SALT LAKE CITY — Utah delivered again.
In search of snow — which is scarce or nonexistent in the Alps of Europe and on the North American East Coast — we went to the Rockies, specifically Utah’s Canyons and Sundance ski areas, and found several feet of the mostly packed variety.
Though some locals complained that there wasn’t enough new powder for their liking (compared to previous seasons, the accumulation was way down by early January), the conditions suited us like a hand in a ski glove.
Our first stop was the Canyons, an expansive ski resort with 3,700 skiable acres, 152 trails and 16 lifts. It also provides easy access to backcountry skiing for experts.
“It’s really backcountry skiing with lifts,” says Craig McCarthy, an avid skier and communications manager for the Park City Chamber of Commerce.
There also are a lot of runs for not-that-great skiers, who avoid the center-mountain lift, Ninety-Nine 90 Express, which lets its passengers out at 9,900 feet for mostly double-black diamonds and backcountry skiing.
Accompanied by a wonderful ski guide, Martin Schultz, one of many Australians working at the resort, we opted for the Peak Five and Day Break lifts, which lead to several blue intermediate runs with names such as Lazy Day and Harmony. With nicely groomed and uncrowded runs — it was Thursday afternoon and snowing — and surrounded by trees and great views, it’s easy to feel harmonious just a couple of hours after landing at the Salt Lake City airport.
This is a great selling point for Utah resorts. Most of them are less than an hour from the airport, so you can get at least half a day of skiing on the day of arrival.
Plus, with the Park City Quick START (Ski Today and Ride Today) plan, visitors to its resorts, including the Canyons, can convert their airline boarding passes into same-day lift tickets. The in-room boot fitting for renters like us also helps speed up the process and get you on the slope in a jiffy.
The Canyons is a large ski system, but it seems — pleasantly — less so, thanks to the many aspen- and fir-covered areas bordering groomed runs. Many skiers take advantage of this for tree skiing. Not us, but we did enjoy a narrow, tree-lined run called Sanctuary — a run less traveled for some reason — which passes by the multimillion-dollar mansions of the Colony, a gated on-mountain community.
“You in the market?” the young Mr. Schultz inquired jokingly.
No, not exactly. We were, however, more than pleased with our mountainside one-bedroom suite with a fireplace and mountain views at the Canyons Grand Summit Hotel. It’s the main place of lodging in the Canyons, which is rapidly expanding its offerings to include more lodging and food options. The Grand Summit architecture includes exposed wooden beams.
The Canyons’ resort village already is home to eight restaurants and various stores and the lovely Grand Summit Health Club and Spa, which features a large heated outdoor swimming pool that’s equally popular among the beer-drinking and the Kool-Aid-drinking crowds.
The Canyons is an excellent place to take children. They eat for free in at least one restaurant, and they can, if they don’t want to ski, go to a state-licensed child care center conveniently located in the Grand Summit. The cost is $95 for a full day — 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. For skiing wee ones, there are several ski school options, starting at age 2.
The Canyons also introduced Nickelodeon and the Canyons Winter Fest events for the first time this year. They included popular appearances by characters SpongeBob SquarePants and Dora the Explorer, unfortunately not on skis.
For more mature audiences, there is live music on select evenings and excellent dining on all evenings at the Cabin Restaurant, which features low lighting in the log-cabin-like interior. The food, by new executive chef Joe Trevino, is excellent and delightfully heavy on Western themes such as buffalo-and-venison potpie, Utah trout and tenderloin of buffalo.
A favorite was the trout, filled with forest mushrooms and leeks and then rolled, accompanied on the side by sunchoke puree and caviar remoulade. This was delicious and visually interesting, if not pretty.
The on-mountain eateries, including the Red Pine Lodge, which was supposed to be newly renovated and improved, are nothing to write home about. The Red Pine mostly offers cafeteria food, which seemed overpriced.
Staying at the Canyons for food and entertainment is great if you’re staying for a couple of nights, but for longer stays, guests might want to take the free shuttle — 7:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. daily — to Park City, which has dozens of great non-chain restaurants and several live-music venues.
