If you want to cross the street in downtown Ketchum, Idaho, you have to grab an orange Day-Glo flag from the lamppost on the corner and follow the directions: Look left, wave flag, cross halfway, look right, and wave flag again. Then stick your flag into the post on the other side. Sounds simple enough, except that when you're trying to do this with an overexcited eight-year-old, it may be necessary to cross back and forth a number of times—it's a major power trip for a kid to bring traffic to a halt.
Not that there is much traffic to be seen. I imagine the flags are more useful in snowstorms, when the SUVs (they only drive SUVs here) can't see you through the flakes.
But I saw only sunny skies in Ketchum and nearby Sun Valley, where people smile and wear some of the chicest ski clothes on the planet: young and old, rich California types on holiday, expensive Russian blondes with blond children and nannies in tow, guys who look like they flew in on their own planes. Of course, we are in the land of Mariel Hemingway and Tom Hanks, the kingdom of Governor Arnold and Maria, the (now subdivided) territory of Bruce and Demi, and the country of John and Teresa. Fortunately I fit right in: I am a thrift-shop hound, but for this trip I have a brand-new, gorgeous, embroidered Bogner jacket that even has a pocket for my cell phone, and white leather Bogner gloves, so soft they feel like two tiny loaves of rising dough. And the people, at least those who live and work here, are friendly. While I travel around town one day on one of the free buses that pass by every 20 or 30 minutes, the driver slows to point out an elk that is having a little rest alongside some horses in a paddock.
Knob Hill Inn is considered the fanciest hotel in Ketchum. It's a Swiss Alps-style lodge with a fire burning in the lobby, balconies outside each room, and a fair amount of kitschy but good-natured Swiss decor—delicate floral alpine designs painted on the walls, tiles decorated with bas-relief Swiss maids, and so on. The hotel, though not small, has a cozy, familial feel to it; the same staff is there every day. I'm tempted to go out and yodel (at my daughter Willow's school back in New York, the younger children have been taught a song that goes "High in da hills live da lonely goathood"—apparently the kids think a goathood is a sort of mountain hoodlum), but I refrain so we can make our way instead to the pool, which is completely empty...except for a girl named Halley, who is exactly Willow's age.
Like so much else about our stay in the area, it seems perfectly fortuitous. I feel soothed: The air is fresh, the snow is clean, and I guess the people who live here, or get to visit, enjoy a quality of life I'm basically (as a daily subway rider) unaccustomed to. In Sun Valley, everything is geared toward fun yet strenuous physical pursuits—skiing, snowboarding, cross-country skiing, ice-skating, tobogganing, sledding (and in the summer, there's swimming, bike-riding, hiking, and fly-fishing), activities in which everyone indulges.
This seems like a place that fortune shines upon; it is a peaceful land without cockroaches where the local thrift store (the Gold Mine) carries mysterious one-piece ski suits intended for women who are eight feet tall with 18-inch waists. Aliens, perhaps, on their weekend holiday.
And aside from the mountains, the landscape is surprisingly mellow: all valleys stretching between soft hills, endless bicycle paths, and streams meandering through snowy meadows.
While Willow and her new friend play mermaids, I grab a glass of Fumé Blanc and a delicious flaky mountain of apple strudel mit schlag from the konditorei next door. Caloriewise it's not exactly what I need—but I figure I will ski off at least 20 pounds over the next couple of days on the slopes.
Nah, make that 20 pounds per day.
In the 19th century, Ketchum and Sun Valley (the towns are a mile apart, although "Sun Valley" also refers to the region as a whole) were mining towns—silver, lead, gold—until the market collapsed in the late 1800s. Around 1890 the area became known for its sheep ranches—until the sheep market tumbled with the Depression. Then in 1936 Averill Harriman commissioned the world's first ski lifts, basing the design on a piece of equipment that was used to hoist bunches of bananas onto ships in South America.
Thus, thanks to bananas, man is able to ascend to great heights.
And peel down the slopes.
It was Harriman who built the Sun Valley Inn and Lodge. In the early days, the resort was attended by all kinds of movie stars—Gary Cooper, Ingrid Bergman, Clark Gable, Ava Gardner (who are still featured in fabulous old photos on the lodge's walls, wearing elegant ski clothes). There were also various blond Vikings and European aristocrats as well: the counts and barons, the Dieters and Wolfgangs and Fritzes who spoke the language of love, or at least said things like "Stem Christie!" and "Schuss!"
