"This is a great activity for date night," a young employee at the Soap Factory in Provo informed me when I walked in as a party of one. I looked around the room and saw many couples making their own soap (for their future His and Her sinks?). Then I noticed a penguin mold in the bin, and I found my companion for the night.
The Utah Valley city is not your typical destination or college town; it has a long and strong affiliation with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Two of its most prominent institutions are Brigham Young University and the Provo City Center Temple, both of which are ringed by majestic peaks.
Provo was named for the French Canadian trapper Etienne Provost and was settled by Mormons in 1849. In 1875, church President Brigham Young established an academy that rose to university status at the turn of the 20th century. Nearly 90 percent of the population is made up of members of the LDS Church, and many residents are current or former BYU students, a distinction that has shaped the city's culture. For instance, Mormons do not consume alcohol, and the dearth of bars and social drinking is notable in Utah County, much of which is a mountainous area that attracts outdoorsy types with happy-hour habits. (I spotted two bars downtown and overheard one group of friends searching for wine, which they located at the Black Sheep Cafe. The caveat: They had to order food, too.)
But Provo doesn't need cocktails to stay up late. Many of the BYU campus museums remain open till 9 p.m. on weekdays, as do the shops and restaurants. On a Thursday night, in the dead of winter, I stood on tiptoes to read the chalkboard of flavors at Rockwell Ice Cream Co. The following evening, I set out to hear live folk music at Pioneer Book but ended up in line for country dancing lessons and later at a crafts table surrounded by fragrant oils and paints. (These activities do seem to support the county's controversial nickname, Happy Valley, and I did feel fairly joyful ending the day with new toiletries and dance moves.)
The culinary scene, meanwhile, is partially influenced by the Mormon tradition of international missionary work. Members who leave for proselytizing return to Provo with expanded palates. You can play spin the globe in the historic downtown district, stopping on pho, Belgian frites, sushi, Indian, Czech pastries, Mexican fruit pops or kronuts in a French bakery. Of course, the natural attractions that preceded the pioneers are equally integral to the Provo experience. Depending on the season, you can fly-fish on the Provo River, boat on Utah Lake, and ski, snowboard and hike in the Wasatch Range. Bring a date, or go solo - Mother Nature doesn't care about your relationship status.
Hop on the Provo Canyon Scenic Byway, also known as Highway 189, and watch civilization fade away in the rearview mirror. The 24-mile route runs from Provo to Heber City; don't be hard on yourself if you don't reach the end point. Several parks will draw you in and out of your car, such as Mount Timpanogos Park and South Fork Park, which links to the Great Western Trail, the epic trek from Canada to Mexico. The Provo River runs parallel to the road, and you can often see anglers standing in the water, waiting for the blue-ribbon trout to bite their flies. In Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, the 607-foot-tall Bridal Veil Falls unleashes curtains of water in the summer and freezes over in the winter, becoming a Spidey course for ice climbers. About 16 miles up, Deer Creek State Park offers activities for every weather system, including stand-up paddling, zip-lining, ice fishing and camping - in case you want to prolong your return to that other world.
You don't need to own a car, or know the words to "Route 66," to appreciate AAA Lakeside Storage and Museum. The vintage gas station signs, pumps and automobiles were amassed by the storage company's owner, who scours the country for new acquisitions. Among his finds: a Polly Gas pump frozen in time and price at 32 cents per gallon; a Bob's Big Boy statue with protruding belly; and a green Volkswagen bug that might cause you to punch the nearest shoulder. There is also a P-51 Mustang fighter plane with a Flying Tiger shark mouth that pretend-growls at visitors and a 1942 white halftrack used during World War II. The tour is self-guided, so unless you're a baby boomer, you might need to call your grandpa to fill in the blanks. However, the website does provide information on select objects, such as the Roman Column Wayne Model 491 pump, which it describes as "the fanciest and most beautiful gas pump ever built by the Wayne Pump Company." One person's pit stop is another person's passion.
