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Go Now: Sun Valley, Idaho

Go Now: Sun Valley, Idaho

Guess what? You don’t know this classic ski resort as well as you think you do.
By Susan Reifer
posted: 04/08/2014
Sun Valley Go.jpg

In downtown Ketchum, Idaho, on a sharply cold winter night, fit people in puffy jackets dance to a band playing on a stage planted in the middle of a Wild West street. Clusters of couples peel away for warmth, slipping through vintage doorways into bars and restaurants (some new and hip, others long-established and adorned with taxidermy). The scene is easygoing but lively. Absent are Prada, snootiness, and any apparent Botox.

The next day, on little Dollar Mountain, a three-year-old sails through a banked and undulating skiercross course while her dad, an executive at Smith Optics’ nearby headquarters, glides close behind. Big kids send it like pros through an adjacent state-of-the-art terrain park filled with wild-looking hits. Atop big Bald Mountain, the resort’s main mountain, where everyone seems to be a great skier, trim locals (seniors wearing fitness-tracking wristbands, teens sporting gate-training pads, 30- and 40-somethings with kids in tow) pause in their daily accumulation of massive vert to grab plates of $3 tacos crafted from slow-braised cuts of the resort owners’ grass-fed, free-range beef. Then, because playing outdoors is the essence of life here, everyone heads back out to get some more.

“Here,” for all practical purposes, means both Sun Valley and Ketchum, adjacent Idaho municipalities that link together like keys on a key ring. Historic Ketchum’s boardwalks and brick buildings hold the center like the ring. Sun Valley’s two stand-alone ski hills with their day lodges, historic resort hotels, and rustic riverside lodge—where Ernest Hemingway and Gary Cooper liked to drink—all dance around like
splayed keys.

Together they make a place where skiing is long and fast, traditions run deep, people are intensely athletic, and no one much cares if you’re very wealthy or very famous. Now, as its established faithful go gray, a surge of smart new chefs, a hip repurposing of Dollar Mountain, and other quiet yet strategic improvements in both Sun Valley and Ketchum are broadening this iconic ski destination’s appeal to a new generation.

On the food front, John Murcko—long the star of Park City’s talent-rich culinary scene—is Sun Valley Resort’s new executive chef. Gone are the ill-conceived Thai spring rolls at Trail Creek Cabin, a hunting lodge built in 1937. Instead, there’s exquisite duck pâté with Idaho cherry chutney, and rotisserie game hen with huckleberry jus. The Konditorei, a German-inspired pastry shop and café, now has excellent Austrian-style crepes and spaetzle. A mirthful new hot-cocoa bar (think retro soda fountain styled for winter) enchants kids. Meanwhile, Murcko is steadily shifting all the resort’s food purchasing—some $3 million per year—to regional and environmentally sensitive ingredients. The approach, he explains, fosters the local economy, creates less waste, and tastes much better at the same time.

Murcko’s new reign signals a larger shift. Robert Earl Holding, the self-made hotel and oil billionaire who bought Sun Valley in 1977, died in 2013—but his heirs are giving the resort’s management a mandate to modernize. Terrain-park guru Brian Callahan says that when he first saw Dollar, it was “a completely blank canvas.” Now his team buffs nearly 60 different features on any given day, designing acrobatic flow in pods ranging from beginner to pro. Add two skiercross courses and a 22-foot superpipe, and “We have a lot of professional skiers and snowboarders moving back into town,” Callahan says.

Bald Mountain is known for its high-speed lifts, lack of queues, and  sustained, top-to-bottom pitch—a descent regulars like to blast nonstop. “It is a fast carver’s mountain” says Joe Marx, a builder and ski coach, who is raising two ski boys here. When it snows, says Marx, head for Baldy’s bowls and trees. When it doesn’t, 550-plus computer-controlled snow guns can cover the mountain’s bare runs with a deep foundation and then top it with a different flake construction locals gleefully call “gunpowder”—superior, satiny fluff that keeps pistes smooth and carveable yet fast. In a climate that is sun-blessed but cold, it’s a system that works.

What Sun Valley and Ketchum still don’t have—and may never have—are ski-in, ski-out hotels. Also absent: that master-planned base-village feel. “There’s no hype,” says Greg “Chopper” Randolph, a cyclist who competed in the 1996 Olympic Games and now works for the local chamber of commerce. “People are welcoming. This is an authentic mountain town.”

In other words, while Sun Valley and Ketchum are putting on a new shine and attracting a new generation in the process, this rugged yet refined spot in the center of Idaho remains very much itself. The best reason to come here is still to be precisely here and nowhere else.

Sleep » The formerly floral Knob Hill Inn (on the edge of downtown Ketchum) is now a smartly sleek, service-focused, mountain-contemporary boutique hotel (knobhillinn.com). The grand Sun Valley Lodge (148 rooms) and Swiss-inspired Sun Valley Inn (105) hearken back to a more glamorous ski era. Swim in circular outdoor pools, skate under the stars, choose from a half dozen eateries, and enjoy live jazz
(sunvalley.com).

Eat » Opt for breakfast at Konditorei for crepes or Ketchum’s Kneadery for heartier fare. Lunch at the elegant Roundhouse (try the bison brisket barbecue) or join the locals at Lookout’s burrito, taco, and enchilada bar. For dinner, reserve ahead for Boca (exceptional Latin-American fusion), or Trail Creek Cabin (where draft horses still pull the sleighs).

Drink » Apple’s is the unpretentious classic for cheap après-ski beer. In springtime, catch the sun and live music at River Run. Kids go cuckoo for the cocoa bar at A La Mode.

(Photograph by Eric Kiel)

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