DISCLAIMER: This blog entry was written by a Brit, new to this part of the USA, and still recovering from jet lag. As such, some of the advice may turn out to be rather naïve. However if you're new to Salt Lake City and about to head out to ng-conf it hopefully contains some useful information.
If you have no interest in ng-conf - the world's first Angular conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA - you may want to unsubscribe from this blog for the next couple of weeks as it's likely to get quite 'noisy' in here. The conference doesn't officially kick off until Thursday, but there's an egghead.io training workshop on Wednesday, and I'm going to be conducting (depending on availability of participants) video interviews with various bloggers and organisers which I'll be publishing here on this blog over the next couple of weeks.
But first, with so many folks starting to head out over the next day or two, a few quick 'lessons learnt' from the last 24 hours for those who, like me, are new to this part of the world, or just maybe curious about the conference hotel and Salt Lake City.
About the Weather
It's much warmer than I was expecting. There is snow on the ground, and there were a few flakes this morning, but the snow is definitely thawing, and by mid-afternoon the sun came out, blue skies appeared and I found it so warm I stripped down to a t-shirt. The forecast for the rest of the week is blue skies and sun :-)
Even this morning when it was grey and cold I saw folks in shorts and thin shirts. Certainly it was warm enough that the gloves I bought with me weren't needed and are likely going to waste.
Getting to the Conference Hotel
The conference hotel is about 8 miles from Salt Lake City airport, but the hotel does not run a courtesy shuttle service. Their web site recommends taking a taxi which they say should cost USD20. If my experience is typical this is more likely to be USD25 once you factor in a tip (which you should). The journey will take about 20 minutes - not because the roads are busy or congested (quite the opposite) but because the taxi drivers seem to drive very slowly over here.
To save money you may prefer to take the 'trax' (a tram/train system operating from the airport to right outside the hotel). See below for more information on how this works.
About the Hotel
From the outside, the official conference hotel - the Little America Hotel - doesn't look very impressive, especially when contrasted with its 'big brother' the Grand America Hotel which is directly opposite, just across the road. However, external appearances can be extremely deceptive!
But don't just take my word for it - here's what the visitor's assistant at the official Salt Lake City information centre had to say about the hotel: "I always recommend people to stay there. I should probably recommend one or two others as well, but I recommend it because they're over-the-top about excellent customer service " I have to say I have been most impressed with the customer service, the value for money (free high-speed broadband and wi-fi, huge rooms, two bathroom areas, basic like iron and coffee making machine etc) and think the organisers have made a great choice, at least when choosing a venue for attendees to stay. I guess we'll find out about the conference rooms later in the week, but initial signs are very encouraging!
So, despite the rather uninspiring exterior, the interior is lavish to say the least. It reminds me of the best hotel I stayed at in Cologne, Germany when I worked there for six months - more like a small palace than a hotel. Except that unlike Cologne all the fixtures and fittings are modern and this conference hotel doesn't have that slightly run down feel that the Cologne hotel had.
Assuming my room is typical (I'm pretty sure it is as I went for the cheapest option available) the rooms are huge, with generous bathroom suites, a large bed area and then a separate office/seating area.
My room is on the 14th floor and has some great views of the city, as you can see below.
Apparently the hotel was owned by a self-made man (he sadly passed away last year) who started off as a petrol pump assistant and hit upon the idea of providing a stop-over for truckers who he felt deserved the very best customer service and facilities available. He and his wife travelled across Europe picking up furniture and fittings for the hotel, and I have to say I think it's impeccably decorated. The forecourt at night, looks stunning with magical 'ice lighting' around all the trees.
An excellent restaurant serves great cold and hot buffet breakfasts (will cost you around USD20 with tip but seems to include as much as you want of everything you want), and there's a coffee shop and then a general meeting area with a huge log fire blazing away. It's homely but palatial at the same time.
