PARK CITY, Utah — As the sun slowly sank into the mountains and the sky changed from a vibrant red to a dull copper, those of us assembled on the terrace of the St. Regis Hotel sipped our wine and nibbled on Africa-inspired dishes.
"Now, just imagine that we are sitting around the campfire enjoying the African custom of saluting the sunset with a 'sundowner,' as cocktails in the bush are called," said Jane Lee Winter, executive chef of the Gourmet Travel Club who specializes in the cuisine of sub-Saharan Africa.
She had no sooner finished speaking when from out of the woods on the mountainside streaked a graceful red deer. Talk about serendipity — we had our sunset, we had our sundowners and now, we had our wildlife viewing.
We weren't in the bush of southern Africa but in the mountains of northern Utah, at the annual Park City Food and Wine Festival, a four-day extravaganza of eating, drinking and learning about trends in eating and drinking.
If you find yourself in Park City in early July, I recommend the festival, a mix of grand tastings in scenic locations and informative seminars (my favorites were one on how to pair sushi and sake, and another on how to pick the perfect champagne). But you don't have to wait until next July to visit; Park City is a destination for all seasons.
Situated about a half-hour drive east of Salt Lake City in the Wasatch Mountain Range, Park City has been dubbed one of America's 20 prettiest towns by Forbes Traveler Magazine.
Best known for its three spectacular resorts (Deer Valley, Park City Mountain and Canyons), as the location for many of the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics events, and as the site of Robert Redford's Sundance Film Festival, the town has a colorful history.
Silver in those hills
After the discovery of gold in California in 1849 and subsequent strikes in Nevada, wagon trains of saints and sinners, dreamers and schemers poured across the Plains in the hopes of striking it rich. In 1868, it was silver, not gold, that jump-started Park City's fortunes, with the discovery of the second-largest strike in U.S. history, after the Comstock Lode in Nevada.
At the height of their production, in the 1870s and '80s, 300 mines generated a half-billion dollars' worth of silver, gold, copper, lead and zinc, ensuring the fortunes of, among others, Ontario Mine owner George Hearst, father of William Randolph. Even today, 1,000 miles of tunnels and shafts remain under the town.
To get a sense of the history, start with a visit to the Park City Museum on Main Street. Although small, it is easy to while away several hours in this fascinating repository.
Most visitors head downstairs to the Dungeon, Utah's last territorial jail, which held prisoners until as recently as 1966, but my favorite exhibit was the one dedicated to Susanna Bransford, the "Silver Queen." Clearly a femme fatale, as the display of her yellow silk bead- embroidered dress indicates, in the early 1900s, she married a succession of increasingly richer men, including a Russian prince, and she outlived all of them.
So much to see and eat
After a trip into Park City's colorful past, wander up and down Main Street — at one time the site of 22 saloons — with its array of brightly hued Western-style buildings housing über-trendy restaurants, bars, galleries and shops. Be careful and pace yourself, however: Park City's 7,200-foot elevation takes a bit of getting used to, and Main Street meanders upward at a slight incline.
In recent years, Park City has become almost as renowned for its food as for its skiing. Up and down the length of Main Street are restaurants presided over by chefs who have abandoned the big cities in favor of a relaxed lifestyle among laid-back folks who know a thing or two about sophisticated cuisine.
I ate at three of the best restaurants: Shabu, 350 Main Brasserie and Grappa, in a historical building that once was a boarding house for miners. I wasn't in town long enough to eat at Chimayo's, Blue Iguana, Riverhorse on Main, Silver or Talisker on Main.
Park City's reputation for excellent skiing dates to the early 1900s, when miners would strap on skis and use the slopes as a way of getting to and from work. Those early schussers, however, could have had no idea how the ski industry would put this small community on the map.
Deer Valley, for the past four years named the No. 1 ski resort in North America by Ski Magazine, is the ski mountain equivalent of a five-star resort, offering ski valets (in case you don't want to tote your own gear) and gourmet dining in three swanky day lodges.
Although I would come back any time to ski — it remains one of the few resorts in the country that doesn't allow snowboarders — the chair lift up the mountain is spectacular even in summer, and Snow Park Amphitheater at the base of the mountain is a great venue for concerts.
If Deer Valley ups the glamor quotient, Park City Mountain Resort is the choice for family adventure. Complementing the slopes are Utah's only Alpine Coaster, one of the nation's longest Alpine slides, and the new — it opened in July — Flying Eagle Zip Line, which allows for panoramic views over the surrounding mountains.
(I didn't make it to the third resort, Canyons, on this trip, but a friend assured me that it is lovely, and the addition of a Waldorf Astoria Hotel in the village means you won't have to rough it.)
Go for the gold
Whatever else you do in Park City, don't miss the chance to mingle with past and future Olympians at the 400-acre Utah Olympic Park. The site of 14 events during the 2002 Winter Games, including Nordic ski jumping, bobsled, luge and skeleton, the park is now a year-round Olympics training center.
The truly adventurous can test their mettle, reaching speeds of 70 mph as they race down the Olympic bobsled track (professional driver included).
If you go during the summer, book a spot on the terrace for a performance of the Flying Ace All-Stars. Each Saturday, skiers and snowboarders, in moves choreographed to music, perform gravity-defying twirls before landing in a 750,000-gallon splash pool.
Admission to the park and its museum is free, but there is a charge for the show and activities.
From its myriad opportunities for outdoor adventure to a sophisticated cultural scene, a visit to Park City will prove that it's not just the altitude that takes your breath away.