As the country's best-known film festival opens Thursday, one drama that already has generated considerable buzz will play out off-screen: Park City's love-hate relationship with Sundance.
Hotels and restaurants love the Sundance Film Festival, expected to draw more than 36,000 visitors to this town of 7,400. Crowds last year, two-thirds from out of state, spent $41.4 million on accommodations, meals and various tourist trappings during the 11-day festival.
But as much as hoteliers and restaurateurs love Sundance, the ski resorts hate it, for one simple reason: Few of the filmgoers ski. For every two Sundance visitors who buy a lift ticket, three do not, according to a survey from the University of Utah's David Eccles School of Business. That translates into hundreds of nonskiers who fill precious hotel rooms and displace powder hounds. Partying, not skiing, is the premier sport.
Park City can keep visitors entertained with far more than screenings and soirees, as I discovered during a four-day visit in November. It has evolved into a recreational haven for nonskiers, a place where fine dining, scenic snowshoeing and spa-going can make one forget that world-class skiing is an option.
I came with the purpose of not skiing, of enjoying everything else the town has to offer, starting with the Utah Olympic Park.
Though the 2002 Winter Games' official host was Salt Lake City, about 35 miles northwest, the Olympic Park here held 14 events, including such arcane crowd pleasers as luge, skeleton and ski jumping. The venues for these sports are still open for touring and, more surprising, for visitors to experience firsthand the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.
I never imagined I would find so many thrills and so much agony at the Olympic bobsled track, the marquee attraction. The bobsled — bobsleigh in official Olympic parlance — is so popular that the park charges $200 per person for a ride, and it still sells out many days.
When I first saw our bathtub-size sled, the Comet, I didn't think four people could fit. "Yup," an employee said, "there's room for one driver and three scared riders."
My fellow scared riders were Vicki Hayes of Ogden, Utah, and her friend Mark Thompson, who was visiting from Sacramento. Like me, both had signed up on a whim, driven by curiosity. Four-fifths of a mile, 402 feet of vertical drop, 15 turns — how scary could it be?
I detected no anxiety in Hayes or Thompson until we sat down for a short safety class, during which park staff emphasized three points:
No. 1: The gravitational force exerted on our bodies would whip our heads like rag dolls', so we should keep our shoulders pinned to our ears for support. This, the instructor said, would prevent us from breaking our necks.
No. 2: The Comet would hit 4Gs on some turns — four times the Earth's natural gravitational force, meaning a 200-pound body would carry the force of 800 pounds. It was paramount that we arch our backs and not let G-forces slide us forward. If we failed to do so, we might squish the driver and make him lose control.
No. 3: We would sit in a row, squeezed onto one another's laps, with each person's feet tucked under the calves of the rider in front. Because of the G-forces, if we accidentally pointed our feet up instead of down, we could break the legs of the rider in front.
"Oh," the class leader added, "and have fun."
Vicki, Mark and I shuffled outside, shook hands with Stephan Bosch, our professional driver, then crammed ourselves into the Comet. Forget G-forces. Before we left the starting gate, the bobsled and bodies pressing my hips already made me wish I had popped an analgesic.
The first few turns, though, erased my discomfort. Bosch shot us high up on curves, and we sailed perpendicular to the ground before sliding back down onto straightaways, building speed.
By Turn 5 the bobsled's blades were roaring on the ice. With the increased velocity, my body began to lose sense of the physics being applied to it. We would slam up into a turn and immediately crash down out of it, each successive curve more punishing than the last.
The ice became a blur. I shrugged my shoulders with all my might but couldn't stop my head from flailing. As the rear passenger, Mark had the roughest ride and also clearly had lost muscle control. His helmet smacked mine about every three seconds.
I no longer saw sun or sky or even upcoming curves. The G-forces were such that I could barely hold my head up. All I remember seeing was Vicki's black helmet in front of me, swinging to and fro like some demented bobblehead. The sled delivered one brutal blow after another — a Ford Pinto in a demolition derby full of big, bad Buick Rivieras. It was at once thrilling and painful and ridiculously entertaining.
And then it was over.
Bosch pulled the brakes. The track announcer hailed our stats. Top speed: 79.2 mph. Time: 52.51 seconds, more than 5 seconds off the pace of the gold-medal-winning Germans in '02.
At least all necks were intact.
Olympic Park tour
The rest of Olympic Park was less taxing but no less entertaining. I joined a small tour group led by guide Warren Allen, who walked us around the other venues. We stopped at the starting gate for skeleton, the sport in which athletes ride head first, face down, on a low-lying contraption that looks like a paramedic's body tray, hitting upward of 80 mph on largely the same track as the bobsled.