Later in life Ernest Hemingway also spent a lot of time here fishing, hunting, and, presumably, writing—though there appears to be neither a single bar nor hotel room in which he did not drink or sleep. It's hard to imagine when he had time to scrawl a word. He's buried in the local cemetery, and his association with Ketchum and Sun Valley gives the place a...well, a manly, literary air. You can tell that those who live and visit here are educated, at least: Ketchum, with a population of only 3,100, sustains two independent bookstores. And Sun Valley is, as you know, the site of Herb Allen's annual billionaires' retreat.
Then there is Bald Mountain (known as Baldy) in Ketchum, which opened in 1939 and over the years has grown to include 14 chairlifts, one towrope, and endless ski runs. These runs are mostly for intermediate and expert skiers, even though many of them are marked green—or "easy"—on the skiing map. But apparently some of the trails here are more difficult than other resorts'. In other words, green in Sun Valley might be blue elsewhere.
To me, this is a clear sign to Stay Away from Baldy.
I am one of the world's greatest beginning skiers. If there were a prize for being a great beginner, I should get it. For one thing, I have been a novice all my life. For another, I am better than the others in my class—who, unfortunately, appear to resent me for my mastery of beginnerdom. In Sun Valley's beginner classes, I'm told I should be an Advanced Beginner, or even a Beginning Intermediate, by my instructor, a charming guy named Dan Schiavone. He leads the morning's group—me and two men: one has kids who attend the Sun Valley Ski and Snowboard School with Willow; Dan takes turns going up with one or the other of us on the chairlift—it's a job, I suppose, that might drive you crazy after a short while, learning so much about so many people you will never see again. Dan and his wife ran a ski school in Austria for some years; she now works at the kids' school.
As we make our way down the hill, Dan encourages me and patiently corrects my mistakes. The way I hold my ski poles, he says, makes me look like John Wayne carrying a couple of pistols on his way into a bar. Maybe I'm not so graceful, but I feel pretty good, particularly after the two men in the class topple over and I ski merrily past. How can I explain that, as a person who was always chosen last for every team, as one who has never been good at any sport or physical activity in her entire life, I am very happy to at last find something I can do better than the others, even if it means always staying on the bunny slope?
Here in Sun Valley, the bunny slope—also known as Quarter Dollar, at the base of Dollar Mountain—is actually pretty steep and includes the region's first half-pipe. I discover just how steep it is when, on the day after my lesson with Dan, I hit the slopes with Willow and Ken Corrock, a private instructor who just happens to have been a member of the U.S. ski team back in the early nineteen seventies before becoming a pro racer. Now, his professional racing days over, he runs the Masters Ski Racing Clinic here.
But before we ski down Quarter Dollar (a slope, I have the feeling, that Ken hasn't spent much time on in recent years—if ever), I have a surprise for Willow: An old friend, David Frank, lives in the area and is an expert tandem pilot and paraglider. Years ago I once paraglided, and now I feel that the experience will be a transcendent moment for Willow.
The three of us (I drag Ken along) take lifts to the top of Baldy without skis. At the top, where you can see hundreds of miles, I remember my vow to Stay Away from Baldy. And then I think, What am I doing to my poor kid? My husband and I went all the way to China to get her and now I'm asking her to jump off a cliff? It's too late to back out, though. David is already laying out his parachute on the ground and adjusting the strings before strapping Willow into some sort of pack: She's going to ride in front of him, kind of like a joey in a pouch.
"Ken, David says he'll take you up, if you'd like," I say to the champion, who also did ski jumping in addition to racing.
"Are you kidding? Are you crazy? No thanks. That's one brave kid you've got there," he tells me. Then, amazingly, somehow David and Willow are airborne and they sail off out of sight. "Goodbye! Goodbyyyyeee!" I call plaintively. Willow doesn't look back. We take three lifts to get down the mountain. "How was it?" I ask eagerly, while running down the path to greet David and Willow where they landed.
"Fine," she says, blasé. "We almost crashed into a car."
After jumping off a mountain, Willow is of course ready to ski down a slope. And after watching Willow jump off a mountain, Ken, impressed, decides she is fearless. He is practically ready to sign her up for his ski-racing school. She just needs to grow a little older, he says. Ken doesn't actually give either of us much in the way of instruction. I know he's used to a different type of skiing; after all, he teaches experts. But for this morning, he seems to be enjoying himself, with his odd little posse trailing along. He's great with kids; every summer he takes a group of high school-age speed skiers to a glacier in Switzerland for training. Today we just try to keep up with him: He's going at top speed, though when I suggest he show off a bit and let us ski down first so we can watch him from the bottom, I realize that my idea of fast isn't at all the same as his.
