The New Salt Lake City
By Everett Potter
It was 1994 when I first visited Salt Lake City, and at the time, the city gave fresh meaning to the terms “sleepy,” seemingly locked in a time warp redolent of 1950’s America. But what gave it panache was its setting, ringed with snow-covered mountains in a valley that was cinematic in its breathlessness. That and a kind of eternal optimism among many people that seemed at odds with my East Coast origins.
In the years since that first visit, I’ve returned to Salt Lake many times and watched it grow, transforming itself into a leading capital of the West. Far smaller than Denver, not remotely given to the extravagance of Las Vegas, it’s a city that has quietly built itself into one of the most welcoming places in the country.
That’s even truer now, with the resurgence and renaissance of its downtown, spearheaded by the City Creek Center. This impressive mixed use development – part mall, part high end apartments and office — lies across from Temple Square. It is at once a luxury development and the city’s way of saying,” We’ve arrived.” It’s a message couched in high end shops, fountains built by the architects of the Bellagio’s fountains in Vegas, and even a replica of the original City Creek that flows through the development, stocked with Bonneville and Cutthroat Trout. The trout, and the landscaping that relies on native stone and high desert plants, along with a retractable roof, offer up an indisputable truth – when you’re in Salt Lake, you’re never far from the outdoors. The astounding natural world that surrounds the city is offered up in spades at the new Natural History Museum of Utah at the Rio Tinto Center, on the campus of the University of Utah. The museum has an eagle’s eye perch over the entire valley and a world class collection of dinosaur fossils, among many other treasures. The science continues at The Leonardo, an interactive science museum downtown, and one of the most engaging and kid friendly museums I’ve ever seen.
You can start your day with a bagel and good coffee at Toasters, where the soccer game seems to be always on and there are Swiss Milka chocolate bars to fuel your first ski run that morning. If you happen to be in town during lunchtime, head to the well-established Takashi, which offers the best sushi I’ve ever eaten in the Rockies. At dinner time, there’s Red Iguana, where there is a perpetual line and the waitresses are perennially smiling. The brightly colored plastic tablecloths are soon covered with spicy salsa, guacamole that an artisan would appreciate, and a selection of moles that utilize Mexican chocolate, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, bananas and chilies to achieve their sublime flavors. My favorite was mole coloradito, a dark concoction of pine nuts, almonds, and peanuts blended with dried chile chiuacle, chile poblano and Mexican chocolate served over a tender piece of pork. While my companions sipped margaritas made with cucumbers, I sampled some of Salt Lake’s wonderful beer (Wasatch Brewery’s Ghostrider Pale IPA seems made for this food). By the time we left, there was still a gaggle of the faithful awaiting entry on the sidewalk.
Speaking of beer, I also liked Squatter’s Brew Pub, which was jammed to the rafters on a recent Monday night. This is the lair of the long-bearded brew master, Jason Stock, who looks like a candidate from a pioneer reality show (or perhaps a spawn of ZZ Top). He’s a soft spoken giant with a dab hand at turning out award winning brew. My favorites were the Vienna Lager and the deep, dark and flavorful Outer Darkness. These are established places, but in the last year, Salt Lake has emerged as a destination for food-centric travelers, with such new offerings as Pallet, serving contemporary American cuisine, and Finca, a Spanish tapas bar and restaurant.
Solitude & Brighton
Still, most of us go to Salt Lake to do more than eat. For me, the city is synonymous with skiing, and within a 45 minute drive lie four of the best ski mountains in the United States. Head up Big Cottonwood Canyon and you’ll arrive at Solitude, with its steeps that shock an Easterner – yes, the runs are long, flatten out a bit, and then drop like the face of a skyscraper. On a decent powder day, everyone heads to Honeycomb Canyon, which starts as a bowl and then offers a variety of gladed terrain for skiers of all abilities, a veritable playground. The base village is new-ish and purpose-built, with an ersatz European feel and even a clock tower. It’s like Austria with much better snow.
Travel a mile or so further up the canyon and you’ll reach Brighton, a true locals mountain. There are many more trees, a pitch that is more gentle than Solitude’s, and a true mom and pop feel at the base lodge. It’s an ideal family mountain and it feels like you’ve gone back in time. Each of these mountains are big enough to easily consume a day of a ski trip – or more. Beloved by Salt Lake City residents, they’re still relatively unknown to visitors.
Snowbird & Alta
Then head up Little Cottonwwood Canyon to Snowbird and Alta, two of the most famous ski mountains in the world. You can stay at the Cliff Lodge at Snowbird, a cement bunker of a place built to withstand the onslaught of avalanches in the canyon. Have a massage at the spa, feast on sushi at the Aerie restaurant, and admire owner Dick Bass’ collection of hundreds of oriental rugs (he summited Everest and clearly did a bit of shopping on his way home). Snowbird is where the big dogs ski, speeding down this difficult, steep and challenging mountain that gives Jackson Hole a run for its money as the hill with the toughest big mountain in-bounds terrain in the United States. On a powder day like the one I experienced last week, the chairlift gives you a bird’s eye view of arguably the best cross sample of accomplished skiers anywhere, navigating steeps, chutes and powder. It helps to be an excellent, incredibly fit, and possibly overly caffeinated skier to navigate this terrain.
Yet on the same day, you can cross over via skis to the parallel world of Alta, which is hallowed by so many skiers. The very word “Alta” is spoken by some skiers like a magic incantation, a place out of time that offers unfettered skiing. Full disclosure: I’ve drunk the Kool Aid and Alta is one of my favorite mountains in the world. Celebrating its 75th year, it has an almost Zen-like feel, with the same amazingly light snow as Snowbird, but terrain that is more varied, with steeps aplenty as well as forest runs, ringed by peaks that are skiable if you’ve got the guts. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to feeling like I’m skiing in Europe in the US. Alta’s lodging is quirky, individually owned, and not like any other ski resort. I’m partial to the Alta Lodge, which looks like a college dorm built by a refugee architect from the Bauhaus in the 1940s, with lots of glass looking out to the mountains. A favorite of New Yorkers who’ve been coming for three and four generations, it is the soul of Alta. More upscale digs can be found at The Rustler Lodge, which has a vast and comforting great room overlooking the mountainscape.
But I also like staying in downtown Salt Lake when I ski., because at day’s end, I have all of those restaurants to choose from via a leisurely walk. The Grand America Hotel is indeed as grand as its name implies, built for the 2002 Olympics, a hotel so spacious and lavish that it outdoes most Ritz-Carlton’s when it comes to luxury. But I also like staying in the heart of downtown at the Hotel Monaco, which is located inside an old bank building. Here you’ll find Bambara, one of the best restaurants in the city under the creative guidance of Chef Nathan Powers. And since this is a Kimpton property, it has the whimsy, color and character of that company’s best hotels.
The Next Big Thing
The next big thing for Salt Lake happens in April with the opening of the TRAX transport line from the airport to downtown. The entire trip from Salt Lake International Airport to downtown will take about 20 minutes. In short, you’ll be able to come for a ski vacation, stay downtown, and then take public transportation UTA Ski Buses up to each of SaltLake’s four mountains, eliminating the need for a rental car if you like. If you buy a Visit Salt Lake Connect Pass, you also get complimentary TRAX and bus passes and free or discounted admission to 13 attractions like the Natural History Museum and The Leonardo.
Twenty years since I first set foot in Salt Lake, the 1950’s vibe seems to have vanished. All of this change is evidence of 21st century thinking at work. No one will ever mistake Salt Lake for Manhattan, but it now has a vibe and energy that befits one of my favorite cities in the West.
For more info, go to Visit Salt Lake