The Monte L. Bean Life Science Museum, on the Brigham Young University campus, doesn't count homo undergradutis among its 3 million-strong collection of mammals, crustaceans, birds, insects, arachnids and plants. However, it does display the equally fascinating liger, a hybrid cat named Shasta from the Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City, as well as an 8-foot-tall Kodiak bear that greets guests with a tinny growl. The research institute, which opened in 1978 and completed a renovation in 2014, is more than the final resting place for its subjects. At least once a day, staff members hold a live critter show. During my visit, the handler trotted out a cockroach, a corn snake named Reggie and a frog called Lemon, who is not allowed to fraternize with his brother, Lime. "They have been known to eat something too big and choke and die," she said to an auditorium full of parents and children too squirmy to fully comprehend the implications. The university is also home to the Museum of People and Cultures, the Museum of Paleontology and the Museum of Art, which is currently exhibiting Pulitzer Prize-winning photos from the Newseum and towering willow branch sculptures by Patrick Dougherty.
On a tour of Provo Pioneer Village, Stevens Nelson doesn't temper the truth. "When they got here," said the museum director, "life was hell." The open-air historical attraction focuses on the period from 1849, when the first Mormons landed in Provo, to 1869, when the railroad arrived. The seven original buildings demonstrate the early inhabitants' will to survive, and sometimes in style. In the Turner Cabin, porcelain tableware and figurines adorn the shelves and a framed picture of hair art (yes, the stuff that sprouts from your head) hangs by the front door. The cotton coverlet in the Haws Cabin features a decorative chenille star pattern. "The women civilized this place," Nelson said. "They made it happen."
To learn about their food prep, visitors can peek into the Corn Crib, where the ears were dried and then ground into cornmeal. The village also owns several wagons and handcarts that the poorest settlers pushed to their new life. In the summer, a working blacksmith practices his trade near the oxen lift used to shoe the beasts of burden. Before exiting, take a peek inside the outhouse for a cheeky surprise.
Homesickness has an upside: authentic Hawaiian and Polynesian food thousands of miles from its roots. The founders of Sweet's Hawaiian Grill are originally from Tonga (Mom, whose name is Sweet) and Samoa (Dad), and they lived in Hawaii before moving to Provo for law school. Missing the cuisine of the islands, they started serving plate lunches nearly 30 years ago. Their kids now run the show, but the classic meal has not changed much: two scoops of rice, a choice of macaroni salad or pineapple with li hing mui seasoning and one to four proteins - including kalbi ribs, katsu fried chicken, teriyaki barbecue chicken and kalua pig. The restaurant rotates its specials and themes, such as Saturday's poke bowl. Beverages dive deeply into tropical flavors. Try the Otai, a Tongan smoothie with mango, coconut milk and ice, or an infused kava drink created by BYU students. Omai Crichton, the daughter often found behind the counter, also makes leis that she sells in an adjoining space. It's the statement piece that says, "Aloha, Provo."
What do you get when you combine Czech and Texan culinary influences? Czech-Tex? Nope, Hruska's Kolaches. The Eastern European breakfast food arrived in Provo on the wings of three Texan siblings attending the university. The dough is based on a recipe from their grandmother, and the fillings are as bold and assertive as a Texan oilman. The sweet pastry resembles a Danish in appearance but not taste; the savory variety looks like a dinner roll with a bun in the oven. The teeny bakery with the pear-themed decor ("hruska" means "pear" in Czech) opens at 6:30 a.m. By the noonish closing time, only the tags describing the 24 flavors and two specials remain. On a weekday morning, empty trays mocked patrons for not arriving earlier. We missed out on la bomba carnitas; chocolate, peanut butter and banana nut; bacon, egg, cheese and jalapeno; and raspberry nutella, to name a few. A few maple pecan and mixed berry remained, but the kolache clock was ticking.