We went to 350 Main, a health-conscious (the calorie count is noted on about half the dishes) and very nice restaurant on, yes, Main Street, which is also a great place to shop for gorgeous $8,000 or so acrylic-on-canvas aspen trees painted by artist Susan Swartz or several-hundred-dollar designer jeans at Chloe Lane Denim and Collections.
That night, a Friday, the friendly 350 Main was packed — reservations are recommended — with ski bums and fancy folk enjoying such delicacies as the generous tower of ahi and hamachi (Japanese amberjack) with tobiko caviar, pineapple shoyu and wasabi aioli. If you like soy- and wasabi-infused fresh fish, this is about as good as it gets.
Among entrees, the black sesame sea scallops with Asian vegetables, a spicy sesame dressing and, again, wasabi aioli, was a superb, wonderfully prepared choice. The restaurant also offers Western fare, including venison medallions crusted with black peppercorns and nicely accompanied by blackberry-shiitake jus, roasted beets and cranberry-orange marmalade. Yum.
This hearty, delicious meal served us well the next day when we got up before dawn to engage in something called First Tracks. For $100, a limited number of ski tourists get a chance to spend about an hour or so on the Canyons’ slopes alone with a couple of ski guides, followed by an all-you-can-eat breakfast at the Red Pine Lodge. First Tracks is for all levels, albeit in our group, most were advanced to expert.
One of our guides was Kris “Fuzz” Feddersen, a former coach and participant in Olympic freestyle skiing. He took us up to about 9,000 feet in what felt like 0-degree weather, and for a minute or two, we forgot the bone-chilling winds as we watched one of the most gorgeous sunrises in a lifetime: golden orange, creeping up and finally spilling over opposing mountain ridges. No need to ski, really. Just watching the sunrise would have been plenty.
Ski we did, though, and it was amazing to see and hear only one’s own tracks in the very quiet, serene setting. The snow was fairly packed, but there were no grooves or moguls, so it was smooth sailing. Almost unreal.
By noon that day, our legs were like Jell-O, and it was time to pack up — after a soothing soak in the outdoor heated pool — and head for our next destination: Sundance.
“Sundance? Well, I guess you’re leaving the best skiing behind you,” commented one of the First Tracks participants. “But I hear it’s gorgeous.”
Well, hello, gorgeous. About 45 minutes away from the Park City area, Sundance feels otherworldly. Owned and operated by Robert Redford, Sundance exudes environmental consciousness — a wish to preserve the pristine flora and fauna of the incredible North Fork Canyon and towering 12,000-foot Mount Timpanogos.
Where man’s footprints are conspicuous in the Park City area, with shopping malls, plenty of traffic and lifts and homes conspicuous on the mountainsides, at Sundance they barely are noticeable. The 95 luxury mountain cottages decorated in American Indian themes are near the base of Mount Timpanogos and Sundance’s small resort center; they are located among trees and are barely visible to skiers.
From atop the runs, the landscape looks practically untouched except for that giant ranch to the west. We’re wondering if that’s the home of you-know-who. “Well, he does have a home here,” says Lucy Ridolphi, marketing manager at Sundance — but that’s as far as she’ll go.
One of the most common — and, according to some, annoying — questions the staff at Sundance gets is “Where is Robert Redford?”
To which Ms. Ridolphi responds, “I wouldn’t want anyone to get their expectations up.”
Chances of seeing him in person may be slim, but his personal stamp on the place is always visible. In the informational brochures about the resort, he writes that Sundance is a dream. This may sound a little corny and pretentious, but we agree it is a dreamy place.
After a few days of skiing, eating very well and staying at a comfortable but small cabin with wood-burning fireplace and a view of woods and mountains only — no other human sighting — we were completely won over. By the way, in true green fashion, each cabin is equipped with a recycle bin for glass and paper; guest notepads and pencils are made from 100 percent recycled materials.
The skiing, though looked down upon in the Canyons, was good, too. There is a good mix of runs for all skill levels. Keep in mind, however, that the lifts, which are solar-powered — keeping 186 tons of greenhouse gases out of the air every year, we learned — are few and slow.
