SALT LAKE CITY - In any other U.S. city, the sight of Andrew Babis and his son Carmine clutching skis, poles and boots at a downtown bus stop might draw double takes. But here outside the Sheraton in the bracing air and weak light of a Monday morning, they attract nary a glance.
Babis and son, who flew all the way from their home in Perth, Australia, to experience Utah's legendary powder and plunging slopes, saved on lodgings by staying in town. They didn't bother renting a car, because city buses service four ski areas about 40 minutes away. Midway through their nine-day trip, they discovered even greater savings when they bought a Salt Lake Super Pass, which offers discounted lift tickets at those four resorts, plus bus fare.
In a season in which ski areas from Maine to California are offering cost-saving balms to soothe the economically battered, Salt Lake City-area resorts remain a haven for value-conscious skiers. Eleven ski areas are within an hour of the airport. Competition among city hotels - particularly if you avoid visiting when major events are in town - bring substantial savings over slope-side lodgings. Public transit eliminates the need for a rental car, an added bonus for inexperienced snow drivers. The city offers diversions on days when weary skiers want a break. And the Super Pass offers savings and flexibility.
Last-minute deals are abundant this year, says Adrienne Ruderman of Alta Vacations: "We have a top home rental at Alta that's never available, and it's open for Washington's birthday week."
On the budget end of the spectrum, her company can book five nights at an economy motel with four days of lift tickets and transportation for $98 a person a night, double. As with most deals, there are tradeoffs. After a day on the slopes, boarding a bus back to town rather than relaxing in the après-ski comfort of ski-in/ski-out digs can be a pain. And Salt Lake lacks the concentrated nightlife of Park City, a town that caters to three mountain resorts.
None of that matters to Babis and other bargain-seekers, however.
"The lift tickets are $52 vs. (up to) $72. You can ski at four places. And the bus stops here. What's to lose?" he says, climbing aboard the bus toward the snowcapped ridges of the Wasatch Mountains.
Here's a look at the four Super Pass resorts, which lie about 25 miles east of Salt Lake in Big Cottonwood and Little Cottonwood canyons.
ALTA SKI AREA
The scene: Skiing the way it used to be draws purists who return year after year. The mountain is known for its deep powder and expert terrain, but plenty of gentler slopes are welcoming to novices. Base facilities consist primarily of a day lodge with full-service cafeteria. But four of the five privately owned ski-in/ski-out lodges are open to day visitors for lunch, and for dinner by reservation.
Origins: Now in its 70th season, Alta claims a prime piece of ski history. Its first chairlift (fashioned from old mine timbers) was installed in January 1939, the first in Utah and one of the first in the nation.
Claim to fame: Its longevity. Plus, it's one of the last three ski areas in the nation to ban snowboards from the mountain.
Details: $64 adult daily lift tickets; 2,200 skiable acres; seven chairlifts, including three high-speed chairs; 10,550-foot summit with 2,020-foot vertical drop.
Staying over: Each of the five lodges at its base has a distinct character and loyal following.
Nightlife: A game of Scrabble and early to bed.
Splurge: Dinner at the Shallow Shaft Restaurant, a 34-year institution in Alta. The menu focuses on fresh, local ingredients (bison carpaccio, Utah trout cakes). Entrees range from $21 to $39.
The deal: Four nights (Sunday-Thursday only, through March) at the Peruvian Lodge with all meals, three days of lift tickets, airport transfers and taxes, $214 a night a person, double. 888-356-2582; altavacations.net.
Information: 801-359-1078; alta.com.
SNOWBIRD SKI & SUMMER RESORT
The scene: Skiing on long, challenging runs and in broad steep bowls, with full-service slope-side luxury lodgings. The resort attracts serious skiers and boarders bent on packing in full days on extreme slopes - beginners will be happier elsewhere. The outdoor Plaza Deck and cavernous Snowbird Center provide ample off-the-slopes venues for socializing. Niceties such as fresh flowers in the restrooms set it apart from other resorts.