Chef Mark Mason cooks what he knows - Native American and Southwestern dishes - and what he picked up from watching cooking shows on PBS. Before opening Black Sheep Cafe with his two sisters, Mason lived with his family on a Navajo reservation in Arizona and the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation in North Dakota. (The siblings have since sold the business, but Mason still holds the head-chef title.) That formative experience turns up in such dishes as hog jowl tacos on blue corn tortillas and Navajo tacos with green chile pork or red chile beef. The green chile also shows up on the frites and in a stew. All of the sauces and breads are made on-site, including the nanniskadi, which kicks the burger bun to the corner. The restaurant has a full bar with bottles of high- and low-alcohol beer, though who needs booze when cactus pear lemonade is in the house?
With more than 1,000 games, you could easily end up eating three square meals, plus snacks, at Good Move Cafe. The board game restaurant, which serves diners from 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. on weeknights and till midnight on weekends, encourages eating while playing. If you're stumped by all the choices, the staff is happy to recommend a dish (the Cowboy Burger, Meeples Mac and Cheese) and a game (Telestrations, Photosynthesis). If you dribble, say, gooey cheese from the Grilled Parcheesi onto the Sorry! board, don't fret: "That's why we have a budget to buy new games," said Dave Moon, who owns the place with his son, Shawn. On Wednesday nights, the cafe holds tournaments, and you can take the Jenga Burger Challenge. Eat a stack of three burgers chosen off the menu to win a free burger for a future visit. Before opening wide, you might want to hit up the Hungry Hungry Hippos for some tips.
With the exception of ironing, if your preferred activity ends in "board," you can satisfy all of your provisioning needs at Board of Provo. Founded in 2004, the shop specializes in skateboards, longboards, splitboards and snowboards. You can find all the big names in the industry, such as Burton, Capita, Volcom, RVCA and Emerica footwear, plus crucial hot-tub attire such as flip-flops and board shorts. John Hales and his wife, Ellis, practice what they sell and know the riding landscape well. After a morning on the slopes, John was bantering with customers while perusing a catalogue of hooded ninja suits by Airblaster. When I asked them for recommendations, they suggested the Provo Recreation Center's skate park and the Provo River Parkway Trail for skateboarding and Sundance Mountain Resort for snowboarding. Then Ellis offered to suit me up.
When designing Shade Home and Garden, in nearby Orem, Todd Moyer looked across the Atlantic for ideas. The Utah native wanted to replicate the European garden centers he had toured with his English wife. He envisioned a pastoral escape from the city, where customers could leisurely shop for their window sills and front yards. Moyer describes the store's aesthetic as "modern farmhouse," assuming your barn is in the desert (cactus and succulents) or Kyoto (bonsai trees). In addition to fauna, the store carries decorative planters, straw baskets with pompoms and pillows with cactus designs. In the cooler months, a herd of goats turns the greenhouse into a yoga studio. The Goga Guys use treats to encourage Nigerian dwarf goats to climb on practitioners. That sound above you isn't infinite consciousness but Tootsie and Butterfinger crunching on graham crackers.
The Shops at Riverwoods is home to some familiar faces, such as Williams-Sonoma, but ignore those. Instead, seek out the unfamiliar names. Lime Ricki, for one, is a swimwear company founded by three sisters from Utah. Their designs - fashionably high bikini bottoms, wrap fronts, Dalmatian spots - transform women of all body shapes and modesty levels into sirens. Katie Waltman learned to make jewelry from her grandmother while in high school. She opened the Provo store in 2014 to showcase the delicate pieces adorned with her signature flourish, feathery leaves. Pebbles and Twigs carries new and consignment pieces that will up the cozy factor of your house, and Heirloom Art & Co. peddles in small indulgences, such as an Arches National Park puzzle, a giant fly-shape swatter and bird call boxes. For your commitment to local retailers, reward yourself with a cocomel cookie from Suss Cookie Co., a riff on the Girl Scouts' Samoa.
Open since 1980, Pioneer Book fills its two-level shop with used, signed and rare books, without a whiff of mustiness. The ground floor contains every category of literature except fiction, which dominates the stacks upstairs. For regional reading material, check out the books filed under "Western, Americana, Utah and Native American," or the entire wall of Mormon nonfiction. Blue index cards designate customer and staff picks, and if you find your reviewer soul mate, congrats! (Mine are Tori and Black C.) The store runs an annual reading challenge - "book with red cover," "book by an author born over 100 years ago," "book with a strong female lead" - and the winners earn a $50 store credit. A backroom upstairs showcases local art and hosts folk music jams. As a warm-up before the show, go hang out in the "Music" section.