It took about 30 minutes to get to the top of the mountain. Another problem was the trail map, which was confusing: At one point, we were faced with only black runs when the map showed there should be a blue-run option.
The beauty, though, shines through, and the runs are not terribly crowded. We learned from a waiter at the Tree Room, one of several Sundance restaurants, that Sunday is the best day to ski and go to the movies here in Mormonland.
Another great experience — and completely solitary — was cross-country skiing; the cross-country center, a yurt, is a few miles away from the downhill lifts.
The great thing about Sundance is that guests who arrive without wheels, as we did, can call the front desk day or night and ask for a lift in — of course — a hybrid vehicle.
If you’d rather walk, the cabins are connected to the resort center by a winding, paved trail that, in parts, runs parallel to a stream that flows through the resort.
For our cross-country adventure, we got our hybrid ride to the yurt and spent a beautiful couple of hours alone on the freshly groomed trails. It happened to be a sunny, blue-sky day, and the mountains never looked better.
Scott Marshall, a lean cross-country instructor and yurt keeper, gave us handy advice before we headed out on skis and boots he had outfitted us with: “Do it as if you’re walking, not shuffling.”
It worked, but it was hard, sweaty, cardio-demanding work. One of our several breaks was for lunch. We sat on a nicely positioned bench amid snow, trees and mountains and enjoyed our picnic sandwiches, which we had ordered at the Sundance Deli, much better than the cafeteria fare at Creekside at the base of the mountain.
We heard that the mountaintop Bearclaw Cabin is better. We ordered the Sundance special — turkey, bacon and avocado on sourdough bread, an under-$10 delight.
Having heard we might see some wildlife, we were a little disappointed that we saw only squirrels. We did see plenty of tracks — a guide said they were mostly from snowshoe hares.
A good place to find out more about area wildlife is the Sundance Nature Center in another yurt in the center of the resort, close to the restaurants, art shacks, rehearsal halls and screening room, where the Sundance Film Festival outgrew its humble beginnings.
The Nature Center tells us that the last grizzly bear in Utah was seen in 1923; that Mount Timpanogos is home to a dozen peaks and seven basins; that wildlife includes coyotes, mule deer, cougars, black bears and elk; and that Mr. Redford bought the property in 1969 when the then-owners were considering selling to big-time developers.
Mr. Redford’s goal was to preserve the land and only a “small fraction has been developed to support Sundance,” according to the Nature Center exhibit.
Sundance is not the best resort for young non-skiing children, for there is no non-ski-school child care, except a nanny service, but it has plenty to offer older non-skiing children and adults. The art shack, the source of some of the art and pottery sold through the Sundance catalog, offers pottery classes, jewelry making, printmaking and photography, and also painting and drawing. Classes cost $90 per person for two hours.
Our excellent pottery instructor, Tim Rencher, whose beautiful, Indian-inspired pottery is sold at the art shack store, helped us pottery neophytes make not-half-bad bowls and vases in blue and white. This was quite a feat, considering that our creations looked more like blobs on an out-of-control spinning wheel for most of the time. We credit our teacher.
Sundance also offers excellent, reasonably priced — $15 per person — yoga classes with the charming Gigi Koster — the picture of health with perfect skin, long red hair and white-as-snow teeth — who makes those spine-defying moves look easy. Sundance also has live music at its Owl Bar near the other restaurants: the Tree Room; the Foundry Grill, which serves an abundant Sunday brunch; and the Deli.
On our first night, we opted for bar food (average) at the very fun Owl Bar, which is reminiscent of an old saloon — not surprising because its “restored 1890s bar is the original Rosewood Bar once frequented by Butch Cassidy’s Hole-in-the-Wall Gang.” There you have it.
The band on the tiny stage was Blues on First, a Utah band that blends blues and rock ‘n’ roll. What fun and how surprising that the Owl Bar’s small stage produces such a world-class sound.
For more low-key entertainment, all rooms come with the Sundance TV channel, and at the front desk, guests can borrow from the several-hundred-title video and DVD library, which contains many Redford favorites. We chose “Jeremiah Johnson,” which stars Mr. Redford as a 19th-century trapper. It was filmed on location, which informed our choice — certainly not the plot, which put one of us to sleep.
