A skier swaps a resort stay for Salt Lake City’s vibrant downtown

Slopeside chalets? Ski-in/ski-out hotels? Sure, I love them as much as anyone else. Ditto bunking in a cozy mountain town, as long as I can get to the resort without much hassle. Escaping civilization is a large part of the appeal of a ski trip.

I also like cities, though, especially ones I’d like to know better. That’s why I thought I’d see what it’s like to carve some turns during the day and maybe catch a live symphony or pro basketball game at night — without having to spend too much time on the road.

Salt Lake City seemed to be a good place to try. Since hosting the 2002 Winter Olympics, it certainly had developed a much more cosmopolitan character. But I’d never spent more than 24 hours in the city; most of the time I was in the mountains, skiing. Further investigation was warranted, along with maybe hitting four major ski resorts — none really known for vibrant nightlife or extensive dining — about a 40-minute drive away.

My home base, the Hotel Monaco, was in the revitalized central downtown area amid some hip-looking restaurants, art galleries, boutique shops and a tattoo joint or two. You would never know you were two blocks from the Salt Lake Temple — the spiritual center of Mormonism. Looking out the windows of my room, I could be in Denver or Minneapolis, except for the snowy Wasatch Mountains towering in the near-distance, providing a spectacular backdrop to the city skyline.

Brighton, Solitude, Alta and Snowbird were the resorts on my agenda over the next three days. That may sound ambitious, but the first two and the second two each share ski-connects.

Snowbird was first up, and traffic was pretty much nonexistent during the drive. Sporting an extensive network of single- and double-black-diamond trails with names like “Oh My God,” “S.O.B.” and “Barry Barry Steep,” Snowbird has a reputation for thrilling experts and snickering at beginners.

I gravitate toward advanced-intermediate runs and the occasional single black, and I had plenty of trails to keep me busy all morning. The terrain and pitches are so varied — from wide and loping to narrow and angled — that I had more options than time or energy to try them all.

I grabbed lunch at the Summit, an on-mountain restaurant on the Mineral Basin side of the resort. The sweeping panoramic views of snow-blanketed peaks unfortunately soon faded into a whiteout as a storm rolled in. Normally, I might have plunked down in the resort lodge or maybe booked a massage. Instead, I headed back down to the city, where it wasn’t snowing, to check out the Natural History Museum of Utah, which I had visited briefly some years before.

A futuristic-looking structure terraced into a massive hillside on the eastern edge of the city, the museum houses a vast network of interactive displays and exhibits on a variety of subjects, including dinosaur fossils and geology, DNA and astronomy. Pathways guide you through the life and landscapes of different eras, such as the Late Cretaceous Period some 70 million years ago, revivified in a way through 21st-century technology. Favorite exhibits: one about the dinos that used to roam the area and another on the eight Native American tribes, each centuries-old, that have homes in Utah.

I dined in my hotel’s restaurant, Bambara, a AAA Four Diamond eatery with a casual feel enhanced by an open kitchen and soaring ceilings. When I asked if the salmon was wild or farmed, the server said the latter, and then went into detail about how this particular local salmon farm was known for producing fish free of the contaminants that infiltrate most other farms. It was delicious, particularly with a superb pinot noir from an impressive wine list.

Afterward, I headed out for a stroll on South Main Street, past some office buildings and a club, and found Eborn Books, essentially a 30,000-square-foot warehouse of books — new, used, rare — in about every genre imaginable. There was also a small cafe filled with the aroma of homemade apple pie. I’d already had dessert, but couldn’t resist. I told myself that I would ski an extra run the next day to work it off.

Solitude comes by its name honestly. With the much larger Snowbird in the neighborhood and the more famous Park City not far away, Solitude is a still something of a secret among locals, whom you might think coordinate their ski days so that there’s never a crowd. I certainly didn’t see many people the entire morning I spent floating through the light powder that had fallen overnight.

I worked mainly off the Summit Express quad chair, which drops skiers at the upper rim of the Cathedral Bowl and its enticing mix of blue and black trails as well as opportunities for tree skiing. I whiled away the hours under a postcard-perfect winter sun.

