PARK CITY, Utah — The movie stars and the Hollywood executives were packing up as the Sundance Film Festival entered its final days in Park City. A certain type of Hollywood woman was instantly recognizable in the affluent but low-profile neighboring resort of Deer Valley: always attractive and often imposing, with a toned body asymmetrical from enhancement, she looked, by the still-simple standards of this former silver mining camp, both overwrought and overstuffed.
Like the movies, ski resorts trade on illusion: At a well-run resort, you are kept in a reasonably controlled and safe environment, but you feel as if you are out in the wild. The enveloping blue skies, the white, whirling snow and the evergreens bending under dollops of white all contribute to an experience filled with raw nature but prosecuted without undue danger.
The festival is about movies and movie deals, but on one day during which the slopes were moderately crowded, teams of Deer Valley's green-uniformed staffers directed traffic on the lift lines like cops on the road to a sold-out stadium. Because no more than 7,500 lift tickets are issued for any one day (thereby assuring a place for every skier at lunch in the mountain lodges), lines are never prohibitively long in any event, and in the lull that followed Sundance, anyone who stayed on had easy access to all of the approximately 100 runs.
Because of the festival, Park City has the name, but because of good management, Deer Valley has the reputation among skiers. A planned community built to be skied, it opened in 1981, but the spark had ignited more than 10 years before.
In the lobby of the mountain hotel that bears his name, Stein Eriksen, the 82-year-old Norwegian Olympic gold medalist skier, sat before his grand trophy case. He was trim and dapper in a Bogner pullover and white pants, his blue eyes clever and penetrating. "Edgar Stern was my neighbor in Aspen and a good friend," said Eriksen. "Edgar called me one day and asked if I knew Park City. I said, 'Ja, I've been there. It is really quiet, not really recognized internationally, but there is really good snow and easy access.' He said, 'The reason I'm calling is that I'm buying Park City. I'm going to make it the greatest ski resort in the country.' That was in '69."
Edgar B. Stern, Jr., the New Orleans businessman who started it all, died in 2008 at age 86, the first year that his part of the Park City region, Deer Valley, was named the best ski resort in North America by the readers of Ski magazine.
Eriksen showed me how he and Stern did business for nearly 40 years: He shook my hand. That handshake was all they ever had between them. Then Eriksen proudly showed us one of his racing skis: a 225-centimeter black stalk finely crafted by the Eriksen family factory, holding a bear-trap binding of Eriksen's own patented design. Many athletes don't have winning second lives, but Eriksen made it because he was more than an athlete from the start.
"It's just much bigger out West," said Heidi Voelker, the former U.S. Olympic and World Cup competitor, comparing conditions with those in her native New England. "We get the snow in Deer Valley, and then we don't get the rain as a follow up," she said with a grin. For 13 years, as the official "ski ambassador" of Deer Valley, Heidi glides with power and grace down the slopes and is greeted by first name by guests and coworkers at the lifts and mountaintops. She helps brand Deer Valley with that signature American can-do spirit.
Deer Valley shares three essential features with all other premier American sports resorts: efficiency, affability and fear of litigation. Not only do lift lines keep moving, at the end of each are a ski map and a Kleenex box. To rent your skis at the Deer Valley Rental Shop at Snow Park Lodge, you pay, get a ticket, are sent to the boot fitter and then packed off to the ski fitter — and you are out in record time.
The resort recently put to the test the region's boast that a skier from New York can board a plane in the morning and be on the slopes in the afternoon — they got a writer in from JFK and on the first lift by 11:55 a.m. You can do that if you don't mind flying for five hours, starting at 7 a.m.
We arrived in the early afternoon, unpacked, had a leisurely dinner and an equally relaxed breakfast and only then rented our gear and got our lift tickets.
To keep up the friendliness score, Deer Valley "Mountain Hosts" stand by billboard-sized ski maps to help guide guests, and everyone, from the lift operators to the cashiers in the cafeterias, says hello and asks how you are doing. The negligence attorneys are kept at bay by careful grooming of the runs, restricting lunchtime alcohol sales at the lodge cafeterias to beer, and by more warning and safety signs than at a nuclear power plant.
It apparently pays off. My wife and I usually ski the Alps, and this was the first time in a week's ski trip that we didn't pass idle minutes by listening to the thump-thump of the medevac chopper or guessing the extent of the injuries suffered by the skier being taken down on the ski patrol's sledge.
The sense of gentility is preserved as well by the fact that Deer Valley has taken a position on the great winter mountain sports divide and banned all snowboarding. The effect is like clearing the eighteen-wheelers off a suburban road: it probably reduces the number of accidents, but it is mostly about giving peace of mind.
The lifts are mostly swift-moving, Swiss-made chairlifts, although without the snow-day canopies and the seat warmers that the Swiss have been installing back home in recent years. There is one gondola, located beside a community of fine vacation houses, and it has valet service: attendants hoist your skis aboard at the bottom and hand them to you at the top.
