There are two ways to experience Sun Valley. The Hollywood way, with diamond-crusted facials and celebrity hobnobbing. Or the couch-surfing way, with a DIY flair that capitalizes on the local secrets of your hosts. Both are excellent approaches to the original American ski destination.
Where to stay
For a bit of Old Hollywood Nostalgia: Pull up to the Sun Valley Lodge, where furs and dark sunglasses are the norm. In the same realm of historic grand hotels as Yosemite's Ahwahnee and Mount Hood's Timberline Lodge, the Sun Valley Lodge has had a regular rotation of celebrities stroll through its hallways since it opened in 1936. Today those faces are preserved in the archival black-and-white photos adorning the walls. A renovation in 2015 kept that heritage and grandeur while updating the Lodge with amenities like larger guest rooms and windows, a limestone deck and heated pool. A visit here is not complete until you've bowled in one of the six regulation-length lanes on the ground floor.
The Sun Valley Inn, just across the courtyard, is a bit more of a throwback (as in, it hasn't been renovated like it's sister hotel). But with royal red printed carpet and a black grand piano in the lobby, it has a certain charm. Or go modern in downtown Ketchum at the Limelight Hotel.
If you're on a tighter budget: Do what I did and crash at a friend's. Hopefully they have a guest bedroom, or at least a couch. Or check out the new locally-owned hostel, the Hot Water Inn. A "boutique mountain lodge" in the price range of a single dollar sign, the Hot Water Inn offers 10 bedrooms--shared and private--at the base of the Warm Springs lift. Jam sessions encouraged.
Where to Ski
For courduroy cruising with the blue-hairs: Sun-starved Northwesterners flock to the sun-soaked and aptly named Seattle Ridge where blue-square groomers are a plenty. Of course, a few rounds of Warm Springs laps is a must. For more beta on where to ski, read it from a local.
If you don't own a Mountain Collective pass and/or don't want to throw down on a lift ticket: Sun Valley's secret is its backcountry access. There are five mountain ranges within an easy drive of Ketchum. Mountains as far as the eye can see. Drive to Galena Pass and skin from the road. Or hike into a yurt in the Sawtooths for a weekend of couloir hunting.
Where to Relax
For the crème de la crème of all facials: The 20,000-square-foot spa at the Sun Valley Lodge boasts a sculptured granite fireplace, refreshing cucumber water, and diamond facials. No joke. Skiing is harsh on the skin. What better luxury than to revive those skin cells with the benefits of rare and precious stones. All for the price of $430.
If you don't want to spend half your rent on a facial: Ketchum's Wood River Community YMCA is where all the ski bros and gals sweat out their toxins.
Where to fuel up mid-way through a day of hill-bangin'
To celebrate a birthday, or just sip a mimosa: Seattle Ridge Lodge is beautiful and spacious with fireplaces and a menu of pizzas, salads, and sandwiches.
For the Idaho staple: Baked potatoes at the Warm Springs Lodge come loaded with chili, sour cream, cheese, and green onions.
For the local cuisine: Grab a hot dog at Irving's Redhots. Or the Tachos at Apple's come recommended.
Where to après
For celebrity spotting: Choose any bottle off the shelf at the Sun Valley Wine company and pair it with a selection of cheeses and charcuterie. Sip, enjoy, and people watch.
For getting drunk with the locals: Just down the road from the Warm Springs chair, Apple's has been in the après business for more than two decades. Or slide into one of the booths in the back of Grumpy's in Ketchum and order a schooner of beer. That'll get your night started.
Where to dine and entertain
If skiing is fancy: House-cured meats and wood-fired pizzas get the tastebuds going at Enoteca. Or follow Ernest Hemingway's lead and dine at Michel's Christiania, a gourmet French restaurant serving filet mignon, lamb shank, and trout, among other entrées.
If you make your own fancy: It's all about the arrival. After the lifts shut down, skin up the ski resort with your friends and watch the sun set with a DIY wine-and-cheese spread. Or, step inside the Roundhouse for red wine and fondue.
For a Hollywood-style hangover: I don't remember much from this part of the night, but the next morning, my hosts reminded me of our visit to the Bar-muda triangle: The Casino, Whiskey Jacques, and Cellar Pub. Beyond crowded wood bars and a few too many whiskey sodas, it's a bit of a blur. But isn't that the point?