It's official. Utah has the "Greatest Snow on Earth". It says so on the car number plates so it must be true. That's excellent news for Deer Valley, the smartest of 11 ski resorts around Salt Lake City. After crossing the huge lake that gave the capital its name, the prevailing westerlies dump feathery snow on the Wasatch Mountains. In a semi-arid high desert, crisp powder and clear skies compete for bragging rights throughout the winter. When they coincide, as they often do, they create the greatest snow on earth.
Several places in the Rockies have vied for the title of being the chic place to ski, but a profusion of five-star options shows Deer Valley wants to be a contender for the 2011-12 season. Until shortly before the Second World War, Sun Valley Idaho was home to Hollywood's elite - and the world's first chairlift. When hostilities ended, the next generation of superstars switched to Aspen for quality skiing and Victorian mining town charm. In the late 20th century, the backlash against urban congestion moved interest towards the wide western horizons in Jackson Hole and Big Sky. The focus was never on Utah, seen by some as the home to Mormon polygamist teetotallers on a global mission to convert passing strangers to the Brigham Young creed.
Not that Deer Valley wasn't trying to catch up. While Park City, a historic silver mining town a mile down the road, turned itself into High Jinks Inc with help from Robert Redford's prestigious Sundance Film Festival, Deer Valley emphasised service. Fresh-faced tip seekers compete to grab your skis from your car and whisk them to the bottom of the main lift. Click in and you're off, tackling velvet corduroy so perfect that it seems a shame to track it out. Snowboarding? No way. It's forbidden and strictly policed. The demarcation line between the slopes of Deer Valley and Park City is a rope that must not be crossed by boarders - don't expect change anytime soon.
Mellow is a term often used to describe Deer Valley's slopes, but this is only part of the picture. Certainly many of the trails are seductively flattering, but experts have much to gain from most skiers' reluctance to leave them. The three main peaks, Bald, Flagstaff and Empire Canyon, have glades, bumps, chutes and bowls, with the added beauty that you have them pretty much to yourself. Except, of course, for a geezer called Stein Eriksen, a Norwegian-born giant slalom specialist who won gold at the 1952 Oslo Olympics. He still skis with icy precision, feet clamped together in the manner of his day. No one tries to copy him because, it's impossible for mere mortals and his technique is decades out of date. Not so the Stein Eriksen Lodge, which is currently celebrating its 30th birthday.
When he decided Deer Valley was ready for five-star luxury, Eriksen toured the world's finest resorts with his business partner, Edgar Stern, re-visiting European hotels he'd stayed in with his parents as a child in the 1930s. Cherrypicking shamelessly, he commissioned the interiors of a series of faux alpine chalets linked by heated walkways to the Silver Lake mid-mountain meeting point. Think roaring log fires, deep leather armchairs, Persian carpets and metres of rosemaling, a form of decorative folk art found in eastern Norway and which reminds him of his roots. Today there are 112 bedrooms, 68 suites and, of course, a newly renovated and state of the art spa. The Glitretind Restaurant may sound Norwegian, but as Eriksen's home cuisine is among Europe's most challenged, he has wisely gone with classic American fare. The ski-in, ski-out lodge is an easy stop at any time of day, but the Sunday brunch is an institution whether or not you're staying there. The maestro himself skis on, as clinically as ever, although with his 84th birthday next month, he's a little less robust than he used to be.
Eriksen infused his lodge with his personality in a way wealthy Americans loved from the start, but he was fortunate to hang onto his Deer Valley monopoly on sybaritic luxury for nearly three decades. Imposing developments sprang up around him - my Silver Lake condo was impossibly baronial, with giant-scale furniture overlooked by the eyes of long-dead beasts - but there were no rival hotels. Then, in 2009-10, the Montage and the St Regis opened and provided top-level competition.
Deer Valley had arrived at last.
Open for a year in December, the Montage is the brainchild of Alan Fuerstman, a man of his time - he is 55 - but with a vision to match Eriksen's. The son of a New Jersey dentist, he did teenage work experience as a doorman in his local Marriott. Abandoning his ambitions to study law, he set out to conquer the hotel world. Forty years later, he has two family-owned Montages in California, his flagship at Laguna Beach, and another in Beverly Hills.
One of his mantras is to provide things guests never imagined they needed but then realise they can't do without. For example, Montage clients arrive at Salt Lake City International to find two greeters, one to take them straight to the hotel, the other to collect and bring their luggage. Very simple, very nice. A second mantra is never forget. The woman who decided the brown bathrobe in the Beverly Hills Montage closet didn't suit her found a white one hanging there next time she stayed.
Fuerstman believes that the devil - or maybe the angel - is in the detail. At the Deer Valley Montage, he assessed the cushions and the throws as slightly too light a shade of beige. Bedside tables? They needed sliding panels to give extra space. The constituents of the Cobb salad? He imposed his preferences on that too.
