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Sun Valley Offers Storied History and Abundance of Amenities

By Shelly Steig

Sun Valley is aptly named. Surrounded by the Sawtooth and Pioneer Mountain ranges in central Idaho and fed by four creeks, the region is drenched in sunshine 250 days a year. Because it sits at the western edge of the Mountain time zone, summer days can last more than 16 hours. Even in January, the high-desert climate is so temperate, early marketing campaigns tout, “Winter sports under a summer sun!”

The area’s beginnings read like a Hollywood script. Union Pacific Railroad titan W. Averell Harriman wanted to create America’s first destination ski resort so that patrons would ride his trains. He hired Austrian count Felix Schaffgotsch to find the perfect spot, and then brought in public relations guru Steve Hannagan, the man who transformed Miami Beach into a tourist mecca. Hannagan knew the paparazzi would shadow celebrities and the eager public would follow, so he invited Gary Cooper, Claudette Colbert and other stars, and VIPs to opening day on Dec. 21, 1936. He made sure getting up the mountain wasn’t strenuous by offering the world’s first chairlift. Fortunately, Sun Valley Resort is at a manageable elevation, 5,920 feet above sea level, so it was an easy adjustment.

The opening was such a success, word got around via a LIFE magazine article and a movie, Sun Valley Serenade. More celebs followed, including Ernest Hemingway, who finished For Whom the Bell Tolls in suite 206 of the resort’s lodge. Filmmaker Warren Miller started his career camping out in the resort’s parking lot, working as a ski instructor and lunching on free oyster crackers and packets of ketchup.

The New West

These days Sun Valley—which for locals encompasses the resort and towns close by—is still cultured and gentrified, essentially the new West with a whiff of wild. The resort is also a year-round destination offering sleigh rides and Nordic skiing in winter, and horseback riding, tennis, 45 holes of golf and a shooting range in summer. There is also a bowling alley, putting green, movie theater, child care facility and several shops on property. Diners can choose between 10 restaurants—including Konditorei, which will whip up house-made European pastries for special events—and enjoy après ski cocktails, or watch the sun set at four bars.

Sun Valley Lodge is currently undergoing a major renovation that will be completed in June 2015. This includes updating and enlarging guest rooms, renovating a small meeting space and adding a boardroom and new 20,000 square-foot, fullservice spa with 15 treatment rooms.

In the meantime, it’s business as usual, with some companies relying on this onestop shop for annual meetings. About 95 percent of the resort’s conference space is located at Sun Valley Inn.

About 90 percent of the resort’s conference space is in the charming Sun Valley Inn. Sun Valley Pavillion is the place to be for a summer symphony concept.

Jack Sibbach, Sun Valley Resort’s director of marketing and public relations, says the resort has a 75-percent return rate, with some major corporations returning for 25 consecutive years. Lodging options include cottages with up to seven bedrooms, hotel rooms, condos and apartments for a total of 480 units.

The resort is perfect for meetings and events since its convention center can accommodate up to 1,200 attendees. Smaller rooms with flexible space are also available along with unique venues such as the Sun Valley Pavilion and Opera House.

In addition, there are some dazzling cultural events, including the summertime Sun Valley Ice Shows, with past performances from Olympic medalists Brian Boitano, Scott Hamilton and Gracie Gold. Visitors should also plan to attend a free Summer Symphony in the resort’s stunning pavilion. 

Pat Moloney, president of TMN Events in Boise, Idaho, planned the Idaho Milk Processors annual convention last August. He chose the resort for its competitive room rates, natural beauty, weather, cuisine and family friendliness. It made planning especially simple since nearly every activity— fly-fishing, skeet shooting, art gallery tours, Hemingway historical tour, cooking class and an outdoor photography class—were close by. Two other add-ons, river rafting and the Stanley Basin Tour, were only one hour away. “People always love coming to Sun Valley,” he says. “IMPA has been coming for 15 consecutive years and is booked through 2017. Attendees come from all over the U.S. The location sells itself.”

Captivating Ketchum

The charming town of Ketchum is a bikeable 1 mile from the resort. Filled with locally owned shops and gourmet restaurants, this compact city of nearly 2,700 year-round residents had a humble beginning. Originally named Leadville, it started as a smelting center for the Warm Springs Mining District. When the post office deemed the name too common, it was rechristened after a local trapper and guide. Later it became a sheep shipping center before celebrities claimed home to it.

There are several meeting options in Ketchum, including Knob Hill Inn, a boutique hotel that is ideal for smaller groups. The Grill at Knob Hill, which opens to an enchanting outdoor space, can hold up to 50, while the boardroom accommodates 14. The inn features 29 rooms, including a two bedroom suite. Buyouts are available. There are also familiar names like Best Western, choices in nearby Hailey and guest ranch options not too far away.

Ketchum Grill, a local favorite, features a cozy indoor/outdoor space for 30, an alfresco patio that seats 60, and a buyout option for 100. The upscale comfort food menu includes wood-fired pizza, pasta and entrées such as steaks, peppered duck breast and grass-fed beef meatloaf. Owner and chef Scott Mason also demonstrates wood-fired pizza cooking techniques to groups at his sister restaurant, Enoteca, which can be bought out for up to 50 people. Both restaurants feature an extensive wine and craft beer list.

Another local hangout, Cornerstone Bar & Grill, shakes things up with creative cocktails such as the Gingerita, a loft space overlooking Baldy Mountain that holds 50 and an intimate downstairs wine cellar for groups up to 25. The restaurant crafts custom menus for events and features appetizers such as crab beignets and Idaho lamb meatballs. Entrées include Niman Ranch beef short ribs and Idaho elk burgers. Mountain Rides, a free bus service, ferries passengers who prefer not to walk, bike or use rental cars from the resort to Ketchum, Hailey (where the airport is located) and Bellevue.

If your group is looking for a getaway that makes planning easy, yet offers abundant opportunities to commune with nature and history while enjoying the finer things in life, Sun Valley is an ideal destination.