Salt Lake City
Mild-Mannered City by Day, Party Town by Night
Sunday, March 16, 2008; Page P01
Sister Gibbons has big blue eyes, apple cheeks and a sweet disposition. I met the 21-year-old Mormon missionary at Temple Square on my first day in Salt Lake City.
Damien Drake wears a lip ring, a dragon tattoo and an expression halfway between a snarl and a smile. I bumped into the 20-year-old mechanic at a hard-edged nightclub after hours.
Most likely, Gibbons and Drake will never share a dance. Both inhabit the same city, yet each represents two starkly different sides of the Utah capital: one that shines by day, the other that thrives in the dark.
To many, Salt Lake City is an enigma. A large number of visitors use the city only as a jumping-off point to the area's top-notch ski resorts and national parks. The mystery also stems from the veiled Mormon society, whose members make up an estimated 45 percent of the area's nearly 1 million residents. Adherents of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints refrain from drinking, for starters, and some of these practices pervade the state's politics and recreation -- especially the cocktail culture. Among the biggest bafflements for visitors are Utah's Byzantine drinking laws. (So, I have to eat in order to drink alcohol at a restaurant, but I can imbibe sans nachos at a private club?)
But these days, fewer out-of-towners are skipping town. "We have seen tourism grow for at least the last two years," said Shawn Stinson, director of communications at the Salt Lake Convention & Visitors Bureau. "It's not by leaps and bounds, but it's gradual."
The reason for the uptick: In Salt Lake City, urban attractions and the great outdoors flow together as naturally as the valley and the mountains.
For example, if the Wasatch Mountains seem too intimidating, there's the Gateway, an open-air retail center that was built just before the 2002 Winter Olympics and features more than 125 shops and restaurants, a planetarium and a fountain with dancing waters. The Foothill Cultural District offers more opportunities to exercise the mind and legs in its two-square-mile area, which includes Red Butte Garden, the Utah Museum of Fine Arts and Hogle Zoo. And for a credit card workout, Sugarhouse Village is a small bastion of bohemia threaded with outlets (shopper alert: Sundance Catalog and Patagonia stores).
In an attempt to demystify Salt Lake City, I formulated a plan: During daylight hours, I would hit the landmarks and the eponymous lake. When the sun dropped and the neon beer signs switched on, I'd slip on my party shoes and dance until the DJ packed up his gear and bade us good night.
I thought that cracking Utah's drinking laws would be my biggest thrill. But after a blur of cocktails and clubs, the novelty soon wore off. The real buzz, I realized, came from the natural surroundings.
Salt Lake City knows how to start a day -- with a bright yellow sun that bounces off the Wasatch Mountains, turning its snowy white peaks into cones of sparkling diamonds. The sun, blue sky and crisp air call you outdoors. Or, in my case, push you into the arms of Mormons.
The city resembles a large-scale model of a ski resort town, though its dominant piece of architecture is not chairlift towers but the multi-spired Mormon temple, which dates from the 1850s. Downtown is based on a grid plan, with streets running north-south and east-west from Temple Square, the control center of the LDS Church.
The plaza buildings include Salt Lake Temple, which is closed to all but the faithful; the Tabernacle, the performance hall of the famed choir; and the Conference Center, which boasts a 6 1/2 -acre rooftop garden landscaped with mountain and desert flora. The Temple Square visitors center offers free tours every 15 minutes from 9:30 a.m. to 8:15 p.m. daily. Mine was starting in five minutes. I quickly learned that if you don't stay in continual motion, you will be caught in the web.