"I take my role as visionary for the company very seriously," he said, "but I go off the wall sometimes. If I didn't emote over small things, the staff wouldn't care as much. You need to be strong. A lot of nice guys don't run great hotels."
The Montage is a bit young to claim greatness, but the omens are good. It's in a spectacular position at the base of the Express lift up to Empire Canyon, the highest point in the resort. During its first winter, it was semi-buried, with snow reaching half way up the ground floor windows. Its position makes it hard to leave in the evening, a bonus for any hotelier with food to sell.
Like its peers worldwide, the Apex signature restaurant offers "fresh farm-to-table ingredients" - presumably instead of the past their sell-by date factory product you'd otherwise expect. On the credit side, Fuerstman understands the value of fun. Daly's Pub has life-size horse sculptures looking out on big pool tables and a magnificent four-lane bowling alley. He also takes pampering seriously: couples shouldn't miss purification rituals in twin copper tubs filled with mineral water.
The Deer Crest St Regis Resort sits on its own crag, accessed by a Swiss-built funicular with leather seats. This is essential for a gated property accessed only by a private road, though passing skiers are welcome to bask in chaises longues on the "ski beach", a 12m fire garden and a spacious terrace with great views. The St Regis's point of difference is its connection with Jean Georges Vongerichten, the Alsace-born chef who learned his trade in the best three-star Michelin kitchens in his native land. He arrived in America in 1986 aged 30 and took New York by storm in 1997 with his Jean Georges restaurant in the Trump Tower.
Nowadays he's everywhere, including the Deer Valley St Regis where the J&G Grill is already prized for its exhibition kitchen and double-sided, wood-burning fireplace. Whether you eat gourmet or casual, Jean Georges is the man behind your meal. Although that's in the spirit rather than the flesh, even at the Chef's Table, a glass-enclosed private dining room for 10.
Deer Valley is a bit of a cocoon, given to setting itself above its immediate neighbours, Park City and The Canyons. They have more ambitious skiing and brand new five star hotels - the Waldorf Astoria at The Canyons and the recently opened Hyatt Escala at Park City - but Deer Valley operates in a way excluding the rude commercial world of bars and clubs.
It does have excellent restaurants, notably the Mariposa, which has been a benchmark for a decade, the Goldener Hirsch and the Ticino Trattoria in the Deer Valley Club. Or you can ride the Rocky Mountain horse-drawn sleigh along the Weber River to Grandma's Cabin where the chef recreates yesteryear home fare around a blazing fire. At the buffet at Snow Park Lodge, Deer Valley's base station, you can eat seafood, rare beef, trimmings galore and sumptuous desserts until you explode, possibly literally. I started with 24 oysters and then got stuck in. In a resort with gold taps in the public washrooms, the US$65 (Dh238) price tag is some bargain.
The info: Stein Eriksen Lodge (www.steinlodge.com, 00 1 435 694 3700); Montage Deer Valley (www.montagedeervalley.com, 00 1 435 604 1300); St Regis Deer Crest (www.starwoodhotels.com, 00 1 435 940 5700). For more information, visit www.deervalley.com or call 00 1 435 645 6538.
Superstar ski breaks
Picking the right resort in the US is a considerable challenge because skiing is possible, if not necessarily advisable, in 38 of the 50 states, including Hawaii. Options range from Alaska's untamed snowscapes to New Mexico's semi-arid sunspots and from New England's traditional townships to ski resorts within commuting distance of Los Angeles. From huge and corporate to small and family-orientated, there is something to suit every skier's preference.
Steep and deep
Gold: Jackson Hole, Wyoming
This Wyoming outpost is almost too easy to love. Since Harrison Ford's arrival in the 1980s, it has reinvented itself as a chunk of Hollywood in the middle of nowhere. The key question is whether to stay in Jackson town, with its boardwalks, factory outlet shops, pool halls and western swing music, or 20km away in Teton Village. The latter is at the base of Rendezvous Mountain, where the cable car provides experts with access to the resort's bowls and chutes. Overlooking the flats in the Snake River Valley, Teton Village is still surrounded by ranches run by real cowboys.
Visit www.jacksonhole.com or call 001 307 733 2292.
Silver: Alta, Utah
This is a hideaway that prides itself on maintaining yesteryear values in a harsh commercial world, including a ban on snowboarding that is enforced at the high pass linking Alta and Snowbird. Skiing here began in the 1930s when the highway reached Little Cottonwood Canyon, leading to the introduction of a single-seater chairlift in 1939. One of Alta's founding fathers is remembered in an infamous run named Alf's High Rustler, which looms above the main base station and dares all comers to negotiate the gnarly traverse to reach it. Alta is more sprawl than village, with low-impact lodgings scattered around the valley. The granddaddy is Alta Lodge, where, unusual in the US, tables are shared at dinner, making for a conviviality that persuades guests to rebook the same week the next year before they leave.