Then we moved to the start for luge, perhaps the most dangerous sport in the Winter Olympics. Luge requires athletes to ride feet first, on their backs, using only their legs to steer as they reach about 90 mph. A crash can cause third-degree burns and, Allen said, melt athletes' suits onto their skin.
The genius of the Olympic Park is that the average person can enroll in camps to learn any of these sports. Get adept at luge, for example, and you can slide down the same track to be used next month in the 2005 Luge World Championships.
This kind of accessibility is most astounding at the ski-jumping hills. Allen led us to the top of the tallest jump, the K120 hill, where jumpers ski down a ramp at 60 mph and sail into the air for a 50-story descent.
As I stood at ramp's edge, my palms sweating at the perilous drop inches away, the notion of children as young as 10 shooting down this thing — and children as young as 5 learning the sport on smaller hills — seemed ludicrous. That's when Allen told us the hill's record for the longest unofficial jump (in practice, not in competition) was 140 meters, or about 460 feet. The jumper: a local 11-year-old boy.
Paralleling the K120 is one of the park's most popular attractions, a zip-line billed as the world's steepest. Riders suspended from a cable slide a quarter-mile down the hill, a vertical drop of 435 feet. The park's website said riders might reach 55 mph, but because of winds during my visit, cable brakes had been set between 30 to 35 mph. It was tame compared with the Comet, but I enjoyed it enough to try it twice.
The bobsled had left me with a stiff neck and calves that felt as though they had been clubbed with a 9-iron, so I was happy that Park City's lodgings seemed prepared to soothe sore muscles. Heated pools are prevalent, and full-service spas are popping up everywhere.
At the Holiday Inn Express near Olympic Park, I spent two nights in a simple but large suite with an oversized, jetted tub. It's a good budget choice, with well-maintained facilities and an efficient, friendly staff.
At the opposite end of town — and the opposite end of the price range — is the Stein Eriksen Lodge, the first hotel in Utah to receive AAA's five-diamond rating.
Much of the place is infused with reminders of Eriksen, a former Norwegian Olympian who, at age 77, still serves as director of skiing at Deer Valley. A lobby case displays more than 100 of his trophies, plaques and other honors, including medals from the '52 Olympics in Oslo — silver in slalom and gold in giant slalom. My favorite memento was a framed 1989 letter from Kjeld Vibe, ambassador of Norway, declaring, "All Norwegians and Norwegian Americans take great pride in the fact that Stein Eriksen is Norwegian."
The furnishings in my room of two nights weren't as luxurious as I had expected, and my wake-up call came half an hour late one morning. But the mid-mountain location was gorgeous, and the attention to detail (locally made gourmet chocolates at turndown, daily weather forecasts left bedside) compensated for any slip-ups, even my own. Five minutes after I called the front desk to say I had left my toothbrush at home, a bellman knocked at my door with a complimentary toothbrush, presented in a shiny black Stein Eriksen bag — as though it were a gift from Mr. Eriksen himself.
The 2-year-old all-suite Hotel Park City showed the potential to out-pamper the Stein Eriksen. I asked to see a few rooms, all of which had a cozy, sunken living area with a fireplace, DVD player and Bose sound system, plus practicalities such as washer-dryer and T1 Internet connection. The bathroom's whirlpool tub was oversized, the separate shower equipped with three showerheads.
The hotel also has opened a spa, the largest in town at 10,000 square feet. I spent a restful morning in the whirlpool, sauna and steam room, followed by an excellent hourlong massage.
The pampering extended to the palate. My favorite meals were at the Blind Dog Café, where I had a terrific lunch of chicken breast stuffed with goat cheese and herbs, and Renee's, which a local had described as a "vegetarian martini bar." After an overabundance of meat — elk loin steak at the Robert Redford-owned Zoom, braised lamb shank at Bistro 412 and a buffalo burger at the landmark No Name Saloon ("America's last authentic miners organization of debauchery") — vegetarian hit the spot. In my case, dinner was a plate of lettuce wraps filled with asparagus, shiitake mushrooms, fried tofu and a drizzle of spicy peanut sauce.
So many restaurants have opened here — more than 100, the visitors bureau said — that I left city limits only once, and even then the intent wasn't to consume calories but to burn them.
