Bathed in the glamorous glow cast by its annual film festival, the Sundance Resort is, at heart, an unpretentious mountain hideaway. This central Utah development founded by actor-director Robert Redford in 1969 with "just $500 and a dream" as he says, is defintely a country chic getaway favored by Hollywood elite. But it's also a restful, environmentally sensitive collection of split log cabins at the base of one of the Rockies' prettiest mountains.
Unlike several of Utah's top destination ski resorts near the bustling town of Park City, Sundance is a relatively isolated vacation experience that appeals to families looking for a retreat to nature and some quality together time. The small town of Provo just outside its canyon entry has little to offer the out-of-state visitor.
Instead, life within the resort is rich and welcoming. There is a Sundance arts studio where pottery, jewelry making and art classes are given, as well as rehearsal and conference space to support the arts mentoring that is at the heart of the resort's mission. Guests are welcome to attend the occasional lectures and events, browse a small gallery and resort shops filled with the work of local artisans, or just relax and enjoy the day spa. There are two excellent restaurants, the more casual Foundry Grill and the gourmet Treehouse — considered by many to be the best dining room in the state of Utah — as well as on-mountain, casual ski food eateries. Parents of younger children should note that there is no organized children's program nor is there a swimming pool.
All Ages are Introduced to Native Arts and Culture
Every detail at Sundance is carefully executed to foster an appreciation for arts and the environment. Winter learn-to-ski programs incorporate quiet periods of arts n' crafts. Print making is done in the afternoon with older children. One of the highlights of the Art Shack programs is glass blowing. Throughout winter, wine bottles are collected to be melted down. In summer, Mexican artisans return to make glass art, which is sold year round in the Art Shack's gallery.
Native American wellness treatments and philosophy imbue the Sundance Spa menu. A free-standing cabin in the middle of the resort, the Spa accepts children ages 9-15, accompanied by an adult, for mini-facials, massages, pedicures and manicures.
Where Butch Cassidy's Hollywood Goes Native
Lodging options at Sundance range from stylish studio rooms with king beds to designer "western" cabin units with up to two bedrooms and kitchens. The log cabin suites are rustic chic, with wool Navajo blankets serving as shower curtains and Native American ceramics decorating the rough hewn stone fireplaces. Cozy and warm, they are especially well suited to a romantic getaway for new parents (baby can be stowed in living area for maximum comfort.) Multi-bedroom cabins — some with loft beds that kids can play in — accommodate older kids who have the added bonus of being able to safely explore the Sundance Preserve on their own.
A restored 1890s bar, said to be popular with the original Butch Cassidy and his Hole-in-the-Wall gang, is the focal point of the casual Owl Bar. This place, a favorite for local brews and live music, is laid back even when boldface names are in town. The Treehouse is Sundance's gourmet dining room, an equally rustic and very comfortable lodge decorated with Native American Kachinka dolls, cerarmics, bronze sculpture and old photographs from Robert Redford's film career. Wines come from the resort's "partner" vineyards, those who Mr. Redford finds of interest because of their sustainable practices or other attributes. The chef prides himself on a farm to table style of cuisine, presenting dishes made with locally raised elk and bison; salads of local fruits and seeds; and a variety of fine cheeses. The food is super, and the staff is knowledgable, gracious and very welcoming.
Skiing, Riding & Learning Snowsports at Sundance
One of the best aspects of the resort for families is its compact size. Since there's only one base, no one gets lost at Sundance. Children at the ski school can take a chair lift right outside their yurt and focus their training on the lower part of the mountain, while expert skiers continue up to the peak and drop down over the other side, effectively spearating the skill levels and making snowsports safer for everyone.
