After the Games

Utah: Avoid the crowds and expense of the Winter Olympics by planning to visit Salt Lake City after Feb. 24.

January 13, 2002|By Candus Thomson | By Candus Thomson,SUN OUTDOORS WRITER

The Olympic caldron will be extinguished in Salt Lake City at the end of the Winter Games Feb. 24, but that doesn't mean they're turning out the lights, too.

Unless you have your heart set on the Olympic experience -- and the crowds, hype and tight security that go with it -- visiting Salt Lake City after the Games makes a lot of sense.

After the Olympics, you can still take advantage of the millions of dollars of upgrades to the airport, highways and mass transit. You still get to stay in a new hotel or eat at fine restaurants that a few weeks before might have been closed for private parties. And the nearby ski areas are offering plenty of post-Olympics promotional packages.

"We were saying that the best time to come was before the Games," says Jason Mathis of the Salt Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau. "But we were still having some construction issues until recently. The two months after the Games are going to be a boon for consumers. They can enjoy the Olympic afterglow at a fraction of the Olympics cost."

And if you visit after Feb. 24, you don't even have to give up the opportunity to see world-class athletes.

The Paralympic Games are in town March 7-16, attracting 1,100 disabled competitors from 35 countries in events such as ice hockey, alpine and cross-country skiing and biathlon.

Salt Lake City and its surrounding suburbs are more than the home base for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a breakwater to keep the Great Salt Lake from lapping the foot of the Wasatch Range.

The Wasatch Front, as the metro area is called, has a rich history and beautiful scenery. The people are as nice as they can be, both on foot and in their cars. (But don't jaywalk. Not only might a motorist admonish you, a police officer may decide that a $55 ticket will help heighten your sense of self-preservation.)

Approaching Salt Lake City from the air, you could ask yourself, "Who would stick a city out here in the middle of nowhere?"

The urban planner in this case was also the leader of the Mormon church, Brigham Young, who was looking for a safe place to settle and worship in the summer of 1847. He mapped out the city in the middle of a desert and ordered construction of an irrigation system and a temple.

Followers were forbidden to drink alcohol and encouraged to practice polygamy and sign over all their property to the church.

Eventually, free enterprise overcame communal living, and the urge for statehood forced the Mormons to renounce polygamy in the late 1800s. Still, cultural change has come slowly, and there are local customs that come with being the headquarters of a major religion that dominates government and where seven of every 10 residents belong to the church.

But Salt Lake City is not entirely about religion. Visitors should keep three things in mind: In the city proper (population 170,000), the percentage of Mormons to non-Mormons is about 50-50; the Wasatch Front is the biggest metro area between Denver and the Pacific Ocean; and the cultural peculiarities can make your visit more interesting.

One more thing: Park City, home of the Sundance Film Festival, great skiing, trendy boutiques and funky pubs, is only 45 minutes east of town.

Landmark temple

Immediately apparent in downtown Salt Lake City is the Mormon Temple. It is in the middle. It has six huge spires, and there's no way you can miss it.

This is a good thing for getting and following directions. The city is a grid, and all addresses get their names based on how far they are from the temple, which is in Temple Square. If someone recommends the sushi at Ginza, 209 West 200 South, go two blocks west of Temple Square and two blocks south, and you're there.

If driving in a new city is too scary a proposition, consider taking the light rail for $1. The main track runs north-south from Temple Square to the town of Sandy, with a free-ride zone in the business district. An eastern spur to the University of Utah opened recently.

Downtown has several architectural landmarks. Temple Square, which holds the 8,000-seat tabernacle where the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sings, also houses administrative buildings and the church archives. With 5 million visitors annually, it is the state's No. 1 tourist destination.

Some people visit the church for genealogical research at what is considered the world's greatest repository of family documents. History buffs also are drawn to Salt Lake City, as are those who are curious about the Mormon mystique.

The newest addition to Temple Square is the 21,000-seat conference center. Tour guides will tell you that the 10-acre hall will hold a 747 jumbo jet. The only thing more impressive than the building's bulk and the waterfall that tumbles from the roof is the 7,667-pipe organ. The woodwork for the console, case and rostrum came from a 200-year-old cherry tree.

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