The Resort that Redford Built

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In the early Nineties, Sundance owner Robert Redford called together his management team and told them to remove 212 spaces in the main parking lot at the mountain's base. He then decreed that crews landscape the area, plant additional trees and build wood fencing to soften the entrance to his beloved Utah resort.

"Take out 212 spaces? We need 212 more spaces," Scott Beck, Sundance sales and marketing director at the time, replied. "I don't care," Redford shot back. "The parking lot is beginning to look like a strip mall. We do things differently here."

That sums up Sundance's mystique. The resort is a winning formula of doing things differently. It's bite-size but not claustrophobic, luxurious yet remarkably unpretentious. Redford has shaped Sundance into a ski resort you hope you would have the vision to build after winning the lottery.

No other ski resort in the world so totally reflects its owner's personality. Thank god it's Robert Redford and not Donald Trump calling the shots in the shadow of 12,000-foot Mt. Timpanogos, the highest point in Utah's famous Wasatch Range. "Develop little, preserve much" is how one employee describes Redford's philosophy of folksy eco-elegance. Redford's "small-is-better" credo actually resonates better today than it did a decade ago as it offers a seductive alternative to the recent malling of the ski industry with neo-Swiss base villages and boulevard-like slopes.

Redford first fell in love with the North Fork of Provo Canyon in the early Sixties when visiting with his wife at that time, whose family lived nearby. Flush from his success in the Broadway hit and movie Barefoot in the Park, he purchased the resort in 1969¿in part to keep it safe from developers' bulldozers. An instinctive businessman, the new owner went with his hunches. Some worked. Others didn't. A dinner-and-movie night, for example, was quickly jettisoned when waiters repeatedly collided in the darkened dining room.

Today the resort is designed in the shape of a giant "J." The small village and base lift are tucked into the bottom curve, with the guest cottages and mountain homes stretching into the hillside away from the action. The village has none of the faux Alpine cuteness that curses many planned ski resorts. Relying on traditional log construction, The Foundry Grill, The Owl Bar, the Sundance Grocery, the Tree Room restaurant, the Creekside day lodge and the General Store unobtrusively anchor the base, which feels as much like a town square as anything else.

One fixed-grip quad and two triple chairs access the 2,150 vertical feet and 465 acres at Sundance, which is roughly the size of Stowe, Vt. But skiing Sundance is less about racking up vertical and more about enjoying each individual run. Sundance skis much like a mini-Aspen, Colo., with hidden drops (Redfinger), sweet powder shots (eight turns above Quick Draw) and more than enough bumps (Jamie's) to quickly identify the poseurs.

"Sundance is not a high-speed place," says Randy Qualey, who runs the summit lunch hut, Bearclaw Cabin, in the winter and watches over Redford's horses in the summer. "If you want speed, head to Park City," she says. "People relax here. They slow down to see what they've been missing."

Strong skiers hit the frontside of the mountain twice per day: on the way up and on the way down. They spend the rest of their time working the Arrowhead and Flathead triples. There's not a lot of acreage, but there's also not a lot of people to get in the way. Reaching 60,000 skier visits is a strong season for Redford's resort; the Vail Valley racks up more business on President's Day weekend alone. In fact, midweek there are probably more skiers riding Vail's Vista Bahn lift at any given moment than carving up all of Sundance's terrain. "This is like skiing at your own private resort," Jack Metcalf, 33, a guest from San Francisco, Calif., says while riding the Flathead lift above gloriously empty slopes in February.

Corary to popular perception, Redford says he did not name the resort after his film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid¿though the connection certainly didn't hurt business when the resort opened. The resort's name, he says, evokes the way the sunlight dances off the Wasatch peaks. Nonetheless, his 1969 hit movie with Paul Newman is part of the fabric of life here. Redford's saddle from the film is displayed in the Owl Bar and one of the resort's most popular cottages is Etta's Hideaway, named after Katherine Ross' character. Despite the inevitable star power in evidence everywhere, the overwhelming feeling here is of family and friends. Most fathers have a photo album to remember their kids by. Redford has a trail map. Amy's Ridge, Shauna's Secret and Jamie's, all near the mountain's summit, are named after Redford's three children.

Sundance is 20 minutes from Provo, 40 minutes from Park City and about an hour out of Salt Lake City. But with a glut of resorts clustered around Park City, Sundance is viewed as off the ski corridor by most out-of-state visitors, so it remains about 70 percent local, with many families driving up from Provo. And with a bedbase of less than 100 cottages and a handful of homes (close to what Redford considers buildout), the destination skier will remain, by design, in the minority. In a rare concession to the business end of skiing, the resort's first snowmaking guns will debut this year, supplementing Sundance's 300 annual inches of snow. But skiing, in reality, is a sidelight here, accounting for roughly 11 percent of the overall gross revenue. Sundance has grown into a wide-ranging family of enlightened enterprises: the Sundance Institute, founded in 1980 to encourage independent filmmaking; the legendary Sundance Film Festival, held in Park City each January; Sundance Farms; the Sundance Channel; the Zoom Roadhouse Grill in Park City; a thriving summer theater program; the new Boston-based Sundance Cinemas; and the successful Sundance Catalogue, which recently opened a freestanding store in Seattle, Wash.

