PROVO, UTAH -- In the happiest town in the whole USA, candy shops outnumber bars. Downtown parking is free. Nobody smokes.
The rugged Wasatch Range hugs its eastern edge. Sprawling Utah Lake lies to the west. And the monolithic 11,750-foot Mount Timpanogos looms to the north.
The residents are mostly young, outdoorsy and religious. And, if the latest Gallup-Healthways survey is accurate, they, along with neighboring Orem, boast the nation's highest overall sense of well-being. The annual survey of 500,000 Americans in 189 metropolitan areas quantifies attitudes on quality-of-life factors ranging from emotional and physical health to job satisfaction.
OK, so the locals like their lives. But is that reason enough for the rest of us to visit?
Joel Racker thinks so.
"Travel is huge in Utah County, but we're not necessarily a tourist destination," says the president of the area's convention and visitors bureau. "One of the problems is, most people think Sundance is a 10-day festival in Park City."
With its woodsy-chic accommodations, spa, art studio, performance space and ski area, Robert Redford's Sundance Resort, 15 miles up Provo Canyon from downtown, might be the region's most high-profile tourist draw. But it's not the only one in a county where G-rated, à-la-carte diversions rule.
Thanksgiving Point, a 300-acre non-profit complex in Lehi, 17 miles north of Provo, boasts 55 acres of gardens (with 250,000 tulips blooming at the moment), the Western Hemisphere's largest man-made waterfall, a major dinosaur collection and a soon-to-open Museum of Natural Curiosity for children.
Just south of Provo, the Springville Museum of Art's impressive collection — financed, in part, by annual bake sales in the town of 30,000 — has one of the nation's largest assemblages of Soviet realist paintings.
Excursion trains on the historic Heber Valley Railroad make forays through the cottonwood- and aspen-forested Provo Canyon and along Deer Creek Reservoir.
But the emphasis here is on active adventure. Multiple recreational trails attract cyclists, runners and walkers. The Provo River gets high marks from serious fly fishermen. Timpanogos Cave National Monument beckons visitors up a steep, 1¼-mile paved trail to its three limestone caverns. Hiking and climbing are huge among the energetic. And for those who aren't, a network of scenic byways traverse spectacular, off-the-beaten-path mountain scenery.
Of one mind
Utah County is among the most conservative enclaves in a red state. At least 75% of residents are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Mormon culture dominates. Many establishments are closed on Sundays. It's not a dry county, but you'll find more in the way of ice-cream emporiums than nightclubs. (Not that teetotalers can't be night owls. Pop 'n Sweets, purveyor of non-alcoholic Cheerwine and Ginger Beer, stays open till midnight, 2 a.m. on Fridays.)
Provo is home to Brigham Young University, a church-run school whose 30,000 students sign a pledge to adhere to LDS principles, which include abstaining from alcohol and tobacco. An additional 35,000 attend Utah Valley University in Orem. Given that so many locals share common values, it's fair to question whether the heightened sense of well-being recorded by Gallup-Healthways comes from living among like-minded souls.
"Last summer, we had a gay pride festival, and nobody cared," responds Mayor John Curtis. "The Provo of today is very different from the Provo of 10 or 15 years ago."
In fact, the organizer of the gay pride festival, Tosh Metzger, was surprised by the lack of reaction to the event. "We thought some people would protest, but I underestimated this town."
Metzger, a local florist and Provo native, stays here "because I love the mountains. And the community is really nice."
The relatively high percentage of locals who have lived in other cultures (primarily because of the LDS mission program) "helps us not get trapped in this 'we're all the same' mind-set," Curtis adds.
A small but vibrant music scene has spawned some bands (such as Neon Trees and Imagine Dragons) that have gone on to bigger arenas. And 50 or so independent restaurants — many of them specializing in ethnic cuisines — do business here.
At Sam Hawk Korean Restaurant, a no-frills eatery in a nondescript strip mall, an out-of-towner experiences a Provo Moment when the woman at the next table offers to decipher the menu, explaining that she lived in Korea as an LDS missionary. The food is great, she assures — more authentic than any she's found in Manhattan's Koreatown.
A mix of old and new
Provo sports the usual thicket of fast-food restaurants, chain motels and big-box stores found in Anywhere, USA. But in the historic downtown core, late 19th- and early 20th-century storefronts coexist with some striking contemporary designs — a reflection of creeping contrasts in a city built on homogeneity.
On West Center Street, the year-old Nu Skin headquarters building is eye-popping in its sleek ultra-modernity. Next door, workers are converting the fire-damaged, pioneer-built 1898 tabernacle into a Mormon temple. Around the corner, a store advertising the "best prices for missionary clothing" shares the block with a tattoo and piercing parlor. Monthly concerts May through October on the rooftop of Provo Town Square's parking garage are family-friendly affairs. The monthly Divine Sister-Misters drag show at the Madison nightclub, probably less so.
A midday crowd of devotees fills counter stools at Sammy's, a downtown hole-in-the-wall beloved for its ice-cream-and-pie mash-ups, called "pieshakes."
Behind the vinyl counter, Orlando Solis is whipping up a succession of these heavenly concoctions. Growing up non-Mormon in Provo wasn't easy, he says, and he left after high school. But the 23-year-old is back, drawn by the mountains and the active pursuits they offer.
The town has changed in some ways, he says, and in other ways, not at all.
Above him on the acoustic tile ceiling, someone has written a twist on the hipster creed of the Texas capital, "Keep Austin Weird."
"Keep Provo Awkward," it reads.
If you go
• Where to stay: Provo has an abundance of chain lodgings, primarily clustered along University Avenue off Interstate 15. For one-of-a-kind digs, head up Provo Canyon 15 miles to Sundance Resort, where lodgings start at $239 a night. sundanceresort.com
• Where to eat: Independent restaurants abound in the historic downtown. The Black Sheep Café puts a modern twist on Native American foods with dishes like hog jowl tacos glazed with maple- bay leaf barbecue sauce. Entrees: $12-$24. The ambiance is bare-bones, but the food at Sam Hawk Korean Restaurant is authentic. The beef bulgogi and chicken kalbi draw raves from regulars. Entrees: about $10. Sundance's elegant Tree Room is a longtime special-occasion favorite. Entrees: $30-$46. Locals pack the counter stools at Sammy's for the "pieshakes," juicy burgers and hand-cut fries.
• Don't miss: Hiking, biking or strolling on paths – both paved and wooded -- in and around Provo. Timpanogos Cave National Monument has guided cavern tours May-September ($8 adults; $6 ages 6-16; $4 ages 3-5). Buy tickets up to 30 days in advance at recreation.gov. For a cultural fix, visit the Springville Museum of Art just south of Provo. Admission is free. Brigham Young University, which also has several public museums, offers free golf cart tours by arrangement. saas.byu.eduThanksgiving Point in Lehi, which consists of expansive gardens, two museums and a farm area, sponsors events and classes. Admission varies. thanksgivingpoint.org
• Information: Utah County Convention and Visitors Bureau, 800-222-8824 utahvalley.com