Most runs in the moderate (green) to intermediate (blue) category are medium length and well within the ability of their color-coding; there are a few short expert (black) runs that are little more than mogul-encrusted obstacle courses. For beginners, there is a green way down nearly down every mountain because Deer Valley is about as well planned and well groomed as a country-club golf course — and it appeals to the same demographic. To our tastes, as intermediate skiers, the best runs were in the east of the resort, where the Stein's Way run moves in difficulty from blue to black and back to blue and the effect is truly reminiscent of the long and challenging Alpine slopes to which we have grown accustomed. We followed some people into the woods one day and, like Hansel and Gretel, we would have needed bread crumbs to get out except that a skier can only go downhill. Eventually a groomed slope appeared ahead; we intelligently slid onto it, proud for having taken our adventure, and resolved not to try it again.
As a self-contained resort, Deer Valley is quiet. Going into town for a bit of fun means heading to Park City's Main Street, which, if you are New Yorkers like us, you reach by a 20-minute walk. The area has a free shuttle bus, and guests at the St. Regis can get a lift in one of the hotel's SUVs. We stopped off at the deceptively rustic-looking Hotel Park City, just vacated by a pack of celebrities, and had an all-American dinner at the hotel's Ruth's Chris Steakhouse outlet.
Deer Valley prides itself on its food, and the local specialty is turkey chili. Best to go have a bowl when you arrive, because you're going to be served it everywhere. The mountain lodges are all run by the resort and are nearly identical, and that chili is the featured dish throughout. Our best lunch, however, was in the Goldener Hirsch, a clone of an Austrian country restaurant down to the Wiener Schnitzel and Gluehwein (hot mulled wine). One of the mountain lodges, Empire Canyon, provides an evening experience called Fireside Dining — which means the lights are lowered, good wines are brought out at reasonable prices, and the fireplaces are lit to cook up raclette, stews and leg of lamb.
That was a fun night, but our best dinners were at the J&G Grill, a Jean-Georges Vongerichten restaurant that, as luck would have it, was right in our hotel, the just-opened St. Regis. The restaurant features the master's favorites but with regional accents supplied by Chef de Cuisine Matthew Harris. The source of the superb grilled lamb chops was a Utah sheep farm; the carpaccio of beef was made from cattle raised on Snake River Farms, Idaho, which crossed Wagyu cattle from the Kobe region of Japan with American Black Angus stock.
The St. Regis illustrates the success of Deer Valley and helps hint of the challenges ahead. Set back even from set-back Deer Valley, reachable by a proprietary funicular, the hotel, which opened only weeks before our visit, has the hallmarks of a world-class resort. The butlers are everywhere and always aim to please. My wife reported an hour of sheer bliss from a massage at the hotel's Remede Spa.
I always caution that staying at a new luxury hotel is like tasting a potentially great wine while it is still in the barrel: it takes years for the quality to show through in full. But the St. Regis is off to an impressive start under General Manager Michael Hatzfeld. Another luxury property, the Montage, located on between Flagstaff Mountain and Empire Pas, is scheduled to open for the 2010-2011 season.
And that best illustrates the challenge ahead. Condominiums and expensive vacation houses surround and intrude into the resort. Roads cut through parts of the mountains, and impressive winter houses appear along them, poking through the trees as you ski or are lifted past. The Montage is in a valley, but it is big — bigger than what many might expect from anything set that deep into a winter sports preserve.
A good developer needs a gambler's instinct to get started, but like gamblers, developers get into trouble when they don't know when to quit. Deer Valley is a luxurious and well-run playground that, if it gets developed much more, will reach that tipping point where you no longer imagine you are one with untamed nature and start to feel instead that you are skiing in other people's back yards, which is not a very rugged or luxurious thing to do.
It will be interesting to see how the resort holds up in time, but for the present, there is no denying that whether you've gone Hollywood, only wish you have — or never hope to try — Park City's more gilded neighbor is a relaxing and highly user-friendly place to ski.
IF YOU GO
ACCESS: Salt Lake City International Airport, a hub for Delta Airlines, is just 35 minutes away.
HOTELS: St. Regis Deer Crest, 2300 Deer Valley Drive East, Park City, Utah 84060. Tel: (435) 940-5700, or through Starwood, 1-800-325-3589. A highlight was having the butler service expertly press Alan's sport jacket for free — then realizing that you don't need to wear a sport jacket anywhere. Big wish: Perhaps the hotel will adopt the practice of even modest European ski hotels and offer use of the saunas, which now cost $50, as part of the room price. A one-hour massage is worth it at $165. Doubles start at $775 per night. Available packages include lift tickets and dining credits.
OTHER DINING: The St. Regis drivers took us for free to and from Fireside Dining, which runs Wednesday through Friday and costs $52 per person for the four-course buffet. Tel: 435-645-6632.
For about $40 per person, it was all Austrian for lunch in ski boots at the Goldener Hirsch Inn, 7570 Royal Street, Park City. Tel: (435) 649-7770.
Stein Eriksen Lodge, a deluxe hotel located "mid-mountain" in Deer Valley, hosts a skiers' buffet lunch for $42 that, when Sundance is on, becomes a kind of wintry Hollywood outpost. Tel: 435-645-6455.
Double rooms at the Hotel Park City 2001 Park Ave, Park City, UT 84060 start in season at about $500. Tel: 866-999-0098, or through The Leading Hotels of the World, 800-223-6800.
SKI INFORMATION: Ski and boot rentals at the Snow Park Rental Shop are about $60 per day, depending on the grade of equipment. A one-day lift ticket is $86. The Children's Center, which took great care of our infant son, is $104 per day. It is located in the same building where you rent and you can store your equipment, for free, overnight. Service is efficient and friendly throughout.