It is the second week of April; seasonally speaking, spring by anyone’s standards, the season of soggy slopes and melting mountains. But here I am, on a Friday morning, swooshing through snow as deep and fluffy as you could hope for in February. More than a foot of fresh powder has fallen overnight and it’s still coming down, so thick and fast that the vast, undulating Utah vistas have disappeared from view.
Before I ventured out west this winter, I had assumed the state’s bumper-sticker boast of “The Greatest Snow On Earth” was fist-pumping hyperbole. I was wrong. And not only is the snow itself well worth bragging about, even this late in the season, but the entire experience here is a luxurious cut above: from the ski valets of Deer Valley, dapperly uniformed in forest green and dutiful as royal footmen, to the spas, cocktails bars, boutiques and gourmet restaurants both on the mountains and in the old silver-mining resort town of Park City.
Mormons en route to settle in the Salt Lake Valley first passed through here in 1847 but its boom years began two decades later, after the discovery of rich veins of silver in the hills above what is now Park City. Today, three thriving resorts, just a few miles apart, make up the ski scene – Park City Mountain Resort, The Canyons and Deer Valley – and once more there is money in the mountains.
As I burn down Deer Valley’s near-deserted runs on twin-tip powder skis, I marvel at the civilised nature of the experience. Though I personally have no beef with snowboarders, Deer Valley is (enjoyably, I admit) skiing-only, and there are no tiny French infants careering past at a thousand miles an hour. Instead, as my complimentary mountain guide, Sarah, and I explore the six mountains, sweeping past pine forests and preserved remnants of silver mining paraphernalia, friendly, grown-up overtakers politely holler: “On your left”, as appropriate. Sadly, I don’t see any actual deer on the mountain, nor any moose, which Sarah tells me amble about in the area.
At every, largely empty, chairlift (Where is everyone? Answer: In a queue, in Europe), the green-uniformed ski valets brush the snow from the seats, proffer advice on which runs have recently been groomed, and offer tissues. At Deer Valley they also understand that some people love skiing but don’t like all the lugging of equipment that goes with it, so the valets will cart your equipment from car to lift or wherever else you might want it to go. It’s all part of the “Deer Valley difference”, the service that has led it to be voted top resort in North America for the past four years by Ski magazine.
After prancing about in powder for the morning, Sarah and I repair to the Royal Street Cafe, one of the mountain’s smart restaurants, with its elegant indoor fire pits and extensive cocktail list.
Recharged with a sumptuous pulled pork sandwich and a medicinal glass of Malbec, we ski past the two newest and most deluxe hotels, the St Regis and the Montage. The St Regis, accessed via its own funicular railway, opened in November 2009 and, in spite of the inauspicious timing, has brought an ever-more moneyed crowd to the area.
Over at the imposing Montage, which opened last December, a mountain host will warm your ski boots for you in the morning and even pop them on your feet (“No one touches their own equipment” is a motto at the Montage). Both high-end hotels, along with the Stein Eriksen lodge (named after the Norwegian Olympic gold medallist, now director of skiing at the resort) ,Deer Valley’s first luxury property, are ski-in, ski-out and all feature large in-house spas. The Montage has its own four restaurants, bars and even a bowling alley, plus sleigh rides, snow-shoeing and an on-site ice-skating rink. You never need to leave the comfy confines of the property. Unless you want to, of course, in which case one of the fleet of waiting Mercedes vehicles will whisk you into town.
On Saturday morning, after another foot of fresh overnight powder, I am joined by my friend Gemma, a snowboarding whizz, and together we venture to Park City Mountain Resort. With the most highly rated terrain park in the US, Park City is larger (3,300 acres) and less sedate than Deer Valley (2,026 acres), with a younger, more European atmosphere and we befriend a large fancy-dress moose we meet hanging around near a chair-lift. Our free mountain guide for the morning, Chuck, is untroubled by our disparate levels of expertise and equipment, and leads us through dense forest paths and down steep, deserted mountains I never would have even contemplated without a guide.
With Utah’s history as a dry Mormon state, I confess my hopes were not high for anything approaching the Jagerbombs and joyfully awful nightclubs of Alpine après-ski. Fortunately, licensing laws in the state were relaxed around the 2002 Winter Olympic Games and the bar and club scene is now buzzing, although buildings peddling booze still have to be discreet in their decor – no flashing neon “liquor” signs here. At the High West Whisky Distillery Saloon, just off Park City’s Main Street, we sample warming whisky cocktails from the impressive list, my favourite being the Applejack Sazerac, a muddle of High West double rye, absinthe, applejack and house-made maple bitters. It is possible to ski straight off the mountain into the bar; the only challenge might be skiing out again.
On Sunday, under cloudless blue skies, we head to The Canyons, which, with 4,000 acres of piste, is the largest of the three resorts. Thanks to significant investment from the Talisker property group, which bought the mountain two years ago, it has undergone an enormous overhaul, with new lifts and pistes and a “ski beach” – bars and an outdoor concert venue at the base of the mountain. Last winter also saw the opening of the resort’s pride and joy, the Orange Bubble chairlift, with a canopy to keep off the snow and heated seats.
Snug in our cosy pod, our guide for the day, Michael, points out The Colony, a collection of vast private mansions on the mountain, where Hollywood actor Will Smith owns a home. Unfortunately, I get so engaged by the prospect of celebrity-property spotting that I forget to lift my poles as we approach the mid-mountain station. The sound of mangling metal alerts us that not all is well – my poles are now suitable only for a pygmy. The highly amused staff at The Canyons hire centre kindly lend me a replacement full-size pair.
I catch up with Gemma and Michael just in time for lunch at the Lookout, one of the Canyon’s mountain restaurants. The delicious duck confit salad (with a side of mac n’ cheese – we are skiing, after all), and the Crème brûlée go down perfectly with a crisp Spanish white.
Later that afternoon, as we make our way towards the final run of the weekend, we catch a chair lift across the wide valley near The Lookout. In the afternoon sun I see some shadows moving in the trees far below, then, finally, I catch a glimpse of my first (real) moose.
The St Regis Deer Valley (www.stregisdeervalley.com has doubles from $700.
The Montage Deer Valley (www.montagedeervalley.com has doubles from $845.
Ski Safari (www.skisafari.com) offers a week’s stay at the St Regis, including transfers and a six-day lift pass from £1,800. It also offers a range of other accommodation in the Park City area, starting from £700 per a week, again including lift pass.