“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. 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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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 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.
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.)