Skiers who flock to this region for its legendary white powder and steep slopes often grab the first shuttle to their resort of choice, bypassing the state's capital city.

But to do so is to miss half the fun.

This cultural oasis in the middle of the desert has been defying expectations since its founding in 1847 by Mormon settlers, or Latter-Day Saints as they prefer to be called, and it's continued to yield surprises and contradictions ever since.

Salt Lake City once may have been a homogenous, conservative town, but today it's surprisingly diverse and cosmopolitan for a city of 180,000. Its selection as the host city for the 2002 Olympic Games turned a sleepy mountain town into a metropolis as it added high-rises, an efficient light-rail system and a sparkling new outdoor mall downtown, the Gateway.

Lunch at the One World Cafe, dinner at the Himalayan Kitchen and midnight sushi at Sapporo gave me just a taste of the delightful international fusion this city has become. The Asian fusion cuisine of ThaiFoon in the Gateway is as delicious as it is cleverly named. And I long will remember the chicken souvlaki at Greek Souvlaki, named Best Quick Eats of 2008 by City Weekly.

Theoretically, bars are prohibited in Salt Lake City, in accordance with the Mormon prohibition of alcohol. But while the church has a certain amount of influence, alcohol of all kinds is served freely at restaurants and private clubs that you can join for a small fee, and you can get a beer or wine spritzer at local brew pubs and taverns. The Tavernacle Social Club, for example, is right down the street from the Tabernacle, the very same one that the famous choir performs in every Sunday for a television broadcast beamed all over the world.

At the Gateway, I kept exclaiming at its beauty as my friend Suan Pineda, who works for the Salt Lake Tribune, led me through a promenade of lighted trees, fountains that played in time with classical music and by a stream that flowed through granite boulders, among strategically placed to look as though they'd been there since the beginning of time. "It's just a mall," she teased. Maybe so, I thought later, warming my hands at the fire pit next to the fountain, but wouldn't it be nice if all malls were this beautiful?

Nature is gracefully integrated throughout the city, as well, such as in the clear mountain stream flowing through the boulders and under a bridge alongside Temple Street, and the four-acre rooftop garden on top of the LDS Conference Center.

Like most of those who make Salt Lake City a wintertime destination, I was there to ski. I have closed my door, politely but firmly, on many LDS missionaries over the years, so Temple Square wasn't at the top of my priority list for this visit - until I drove into town at sunset and saw the Salt Lake Temple spires looming over the city like Cinderella's Castle.

I decided to take the plunge and do the tour of Temple Square. Standing at the foot of the temple and across from the reflecting pool, I realized that I was in the mecca of a global religion.

Two lovely young women - Sister Claire Rafidiarimanda, 22, from France, and Sister Karen McKay, 21, from California - greeted me enthusiastically. No one else had arrived for this particular tour, so I had them all to myself as they led me through the North Visitors' Center, the Tabernacle and the Assembly Hall, but not the temple. Only church members in good standing are allowed inside it.

Their faces shone earnestly as they discussed each treasured item of their spiritual patrimony, and the story of their faith unfolded before me as we walked along. Their answers to tough questions were sincere and heartfelt: about polygamy (which has been prohibited by the church since 1890) and sexism (all church prophets and apostles have been white males - not so different from the leaders of other major denominations). It was a half-hour well spent, and I left with a better feel for a widely misunderstood religion.

After the tour, I spent a couple of fascinating hours in the Family History Library, a vast compendium of public documents staffed by an army of docents willing to help you flesh out your family tree. I found my ancestors in census reports dating to the mid-1800s, World War I military records for my great-grandfathers, an immigration document for a great-aunt I never knew I had - and I was just getting started when the clock hit 9 p.m., closing time.

One more wonderful find worth mentioning: The Natural History Museum at the University of Utah offers a beautifully presented overview of the region's geology, anthropology, biology and more. Step inside a re-created mine shaft to get a feel for the world of the miners at Alta, Brighton, Solitude and Park City - places where people now whiz down the mountains instead of burrowing under them. See a mural painted in 1940 by the Civilian Conservation Corps that looks for all the world like a piece of the stone bluff in Canyonlands National Park where prehistoric people painted colorful petroglyphs 2,000 years ago. Watch paleontologists at work, inspect the local bug life at the insect zoo, and visit the gallery to contemplate the interpretations of the local environment by regional artists.

The brief time I spent in the city was just enough to intrigue. I'd love to come back to ski, but I don't think I'll ever take a shuttle straight to the mountains - there's just too much to see and do in this sparkling city in the valley.

Salt Lake City is a diner's delight. These are just for starters:
• One World Cafe: Diners choose their own portions from the organic buffet and pay what they think it's worth. This innovative approach has spawned a community kitchen movement around the country. 41 S. 300 E., near downtown.
• Himalayan Kitchen: This cozy taste of Nepal is currently located at 73 E. 400 S., but is at work on a newer, nicer location around the corner.
• Greek Souvlaki: Quick, cheap and delicious. The best chicken kebab - here, called souvlaki - I've ever had. 404 E. 300 S., 801-322-2062.
• ThaiFoon: This Asian fusion restaurant in The Gateway is part of a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based chain, but you'd never know it from the service and originality. Here's hoping they expand to Texas. 7 N. 400 W.,