Friday, November 4, 2016 1:00 AM
By Brion O’Connor, The Boston Globe — As my brothers and I hopped aboard a high-speed quad at Utah’s Park City Mountain Resort, a fourth skier joined us from the single’s line. Once we began our rapid ascent up the slope, small talk ensued.
“Another day in paradise,” said our chairmate, a pearly white smile creasing his tanned face.
“Oh, do you live locally?” I asked.
“Nope,” he replied, beaming. “Connecticut.”
Traditionally, ski vacations consist of finding a top-notch resort, good deals on lift tickets, airfare, and slope-side hotel or condo, and a nice selection of restaurants nearby. Now, imagine a capital city that provides a sophisticated metropolitan vibe as well as quick and easy access to more than a half dozen outstanding resorts. Sound better?
Say hello to Salt Lake City.
Less than an hour from Salt Lake City International Airport, visitors can explore 10 ski resorts, several of which – Alta, Deer Valley, Park City, and Snowbird – are legendary. The mix of dramatic, serrated mountains and bountiful snowfall (averaging more than 400 inches annually) found in the Wasatch Range is intoxicating. After all, this is where the “Alta Flu” — the phenomenon of absentee workers following a snowstorm — became famous.
Ski Utah trademarked the slogan “The Greatest Snow on Earth,” and few claim false advertising. But if you go, arrive well rested, and in shape. My 75-year-old father in-law, who still works out every morning before heading to his office, once remarked: “I believe you should finish a vacation even more tired than you started.” That Puritan ethic applies perfectly to Salt Lake City.
Here, you can establish a home base for your daytime powder adventures, and indulge your urban appetite at night (or even an “off day”). There’s a dizzying assortment of lodging, restaurant and entertainment options, including theaters (artsaltlake.org), the Jessie Eccles Quinney Ballet Centre (balletwest.org), and even professional basketball at the Vivint Smart Home Arena, home of the NBA’s Utah Jazz. That’s why we opted to rent a car, despite the excellent public transportation system servicing the city and the resorts.
During our late-winter trip, we set up camp at the Hotel Monaco (monaco-saltlakecity.com), a stylish former bank building built in 1912. The accommodations were fabulous (they’ll even supply a goldfish to keep you company), as was the hotel’s award-winning restaurant, Bambara (bambara-slc.com). Chef Nathan Powers – voted Utah’s best chef in 2014 – features up a menu that is both eclectic and delicious. (I never thought I’d order scallops in Utah.)
Other nights, we popped into the cozy Martine Cafe (martinecafe.com) – if you’re a fan of Manhattan cocktails, this is a must – and chef Nathan White’s intriguing Mexican bistro Alamexa (alamexa.com). If your après ski hunger pangs won’t wait, stop by Trio Downtown (triodining.com) on the edge of town. Salt Lake City also boasts a slew of funky after-hours hot spots, from brewpubs like Squatters to the creative cocktails of Pallet, and Beer Bar and Bar X, both owned by Modern Family’s Ty Burrell.
Additionally, Salt Lake City has a number of visitor-friendly ski rental shops. I prefer traveling with my ski boots, but not skis and poles. I flipped those savings into my rentals at Ski-N-Boards (skinsee.com) in downtown SLC, where I sampled a number of current models from K2, Völkl, and Salomon.
After collecting our gear, we drove straight up Little Cottonwood Canyon to Snowbird Resort (snowbird.com). The result of Texas billionaire Dick Bass’s vision in the early 1970s, Snowbird today is the quintessential “skier’s mountain,” with trails to suit any ability level. The resort’s new tram station and restaurant on Hidden Peak – The Summit – are impressive, but not nearly as impressive as the 2,500 acres of skiable terrain over 3,240 feet of vertical.
The next day, we headed farther up the canyon to the granddaddy of Utah ski hills, Alta (alta.com). This pioneering resort, dating back to 1938, is special, flawlessly blending Old School, quad-busting terrain over three peaks with New School amenities. How old school? Alta, like Mad River Glen in Vermont, still prohibits snowboarding.
The Alta trail map is littered with black diamond trails, and each one is legitimate. Bring your A-game. Looking to go out of bounds? Alta’s Grizzly Gulch Snow Cat Skiing offers access the backcountry adjoining the resort.
To the north, Big Cottonwood Canyon is home to the resorts of Brighton and Solitude. Recently purchased by Deer Valley, Solitude (skisolitude.com) is one of my favorite Wasatch escapes. It’s a big-time hill with a small-town feel, featuring steep, challenging pitches among its 1,200 acres (Fantasy Ridge, off the Summit Express, is worth every step of the lung-busting hike) and delightfully short lift lines. The Honeycomb Grille at Solitude Village offers an ideal lunch break.
Meanwhile, Brighton (brightonresort.com) is considered the locals’ hill. The drive is a bit longer, and Brighton isn’t as polished as Solitude. For Brighton devotees, that’s a good thing. I love Brighton’s rough-cut base lodge, with its raucous après ski scene. The family friendly terrain is simply tremendous (youngsters 10 and under ski free), and is the darling of the snowboarding set.
Due to the border dividing Salt Lake and Summit counties, Deer Valley and Park City Mountain Resort aren’t part of Ski City’s money-saving Super Pass. But you don’t have to recognize man-made demarcations. Park City is a quick jaunt east on Interstate 80, a former mining town that has grown exponentially in the past four decades (there are now roughly 100 restaurants and bars here, highlighted by the High West Distillery, Mexican fusion at Chimayo, and The River Horse).
The pride and joy of the late, great Stein Eriksen, Deer Valley (deervalley.com) is the epitome of skiing elegance, with a price tag to match. Most of Deer Valley’s 101 runs are perfectly groomed, much like the stylish Eriksen and the mid-mountain lodge that bears his name, and enhanced by stunning views (which often include celebrity sightings).
Park City Mountain Resort (parkcitymountain.com) – now owned by Vail Resorts, which folded The Canyons under the Park City umbrella – is so popular that it doesn’t have sufficient parking by the main lodge. But the spectacular trails and glades that comprise this sprawling resort (7,000-plus acres) make the shuttle, or parking by the Canyons Village, a minor inconvenience.
If you’ve got extra time (or an extra day), detour to the Utah Olympic Park (utaholympiclegacy.org), home to the Alf Engen Ski Museum and 2002 Eccles Olympic Museum. Experience a white-knuckle ride down the Olympic bobsled course, “extreme tubing” on a Nordic ski jump, or soar high above the snow-covered ground on a zipline.
After six days on the slopes, my legs were wobbly but my skiing soul was full. My father in-law would’ve been proud. I slept soundly during my flight back to Boston, dreaming of my brother Matthew’s parting words: “We have to do this again.”
He’s right. We didn’t have time to visit the areas north of Salt Lake City, outside Ogden, including Snowbasin, Powder Mountain, and Nordic Valley, and Sundance to the south via Provo. We need to come back.