An oasis in the mountainous desert of Idaho, Sun Valley and downtown Ketchum offer up a luxury lifestyle in a rugged landscape. It is the adult’s playground. Mountain biking, fishing, hiking and skiing reign in the outdoors while a sophisticated eating and drinking scene complete this ideal destination. Sun Valley Resort is one of America’s elite – it’s on par with Aspen, which is perhaps internationally better known. A pioneer ski resort, it boasts the world’s first chairlift and hosted A-listers of the Hollywood glory days, including Marilyn Monroe, Lucille Ball and John Wayne. Even the Kennedys holidayed here. Its grandeur and traditional status are still very much preserved, setting it apart from other popular North American resorts. Ketchum, half a mile away, is the perfect foil; An old mining town, famous also for its natural hot springs, it is lively and youthful, stylish and relaxed.
This was my second visit to Sun Valley. The first was earlier this year on a winter road trip through the best of America’s ski resorts. I hit it this time round in its late-summer glory, with autumn hanging in the air. The landscape is immense. The moving shadows on the surrounding hills and the endless sky lit against the red of the mountains that had that September haze – or was it from far off forest fires – created a truly unique backdrop to the town. A lot to take in for a Brit used to the smaller, snow-blanketed ranges of the Alps. “Best of all he loved the fall. The leaves yellow on the cottonwoods, leaves floating on the trout streams, and above the hills the high blue windless skies… Now he will be a part of them forever,” wrote Ernest Hemingway in a eulogy to a Sun Valley friend. A gallivant and adventurer, it was here the great writer ended up. Hailing the peace and solitude of Idaho’s wilderness he spent his last years fishing and hunting in the area, and it was in suite 226 of Sun Valley Resort that he wrote ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’. You’ll find Hemingway’s modest grave in Ketchum Cemetery where it is visited by pilgrims leaving bottles of whisky, copies of his stories, pens and coins.
My first evenings in Sun Valley were spent at the summer symphonies hosted by the resort in its impressive pavilion or just behind, picnicking on the lawn listening to the orchestras. I was lucky enough to catch some world-class ballet directed by American Ballet Theatre’s Isabella Boylston, a Sun Valley native. So far so good on the relaxing entertainment front. I tried my hand at fly fishing in the various creeks and rivers. With a wonderfully patient guide – necessary with my poor ‘luck’ – I was shown the most beautiful spots I’d certainly not discover solo or even with a detailed map; We rambled to a quiet spot on Warm Springs Creek and were stared out by a lone moose, we drove into a remote valley to a hole on the Lost River, we waded up Trail Creek with red rock faces that to a northwest rookie felt like a small canyon. Here a bald eagle flew overhead clutching a fish – a magnificent taunt. Eventually I did catch a tiny rainbow trout. And now I have the fishing bug…
It is a dry heat in the Wild West so sports under a midday sun are more bearable and the cooler-than-expected evenings are pleasant. Then there are the glacial waters of swimming holes and lakes to cool off in – a daily rite, it seemed, for Idahoans. Up early with jet lag the first morning I went for dawn run. The Sawtooth Mountains are known for their dramatic skyline and the range starts in Sun Valley. I headed out of town northwest to catch them waking up with the sun. Meeting just deer along the track I realised that evening would be their magic time. Java on Fourth for breakfast: a charming coffee shop that has a packed blackboard of food and drink options with good coffee and apparently a yoga gear dress code. Next was mountain biking on Bald Mountain. Skiing on ‘Baldy’ is fantastic and has stuck in my mind with its long, dark blue runs, views of the valley to boot and complete lack of lift lines. Remarkably steeper without snow, it is unbelievable how much longer it takes to descend by bike and, I might add, infinitely more terrifying.
Three hours and 14 miles later, hands cramped into claws from hanging onto the breaks and covered in cuts from pitching headlong over the handlebars more than once, I made it to base mountain at Warm Springs. The faint sulphur smell of the natural hot spring water was quite welcome after what had turned into a far more treacherous ride than expected. It’s steep; it’s extreme. Hemingway Hole in Big Wood River is a favourite spot for the routine icy water plunge. Talking to a friendly local here, I was told my day had been a true Sun Valley experience. All that was left was to visit the Great’s grave. So that’s what I did after sundown. I shared a drink with him and his fourth wife, Mary Welsh Hemingway, and tried to figure out some star constellations.
The town of Ketchum offers a modern, cool alternative to Sun Valley. Its newest addition, the Limelight hotel, perfectly represents the character of Ketchum. The vibe is relaxed and through its huge glass windows looking into the lobby filled with people lounging and cocktailing, it draws you in off Main Street. Behind the hotel is an outdoor pool and sunny terrace – the best in town. Just as the mountains, trees and skies are bigger in North America, so too is accommodation; the quality and hospitality is superior across the board. Owned by Aspen Skico, the original Limelight is located, you guessed it, in the glamorous resort of Aspen. Though its aim is to be easy-going and comfortable it is still luxury – a good call in a mountain resort based around skiing and biking. The rooms and suites are enormous, and with its own rental and tuning sports shop, a chilled bar scene and live music most nights, the hotel’s got you covered.
Out in Ketchum a great evening terrace is The Warfield Distillery & Brewery. Local bands and musicians play in the corner adding ambience without dominating, and the food and social scene were the best I experienced. Just opposite is Enoteca, a modern Italian with a city-restaurant atmosphere. A Sun Valley must is Pioneer Saloon, a steakhouse that is always packed both at its cocktail bar and for dinner. One of Hemingway’s favourite haunts was the Sawtooth Club. It has a gentlemen’s bar feel about it – it’s dark, private and a local’s top pick for food.
Idaho is perhaps a state that we know little about, save the potatoes, Mormons and class trout fishing. However, this charming pocket of luxury with endless outdoor adventure offers something quite unique. A renaissance is underway; the modern hotel addition to the area known for being old-school and a recent ranking at #2 in Ski Magazine’s ‘Best in the West’ are sure signs it is on the move. It’s not the traditional resort it once was. With its own airport, the Friedman Memorial Airport, connecting to LAX, San Francisco and Salt Lake City, it’s not as remote as it might seem. “Just don’t go telling everyone about it back home,” a seasoned Sun Valleyer told me. “We wanna keep this our secret…”
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