The next night, we wend to the Tree Room to please our palates. We had heard rave reviews, so our expectations were high, and we were not disappointed. The wood-heavy, elegant and tall-ceilinged dining room is full of Western memorabilia and Indian art. Some windows are floor-to-ceiling and provide views of trees and mountainside. The menu offers many Western choices, such as elk, wild boar and buffalo.
Our excellent waiter, Mike (Hollywood good looks) Nelson, recommended the appetizer of the day, a potato puree and beet soup with goat cheese. It didn’t sound exciting, but what a scrumptious combination of flavors and textures.
We moved on with the Sundance salad — organic (of course) mixed greens, currants and candied pecans. It, too, was fresh and perfect, as were the dinner rolls. Excellent dinner choices included grilled elk loin, endive gratin, house-made sausage and barley, and pomegranate jus.
We asked Mr. Nelson if Mr. Redford ever stops by. “All the time,” he said. “He uses it kind of as his own dining room. He comes in late, though, when it’s quiet.”
He often engages in political discussions, Mr. Nelson says, and welcomes people with less liberal views than his own.
“He’s really open-minded,” Mr. Nelson says. “He listens to all points of view…. He just enjoys people who think, people who are intelligent.”
So ends our lovely trip to Utah. We ski a few runs our last day because we can and then — armed with fond memories of views, challenging runs, excellent meals and friendly people — we head to the airport wishing someone would adopt us here.
We reach the airport with no offer; maybe it’s for the best. A fairy-tale dream is best kept short and sweet so it will not become ordinary. On the most mundane of days, we can dig back to this untarnished dream and say, “We’ll always have Sundance.”
A range of restaurants, places to hole up
The Canyons, near Park City, Utah, offers three lodging options: the Grand Summit Resort Hotel and Conference Center, Sundial Lodge and Silverado Lodge. Prices range from about $85 to $3,235 per night, depending on the size of the room and the season. For more information, call 800/226-9667 or visit www.thecanyons.com.
The Sundance resort offers mountain cabins and mountain homes. Prices range from about $225 to $1,650 per night. For more information, call 801/225-4107 or visit www.sundanceresort.com.
The Canyons’ restaurants include Doc’s for straightforward, reasonably priced bar food and the Cabin, which serves well-prepared, fancy Western food.
For more choices, take the free city bus to Park City. For more information, call 800/453-1360 or visit www.parkcityinfo.com.
Sundance guests can choose from the fun and often live-music-infused Owl Bar for straightforward, reasonably priced bar food; the Foundry Grill, which serves an amazing Sunday brunch; and the fabulous Tree Room, a great restaurant where the emphasis is on local produce and meat — and the decor includes Robert Redford’s Western memorabilia collection).
The Deli prepares delicious sandwiches for less than $10. For more information, call 801/225- 4107 or visit www.sundanceresort.com.
Delta Air Lines has several daily direct flights from the Washington area to Salt Lake City. Most flights depart from Washington Dulles International Airport. For more information, call 800/221-1212 or visit www.delta.com.
The Salt Lake City Airport is served by several shuttle companies that take travelers from the airport to resorts in less than an hour. Prices vary. For a list of these companies, go to www.parkcityinfo.com.
The Canyons sells daily ski passes for adults for up to $75 a day and $43 a day for seniors and children. For more information and to find out about receiving a free ski pass by providing a same-day boarding pass, call 435/615-3410.
Sundance sells daily ski passes ranging in price from $12 to $45. For more information, call 801/223-4849.
The Canyons offers day care for non-skiing children ages 6 weeks to 6 years at a state-licensed facility at the Grand Summit Hotel; call 435/615-8036.
Sundance has no day care but offers nanny services for non-skiing children; call 801/225-4107.
Both resorts offer a wide range of skis and boards for rentals and lessons for young and old, individuals and groups. For the Canyons, call 800-Canyons or visit www.thecanyons.com; for Sundance, call 801/225-4107 or go to www.sundanceresort.com.