With increasing numbers of Andrew Harper members calling our Travel Office to book getaways at ranches and resorts in the American countryside, I decided it was time for me to return to the road as well. Indeed, a change of scenery had become increasingly necessary, not only to maintain this publication but also to maintain my sanity. Plus, my curiosity got the better of me. What was travel like now? Was it even still possible to relax at a hotel, however expensive and luxurious it may be?
The wide-open spaces and scenic grandeur of the West beckoned most strongly. The expansive landscapes somehow make even the simple act of breathing seem more satisfying. Ordinarily I prefer not to visit a place during its high season, but in this unusual year, I expected to see few other travelers. I was wrong. We met more than one couple who told us, “Our trip to [foreign country] got canceled, and so we decided to come here instead.” International travel may have been all but impossible this summer, but that didn’t stop people from taking a much-needed vacation.
Fortunately, even at the height of the summer season, it’s not difficult to find elbow room in the West. We flew into Utah and headed straight out of Salt Lake City. After about 45 minutes of driving uphill, we turned off the highway and wound our way toward The Lodge at Blue Sky, set on a 3,500-acre estate. The property had long operated as a ranch, but it caught my attention when it reopened as a 46-room Auberge resort in 2019. Its proximity to the interstate concerned me at first, but a few hilly turns of the well-maintained dirt road leading up to the main building ensured that all signs of I-80 disappeared.
Auberge-managed resorts rarely disappoint, and Blue Sky was no exception. The high service standards were immediately apparent. After stopping at the gatehouse, we pulled up to the main building’s porte-cochère, where staff members stood ready to welcome us. The front desk provided a printed itinerary, showing the activities and meals that we had booked in advance, and a friendly young Frenchman escorted us up to our room: a spacious Sky Suite.
As soon as we walked into the 820-square-foot accommodation, I regretted not booking a longer stay. Beyond an ample mudroom was an airy open-plan space faced in wood and rough-hewn stone bricks. A huge and deliciously comfortable platform bed occupied the center of the suite. To its left was a wall niche with a pint of fresh local raspberries, and behind the bed, a Nespresso machine and a basket of snacks. A fridge drawer below it came stocked with complimentary non-alcoholic beverages. The nearby walk-in closet felt almost too large, with underutilized space. Photos of horses and a floor lamp resembling an aspen trunk added to the room’s sense of place.
With myriad outdoor activities available, The Lodge at Blue Sky is rather like a summer camp for adults, but with plush, world-class accommodations.
A spacious bath had ample natural light from a wide window, fitted with wooden slats for privacy. They cast dramatic shadows on the immense pebble-floored shower stall, adjacent to a lengthy soaking tub. Striking gray-and-black-striped limestone clad the walls and composed the counter, atop which were two vessel sinks. Auberge-branded toiletries were fragrant with sage and pine.
The sofa at the foot of the bed faced sliding glass doors opening to a broad terrace furnished with capacious basket chairs. We could see the rooftops of Earth Suites below us, but they detracted little from the splendid panorama. I didn’t waste much time before ordering flutes of Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs to sip while taking in the idyllic view of green hills dotted with conifers, scrub oak and sagebrush. Relaxation, it turned out, was indeed still possible.
We could also see the infinity pool, lined with a reduced number of socially distanced loungers, and the grassy roof of the spa next door. It was a pleasure to read our books on the pool patio, where staff regularly passed through to bring drinks. And one afternoon we also enjoyed reclining beside the spa’s smaller pool, which we had all to ourselves. Seeing the five well-appointed treatment rooms almost convinced me to throw caution to the wind and book a massage!
I did reserve a riding lesson in the ranch’s extraordinary stables, where pampered horses, many of which are rescue animals, receive weekly massages and even acupuncture. The Lodge at Blue Sky partners with the Saving Gracie Equine Healing Foundation to rehabilitate neglected horses and bring them back to full health. Gracie herself, the rescue animal that inspired the foundation, lives in the stables to this day. In the new riding arena, I learned more about the theory behind communicating with a horse. I performed a few exercises with a flawlessly groomed mount named Bear, first by using a lead and then in the saddle. Even though I’ve ridden horses everywhere from Hungary to Argentina, I found the lesson illuminating. It greatly improved the clarity of my communication with the animal. The experience would also be an ideal introduction for first-time horseback riders.
In my hikes around the property, I discovered a hillside yoga deck with sensational views, and I also explored the sporting club, where guests can repair to a cozy yurt after some clay pigeon-shooting. On another route, we hiked up through mountain meadows and pine groves to the Tavern, a 19th-century schoolhouse moved to a clearing and converted into an atmospheric bar. The staff arranged a delightful picnic for us there at a table in the grass.
We took our other meals at the resort’s only restaurant. The patio was inviting, shaded by umbrellas and warmed by mobile heaters, and the food was superb. Everything we tasted was delicious, whether it was local lamb chops crusted in sunchoke, scallops with smoked eggplant purée and pickled shimeji mushrooms, or delectable carrot cake frosted with white chocolate-yuzu ganache and accompanied by a scoop of refreshing rhubarb sorbet. Breakfasts, too, were a pleasure, with flavorful dishes served in reasonable portions. We never failed to order a couple of the small, flaky pastries baked on-site each morning.