Base area restaurants are clustered right by the lift ticket booth, ski rentals and ski school. Sundance has a junior ski school that only operates half days, offering instruction for ages 3 to 5-years in private lessons until 1pm. After families meet for lunch, this program provides a variety of afternoon activities such as pottery making, photography and other arts n' crafts. Snowsports enthusiasts ages 6-12 can enroll in group ski classes; at age 7 the group snowboarding program begins. One of the best values at the resort is their Wild Bunch program where one instructor takes out only two children ages 4-5 for much more personal instruction; these are two-hour classes that cost $95 per session for lift ticket and lesson without rental gear. Adult private lessons are also popular here.
Families who already ski will appreciate that much of Sundance's 450 acres is on the back side of the 12,000-foot Mount Timpanogas. Resort guests who board the base chair lift and ride it high above the beginner terrain are surprised at what comes after the mid-mountain point. The whole world opens up to reveal little developed mountain peaks, making the scenery at Sundace some of the most striking in Utah. The 42 trails are in largely freestyle territory with plenty more backcountry.
The snowmaking and grooming team do a terrific job on the in-bound peaks. While 40% of Sundance runs are rated intermediate, and 40% are expert, the grooming is so good that even intermediate skiers have a chance to try some black diamond trails in the beautiful Beaver Bowl. Snowboarders have fewer facilities, but increased demand has motivated the resort to move the terrain park and expand it so that new features and trails will be lit during night sessions.
Great Intentions, Mixed Execution at Sundance
There are many contradictions in life; we just don't see many resorts with this distinctive a personality to be able to highlight them. Just as Sundance rejects its Hollywood pedigree while attracting stars to its workshops, youth mentoring programs and legendary film festival, its public spaces delight in old movie stills from the career of its founder, the otherwise reticent Robert Redford.
In many areas of environmental stewardship, Sundance excels. For example, stone and wood cabins are tucked quietly into the wooded hillsides of the Sundance Preserve. Starbucks Free Trade coffee and organic toilteries are stocked in guestroom kitchenettes. There's an emphasis on recycling and water conservation throughout. Energy conservation measures are the rule. That's why, when we were forced to purchase water at the mountaintop Bearclaw Cabin during an unseasonably warm ski day, we were disappointed to find that only plastic water bottles filled with a factory brand of processed water were available. Surely a multi-gallon dispenser allowing guests to refill their own water bottles could have been made available? But in comparison to all the resort does in its stated mission of "maintaining the balance of art, nature and community as well as the cultivation of independent, innovative thought," this oversight is minor.
Planning your Sundance Family Retreat
The term "Sundance" is now a lifestyle franchise for everything from movies to festivals to resort, to ski hill and jewelry, to interior design shop and clothing catalogue. The resort is living proof of this successful formula. The famous Sundance Film Festival in Park City (about an hour away), runs for 10 days beginning in mid-January; this year it is January 19-29, 2012. The festival features the independent films that have made its cable TV channel so successful, as well as the work of Native filmmakers, foreign films, documentaries and new work by students and proteges of the Sundance Institute located in Park City, Los Angeles and New York.
During this period, many visiting filmmakers (and Mr. Redford, who owns a house in the hills) make the Sundance Resort their home. Some films are shown in the resort's own screening room, but this is clearly not the place to be if you plan to see movies all day and night and are looking for the real festival action.
Instead, families should consider Sundance as a year-round getaway in nature. Spring through fall, it's a base for hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding. Fly fishing is said to be excellent and the resort is equipped to train and outfit any guest. The summer season — the busiest with the most expensive room rates — is packed with cultural events including an authors' series and musical performances at the nearby amphitheatre.
From November to April, there is excellent skiing for all abilities right outside the split log reception area. Each Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday evening from 4:30pm to 9pm there's night skiing, making your vacation double the fun. At our March visit — a perfect week for spring skiing — studios started at $249/N, with the winter holiday weeks and almost every weekend costing a bit more. In terms of planning a hiking or biking getaway, the months of October-November and April-June are the most affordable and the weather is usually very good.
The Sundance Resort (801/225-4107) is located at 8841 Alpine Loop Road Sundance, UT 84604-5538. Contact the resort directly or your travel agent for a schedule of upcoming events and activities, as well as seasonal hotel packages.
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