Sun Valley has long been a refuge for old money and Hollywood stars (from Gary Cooper to Bruce Willis), but by 2000, crowds were thinning as younger skiers and snowboarders opted for slopes with a less vintage vibe. A wave of improvements at Baldy and Dollar, the area’s two mountains, has rippled through the former mining town of Ketchum. It’s what many visitors want from a ski getaway: a place that’s well preserved, not too crowded, and replete with vistas to fill your iPhone. Hopping between smart restaurants and colorful watering holes, you’ll still see A-listers, but you’ll also find a hamlet where refined and rustic go hand in hand.
Sun Valley was first developed as a ski resort in the 1930s and lends the region its name, but the heart of the Wood River Valley is in Ketchum, a mile away. On its thriving Main Street, brick buildings that date to the 1880s bump up against modern time-shares. At the edge of downtown, the 29-room Knob Hill Inn ($169-$669) has the bones of an old-fashioned Bavarian ski lodge, but its enormous suites, which look out on Mount Baldy’s runs, were recently updated with contemporary furnishings. Knob Hill provides electronic tablets for browsing as you sample baked eggs, potatoes, and fresh fruit from the complimentary breakfast buffet. From there it’s less than a two-mile drive to either ski option. Laid-back Dollar Mountain has snow tubing, a terrain park, and 14 treeless runs geared to beginners. It’s also home to the historic 1936 Sun Valley Lodge, where Ernest Hemingway worked on For Whom the Bell Tolls; the lodge reopens in June 2015 after a major revamp. Bald Mountain, heavily forested with spruce and lodgepole pines, offers experienced skiers a choice of 66 substantial runs (many of them groomed) that unfold across a 3,400-foot vertical drop. (The Exhibition run has tested racers for almost 80 years.) At mid-mountain, where the gondola spits you out, duck into The Roundhouse and snag a seat by the fireplace or walk downstairs to Averell’s. The pilsners and burgers are fine, but the main course is the view.
When you’re ready to get off the mountain, ski down to the base area and hitch a ride on the hotel shuttle to Sun Valley; the quiet town has an outdoor ice rink and horse-drawn sleighs to entertain those who aren’t called to the slopes. Konditorei, an Austrian café, is a popular pit stop for lamb-topped ratatouille salad, ham-and-Emmenthaler crepes, and European pastries. Back in Ketchum, you can grab a tuna salad and gemlike Italian cookies at the Tuscan-themed Cristina’s. Speedier eats—smoothies and veggie-laden noodle bowls—are available at Glow Live Food Café, while Bigwood Bread Café pilesartisanal meats and cheeses on house-baked loaves. You could spend hours perusing stylish clothing and home design boutiques like Madeline + Oliver and Maison et Cadeaux, but some of the best discoveries lie inside the cavernous Gold Mine Thrift Store, where Armani and Old Navy occupy the same rack. Among the flurry of new businesses that have sprung up in the Old West storefronts, the crowdfunded coffee and wine bar Velocio offers Intelligentsia beans and Talenti gelato. Since no structure is higher than three stories, you’ll have impressive sightlines of Baldy no matter which way you stroll. For a different panorama, save the afternoon for snowshoeing 30 minutes out of town at Galena Lodge, whose network of cross-country trails is world-class. Rent gear on site and stride out beneath jagged mountains, then sip homemade soup by a fire in the stone and timber cabin.
Though Ketchum has long attracted more rarefied visitors (every summer it hosts a camp for media and technology moguls), it hasn’t lost touch with that staple of any great ski town: the après-ski dive. Beer cans and license plates line the walls (and provide an inadvertent reminder to take the shuttle) at Grumpy’s, which pours fishbowl-size goblets of beer; the Pioneer Saloon is good for quaffing whiskey beneath moose (and elk and buffalo) antlers. The steak there is OK, but across the street the brick-walled Cornerstone Bar & Grill dishes up addictive snackables like Brussels sprouts with bacon. More serious dining can be had a block away at Vintage, a tiny, white-tablecloth log cabin that specializes in such straightforward American fare as racks of lamb and pecan-crusted chicken thighs. You’ll find a more raucous scene at Enoteca; the rustic-chic restaurant and wine bar (cement floors and bare lightbulbs) serves wood-fired pizzas and Idaho trout. You can finish the night with a drink at Knob Hill’s lively bar, or kick back by the fireplace in your room to plot tomorrow morning’s strategy. If the moon is full, you may even be able to make out your favorite slopes.
Getting There: Alaska Airlines offers nonstop flights (approximately two-and-a-half hours) from LAX to Friedman Memorial Airport, 14 miles south of Ketchum. Peak Time: Winter lifts operate from late November through mid-April, with crowds spiking at Christmas and in February. The Sun Valley Nordic Festival begins in late January, luring cross-country skiers from around the world. Weather Report: Snowfall averages a low 200 inches per year. Pack sunscreen and come in December or early January for the thickest powder and temperatures in the teens. Side Trips: Forget the cucumber water; you’ll need to pack your own towel and a bathing suit for this spa experience. Drive for 45 minutes on Warm Springs Road (an SUV is ideal for navigating the rutted path) to Frenchman’s Bend Hot Springs. Park by the road, walk down a hillside, and step into the 110-degree hot springs. Silt from downstream will wash over you, but that only heightens the effect of tapping into an all-natural treat. Plus the pine-shrouded location is pure Idaho.