After a quick midday bite in Solitude Village, I was back on the Summit Express, this time to take the Sol-Bright Trail that connects to Brighton on the other side of Evergreen Peak. Neither Solitude nor Brighton is particularly large, but together they offer about 2,300 acres of skiable terrain, and Brighton’s share of it kept me busy all afternoon.

Brighton has a reputation as a no-frills, mom-and-pop resort, and is a real favorite among area snowboarders. Maybe it was just the day I was there, but I didn’t see more shredders than I’ve seen at other resorts. I didn’t even see many other skiers.

Both Solitude and Brighton have a low-key vibe and a high-quality mesh of trails off all the major lifts. I’d been here once about 10 years ago, and it was great to see how little had changed. The groomers were every bit as fun and twisty as I remembered, especially off the Milly Express chair.

It was another easy drive back to the city, and after a quick shower and change, I was back on South Main Street, this time walking toward Temple Square. Along the way I passed what looked like the final phases of construction of a massive arts complex — the Eccles Theater, as I found out. Lots of retractable soaring glass with elevated terraces and bright lighting, all framed in modern grandeur. A little research that night yielded an ambitious list of Broadway tours lined up for the inaugural season, like “Kinky Boots,” “The Lion King,” and — maybe a surprise, depending on your sense of irony — “The Book of Mormon.”

The Martine Cafe was my destination, a star on the downtown culinary scene, I’d been told at the hotel. It’s an old rowhouse sporting red brick walls, long upholstered banquettes and heavy beams across wood ceilings. Call it a cross between a country inn and a brasserie. I learned here that Utah makes its own gin — Beehive Gin, specifically, which has a nice little bite to it and forms the base of an aptly named house cocktail: Corpse Reviver.

I chose from a menu that offered both tapas dishes and full entrees, starting with basil-mushroom bisque, followed by mussels in yellow curry and finally a bit of seafood stew. All tasty, all filling. I’m sure I had dessert, but the memory is lost in the fog of a second Corpse Reviver.

I’m not much of a fan of shopping malls, but I wanted to check out the City Creek Center nearby, and not just because it has a stone creek — complete with fish — running down the middle of the concourse. Under its glass roof, which opens on weather-friendly days, is an array of upscale shopping (Tiffany & Co., Brooks Brothers, Coach, Nordstrom), but I was most interested in checking out the only Salomon retail store in the country. Normally, you have to go to a sporting-goods shop for Salomon apparel and accessories. The store in the mall had an extensive inventory, and I picked up a couple of base layers at a decent price.

My final skiing foray was at Alta. To my mind, it really was a case of the best saved for last. I’ve skied Alta a few times, and each time was better than the previous one. Despite 2,200 acres of skiable terrain and 116 trails, it has such an intimate vibe. Some think it’s because Alta doesn’t allow snowboarders. Maybe. On so many trails at Alta, you get the feeling of having it all to yourself, even if others are schussing along with you.

I’ve heard powder hounds talk about Alta’s powder as if it were the only snow of its kind in the entire world. Being no expert, I couldn’t judge, but the snow was certainly wispy and plentiful as I skied from morning to afternoon on another bluebird day. As at the other resorts I’d been to, I met a slew of locals while riding the lifts. They couldn’t have been more friendly and helpful. It was as hard to say goodbye to them as it was the resort.

For my last dinner, I walked out of my hotel, caught a cable car and rode to the Vivint Smart Home Arena, where I grabbed a bite from a concession stand and headed to my seat just as the Utah Jazz were about to take on the Phoenix Suns. It’s not often you can attend an NBA game after a day on the slopes, and I thought it’d be nice to watch others give their legs a workout and rest mine — while sipping a Polygamy Porter, a local brew with the advertising tagline, “Bring some home to the wives.” The game was a bit of a blowout — the Jazz won by more than 30 points — but it was fun cheering and celebrating with the hometown crowd.

In some ways, I did miss being warm and snug in front of the fireplace of an on-mountain cabin. But it was also fun to combine skiing with a chance to spend time in a city that has not only a fair amount to offer but also, evidently, a pretty good sense of humor.

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Washington Post Fri, 02/10/2017 - 12:48