At Alta in Utah, there's no "scene," only scenery—and perfect powdery slopes. Is this America's last old-fashioned ski resort?
Buffered by its sentinel firs and snowbanks, Alta is Utah's desert island at 8,600 feet. There are no high-rises, no tour buses, and no glitz. Pleasures are simple, attitudes unpretentious; families return season after season. Lodge life is tribelike for the kids. Part of Alta's charm is its situation at the end of a steep canyon road: when you arrive, you forget about ever having—or wanting—somewhere else to go.
I learned to ski at Alta when I was a babe (reckon that as you like) and have been coming back ever since—for the past decade with my extended family. We've briefly considered going elsewhere "for a change," but have concluded that we adore Alta precisely because it's a place where nothing essential changes. That isn't to say the Alta landscape is static. The incomparable quality (and quantity) of the powder always creates new challenges. By now we know the staff at the Alf Engen Ski School intimately; they are gifted teachers who have guided us and our kids (ages 4 to 12) from the Albion bunny slopes to the back bowls and beyond. My first instructor at Alta was Alf himself, from whom I learned that downhill skiing has some great truths to teach about surrender and control. Lesson one: "You have to be willing to let go of the mountain."
Once a year, at Christmas (which is always white) or for a week in February, our family convenes at the Alta Lodge from both coasts. My brother-in-law brings the wine, my sister-in-law the ice packs, my ex-husband (we're an ultra-modern extended family) the prescription-strength ibuprofen. One year, he also lugged along a seven-foot wooden toboggan, then left it on permanent loan at the lodge, as a token of our commitment. That wasn't necessary, since we always rebook our rooms on the day we leave.
A week into the post-Alta year, as an antidote to the post-Alta blues, I repack our ski clothes in our Alta duffels. Our wardrobes don't vary much (as the kids grow, they inherit hand-me-downs from their cousins), because at Alta one is indifferent to fashion, gossip, celebrity, and every other form of one-upmanship. There are no valets to tote your skis from the parking lot to the lifts (you don't need a car) and no nightlife to speak of. An Alta mogul is a big, white hump, not a short, rich chump. And the experience—like the faces at the lodge and the depth of the base—is blissfully predictable from year to year.
What to do at Alta?One of our favorite instructors puts it succinctly: "Ski 'n' be." We all ski and be (asleep) by 10 o'clock. We try to be the first through the gate to ski the fresh powder at Ballroom, and test our nerve on the high traverse and Devil's Castle. We drink champagne on the deck at sunset and mug for the camera. At least once a stay, we organize an intergenerational slalom contest on the Race Course. Last year, all of us who participated—ages 12 to 50—lost to a buff 80-year-old grande dame (as much a fixture at our lodge as we are) who was training for the Senior Olympics.
What else?Digestion of the lodge's excellent four-course dinners is a major activity. So is watching our kids dig their annual snow cave, and build their annual ski jump between the lodge and the rope-tow hill. If my son's school friend is staying nearby at the Rustler, both head off to their sledding slope. When dusk falls, Ping-Pong calls, and I've been told by the boys that there's some avid betting—the currency is M&M's—on the weeklong, round-robin tournament. The most enterprising of our 12-year-olds plays "intern" at the reception desk, helping out with check-ins and phone messages. Two of the girls, five and 13, rebond with the "best friends" they haven't seen for 12 months. So do we. While our designated hermit reads by the fire, our designated schmoozer catches up with families from our informal "same-time-next-year" society. Two of us play killer Scrabble over glasses of steaming cider at the Sitzmark Club. One likes lolling in the hot tub. Another takes yoga classes at the community center, while a sybarite who shall remain nameless gets a nightly massage. I always manage to finish three trashy paperbacks, although my major mental exertion is trying to remember my locker combination.
Alta feels more like a cocoon than a resort—the dacha from a Russian novel where the generations gather around the samovar. (The Alta Lodge actually has one, employed every afternoon at teatime.) This delicious illusion is reinforced by the reliably frequent "dumps"—as snowstorms are fondly called in 84092—that inspire one's faith in clean slates and briefly close the canyon road. The kids find this thrilling. I do, too. I've often wished, with them, that the snows would permanently seal the mountain pass out of Shangri-la.
SAVE ON YOUR SKI TRIP
It costs $40 a day to hit the slopes at Alta (a bargain compared with Vail's $60-plus price tag). But the cost of skiing in the West is finally falling. For coupons and deals check out: www.skitown.com and www.coloradokids.com. And if you're heading to Colorado, take advantage of this winter's price wars among the big resorts. The new Perfect 10 ticket, good for 10 days of skiing at five major mountains, can be had for $329 (order it at www.snow.com by January 31). Or pick up discounted lift tickets at King Soopers grocery stores in Denver when you arrive.
Alta is a 30-minute, $25 jitney ride from the Salt Lake City airport by the Alta Ski Shuttle (800/742-3406) or Canyon Transportation (800/255-1841).
WHERE TO STAY
All Alta hostelries are ski-in, ski-out. We're devoted to the venerable Alta Lodge (800/707-2582 or 801/322-4631, fax 801/742-3504; dormitory—two sets of bunk beds—$103 per person or double suite $324*, including breakfast and dinner) for its coziness, great food, and extreme kid-friendliness. Après-ski wear for the bunny set is pajamas. A crew of non-skiing grandparents is generally on lounge duty with the babes in arms. Other friends swear with equal passion by Alta's Rustler Lodge (888/532-2582 or 801/742-2200, fax 801/742-3832; dormitory—three or six beds—$110 a person, or double room $386*, including breakfast and dinner), a newer, more luxurious resort hotel with certain amenities absent from the Alta Lodge, such as an exercise room, heated outdoor swimming pool, and in-room TV's. I've heard tell that Dr. Denton's have been seen there, too.
Both principal Alta lodges serve lavish country breakfasts and surprisingly refined dinners. They have supervised dinner seatings for kids, followed by evening activities—crafts, videos, games. The other dinner option is the Shallow Shaft (801/742-2177), across the road from the Alta Lodge, which has panoramic views, a menu of exotic game, and an extensive wine list. For lunch try Watson's Shelter (801/799-2296) on the mountain or Joanie's (801/742-2221), next to Alta Lodge, known for its overstuffed wraps and chili. The Sitzmark Club (801/322-4631), in the original pine-paneled wing of the Alta Lodge, is a charming, old-fashioned Western bar with a mountain view, perfumed by woodsmoke from the fire.
Alta is about serious skiing, but it's also suited to beginners. There's an exceptional balance and variety of groomed and ungroomed runs and steep and broad terrain, plus a virtuoso ski patrol. Though school holidays are busy, lift lines move swiftly, and the slopes are never overcrowded. The Alta Ski Lift Co., whose day pass is $38, debuts its first high-speed quad this season. A full day of lessons at the Alf Engen Ski School costs $80 (801/742-2600).
WHERE THE BOARDERS ARE
Alta—famously—doesn't allow snowboarding, but Snowbird (800/742-2222) is 15 minutes away, via shuttle bus.
SHOPPING AND RENTALS
No Chanel at the Deep Powder House (801/742-2400), but plenty of Chap Stick and a good selection of the latest hard and soft ski gear to buy or rent. Renters can trade in equipment as conditions change and demo the latest models.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU DON'T SKI
Isn't it time you finished War and Peace and pasted your family photos into a nice vellum album?
*Lodge rates are for November and December and are subject to seasonal changes.
Judith Thurman, the author of Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette (Knopf), is a staff writer for The New Yorker.