Utah: Hot in the city, cool on the slopes

By Joanna Walters

Bustling cities and ski slopes are not usually linked. But here's an interesting exception to the rule: Salt Lake City.

The state capital of Utah has all the trappings of your average US city - cinemas, eclectic restaurants, a sports stadium, bars and malls - plus fascinating extras like the gargantuan cathedral that serves as world headquarters for the Mormon religion.

It also happens to have seven ski resorts within a 35-minute drive, giving you the chance to experience a winter holiday in a whole new way.

Up to your eyeballs in powder all day, then - instead of dancing on the tables in your salopettes or heading out to dinner in moonboots - you change into urban togs and go out on a real town.

Utah boasts, indeed has trademarked, the "Greatest Snow on Earth", huge dumps of it, six storeys high over a season, falling fast and furious as weather systems cross the western sierras and hit the Wasatch Mountains.

Every day offers a chance to fly down the canyons and glide the fluffy glades.

There are regular public buses to the four closest resorts - Alta, Snowbird, Brighton and Solitude - with pick-ups and drop-offs at the main hotels.

Private shuttles operate between Salt Lake and the other three: Park City, Deer Valley and The Canyons. Or, for more flexible - and not wildly pricier - transport, hiring a car for the week gives the ultimate freedom.

The very same mountains also provided the giant granite blocks that built the Mormon temple, which dominates the city centre.

It is not unusual for foreign visitors to be squeamish about this offbeat religion, but rather than tiptoe around the subject all week, it is easier to plunge in and take a stroll around the temple's grounds, reading the plaques that explain its bizarre origins.

The church has recently taken steps to ensure that nervous tourists are not accosted by zealous missionaries. There is no general public entry to the temple itself, but the world-famous Tabernacle choir rehearses in public and puts on concerts at the nearby convention centre.

And after that dip into religion, what better contrast than to step into the Hotel Monaco nearby and almost fall over the ostentatious "harem sofa" in the entrance (a sort of four-poster sofa in satin).

This boutique hotel describes its own rooms and restaurant as "sexy and whimsical" and, frankly, a harlequin would feel camouflaged against the flamboyant decor. The hotel gives out free shoulder massages and glasses of wine in the lobby and guests without their own pets can borrow a goldfish.

There's no shortage of cuisine in Salt Lake - Japanese, Mexican, Thai, American, Italian. And it is proud of its art galleries, museums, festivals and night clubs - it even has a gay scene.

Contrary to popular perception, it's not "dry" either - there are bars aplenty, although some require you to become a member before you can get stuck in.

But the slopes are just as big a draw - blessed, as they are, with almost twice as much snow every winter as rival ski state, Colorado.

Alta has cult-status among expert skiers on account of its reliable powder, steep slopes and couloirs (ice or snow formations), which are a rarity in many US resorts. Snowboarding is banned here, but not in nearby Snowbird, whose pistes are linked to those of Alta, making one of the biggest ski areas in the US.

The only real drawback with either area are the resorts themselves - Alta is little more than a scattering of lodges, Snowbird is full of claustrophobic concrete blocks.

Rookies are better off next door in Big Cottonwood Canyon, at the quiet Solitude resort or on the forgiving pistes and in the picturesque fir-lined glades of my personal favourite, Brighton.

Brighton is known as the place "where Utah learns to ski" - children under 10 ski for free. But it's not just a beginners' boot camp.

In recent years, the snowfall has almost matched that of Alta and Snowbird and experts are cottoning on to the fact that the deep stuff gets tracked-out far less quickly in a resort full of families.

After an ecstatic afternoon flashing down the intermediate slopes, our little party ran into Britain's star freestyle skier, Mike Wakefield, and his up-and-coming ski pal, Andy Collin, in the carpark.

These two teenagers are totally at home spinning somersaults in world competitions, but reported an excellent day at Brighton and were heading next for the stunt skiing terrain parks in Park City.

"It's amazing here," Wakefield said. "The snow in Europe is so much heavier and stodgier."

And over in the direction of the 2002 Olympic Games bobsleigh, luge and ski-jump park are trendy Park City, upmarket Deer Valley and the fun sprawl of The Canyons.

Hiring a car makes sampling them all a possibility in a week, and if you're staying for 10 days, you could even consider venturing 90 minutes' north to two other resorts, local favourite Powder Mountain - not named in vain - and Snowbasin.

Here you can try the runs on which the Olympic downhill and super giant slalom races in 2002 were run - just in case you needed any more ski stories to come home with.

- OBSERVER

SALT LAKE CITY

MORE INFORMATION
See www.skiutah.com for details of resorts surrounding Salt Lake City.

HOW TO GET THERE
Timetables for public buses from the city to the resorts can be found at www.utabus.com.

WHERE TO STAY
For information on the Hotel Monaco see www.monaco-saltlakecity.com

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