Utah’s Park City delivers powder-perfect skiing, Olympic thrills, icy drinks and mind-blowing cuisine…
It’s early January and I’ve got the heated outdoor pool all to myself – toque on, trying not to get my phone wet. I want to be the best selfie version of myself but I’m failing: the bright sunshine and the mist from the pool are ruining every shot. My crepey neck is not helping either. This could be one of those times I’ll just have to live in the moment, I think.
Hitting the pool isn’t the first thing I do after checking into the Grand Summit Hotel at Park City Mountain resort, just a half-hour east of Salt Lake City, Utah. The first thing is to hunt down the humidifier – a ski-lodge staple – and fill it up, along with stashing a jug of water in the fridge. This clean, crisp mountain air is as dry as a bone, and thin: the elevation here is more than 2,000 metres. With my hydration-not-headache plan in place and my swim trunks rinsed, I wander out to scout the Canyons Village before my chums arrive, and ogle all the fancy skiwear I can’t afford.
The base of the hills is awash in gas firepits, sweet confections and colourful skiers. I see more skiers than snowboarders, packs of children seemingly on their own, and quite a few families. I grab a hot cocoa and sit near the entrance, watching the SUVs roll in and the families tumble out, trying to guess which of the moms will not be strapping on a single ski.
The town of Park City, population 8,400, anchors Park City Mountain and the more posh Deer Valley Resort. It is best known as home of the Sundance Film Festival, but we are skiing a few weeks before the Hollywood types and their entourages converge on this little town, clog the roadways and snap up all the restaurant chairs.
In the late 1860s, silver veins attracted adventurers here from around the world, with silver mining the base of wealth for numerous suddenly rich millionaires, including the father of newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst. The region has been a snow destination since the 1930s, when the shiny stuff ran dry.
Purchased by Vail Resorts in 2014 and combined with nearby Canyons Resort, Park City Mountain is now the largest lift-accessible ski resort in the United States (at 3,000 hectares), and bills itself as the Greatest Snow on Earth. Upgraded in 2015, it now includes 350 trails, 41 lifts, eight terrain parks, 13 bowls and one super pipe. When we all get skiing, it is pure heaven – great grooming, not too many lineups, no snowboarders freaking me out or bowling me over, everything running like clockwork (including my legs, which are a bit wobbly but hold out). This season, the resort is debuting a few enhancements, including additional snowmaking, a new beginner area, the expansion of the Cloud Dine restaurant, and a facelift for the iconic Mid-Mountain Lodge.
I manage a facelift of a totally different kind – via G-force – with a Winter Comet Bobsled ride down the actual bobsled, luge and skeleton track of the 2002 Winter Olympic Games.
The afternoon begins with a 10-minute drive to Utah Olympic Park. We spend some time in the Games museum and the Alf Engen Ski Museum, and I get sidetracked by a temporary exhibit of ski-slope fashion through the decades. I also find case after case of black-and-white photos and mid-century memorabilia, and try to imagine what it would be like to do aerials on wooden skis in a V-neck sweater and tie like Stein Eriksen, the father of freestyle skiing. Eriksen was such a skiing god that the nearby Deer Valley Resort, where he once served as a host, named Stein Eriksen Lodge after him.
Being in that heady atmosphere of Olympic glory must have made us tipsy: we decide to try out the bobsled track. After bussing it to the track, we file through a room full of giant helmets, throw one on, break into groups of three and hop into the back of a truck with our sled for the ride up the mountain to the starting line. Thankfully, an experienced pilot takes the helm, and we don’t have to run and jump in on-the-fly like real racers, but we do have to hold on. This is why they make you sign a waiver, I think, as I hold on for dear life for 45 seconds, which feel like an eternity. Things come to a halt fairly quickly at the finish and the scoreboard says we hit 64 miles per hour, all information that is on my Instagram feed in minutes. Sure I thought I was going to die, but, man! I feel burly.
Working towards the après-après-ski
Next day, to help ease the pain of a day on the slopes, we take in a stretch class at the Spa at the Stein Eriksen Lodge, led by two-time Olympic gold medal skier Shannon Bahrke. She takes us through a yoga-tinged routine, plus mat exercises to work out the kinks – and it really, really hurts. Bahrke is a fitness advocate and one of seven ski ambassadors with the Deer Valley Resort’s Ski With a Champion program, which lets you ski with an Olympian for an afternoon. She is actually sweet enough to bring her silver and bronze medals with her to class, and she lets each of us try them on for a photo op.
But all the exercise in the world isn’t going to take away the bellies we grow eating three squares a day. I come to the conclusion that Utah ski people really know how to eat and they generally don’t care how much the bill is.
At The Farm restaurant in Canyons Village, the server makes the mistake of putting a platter of local charcuterie right in front of me – heavenly prosciutto, salami, house mustard. I try not to hoover it and let the rest have some. I almost wet myself when I discover that my smoked bone marrow entrée comes with oxtail marmalade. We also try the T-bone, which comes with black trumpet mushrooms and roasted radishes, radish tops – I’m back on the farm! – and radish chimichurri (which I later try, and fail, to make at home).
Celebrating the fact that no one has wiped out too hard or pulled a groin, we go to Firewood on Main Street in town one evening, where we start with Fire Line cocktails: a mezcal/tequila concoction with hibiscus extract and citrus ash, all smoky and refreshing. Firewood chef John Murcko and his culinary team cook the entire menu on a custom-cast, 14-foot-long wood-fire grill. Although there is zucchini and squash gnocchi, and grilled fish and scallops, this place is all about the meat. It’s the kind of kitchen where beef is one of the accompaniments to the steak: American Kobe Bavette comes with beef belly and a garlic sauce. Like, there wasn’t enough beef already, so they needed to add a side of beef. I love America.
Afterwards, we wander down the street into The Spur Bar and Grill, where a session of duelling pianos is underway. The performers are playing a game where they invite audience members to put money in the tip jar for them to stop playing a song, kind of like a reverse song request, a cease-and-desist tip. I make friends with the bear tending bar, only to have him line up shots of something that smells mostly like bourbon, inset into little holes on a wooden ski – a “shotski.” This is tradition, apparently, one that we get the hang of in a flash. Speaking of drinks, Utah is the opposite of tea-total and doesn’t have any dry counties, contrary to popular belief.
I end my time here as I started, in the swimming pool, this time under the stars, not bothering with the phone, just soaking in the universe – and planning a summer visit.
When you go
Delta and WestJet fly non-stop from Toronto to Salt Lake City in about 4½ hours for around $500 return. Ski season is from November 21 to April 7 (estimated). Consider Vail’s Epic passes, which include a Park City four-day pass for $470. The breadth and variety of accommodation is considerable, so shop around. Check out ParkCityMountain.com, EpicPass.com and VisitParkCity.com for more details.
DOUG WALLACE is the editor and publisher of travel resource TravelRight.Today.