Origins: In 1965, local man Ted Johnson bought a mining claim with the intention of building a lodge to service the adjoining Alta ski area. In 1969, he teamed up with Texas oilman and adventurer Dick Bass (who still owns Snowbird) and opened the resort in 1971.
Claim to fame: It boasts Utah's longest season, with slopes open into June and even July. It also has North America's only ski tunnel, a 600-foot hollow housing a conveyor lift.
Details: $72 daily adult lift ticket; 2,500 acres; a 125-passenger aerial tram and 10 lifts, including four high-speed chairs; 11,000-foot summit with a 3,240-foot vertical drop.
Staying over: Four slope-side lodges have about 900 rooms total. The largest is the high-rise Cliff Lodge, whose 550 guestrooms feature mountain views and a top-floor spa that is top-notch.
Nightlife: Live music and raucous crowds at the Tram Club, where a beer and a shot go for $5.
Splurge: An 80-minute $210 body scrub, herbal treatment and massage at the Cliff Spa.
The deal: $270 a night, double, at the Cliff Lodge, including two lift tickets, good through April.
Information: 800-453-3000; snowbird.com.
SOLITUDE MOUNTAIN RESORT
The scene: A compact pedestrian Alpine village fronting well-groomed, uncrowded slopes. This is a good choice for intermediate skiers who love wide-open runs but hate waiting in line.
Origins: Solitude turned 50 in 2007 but remained mostly under the radar with non-local skiers until the 1990s, when the current owner began building a European-style village with several condominium buildings, townhouses, an inn and restaurants at its base.
Claim to fame: The self-contained village makes Solitude a good bet for families with non-skiers. Off-slope diversions include a Nordic center with 12 miles of cross-country ski trails and 6 miles of snowshoeing terrain.
Details: $61 daily adult lift ticket, 1,200-plus acres of terrain; eight lifts, including three high-speed chairs; 10,035-foot summit with a 2,047-foot vertical drop.
Staying over: Solitude's 47 inn rooms start at $269 a night; condo rentals also are available.
Nightlife: Fireside ice-skating at the outdoor rink.
Splurge: The $100 five-course dinner in a yurt (a Mongolian hut). Guests hike, ski or snowshoe to the lantern-lit hut in the woods, where the chef prepares a gourmet meal.
The deal: Book three nights in a condo and get the fourth night free from March 1 to April 12, plus 20% off adult lift tickets and 15% off a massage at the Spa at Solitude.
Information: 800-748-4754; skisolitude.com.
The scene: The quintessential locals' mountain, where generations of Utahans have learned to ski. Though it's the only one of the four Cottonwood canyons resorts owned by a major ski corporation, Brighton is also the most low-key. Promotions court area residents and, as a result, its demographic skews toward the public-school crowd. It's also the most intimate and least developed, with a only few small eateries and a single 20-room lodge.
Origins: It began in 1936 with a single rope tow erected on U.S. Forest Service land by the Wasatch Mountain Club, making Brighton Utah's oldest ski hill. The first chairlift appeared in 1946. Boyne Resorts bought it in 1986.
Claim to fame: It was one of the earliest ski areas to welcome snowboarders and boasts a top-to-bottom terrain park for riders.
Details: $58 adult daily lift tickets; 1,050 acres of terrain; seven lifts, including five high-speed chairs; 10,500-foot summit with 1,745-foot vertical drop.
Staying over: The rustic 20-room Brighton Lodge has rooms from $135, with continental breakfast.
Nightlife: More skiing - 22 runs are open for night skiing at a cost of $32 for adults.
Splurge: Hit the slopes in the latest high-performance skis ($35) and book a 2?-hour private lesson ($185; $50 for additional skiers).
The deal: Kids under 6 ski free; ages 7-12 ski for $25 a day.
Information: 800-873-5512; brightonresort.com.