Skiing: A paradise of premieres, powder and poseurs

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The Independent Online
What's the answer, if you want to spend part of your skiing holiday ogling Hollywood stars and seeing the latest films?

Tamsin Murray-Leach glides into the winter wonderland that is Park City, Utah.

For two weeks each January, a strange tribe descends on this peaceful ski town. Skidding and shivering down pretty, snow-packed streets in the de rigueur black designer uniform of New York and Hollywood, surrounded by seven of the best ski mountains in the US, visitors to Robert Redford's Sundance Film Festival eschew the slopes in favour of days and nights in darkened rooms; Park City during Sundance must be the only ski town in the world where queues outside the cinemas are greater than those for the chairlifts.

Which is what makes late January the perfect time to ski or snowboard in Utah, especially for those who'd like to add a bit of spice to their skiing holidays. Instead of, say, rounding off the day with an outdoor Jacuzzi and a hearty meal, a trip to the Sundance Festival means rounding it off with an outdoor Jacuzzi, a hearty meal and one of the premiere independent movies yet to hit the big screen. From 15 to 25 January 1998, the 14th annual Sundance Festival will screen 67 shorts and 103 feature films, 61 of which will be world premieres. It certainly makes a pleasant change from the usual PG drivel on offer in ski resorts. And going to Sundance is also the perfect ploy to get Non-Skiing Partner to agree to a ski trip. Just picture the proposal, usually so fraught with potential confrontation and failure:

"But darling, we're not exactly going skiing. We're attending one of the major motion picture festivals in the world."

Pause.

"Yes, you probably will get a glimpse of Robert Redford/ Cameron Diaz."

Pause. Smile. Flurry of pre-trip shopping for warm, yet sexy, evening wear.

These days of movie mayhem are not for the fainthearted, however. Since Robert Redford founded the festival 14 years ago, with the aim of developing "independent voices and visions in the arts", it has grown to become a focal point of the American film industry, attracting filmmakers, actors, agents, buyers and film company executives in their thousands (12,000 is the official figure). Park City passes saturation point; it is a town held under siege by movie people. Restaurant booths are requisitioned by equipment-touting film crews seeking interviews with other film crews; the library and conference centres are converted into cinemas; and larger hotel lobbies and function rooms are transformed by nightly parties into meeting-places for Those Who Are and Those Who Would Be Famous.

Yet none of this need prevent you having ski holiday of your dreams, providing you have a good sense of humour and like a few challenges. Sure, condos and hotels are booked months, if not years, in advance; parking is a joke; and getting a table in a good restaurant becomes a tactical exercise. But don't you see - it's all part of the game. Rule number one: where there are crowds, there are cancellations. And movie people like to stick together, so Park City is full of tiny inns and glorified B&Bs with the odd unrented room left over from a group booking. Even the Chateau Apres hostel usually has beds available on the night, where one can observe the least likely hostellers slinking into the dorms at all hours, stuffing evening gowns into lockers as they whisper loudly about the successful reception of their latest short, and who saw whom at so-and-so's party.

Certainly every good restaurant will be packed. Even the fast food pitstops out on the highway are notoriously busy, offering comfort food to agents and buyers who would rather not deal with another two-hour schmoozefest, thank you very much. Yet it is honestly not that hard to get into restaurants such as Robert Redford's Zoom, which does good New American for a surprisingly reasonable price. Book in advance and simply be prepared to beg and wheedle, then beg some more. By all means use that English accent to your advantage, because even a small suspicion that you could possibly be a great British director will get you a table, albeit at an odd hour and perhaps somewhere at the back of the restaurant. One of the many nice things about Park City during Sundance is that most people are terribly polite to strangers, just in case they May Be Someone.

Even getting into a movie is not particularly tough. It's true that pre-festival packages are sold out months in advance, but you're going to be skiing, you won't have time for 15 screenings, two panel discussions, movie breakfasts and access to all parties (gatecrashing these is more fun, anyway). Individual tickets for screenings are not released until five days before the festival, when it is wise to try to book evening shows and predictably popular premieres. Once at Sundance, simply show up an hour before daytime screenings and get in the queue; the earlier the show, the more likely you are to get a ticket.

Just bear in mind that there are glorious mountains beckoning when the Festival starts to seem a bit too much like hard work, and they are practically empty because all the accommodation below is packed with 12,000 film folk. The resort at Park City is the largest in the state, and site of the 2002 Winter Olympics, with everything from long, gently rolling beginner runs to acres of open bowls and glades, prime powder terrain. Yet although there is plenty here to keep even the most experienced skier happy, six other mountains lie within easy reach. Snowboarders should pop over to Brighton, Solitude or Snowbird, famous for back-country terrain and the pros who choose to make their homes here. Traditionalists will revel in Alta, a smaller, steeper resort with lots of powder, cheaper lift tickets and a strict no-snowboarders policy. This ruling is upheld in old-school Deer Valley, just up the road from Park City, while a few miles in the opposite direction at The Canyons, a newly restructured resort, they attempt to keep poor, discriminated-against snowboarders happy with a machine- groomed half-pipe and a variety of obstacles to hop over and leap off.

Then, of course, there's the snow itself. Car licence plates in these parts proudly proclaim: "Ski Utah - The Greatest Snow on Earth!" This is not a shallow boast. Everything you hear about the legendary Utah powder is true. It is dry and light as a feather. Slicing through a Utah powder field really is like floating on air - a cliche, but no other comparison will do. Even the intermediate skier will find Utah powder manageable, while for experts and snowboarders it is practically nirvana, a legal high inexplicable to the uninitiated, a truly spirit-soaring experience. Partake in Sundance by all means; watch some great films, soak up the glamour, chuckle at the spectacle. Just don't forget the reason you came: the mountains here are better than anything conjured up on the silver screen.

How to get to Sundance, and where to stay when you are there

Tamsin Murray-Leach flew to New York on British Airways for pounds 225 return, and bought her round trip ticket from New York to Salt Lake City on American Airlines for $364 (pounds 220). She stayed at Patricia's Country Manor Bed and Breakfast in the neighbouring village of Kamas for $85 (pounds 51) a night (001 800 658 0643); in the Chateau Apres dorm, Park City, where a bunk costs a mere $22 per night (001 801 649 9372), and on the comfortable carpet of a friend's rented condo. However, travellers from the UK with less time, more money and more sense may prefer to book a package including flights, accommodation and a car through a US specialist such as Virgin Ski (01293 544889) or Ski Independence (0990 550555); a week in late January costs between pounds 700 and pounds 800. The Ski Utah website at www.skiutah.com is a great source of information on both accommodation and the resort itself.

Check out the Sundance Film Festival website at www.sundancechannel.com/ festival98, for details of the 1998 programme. Tickets for festival screenings go on sale from the festival box office on 10 January; use the time difference to your advantage and book early. The box office number is 001 435 645-7280; tickets for screenings cost $7 each; tickets for premieres cost $10, and for panel discussions $15.

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