Getting Around the City
The downtown area in which the hotel is situated is compact enough to walk around. However, if you get tired of walking the Trax (tram) system can be used, and is free within the main downtown area. You need to be careful you don't stray outside the 'free' area to avoid fines though (the airport is well outside the free area). Trax consists of three main lines called Red, Blue and Green. Green eventually takes you to the airport, Red to the University, and Blue to Salt Lake City Central. The conference hotel is right opposite the Courthouse (450 Main Street) stop which is on all three lines, making it easy to find regardless of where you get onto the Trax system. If you decide to use Trax instead of a taxi to travel from the airport the Green line runs every 15 minutes on weekdays at 12, 27, 42 and 57 minutes past each hour. The hotel stop is the tenth on the route and the journey time is officially 24 minutes.
If you prefer to drive then you will love Salt Lake City because, unlike other cities around the world, it is not congested. Traffic flows freely even in the downtown area, and parking is plentiful. The area has seven blocks to the mile, as opposed to the ten blocks to the mile usually found in cities like this.
The Official Visitor's Guide states that "You really don't need your GPS in Salt Lake City. The city is built on a grid and there's public transport everywhere." While this is true and makes finding places really easy, I recommend picking up a map of the area to get the best out of exploring 'the grid'.
There is an Official Map available for free from The Visitor's Centre. The Centre should be your first port of call, not just for the free map but also for the excellent Official Visitor's Guide - a free book which covers not just the downtown area, but also the different ski resorts. You can find it on West Temple just below South Temple and it's about 10 minutes walk from the hotel or just a hundred yards or so from the Temple stop using the Trax tram system. The staff are friendly and helpful, and there's an attached shop which sells tourist t-shirts and gifts if you want a souvenir of your trip. If you want value-for-money you can also buy a 24 hour pass to the 'Top 11 attractions' which offers a discount equivalent to somewhere between 40% and 80% on the usual entrance prices.
So far as maps go, I preferred the map available from the concierge at the conference hotel (the concierge is in a small room immediately to the left of the main reception/check-in area). This map has been laid out in graphics software, but unlike the official map it names all the key stores/places of interest in place on the map, instead of just a select few. It also highlights very clearly the 'free' areas of the Trax system and the areas where it becomes payable. It's printed on a sheet of A4 and my copy is already worn out from over-use.
Areas of Interest
The main areas of interest/tourist attractions are well highlighted in the official guides, and easy to find just by exploring the immediate vicinity of the hotel. These include the zoo, the planetarium, the IMAX, a seemingly never-ending series of eateries and hotels, and several large malls selling, for the most part, what I can only describe as 'luxury goods'.
Personally I found the outer lying edges of what is shown on most of the maps most interesting. On the left-hand edge, mere yards from the IMAX and planetarium, the area becomes much more 'urban' - with rundown buildings and graffiti everywhere, and large groups of homeless people congregating around charity venues that offer meals and accommodation. You'll also find grungy music venues like 'The Verge' (which I'm hoping to visit tomorrow night) here. To the South you'll find the more interesting and less 'This could be a store in any mall in the country' stores, like 'The House of Guitars' or 'PictureLine' (photograph equipment for hire and sale) or the classic car museums.
Can You Spare Any Change?
The only thing I haven't liked here has been the continual begging from the homeless. In one hour's walking I must have had more than a dozen 'Can you spare any change?' requests. In one case I had to listen to the most tedious, infantile 'rap' from a stranger who seemed to think this constituted 'entertainment' that was worthy of the price of a ticket. Unlike other dense population areas, the beggars are clean and not the worse for drink. They are also very polite. But the continual pestering becomes annoying very quickly. It seems bizarre in a city with so much wide open space and luxury on display to encounter so many of the less well off of society in these very up-market areas.
Tomorrow (the last day before the conference workshop kicks off) I'll be exploring the area more, and producing my first 'video report' on the area, which I'll post here. In the meantime if you're coming to ng-conf and have any burning questions, feel free to ask in the Comments section below. Happy travels!