In many ways, Robert Redford’s restaurant Zoom encapsulates Park City. The Main Street eatery is fancy but not at all pretentious. It’s frequented by the very rich and the very famous, but it’s just as accessible to the old bloke in the flannelette jacket across from me who just wants a hearty steak and the chance to meet Hollywood’s last true icon. He has a chance too. Redford comes in now and then, eating upstairs where we are, often walking from table to table, introducing himself to diners (although not tonight, unfortunately). That’s Park City for you. This town looks as regal as royalty with its picture-perfect facade, but at its heart it’s just a simple silver-mining town in the mountains that’s about as down-homey as where you grew up.
Park City’s been making the news this season for more than the usual paparazzi flashes of big-name celebrities walking Main Street during the town’s world-renowned Sundance Film Festival. In summer, the powers that be decided to connect Park City’s two ski resorts – Park City Mountain Resort and Canyons Resort – by building a gondola line across the Wasatch Mountains. The result is Park City Mountain Resort – the largest ski resort in the USA, home to a whopping 3,000 hectares of skiable terrain.
Before my first visit to Park City in 2012, I was put off coming to Utah by draconian liquor laws courtesy of a State Government dominated by Mormons. (Salt Lake City, a 35-minute drive away, is the centre of the Mormon Church empire). Don’t get me wrong, I’m no party animal, but isn’t après-ski as vital to the overseas ski experience as the snow itself? But liquor laws have evolved in Utah – and, as I am grateful to have discovered, Park City never did feel like part of the Mormon State. Now its après and bar scene is as action-packed – and as diverse – as what you’ll find across the state line in Colorado (minus the legalised marijuana laws).
This is one hell of a pretty town. In a region of the world known for postcard-perfect 19th-century mining ski towns, Park City wins first prize in the beauty stakes. It’s been years since my last visit and I’d forgotten how dreamy Main Street – Park City’s famous entertainment strip – is. Running parallel, Park Avenue is equally impressive.
I drive into town on a cloudless blue-sky afternoon. In the late 1860s, hopeful adventurers came to the area looking to make their fortune in silver. Salons, grand hotels and stores were built on the profits of the boom; many of these grand old structures still stand today (with 64 buildings, mostly in Main Street, on the National Registry Of Historical Places).
Today these buildings are a mixture of sun-drenched après ski bars, fine-dining establishments, designer boutique stores (fur, anyone?), art galleries, bookstores and cafes. As I walk through town, skiers and boarders ride ski runs directly above me, right down onto Park Avenue and Main Street, to drink in the late afternoon sun in ski bars. These mountains sure dwarf the town, and conjure the feeling you’ve been somehow shot back in time – a feeling reminiscent of Telluride, Colorado (surely another front-runner in the beauty stakes).
The Sundance Film Festival had a lot to do with upping the ante when it came to providing sustenance to luxury travellers. Each year, Hollywood royalty invade town for 10 days. They sure as hell aren’t going to stay in flea traps or eat at McDonalds. Park City – and nearby Deer Valley Ski Resort – is now home to many of North America’s most renowned luxury hotels, including the Montage, the St. Regis and the Waldorf Astoria. I’m staying at the Waldorf Astoria near Canyons Village and to make it back to my room there’s a run specially built at the base of the ski area that leads hotel guests to their front door. Guests can be assigned personal butlers, and there’s ski concierge so you need never handle your own ski gear (my boots are handed to me warm and dry each morning). A specially crafted Moët Ice Bar caters for après pursuits.
I love the skiing at Park City: it’s a pretty mountain, with fir, aspen and pine trees dividing runs, and views right over town and the huge valley Park City sits in. There are more than 300 runs to choose from, with plenty of wide-open groomers for beginners to intermediates. But for those who seek more adrenalin, there are steep runs and well-spaced tree runs all across the mountain. More than nine metres of snow falls in a season and most days I ride at Park City – there’s never a chairlift line, even on weekends.
But it’s the off-piste pursuits for luxury skiers that make coming here comparable to only Aspen. It too offers up western USA’s best regional restaurants – fancy affairs where you can dress up or down as much as you like (which is what I like best about ski towns). In places like Park City it’s sometimes impossible to make out who has the money. There are cocktail bars along Main Street that are as chic as those you’ll find in St Moritz, and even the world’s only ski-in, ski-out whisky distillery (a stylish affair called High West Distillery with equal amounts cowboy charm and high-end après pizazz).
Park City’s a multi-cultural place, with cuisine from all over the world. Fresh seafood is flown in daily (you try sampling fresher ahi tuna sashimi, and there’s Maine lobster arriving daily, fresh from the Atlantic). Main Street is full of designer boutiques with clothes worth tens of thousands, and if you like culture with your groomers, Park City has plenty of art galleries holding winter exhibitions showcasing noted artists. With its Sundance credentials, artists and designers know just getting floor space here counts for plenty.