Service at The Lodge at Blue Sky rarely faltered. There was only one notable snafu — on a hike, a prearranged picnic was forgotten — which the staff quickly remedied. We later found some chocolate truffles in our room and a handwritten letter apologizing for the mistake. All hotels err from time to time, but too few of them handle problems with the grace exhibited by this property. With myriad outdoor activities available, The Lodge at Blue Sky is rather like a summer camp for adults, but with plush, world-class accommodations.Although even entry-level Sky Rooms are spacious, when I return, I would opt for an Earth Suite Deluxe, which (like a smaller Earth Suite) comes with an outdoor shower and a fire pit on its terrace. I’ll also ensure that I have enough time to do some fly-fishing, which I failed to allow for on this visit. And I wouldn’t mind returning in the winter to try out the skiing and snowshoeing excursions.
The warm and highly attentive service; the excellent food; the idyllic location; the myriad activities; the impressive stables; our spacious and stylish accommodations.
Our walk-in closet could have used a luggage rack or two; more than one staircase or elevator was required to reach our Sky Suite.
Sky rooms and suites are in the main building. Earth Suites (request 11-17) are in separate buildings below. Beyond them, standalone Creek Houses don’t have panoramic views; their terraces face a rushing stream, and they come equipped with fly rods and tackle for fishing in it.
We bade farewell to the ranch all too soon and headed into nearby Park City. Like Aspen and Telluride, Park City first prospered in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a mining town. It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that the area gained traction as a ski resort. And since 1978, Park City has drawn celebrities to its famous Sundance Film Festival, held each January (in 2021, the festival is scheduled for January 28-February 3).
Many of Park City’s Victorian-era buildings still stand, including a former school built in 1889. After a complete renovation a few years ago, it emerged as the 12-room Washington School House Hotel. I had hoped that it would provide a hideaway-size alternative to the larger resorts we have long recommended nearby, the 173-room St. Regis and the 180-room Stein Eriksen Lodge, both of which are outside of town. The Washington School House Hotel is just a block off Park City’s Main Street, but it also touts itself as a “walk-out/ski-in” property because of its close proximity to the Town Lift and the end of the Quit’N Time run (a complimentary shuttle also takes skiers to Deer Valley).
On the summer day we arrived, the Town Lift wasn’t operating, and, understandably considering the circumstances, neither was the Washington School House Hotel’s valet. We rang the bell outside the front door, and when no one answered, I went up one of the staircases that flank the building. Inside, I discovered reception, a small, white room with an antique wooden desk and built-in bookshelves decorated with vintage silver pieces. Past it was the Living Room, a stylish lounge and breakfast room presided over by a gilt mirror from a French opera house and a chandelier of white-lacquered antlers and crystals. A staff member emerged from the adjacent kitchen to welcome us.
At check-in, we learned that house beverages, including alcoholic drinks, were included with our room rate. The website promised “complimentary everything,” but this was a pleasant surprise.
At check-in, we learned that house beverages, including alcoholic drinks, were included with our room rate. The website promised “complimentary everything,” but this was a pleasant surprise. We received another surprise when we arrived in our compact accommodations. The description of the Town King Room mentioned a tub, which was absent, and we had a view of the pool rather than of Park City. When I called the front desk, I learned that we had been given a Pool King Room because our Town King Room, which costs the same, had recently suffered a broken window. In the evening, a manager approached to offer us a discount on our accommodations, as well as the use of the Town King’s tub. I appreciated that the manager addressed the problem so well, but I wish the hotel had alerted me in advance, rather than simply giving us a room different from the one I reserved without comment.
I actually preferred the Pool King Room because of its superior layout and view. The room’s large dormer had space for two linen-upholstered Louis XV-inspired armchairs and an ottoman, and in a neighboring niche was a diminutive antique dressing table. Marble-topped nightstands flanked a firm but comfortable king bed, and by the door was a wooden wardrobe. There was room for little more, making the space feel rather tight for two. The small bath compounded this feeling. I liked the pristine white marble facing the walls and walk-in shower, but the single vanity had too little counter space, and I failed in my repeated and increasingly irritable attempts to activate the in-floor heating.
In the afternoons, we would call down to the front desk to request glasses of wine on the pool patio. Hillside gardens rose up behind the loungers, and tables and chairs allowed us to breakfast there as well. We also had dinner one night at the hotel, which, like breakfast, is served in the Living Room during ski season. On this occasion, we opted to eat on a garden patio. Power lines marred the view of the town and hillside beyond, but I very much enjoyed my dinner of steelhead trout with garlicky chimichurri, sweet beet-infused pearl couscous and local carrots. I avoided dessert, but after a postprandial poolside Manhattan, a waiter’s suggestion of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies delivered to our room was too tempting to resist.
The Washington School House Hotel has much to recommend it, not least its friendly and helpful staff. I can imagine it’s especially fun to stay in winter, when the cozy cellar lounge gets more use, and guests enjoy après ski around the fire pit, fashioned from one of the torches used in the 2002 Winter Olympics. But too many problems accumulated for me to endorse the property unequivocally. Our room’s small size became tiresome, but even more so the lack of soundproofing. On our first evening, at about 10 p.m., we could hear a nearby couple attempting to figure out their television’s remote control. In another room, a group of riled-up children shrieked with delight. And a hotel staffer led some tipsy people on a tour of the property, showing them the pool and then discussing its merits outside our door. For young-at-heart night owls, the Washington School House Hotel could be a fine choice, but most Andrew Harper members will likely be happier at either the St. Regis or the Stein Eriksen Lodge.
The central location in Park City; the décor’s chic combination of antique and contemporary elements; the inviting lounges; relaxing on the pool patio; the delicious dinner and breakfasts.
The small size of our accommodations; the woefully inadequate soundproofing; the soft water that made hand-washing and showering lengthy and tedious.
In spite of the hotel’s small size, it promises the same ski valet services as larger resorts nearby.