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Salt Lake City loaded with fun for winter

Chicago Tribune
Salt Lake City for winter: Catch the culture

This city's new slogan, SkiCityUSA, is especially apt because eight major ski resorts are within an hour's drive of the airport.

But it gives short shrift to all the other options available for visitors to this growing, diverse metropolis nestled at the base of the Wasatch Mountains.

Visitors can ski during the day, then take in a symphony performance in the evening, or they can explore the extensive collection at the Utah Museum of Modern Art, then hop aboard the city's light rail to EnergySolutions Arena to catch the Utah Jazz in action.

The headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints still anchors the city's architecture, but new high-rises are reaching skyward across the landscape, including a new arts center scheduled to open in 2015. And though the church still plays a major role in the culture and politics of Utah, visitors can forget the longtime hassles that once surrounded trying to enjoy a cocktail.

As for church tourism, only members are allowed inside the temple itself, but several historic buildings are open for tours that provide a glimpse into the history of the church and the development of Utah. Check out lds.org/locations/historical-sites for hours and tours.

The city's new look starts right at the airport, where the TRAX light rail trains leave from the terminal to the city center every 15 minutes. The cars are spacious enough for ski-toting visitors to get downtown without hassle in 20 to 25 minutes for just $2.50. A taxi takes about the same time but costs about 10 times as much.

Despite the proliferation of other activities, skiing remains the primary winter draw. The Ski City Super Pass is a great value, providing both transportation to the slopes and the lift ticket as a single package to the four Cottonwood Canyon resorts: Alta and Snowbird in Little Cottonwood and Solitude and Brighton in Big Cottonwood.

The shuttle bus ride to the resorts takes an hour to 90 minutes, depending on where you catch it and where you're headed. But having someone else navigate the narrow, twisting canyon roads is a much more relaxing way to start and end your ski day than driving.

Each of the four Cottonwood resorts has its own personality, and skiers can choose which one fits their mood for the day.

Alta is the prototypical Utah resort. It revels in its image of skiing as it has always been. It lacks the glitz of some of its neighbors, but deep powder and its relaxed vibe keep skiers coming back.

Snowbird is the big mountain with more expert terrain than most skiers could ski in a week, much less a day. Skiers here tend to be hard-chargers pushing the limits. Though the intermediate terrain has been upgraded, it is still a mountain for the hard-core.

Solitude is a hidden gem, bigger than might be expected and much more diverse. Want to spend your day cruising intermediate runs? You can do it there. Feel like challenging yourself? The chutes in Honeycomb Canyon will test the best skier. And all of it comes with minimal crowds.

Brighton has been open since 1936 but remains primarily a Utah secret and a locals' favorite. With only about 20 percent of the terrain rated as beginner, it isn't for the faint of heart.

The only downside to the Super Pass is the lack of a midday option. If your business meeting ends at noon and you want to get in half a day of skiing, there is no simple way to get to the mountains unless you rent a car.

The resorts in Parley's Canyon (Park City, Deer Valley and Canyons) are not part of the Super Pass program, but there is a commuter bus that will take skiers to Park City.

For nonskiers who prefer to stay in Salt Lake, the city has more than enough diversions. There are the modern retail shops of City Creek Center, a sparkling shopping oasis with a retractable glass roof and a man-made creek that provides the illusion of the outdoors even when inclement weather forces the roof to be closed.

For those looking for a different shopping experience, check out Eborn Books (ebornbooks.com), a bibliophile's dream filled with both new and old volumes, including some remarkable treasures locked behind glass.

Animal lovers can visit the Hogle Zoo (hoglezoo.org) or the Living Planet Aquarium (thelivingplanet.com). Public transit serves both. The Hogle Zoo has been renovated in recent years and is a great way to spend a day. The aquarium opened after my visit, but my friends in Salt Lake give it glowing reviews.

Salt Lake also has a strong cultural life. The new arts center (the George S. and Dolores Dore Eccles Theater) will join Abravanel Symphony Hall and the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art within a three-block radius. This season the symphony is offering skiers a special deal: Show your lift ticket and get the best available seat in the house for just $35 (utahsymphony.org/apres-ski), saving $10 to $20. Too bad the Jazz aren't making a similar offer.

Spending a day on Alta's slopes, returning to SLC in time to get cleaned up, going for an early dinner and then attending a delightful evening with Mozart, Witold Lutoslawski and Dvorak was a unique experience.

The city's museum scene is also vibrant. Don't miss The Leonardo (theleonardo.org) which bills itself as Utah's center for exploration. This season's exhibits have included the Dead Sea Scrolls and Body World. The Utah Museum of Contemporary Art (utahmoca.org) is another delightful way to spend an afternoon.

The SLC food scene is extremely varied, ranging from the oldest continuously operated restaurant in the state to the trendiest bistro. Lamb's Grill (lambsgrill.com) has been serving Salt Lake City customers in the same Main Street location since 1939. Not only does it exude history, it has an excellent selection of Utah beers.

Sushi and brewpubs abound, and sushi lovers shouldn't miss Takashi (tinyurl.com/slcsushi). For more substantial fare, head to Bambara (bambara-slc.com). The chef is devoted to hearty seasonal preparations, but his luscious corn bisque and blue cheese nachos are always on the menu, and the steak frites are among the best I've had this side of Paris.

One cautionary note: Plan your Sunday carefully. Many stores, museums and restaurants are closed.

If you go

Getting there: There are nonstop flights to Salt Lake City from Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Orlando. TRAX light rail is an excellent option for getting into the city at $2.50 one-way; an all-day Trax pass in $6.50. Taxi to downtown costs $20 to $25.

Staying there: Most of the national chains have properties in the city. I found the Hotel Monaco a fine change of pace. Typical January rates are running about $190 but as low as $119. Check for the special ski package that includes the Ski City Super Pass. (tinyurl.com/slcmonaco)

Dining there: Almost every type of cuisine is within walking distance of downtown lodging. In addition to those already mentioned, Caffe Molise (caffemolise.com) offers first-rate Italian food, and BTG Wine Bar (btgwinebar.com) is perfect for a light supper.

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