Through all the expansion, Sundance remains a study in contrasts: a slow-paced family resort with a jet-set clientele. Grandmothers sit on benches near the base lift to watch their offspring next to Rolex-wearing skiers who could just as easily be sunning themselves in Gstaad. The top floor of the Creekside day lodge is overrun with families laying out massive lunches packed in from Provo, while some of the finest cuisine between Denver and San Francisco is served in the Tree Room, a few hundred feet away. The General Store (which spawned the Sundance Catalogue) sells $100 luxe fleece shirts and $1,995 leather hacienda club chairs while blue jeans and ranch coats aren't uncommon on the slopes¿and unlike in Deer Valley or Vail, nobody snickers.

Today, celebrating its 30th season, Sundance is Redford's dream realized: a thriving community dedicated to the environment, the arts and outdoor recreation, probably in that order. When entering Redford's 6,000-acre complex, the resort's 96 guest cottages are all but invisible as they hug the hillside above the village or are embraced by stands of aspen and fir. Constructed with native woods and locally quarried stone and decorated with hand-hewn furnishings, the cottages reflect Redford's understated taste. Dried flowers from the Sundance Farms grace the rooms. (No sprays are used on the farm's crops, which are weeded by hand and even fertilized with manure from the Robert Redford Ranch. The resort owner is nothing if not consistent.)

But that doesn't mean paradise isn't without its cracks. A charming but ridiculously cramped check-in area welcomes guests to the resort. There's no room service, a surprisingly sparse staff, occasionally cold coffee and a muddy parking lot that would seem more at home at a high school football game than a world-class ski resort. "Imagine what would happen if Aspen or Deer Valley tried that," an industry executive says admiringly. "I can't think of any other resort that could get away with it."

Why don't guests revolt? Because Sundance has a philosophical underpinning that supports everything it does. Proof of Redford's commitment to the environment is everywhere. Recycling bins in the rooms. The fourth person in a car skis free to encourage carpooling (President's Day, New Year's Day¿any day, it doesn't matter). A card on the bed announces that the linens are changed every three days¿unless the guest requests otherwise¿to save on water consumption. While Sundance may be the most environmentally correct resort in the world, there is surprisingly little sermonizing going on. That's the magic of the place. It doesn't bludgeon you into eco-correctness; it makes you want to play along.

One of the first upgrades to the village was construction of the Tree Room, now the resort's signature restaurant, in 1970. Redford refused to chainsaw a towering native pine that stood in the way. The restaurant, he announced, would be constructed around the tree; cost be damned. Sheltered from the sun, the tree died in six months, with workmen later topping it above the roofline to prevent falling limbs from damaging either dining room or diner. When out of public ear shot, some of the staff now affectionately refer to it as "the Stump Room." But dead tree or not, Redford's message still rings true 30 years later: "We do things differently here."

Sundance "is an area whose pledge is to people," Redford says in a motto that sounds wonderfully naïve and very Sixties as the millennium turns the corner. Scott Beck, 36, who grew up at Sundance with Redford's kids and whose father was the first general manager Redford hired, worked at Sundance for eight years, leaving two seasons ago for neighboring Brian Head resort. He says that Redford truly believes that running a resort right will inevitably lead to running a resort well. And that Redford is always looking for better solutions¿significantly, from the bottom up.

"Mr. Redford will put his skis on, get in the liftline and yell 'single,' and then ride with the customers for the next hour," Beck says of his former boss. That's when the Sundance staff goes into hyper-alert. "We used to say 'Oh, no. He's talking to the guests again. There's no telling what he'll want to do next."' industry executive says admiringly. "I can't think of any other resort that could get away with it."

Why don't guests revolt? Because Sundance has a philosophical underpinning that supports everything it does. Proof of Redford's commitment to the environment is everywhere. Recycling bins in the rooms. The fourth person in a car skis free to encourage carpooling (President's Day, New Year's Day¿any day, it doesn't matter). A card on the bed announces that the linens are changed every three days¿unless the guest requests otherwise¿to save on water consumption. While Sundance may be the most environmentally correct resort in the world, there is surprisingly little sermonizing going on. That's the magic of the place. It doesn't bludgeon you into eco-correctness; it makes you want to play along.

One of the first upgrades to the village was construction of the Tree Room, now the resort's signature restaurant, in 1970. Redford refused to chainsaw a towering native pine that stood in the way. The restaurant, he announced, would be constructed around the tree; cost be damned. Sheltered from the sun, the tree died in six months, with workmen later topping it above the roofline to prevent falling limbs from damaging either dining room or diner. When out of public ear shot, some of the staff now affectionately refer to it as "the Stump Room." But dead tree or not, Redford's message still rings true 30 years later: "We do things differently here."

Sundance "is an area whose pledge is to people," Redford says in a motto that sounds wonderfully naïve and very Sixties as the millennium turns the corner. Scott Beck, 36, who grew up at Sundance with Redford's kids and whose father was the first general manager Redford hired, worked at Sundance for eight years, leaving two seasons ago for neighboring Brian Head resort. He says that Redford truly believes that running a resort right will inevitably lead to running a resort well. And that Redford is always looking for better solutions¿significantly, from the bottom up.

"Mr. Redford will put his skis on, get in the liftline and yell 'single,' and then ride with the customers for the next hour," Beck says of his former boss. That's when the Sundance staff goes into hyper-alert. "We used to say 'Oh, no. He's talking to the guests again. There's no telling what he'll want to do next."'