Later in the day, this resort’s high-end jinks really get started. While the palatial Montage Deer Valley hotel throws down the gauntlet with its Veuve Clicquot-partnered après lounge – an opulent, fur-strewn yurt – the St. Regis responds with a daily ritual in which magnums are cracked open with a gleaming sabre. Spa-wise, the Stein Eriksen Lodge is the Montage’s stiffest competition, with Utah’s only five-star rating from Forbes Travel Guide. I can vouch for the Montage’s, with its $3million collection of fine art landscapes by local photographer Fatali, where an outstanding deep-tissue massage on my departure day floats me out of the door, into my transfer limo and all the way to London, just 11 hours later.
It wasn’t always this way. Park City first became a town in 1884, 16 years after prospecting soldiers first discovered silver in the hills. It grew to be one of the USA’s most successful and long-lived mining centres, but while the preserved mining structures that pepper the slopes bear witness to past glories, they also memorialise the slump in mineral prices that sent the town into a crushing decline in the mid 20th century. It was skiing – even if early visitors accessed the runs in goods carts cheerfully dubbed the ‘Skiers’ Subway’, via some of the 1200 miles of grimy underground mining tunnels – that sparked its renaissance.
The result today is a beautifully kept Old West town, its affluence reflected in Main Street’s rows of immaculate historic storefronts, now home to world-class restaurants, upscale cocktail bars, characterful, old-school saloons and unique retail (although on a shopping embargo, I was siren-called into swanky mountain outfitter Gorsuch by designer skis decorated with Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat artworks). Old miners’ homes have been transformed into charming, clapboard houses in diverse, harmonious colours in streets that climb the lower slopes, punctuated with imposing civic buildings such as the Park City Museum, formerly City Hall, and the Deco-detailed, red-brick Marsac School.
The suburbs too, though characterised by charm-lite strip malls, are well worth exploring. Funky young businesses are springing up in the area around Prospector Square, and it is here I meet locals in their most relaxed, day-to-day guise. An also-ran restaurant wouldn’t last a minute in this town, and among the best out here are steak and sushi specialist Blind Dog, sleek brunch joint five5eeds and the authentic, no-frills Mexican diner El Chubasco, whose self-serve salsa bar is somewhat of a local legend. Art galleries, interiors stores, yoga studios and day spas round out the offer.
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Park City has culture too, often of metropolitan quality. The Eccles Centre is perhaps its most ambitious programmer, presenting Alan Cummings in concert and Alvin Ailey’s Ailey II dance company last winter. The cute, deco-kitsch Egyptian Theatre, iconic Main Street venue for Sundance Film Festival screenings, hosts hardy, good-value perennials – I missed Howard Jones and Village People, but am among the mostly local crowd brought to their feet by gospel close-harmony group Blind Boys of Alabama. In summer, Deer Valley’s open-air Snow Park Amphitheatre ups the game further, with concerts from the likes of the Beach Boys, jazz superstar Diana Krall and regular appearances by the Utah Symphony. Eminently LGBTQ-unbothered, the town has also for the last eight years hosted an annual gay ski week in February – said the event’s producer Tom Whitman when he checked whether venues were OK with it, “Half of them rolled their eyes and said, ‘Seriously? Girl, please.’ The other half immediately shouted out, ‘Absolutely!’”
But it’s Park City’s soul that, for me, sets it apart from other have-it-all ski resorts. The sense I feel from people I meet on chairlifts, in bars and coffee shops, is that this is a real, albeit insanely blessed town, going about its business and many heady pleasures, all of which visitors are warmly welcome to sample. And there’s reason to hope it will stay that way. To control top-end-heavy super-gentrification, city leaders are working hard to expand the town’s affordable housing portfolio, so that locals don’t have to up sticks for cheaper commuter communities, extend the efficient, free, biodiesel and electric transport system and fund ever more education breaks for its kids. Robert Redford is even considering splitting the Sundance Film Festival into a number of smaller events in recognition of its crowds’ impacts on residents.
So, after yet another choice dinner, this time in the hip, industrial-chic surroundings of current up-and-comer Handle (don’t miss the cauliflower hot wings with blue cheese), I decide to spend my last night rubbing random local shoulders in a selection of old-town bars. First up, everybody’s top recommendation, the infamous No Name Saloon. Its walls and ceilings festooned with everything from motorbikes to street signs to antler chandeliers to a bomb, It’s a lively place to sink one of the wealth of local craft ales. And I do, maybe two, perhaps three. Next, it’s Irish bar Rock & Reilly’s, where I watch two hilarious young men dressed as bananas play giant Jenga and bounce to frat-rock classics. Finally, The Cabin, a buzzing Main Street den for beardy, plaid-clad bros, where the liquor shots are flying and a blues band is rocking a tiny but jovial stage in the corner. And there he is. Commanding the room from a plinth, right by the door, with a pair of magnificent antlers, Frankenstein-fixed to his beady, stuffed face. Behold. The elkupine.
Photography courtesy of Park City, Utah and via Unsplash
Get out there
… caffeinate at Atticus Coffee and Teahouse. I researched coffee as hard as a man can in six days, and while many gave great bean, this charming, chilled brewhouse-cum-bookstore on Lower Main Street was my best in class.
… take a day trip out of the city. Utah is uniquely blessed with a total of 14 world-class ski resorts – 10 are within an hour of Salt Lake City International Airport, and each has its own distinct character. Take your pick from gnarly Alta, hipster Brighton, Bob Redford-owned Sundance, or Solitude in the spectacular Big Cottonwood Canyon.
… check out the High West Distillery. Even if you don’t drink, the food is excellent in this beautifully repurposed livery stable. And if you do drink, a tour and whiskey tasting is a liltingly lovely way to spend a late afternoon. There’s a reason they call it ‘ski-in’, but there is a more than likely chance that you won’t be skiing out.
… forget Park City is more than just a ski town. Summers are packed with things to do, from scenic drives to caning the 400 miles of public access mountain biking and hiking trails Park City and Deer Valley share to the Big Stars, Bright Lights open-air concert series that has hosted Smashmouth, Melissa Etheridge and Earth, Wind & Fire. And then the fall colours start.
… expect to get a table at Riverhorse during Sundance Film Festival. 40,000 showbiz types swarm the town, and their agents are probably more connected than yours (if not, kudos). So book Sundance suppers months in advance, and hope Angelina doesn’t get you bumped.
… swerve the ‘burbs. Though the strip-mall architecture west of the old town isn’t too pretty, it’s where all the start-ups are taking off, and there you can see this is not just a resort, but an evolving and highly creative community.