HISTORY, TRADITION AND A TIMELESS QUALITY – SUN VALLEY RESORT
By Christine Rolfe
For the past 10 days I have been practicing the snow dance before sleeping with my pajamas inside out and tucking a spoon under my pillow. In the morning, I promptly head to the kitchen and grab my coffee before reaching into the freezer for an ice cube to flush down the toilet. I surely must not be alone in conducting my snow-making tricks because just a few days before flying to Sun Valley, it snows—21 inches.
I praise and curse myself at the same time. There is a direct flight from LAX to Hailey, just 14 miles from the resort of Sun Valley, Idaho. It could not be any more convenient. However, my snow-making tricks are so successful that the plane can’t land so my family and I are diverted to Boise. We take a three-hour bus ride into the Hailey airport. I just happen to sit by attendees of the Tony Robbins conference booked at the Sun Valley Lodge. I step off the bus full of positive energy and ready to take on life. The delay is not a problem. In fact, I look at it as a gift.
We arrive to a blanket of white snow covering the roofs, trees and roads. Holiday lights decorate the trees. White swans swim in a heated pond just outside the porte-cochere that is decorated with an oversized ice sculpture of a sunburst. We have arrived.
Sun Valley Resort has a rustic, refined charm with 148 guest rooms in the Lodge, another 105 rooms in the Sun Valley Inn and 232 condominiums, apartments and cottages. Lodging is just steps away from the resort village, which offers shops, restaurants and shuttle service to the lifts and adjacent town of Ketchum (for even more dining and shopping).
Founded in 1936 with the philosophy of “anything less than first-class was no class,” a ski trip to Sun Valley is filled with slope-side elegance rich in tradition. As my husband commented to me, “I admire the resort’s respect for history.” Photos of Gary Cooper, Lucille Ball, Marilyn Monroe and the Kennedy family line the walls of the Sun Valley Lodge. The last letter written by Ernest Hemingway is framed for display. The gold medals of Olympian Gretchen Fraser are showcased in a shadow box inside the Lodge’s restaurant, respectfully named Gretchen’s. The pride of Sun Valley extends beyond the frames lining the walls to stories shared both by resort employees and guests alike. I listen, absorb and learn.
The first story is shared by the doorman. I learn that the resort was opened in 1936 after Union Pacific Railway Chairman W. Averell Harriman developed the resort as a way to build his passenger rail business in the winter. The area was chosen after months of searching, winning out locations including Mount Rainier, Mount Hood, Yosemite, Zion and Jackson Hole. The snow, sun (and proximity to the rail) near Ketchum, Idaho was perfect.
Returning guests boost with stories of celebrity sightings, with Bruce Willis’ name coming up frequently. A shuttle driver remarks that during the Allen & Company conference, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet entered the shuttle – one sequentially after the other. “It was a multi-billion dollar bus ride,” he exclaimed. The influx of celebrities can be traced back to the opening night dinner of the resort. The brainchild, publicist Steve Hannagan, invited the rich, famous and noble to the gala knowing the press would follow. Publicity soared. The poster-sized print of the 1937 LIFE magazine cover featuring Sun Valley is proudly displayed over the fireplace in the River Run Lodge and throughout town. Hannagan was a marketing genius and is now a legend for his marketing savvy. And as my fellow guests remind me, celebrities still adorn the area. I wait for Justin Timberlake.
History was also made at Sun Valley with the development of the first chair lift. As a fact-gathering newbie, I find this quite impressive. You can still see the lift although it is not in operation. Today there are 12 lifts on Bald Mountain (plus a gondola). Baldy, as it’s called, has more than 1,300 acres of groomed runs and trails. The slope ratings are 36% easiest, 42% more difficult, and 22% most difficult. However the ratings feel a little deceptive as the easiest runs on Baldy feel closer to intermediate. This is better understood when visiting Dollar Mountain. A shuttle ride away, Dollar Mountain has six lifts and is designed for beginners. There is also a terrain park for snowboarders. Having two separate mountains is brilliant. Dollar provides a safe place to learn while Baldy provides more experienced skiers/boarders a place where they don’t have to worry about running into anyone! Having the two mountains also help disperse the crowds. Baldy does not feel crowded and there are few lift lines, if any. With fresh snow on the ground, my family and I cover the entire mountain and ski/board more than our weak quads can take.
We break for lunch at River Run Lodge which is at the base of Baldy. The lodge is rustic yet elegant with stone and log construction, chandeliers and overstuffed couches for relaxing around warm fireplaces. Even the water is served out of a silver urn. Not a plastic fork in sight and there is plenty of seating. While available to rent for parties, weddings, meetings or banquets, the lodge is open to the public during the day for the full ski season. Seattle Ridge Lodge (on top of Seattle Ridge) and Warm Springs Lodge (at the base of Warm Springs) are similar in style with Seattle Ridge offering spectacular views. If you ride the gondola, you will find Roundhouse Restaurant, which seems to have it all – including dinner. The lodges are in keeping with the founding philosophy, “anything less than first- class was no class.” I don’t miss the typical industrial cafeteria setting that most resorts offer. Sun Valley stands out for its taste and sophistication–and for this tradition I am grateful.
After a day on the slopes, we debate our après ski selection at Sun Valley Resort. Behind Sun Valley Lodge is an outdoor skating rink. Charming and perhaps even romantic, the rink has a timeless feel. With the stars overhead, skaters look as if they gliding on a frozen pond in their backyard. The Lodge also has what looks like the world’s largest outdoor hot tub—essentially a very hot outdoor pool where guests can relax and loosen up their muscles. There is also a spa with massage service if the hot tub just isn’t enough. In the basement of the Lodge, there is a bowling alley. A bit of competition among the family with a 9 lb. ball has a way of tightening the family bond. And for those without kids, Duchin Lounge is great for jazz or other local live music—the dance floor was open.
There are dining options both in the Sun Valley Resort village and nearby Ketchum. In the village, the family enjoyed dinner at The Ram Restaurant. The filet and salmon were first rate, the service outstanding and the piano playing a nice touch. The next night we took the shuttle to Ketchum for dinner at the historical Pioneer Saloon. The meal was good, but most impressive were the artifacts lining the walls. Old firearms, bullets, Western posters, fish and deer mounts – the Pioneer is a restaurant inside a Wild West museum. And if you don’t eat breakfast on the mountain, the Austrian-inspired dishes and fresh European pastries from Konditorei in the village are highly recommended. The Nutella crepes and Belgian waffles are tempting as are the more traditional omelets and egg choices. I am very happy that we are skiing and hope to burn off my indulgences.
With just two days in Sun Valley, I conclude that it just isn’t enough time. I wish for a sleigh ride and dinner at Trail Creek Cabin – the 1937 log cabin turned restaurant. I wish for a go at cross-country skiing or a snowshoe hike – the Sun Valley Nordic and Snowshoe Center offers nearly 25 miles of trails. And I wish for more skiing – the snow report promises even more snow falling in just a few days.
Fortunately it is easy to make a return trip. The direct flight from LAX is just two hours. (Unless you are lucky enough to have so much snow that you have to take the bus, which really isn’t bad.) Once you land, a rental car is not necessary. Sun Valley Resort offers a free shuttle to your lodging, to the mountain and throughout town. Everything about the resort is convenient and I am surprised that more of my friends haven’t discovered Sun Valley… yet. It is a late season, but the snow continues to cover Sun Valley. I will keep the spoon tucked under my pillow until spring.