We go up and down the mountain a number of times. For me there are new terrors to explore: For one thing, I never want to ride up a slope on a ski chair with Willow ever again. The lifts at Dollar Mountain do not have any bars on the chairs, and my kid is as close to a chimp on crystal meth as I can imagine, except that if I were really with a chimp on crystal meth and it slipped or fell, it would at least be able to hold on with an arm—or a foot. My child can't do this—not quite, anyway—but she still keeps squirming. After the first trip up the mountain, I make sure she rides with Ken.
Whatever twists and turns he takes down Old Dollar Bowl, New Dollar Bowl, and Fifty Cent (okay, it's actually called Half Dollar, but remember, I'm from Brooklyn: I thought of getting DANGER! BROOKLYNITE! KEEP BACK! spray-painted on the back of my Bogner), she keeps up, always right behind him, the size of a mouse. "Come on, ski guy!" she yells every time we stop for too long. Ken looks at her affectionately. "Look, what a kid," he says. "She wants to keep going. Some kids don't, you know. And she's fearless. She has potential."
Problem is: I am not fearless. But no matter how fast he goes—and by my standards he's moving very fast—Willow keeps up, right behind him, like a demented midget, poleless, hunched over, practically on the backs of his skis. She's the kind of kid who, when we arrive at the bottom, topples over just for fun. "Come on, ski guy! Let's do it again!"
But there's so much more to do here than ski. At the Lodge in Sun Valley, where we stayed after Knob Hill, there's a beautiful outdoor pool, so hot I wonder how or why the people basking in it aren't actually cooked. Ringing the lodge is a little village where you can buy chocolates, or ski clothing, or local souvenirs; there's a pizza restaurant and a bar with live music. There's also a giant skating rink, with ice shows on Saturday nights, where Willow gets a lesson from Darlin Baker, a professional skater who instructs all levels and performs in the shows. Not only that, she's a USFSA double gold medalist. She's gorgeous as she whirls Willow around the rink (which, unlike those in New York, is nearly empty). I am tempted by the items in the ice-skating shop, not for me but for Willow—such cute little velveteen outfits.
At the Pioneer Saloon, where it's difficult to get a table even on weeknights, you can eat massive quantities of meat (prime rib and steak, mostly) under taxidermic moose, badgers, crows, and elks. But even a vegetarian—if she shut her eyes—can make a meal out of the Idaho baked potato the size of a small watermelon, and of the artichokes as big as human heads.
Then there's the pick-your-own pizza toppings at Smoky Mountain, and upscale restaurants like Chandler's and the Sawtooth Club. Whiskey Jacques' plays live music on weekends. I don't eat much, though, since every night—due, I guess, to the exercise (or the terror of hurtling downhill on two little planks)—I start to nod off around nine.
My favorite dinner of the trip had to be the one at Trail Creek Cabin, a cozy restaurant a couple of miles from the lodge where, unremarkably, Hemingway once spent a lot of time gambling and drinking.
You can get there by car, but we opted for a sleigh ride, pulled by two Percheron horses (these massive animals, Jerry and John, belong to one of the strongest, gentlest breeds); we were driven by a lovely girl named Wendi, who looked maybe 12 years old.
The sky changed from pale lavender to deeper violet to rosy pink as we arrived at the restaurant out in the forest. Holding court was Thor Heyerdahl (no relation to the late author of Kontiki), dressed in gold lamé, merrily dancing as he played the accordian.
It was a real family place—if, by family, you mean mothers and fathers and grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts, uncles, kids, vacationers all dining together, family-style, cheeks rosy from exercise and fresh air—a place where you pretty much want to eat by, let's say, six or seven. And while I knew there was plenty of nightlife back in Ketchum and at the Sun Valley Inn and Lodge, I knew where I was headed after this meal, the last of our vacation: to burrow under the thick down comforter in our room.
On the way back to the inn, cozy under blankets, the jingling of the horses' harnesses in our ears, the stars were so bright we could identify the constellations (which Willow had been learning about in school) and even saw some shooting stars. The evergreen trees were stiff and crisp under their pelts of icy snow, and the warm horsey breaths of Jerry and John were visible in the mountain air. The night was so clear, we knew we weren't in Brooklyn anymore.
