If you like real snow, tremendous terrain and a passion for skiing found only among purists, Alta is the place to ski.
Alta transports skiers to the early days of skiing, when slow doubles provided the quiet and space to appreciate one's surroundings. Heated sidewalks and escalators are happily absent, as is any hint of the homogenization of skiing. For its fans, Alta's ambiance and dramatic setting are the essence of value, creating the quintessential ski experience. These are the qualities that earn Alta one of the most loyal clienteles in the world.
Alta is not a place for those who feel that value is based on boutique-jammed mountain malls, luxurious condo villages and spas. Nor is it for those who like to log as much vertical as they possibly can between 9 am and 4 pm. Only eight chairlifts service Alta's remarkable 2,100 feet of vertical and 2,200 skiable acres, gracefully moving just 9,100 skiers per hour. The terrain-25 percent beginner, 40 percent intermediate and 35 percent advanced-is designed for exploration, not racking up major mileage. And you'll rarely wait in liftlines, as Alta restricts the number of skiers on the mountain. The happy result is a soothing ski experience, where you won't feel claustrophobic because of crowds. There are 40 named runs to choose from, along with hundreds of paths down Mt. Baldy if you creatively use the traverses, catwalks and trees.
As for snow, Alta's legendary annual 500 inches of powder are hard to beat. In fact, Alta's snow is some of the lightest in the world, as most skiers who visit in March or April will tell you. The ski experience is not about grooming and snowmaking here. This is a bastion of deep powder stashes-a lair for ski purists who can ski day-old anything. Its "if you can see it, you can ski it" policy makes Alta a free-heeler's paradise. And legendary runs such as High Rustler and Eagle's Nest attract skiers from throughout the world. At Alta, shapes are what you carve, not necessarily what you ski on.
If you vacation at Alta, you won't have to worry about shelling out money for a new Bogner outfit or up-to-date gear. Here, what you have isn't as important as how well you use it. The paradox of Alta is that while lift tickets are only $33, or about half of what the glitzier mountains charge, it's not an inexpensive place to stay. With limited buildable land, there are only a handful of properties located at its base. Short of dormitory facilities or a room with shared bath facilities, accommodations in Alta are fully priced. Food, however, tends to come much cheaper than in Deer Valley's eateries.
Hotels at Alta have a European attitude and include breakfast and dinner in their rates, serving food that's best described as wholesome, not haute. The most famous hotel here is the Alta Lodge, a beloved place that is best defined as Bauhaus meets barrack. In January, the rates start at $258 per room, which includes breakfast and dinner and is based on double occupancy. For that, you get a small room with twin beds and a private bath. So a five-night stay in January runs $1,425. Add $264 for four days of lift tickets, plus another $100 for burgers at the timeless Watson Shelter for lunch, and the grand total for two comes to $1,789.
The cheapest condo accommodations in Alta are at Blackjack Condominium. Studios for two people run $205 per night, and include a kitchenette. For a five-night stay in January, you're looking at $1,025 for lodging. Add $264 for two four-day lift tickets, and factor in another $35 per person a day for food ($350 total) at the Goldminer's Bar and Alf's Restaurant, and you're looking at $1,639 for a five-night stay.
Really want to economize? You could stay in downtown Salt Lake City about 25 miles away, but that means dealing with major traffic jams as the city gets ready for the 2002 Winter Olympics. So perhaps the best option for those on a budget is to stay at the Marriot Residence Cottonwood, originally buuilt for business travelers, located at the base of Little Cottonwood Canyon 11 miles from Alta's slopes. Amenities include an outdoor heated pool, Jacuzzi and health club. Five nights in a studio room with a kitchenette will run you $114 per night or $631 for five nights, based on double occupancy. That rate includes daily continental breakfast. There's a free shuttle service to the public bus system, which means that you can get by without a car. Tack on $264 for two lift tickets and $350 for food ($35 per person per day), and your grand total comes to $1,253.
If paying an extra $500 won't break the bank, staying at Alta is still your best bet, considering how avalanche-prone the canyon is. Nightlife? You won't find much here to spend money on, short of a few beers at the Sitzmark Club in the Alta Lodge, but then again, you don't come to Alta to party or to shop-you come to ski.
HIGHLIGHTS OF A CUSTOM PACKAGE FOR TWO AT ALTA
MOUNTAIN STATS 2,100 vertical feet; 2,200 skiable acres; 500 inches of snow annually; eight chairlifts, five tows; 40 named trails; the longest run is 3.5 miles.
LIFT TICKETS A one-day ticket costs $33 per person; a four-day pass costs $132 per person.
LODGING Depending on where you stay, accommodations during January run from $127-$258 per night.
DINING Hotel rates at Alta include breakfast and dinner, so you're only faced with the additional cost of eating lunch on the mountain, which runs about $10 per person.
TOTAL COST $1,253-$1,789
INFORMATION (801) 742-3333; www.alta.com
Savvy Traveler: Start Making Cents
Savvy Traveler: Start Making Cents, Deer Valley
Savvy Traveler: Inn of the Month
Savvy Traveler: Take Offs