The family behind Aspenwood Manor created the Airbnb-esque accommodations with particular travelers in mind: Their guests do not need frequent housekeeping (once a week will do), a front desk (no keys, just door codes) or room service (full kitchen included; vending machine downstairs). The 20 luxury suites occupy two stately buildings near downtown and range in size from 220 square feet to 1,110 square feet. Each room is named and decorated after a destination close to the family's heart. Waltzing Matilda, which has a secret passageway in the eaves, honors the clan's patriarch, who grew up in Australia. Monocacy Estates, which comes with a built-in playhouse, gives a shout-out to Maryland, where the family previously resided. A daughter studied abroad in Austria, hence the Vienna room, a posh three-bedroom fit for a Habsburg. (Three-night minimum required for all rooms.)
The namesake of the Hines Mansion Bed & Breakfast worked in mining and real estate and as a pharmacist and saloonkeeper. His hard work paid off, as you will witness when you step inside the opulent Victorian manse dating to 1895. You might first notice the chandelier, a prop from "Gone With the Wind," or smell the chocolate cookies cooling on the counter. All nine rooms feature jet tubs, and one (the Library) has a spiral staircase that leads to a soaker with skylight views. With such dreamy names as Victorian Rose and Secret Garden, I was hardly surprised to meet around the breakfast table newlyweds and a couple celebrating their fifth anniversary. I stayed in the Seaside Retreat, the original location of Spencer and Kitty Hines' bathroom, but wished I had known about the Lodge room's Butch Cassidy connection before booking. (The outlaw allegedly sneaked in through the door to evade the sheriff of Salt Lake City, whose cousin, a friend of Cassidy's, owned the place.) Ghost stories are up to the guests' imagination, but whenever an electric issue arises, innkeeper Michelle Schick will say, "Kitty, knock it off." When the front door code didn't work, I knew exactly who to blame.
I first spotted Robert Redford in the hallway leading to the Tree Room, one of five drinking and dining venues at Sundance Mountain Resort. He was cuddling a golden eagle, and I am pretty sure everyone who passed by the wall of photos wished they were that raptor. In 1969, the celebrity benefactor bought the Provo Canyon land that morphed into the year-round playground. Sports enthusiasts can ski and snowboard in the winter and then switch gears to hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding in the warmer months. The fire pits are seasonal, but the zip lines operate in all four. Most of the noncardio activities take place in the village, such as the Owl Bar, a watering hole that honors both Butch Cassidys (the real scofflaw and the Redford one), and the Art Studio, where artists teach guests to make pottery, jewelry, soap and other crafts. The General Store stocks their creations, as well as clothes, blankets, housewares and other goods that possess the Sundance spirit. As a souvenir, grab a free Sundance catalogue. Signs posted outside select locations ask guests to refrain from taking photos to protect the privacy of others, but the advisory does not mention asking for an autograph.
The Utah Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau's walking tour covers more than 70 sites, including many in the Provo Downtown Historic District. Where do you start? No. 1, Provo Town Square, seems obvious, but I decided to begin with No. 71, because I am a sucker for sweets. Startup's Candy still occupies the 1900 building that produced the country's first filled candy and Magnolias, a forebear of the breath mint. The confectionery is open weekdays, one of the few places on the list with public access. (Most are private homes.) The LDS Tabernacle (No. 65) suffered fire damage 112 years after its dedication and was turned into a temple. Only Mormons with an ecclesiastical recommendation can enter the sacred space, but everyone can stroll the parklike grounds. On Center Street, the main strip for eating, shopping and entertainment, I supplemented my education with historic plaques. En route to the Soap Factory, I learned that Brigham Young set up his first school nearby. Most likely, the academy didn't teach its students how to make soap in emoji and Star Wars shapes, but modern-day Provo will.