TAMA'S SUN VALLEY
Family-style meal WARM SPRINGS RANCH RESTAURANT The spot where the elite meet to eat—at 6 P.M. sharp. There's steak and trout, and the place is accustomed to children. Reservations recommended. Dinner, $60. At 1801 Warm Springs Rd., Ketchum; 208-726-2609.
Brunch SUN VALLEY LODGE A fantastically lavish spread, with buffet bars serving four types of smoked salmon. Endless kinds of salads, rolls, cakes. And oh my gosh, the greatest Bloody Marys. No mix used here, only really fresh horseradish and a crisp pickled asparagus stalk. Brunch, $46. At the Sun Valley Lodge; 208-622-2150.
Croissants KNOB HILL KONDITOREI You can buy the handmade pastries (apple strudel mit schlag, linzer torte, cookies) to go, or have them packed in lovely tins and shipped anywhere. At the Knob Hill Inn; 208-622-2235.
Locals' breakfast spot JAVA ON FOURTH A real scene, made up largely of locals, ski instructors, and yoga teachers. Great oatmeal and all kinds of coffee—of course. Breakfast, $20. At 191 Fourth St., Ketchum; 208-726-2882.
Bar scene combining locals and vacationers PIONEER SALOON The joint is always packed. It's fun to watch the mix of locals, part-time residents, visitors, fancy women in fluffy hats, and men in tight après-ski wear. Dinner, $45. At 320 N. Main St., Ketchum; 208-726-3139.
Thrift shop THE GOLD MINE A global depository of ski clothes from years past. The best thing is that all proceeds go to the community library. I bought my husband an English-made camel-hair sweater. At 331 Walnut Ave. North, Ketchum; 208-726-3465.
Fly-tying materials LOST RIVER OUTFITTERS Walls, bins, and shelves of every piece of fly-fishing equipment you'll ever need. You'll also be treated to a quick lesson—or a bad joke—from Nick, the store manager. $ At 171 N. Main St., Ketchum; 208-726-1706.
Ski rentals PETE LANE'S (River Run, Sun Valley Resort; 208-622-6123) has the nicest equipment and the latest fashions. FORMULA SPORTS (460 N. Main St., Ketchum; 208-726-3194) also has nice clothes, including an Obermeyer jacket I coveted. A fun place to buy those goggles you forgot.
Paragliding SUPER FLY The success of your flight depends upon the weather. $125. At 552 W. 8360 South, Sandy, UT; 801-255-9595.
Toys THE TOY STORE These charming old-fashioned gizmos will serve as much-needed bribes when the kids start whining because you're leaving them with a sitter. At 102 Washington Ave. Plaza, Ketchum; 208-726-5966.
Alpaca shawl DAX ALPACA A gorgeous selection of beautifully hued handknit alpaca throws ($100-$250) and shawls ($50-$150). At 400 Sun Valley Rd., Ketchum; 208-725-1994.
Delta and Horizon Airlines offer direct flights to Friedman Memorial Airport in nearby Hailey. From there, it's a 25-minute cab ride to Sun Valley (about $20).
WHERE TO STAY
SUN VALLEY INN Rates, $159-$449. At 1 Sun Valley Rd.; 800-786-8259; www.sunvalley.com.
KNOB HILL INN Rates, $210-$400. At 960 N. Main St., Ketchum; 208-726-8010.
WHERE TO EAT
SMOKY MOUNTAIN Pizzas, $5-$21. At 200 Sun Valley Rd., Ketchum; 208-622-5625.
CHANDLER'S Dinner, $70. At 200 S. Main St., Ketchum; 208-726-1776.
SAWTOOTH CLUB Dinner, $60. At 231 N. Main St., Ketchum; 208-726-5233.
WHISKEY JACQUES' Dinner, $20. At 251 N. Main St., Ketchum; 208-726-5297.
TRAIL CREEK CABIN Dinner, $50. A sleigh ride to the restaurant is around $20. At 1 Sun Valley Rd., Sun Valley; 208-622-2135.
SUN VALLEY CONTACTS
SUN VALLEY SKI SCHOOL Instructors Ken Corrock and Dan Schiavone charge $230-$280 each for a half day; 208-622-2289
SKATING INSTRUCTOR Darlin Baker charges $70 for a 50-minute lesson; 208-720-5626.
$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.