whose husband, Bill, a longtime mayor of the town of Alta, passed away in December. If you ask, Mimi might show you some of the intriguing and stunning photographs taken of artist Frida Kahlo by her father, Nickolas Muray. A New Yorker who had a wide circle of friends including famous artists, poets and playwrights of the 1930s and '40s, Muray had a 10-year affair with Kahlo, the wife of Diego Rivera.
Many of the guests at Alta Lodge return year after year because of the relaxed atmosphere and personal service, but maybe it is the amazing four-course dinners they serve. The dining room, managed by Gregg Davis (who, coincidentally, once ran the Hearth & Candle restaurant at Smugglers' Notch in Vermont where we recently visited) offers a range of choices like pan-fried scallops with Thai coconut red curry sauce and basmati rice, veal Bolognese over tiny roasted red potatoes. The evening I was there, dessert was Chocolate Decadence cake that was to die for.
STOP & SHOP: Trendy Park City is a short drive from both Alta and Sundance. It's home to three big ski resorts: Deer Valley, The Canyons and Park City Mountain Resort.
Visit Utah Olympic Park where many of the 2002 Winter Games events where held. Film buffs will enjoy the annual Sundance Film Festival held in January.
Main Street is lined with fun shops, art galleries, and the Park City Museum & Territorial Jail where you can spend time in a real prison cell from the 1800s and learn about Utah's mining history.
Stop for lunch at High West Distillery, where they make their own whiskeys and vodkas. Try a Horse's Neck made with rye, ginger beer and a lemon twist. It'll wake you right up.
Have a drink and an afternoon snack at the elegant Stein Eriksen Lodge at Deer Valley resort. We didn't catch a glimpse of founder Eriksen, an Olympic gold medal alpine skier from Norway who is reportedly still skiing strong at age 82, but you can see his collection of medals in the lobby.
Learn to snowshoe in the moonlight with White Pine Touring at Deer Valley's Empire Canyon Lodge. After you've worked up an appetite, enjoy a "Fireside Dining" experience with traditional Alps cuisine cooked in the lodge's stone fireplaces. A highlight was warm Swiss raclette cheese accompanied by steamed new potatoes, marinated onions, tiny pickles called cornichons, cured Italian and Swiss meats, baguettes and condiments. More savory dishes include veal, venison, chicken, short ribs and lamb. If you still have room for dessert, indulge in chocolate and caramel fondues with a variety of dipping choices.
IF YOU GO:
Alta Lodge: PO Box 8040, Alta, Utah 84092; 801-742-3500, altalodge.com
Sundance Resort: RR3, Box A-1, Sundance, Utah 84604; 801-225-4107, 877-831-6224; www.sundanceresort.com
Utah Office of Tourism: 300 North State St., Salt Lake City, UT 84114; 800-200-1160, www.visitutah.com
Ski Utah: 150 West 500 South, Salt Lake City, UT 84101; 800-754-8824, skiutah.com
Park City Chamber of Commerce: 800-453-1360, VisitParkCity.com