Ring around the rink
I drove half an hour west to Kearns for ice skating at the Utah Olympic Oval, dubbed "the fastest ice on Earth" after 10 Olympic records and eight world records were broken here during the speed-skating competition in the '02 Games. Though still used mainly for training and competitions (including the 2005 World Sprint Speed Skating Championships on Jan. 22 and 23), the Oval is open for public skating five nights a week.
I'm a bit like Frankenstein's monster on the ice, lurching around the rink with legs stiffened and arms outstretched. But I did my best, making the rounds with a large crowd that had turned out for one of the Oval's "cheap skate" nights, when admission is 2-for-1.
My favorite nonskiing outings, though, were back in Park City. You can spend a day wandering Main Street, with its Historical Society & Museum and art galleries. I gazed at the wintry beauty of Utah's Bryce Canyon and Wasatch Range without ever leaving Wild Spirits Nature Photography; a few doors down at the MuseumWorks gallery, I discovered that the world's only overexposed glass artist, Dale Chihuly, has begun selling paintings too.
Further proof of Chihuly's omnipresence came at the nonprofit Kimball Art Center, a converted auto-repair garage one block off Main. The center just had opened an exhibition by William Morris, Chihuly's former gaffer (master glassblower), whose work showed a fascination with nature and archeology. One installation, "Cache," was reminiscent of the life-size skeleton of a small whale, complete with spears in the central cavity; another, "Artifact Panel," was made up of dozens of palm-sized blown-glass pieces evocative of ancient amphorae, animal amulets and other artifacts.
The best work of art here is the scenery, so one day I set out to experience it on snowshoes. Because none of the ski resorts had opened for the season, a local outfitter said I could trek across freshly fallen powder near one of the day lodges at Deer Valley.
It was a fine idea. With the lifts silent and runs eerily absent of skiers, the terrain took on the appearance of a secret mountain playground. I made fresh tracks up steep, open slopes and into densely wooded mini valleys, surrounded only by spruce, silence and thoughts of how grand this landscape can be — even when you're not skiing.
Park City, minus skis
From LAX, nonstop service to Salt Lake City is available on Delta, United and Southwest, and connecting service (change of planes) is available on America West and United. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $161. Park City is about 35 miles southeast of Salt Lake City.
WHERE TO STAY:
Condo rentals are popular. The Park City visitors bureau (contact information below) has listings of properties and vacation booking services.
Stein Eriksen Lodge, 7700 Stein Way; (800) 453-1302 or (435) 649-3700, http://www.steinlodge.com . Beautiful mid-mountain setting. Published winter rates for a double room start at $375; I booked an early-season special for $129.
Hotel Park City, 2001 Park Ave.; (435) 940-5000, http://www.hotelparkcity.com . Nicely appointed all-suite property. Spa on site. Published winter rates start at $649, though at the time of my visit, doubles started at $199.
Washington School Inn, 543 Park Ave.; (800) 824-1672 or (435) 649-3800, http://www.washingtonschoolinn.com . Pleasant B&B near heart of downtown. Doubles from $155 during ski season.
WHERE TO EAT:
Blind Dog Café, 1781 Sidewinder Drive; (435) 655-0800. Eclectic menu included tempura vegetables, grilled salmon and a quarter-pound Kobe beef burger on homemade brioche. Most lunch entrees $8-$12, dinner entrees $18-$32.
Renee's, 520 Swede Alley (and 136 Heber Ave.); (435) 615-8357. An odd space that feels more like a bar than a restaurant, though the food — much of it vegetarian — is good. Entrees $8-$12 for lunch, $10-$14 for dinner.
Cafe Terigo, 424 Main St.; (435) 645-9555. Looks dowdier than many restaurants downtown, but the service and French- and Italian-influenced food were superior. Entrees $10-$14 for lunch, $16-$25 for dinner.
Utah Olympic Park, 3000 Bear Hollow Drive, Park City; (866) 659-7275 or (435) 658-4200, http://www.olyparks.com . Admission is $4 for children 3-12, $6 for youths 13-17 and seniors 65 and older, $8 for adults 18-64. Bobsled ride (for riders 16 years and older only) $200; reservations required. Zip-line ride (for visitors 100 to 275 pounds only) $12; no reservations needed, but call to confirm hours of operation.
Utah Olympic Oval, 5662 South 4800 West, Kearns; (801) 963-7100, http://www.olyparks.com . Public skating five nights a week on "the fastest ice on Earth." Admission $3 or $4, skate rental $2.
White Pine Touring, 1790 Bonanza Drive, Park City; (435) 649-8710. I rented snowshoes for $12 a day at this supplier, which also runs moonlight snowshoe tours.