Visit www.alta.com or call 001 801 359 1078.
Bronze: Alyeska, Alaska
In terms of sheer adventure, it's impossible to beat Alaska, but its distance from the big population centres makes it a connoisseur's choice. Alyeska, 60km from Anchorage, features a 304-room luxury hotel complete with an in-built cable car, a convenience favoured by its Japanese developers. Don't expect sunshine (it snows or rains 320 days a year) nor altitude sickness (the base is barely above sea level) but its lifts serve impressive slopes and there are helicopters to explore distant horizons.
Visit www.alyeskaresort.com or call 00 1 907 754 2108.
Gold: Aspen, Colorado
In America's distinguished flagship, $500 (Dh1,840) shoes and $5m (Dh18m) views are the norm. Ditto €5,000 (Dh24,560) tips, as generously given by a European movie star to the waitress who served him in the exclusive Caribou Club. Celebrity spotters can identify the slim women in faux fur and buff guys in jeans as they scuttle from private jets to limousines for the short drive to mansions on Red Mountain. The slightly less privileged can revel in the downtown area, with its heady mix of fun and Victorian charm.
With four resorts covered by a single lift pass, variety rules. Aspen is dominated by Ajax Mountain, where Hollywood meets the people on the Silver Queen gondola. Snowmass, a 20-minute drive down the valley, has vast, rolling terrain for intermediate skiers, while Aspen Highlands offers a lung-busting hike up to Highland Bowl and then knee-crunching mogul runs under the Deep Temerity chair. Wannabe adrenaline junkies on snowboards gather on Buttermilk, home to the Winter X Games.
Visit www.aspensnowmass.com or call 001 970 925 9000.
Silver: Sun Valley, Idaho
In the dawn of American skiing in the 1930s, Union Pacific Railway boss Averell Harriman picked the small town of Ketchum for his country's first purpose-built resort. His aim was to show the Hollywood elite a good time on the slopes of Dollar Mountain, which included commissioning a prototype chairlift, based on the system used for loading banana stems onto ships in Panama. (Teething problems included the cable initially being slung so low that the chairs were buried in snow throughout the winter.)
Nowadays, Mount Baldy is the main ski area, encouragingly diverse with fabulous views and enough blue-sky days to justify the resort's name. The Sun Valley Lodge was popular from the start, attracting 1930s legends such as Gary Cooper and Claudette Colbert. When most of Hollywood shifted to Aspen after the Second World War because it was closer, Sun Valley retained its elegance, with Clint Eastwood and Arnold Schwarzenegger heading the list of well-heeled residents.
Visit www.sunvalley.com or call 001 208 622 4111.
Bronze: Squaw Valley, California
With 14 downhill resorts and seven cross-country areas overlooking its waters, Lake Tahoe is not short of options. Those who prefer to stay in the South Lake Tahoe are close to Heavenly's enormous but uninspiring slopes. Experts favour smaller complexes like Northstar and Kirkwood but the prize for sophistication goes to Squaw Valley. The site of the 1960 Winter Olympics, the flame still burns at the entrance and the lake views from the the classy ski area are as majestic as they were 51 years ago.
Visit www.squaw.com or call 00 1 530 583 6985.
Gold: Mount Bachelor, Oregon
Anyone who fancies a seductive time warp should head to this ski area, located on an extinct volcano in central Oregon. Don't expect crowds: most of the skiers and boarders are residents who drive up for the day, and that makes for a very friendly experience. The mountain towers above the wilderness near the small but seriously cool town of Bend. The top runs are not always open so be ready to seize the moment to get up there, both for spectacular views and challenging powder descents through trees.
Silver: Big Sky, Montana
Purpose-built within the last 20 years and rather short on charm, Big Sky claims the largest linked ski area in the US and the biggest vertical, although it rather depends on who's calculating it and how. The modern village, dominated by the Summit hotel and Huntley Lodge, lies between Lone and Andersite mountains. Lone is more dramatic, with steep bowls. Experts target Big Couloir, South Face, Headwater and Dakota Territory. The terrain eases up lower down. Andersite is built on a smaller scale, but both areas are underused, creating a sense of getting away from it all. The nearest airport is at Bozeman, a spacious Montana town.
Bronze: Snowbasin, Utah
Until it was chosen to stage the downhill races for the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, Snowbasin was a backwater. The blue riband events didn't require any overnighting but "no expense spared" day lodges - all big timber, glass, hide and horns - have become standout venues for lunch and après. The Grizzly his and hers downhill courses are knee tremblers, with sections that test nerve and skill to the limit.The neighbouring Powder Mountain is even farther off the tourist radar, but it delivers plenty of what it says on the packet on a range of north-facing slopes suited to all abilities. Both resorts are a day trip from Salt Lake City.