Montana really does winter right. Marvel over the expansive rugged terrain, crystalline lakes, majestic snow-covered mountains shimmering in the abundant sunshine, legendary Glacier National Park, and small-town charms ( such as real cowboys!) as you explore Western Montana’s Glacier Country.
Winter play choices are seemingly endless with unparalleled downhill skiing (think 300+ inches of powdery snow, without the crowds, high prices or attitude) dog sledding, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, and sleigh rides. Afterward, you’ll doubly appreciate the seriously delicious mountain cuisine, featuring Montana elk, bison, trout and huckleberries at eateries ranging from a funky BBQ foundry to a multi-course gourmet dinner at a private Chef’s table. Montana wines still need some work, but the burgeoning number of craft breweries and creative distilleries are top notch.
Remember that old IMAX tag line “Think Big”? It also describes Montana, our 4th largest state, so unless you have weeks to explore, you’re better off honing in on a particular area. Our easy-driving Western Montana itinerary has you flying into Missoula International Airport and out of Glacier Park International Airport offering a variety of Montana goodness without spending hours behind the wheel. Dare to detour and you’ll discover an array of quirky places created by some fabulously eccentric frontier folks.
Missoula – Montana’s cultural capital
Gibson Mansion Bed and Breakfast is a luxurious Victorian mansion, circa 1903, that has been lovingly restored with just the right touch of modern amenities. Gorgeous grounds, a pre-breakfast in bed consisting of scrumptious homemade scones and strong coffee, then a full brekkie in the dining room (yummy seared peach and huckleberry pancakes) works for me.
Inside tip: reserve the elegantly decorated Master Suite for its seductive original cast iron wood burning fireplace and private balcony.
Plonk, an unselfconsciously hip cocktail lounge, wine bar and restaurant would be right at home in NYC except the service is way too nice. Their seasonally changing menu showcases the finest Montana meats such as a mountain-raised rack of goat and bison short rib pappardelle, and a divine Aquavit cured steelhead lox.
Inside tip: head up to the rooftop deck for a seat under the endless stars or reserve the table in Plonk’s wine cellar for an intimate, relaxed dinner.
I have to admit that my long-held bias against the cupcake trend (too cutesy and often cloyingly sweet) was laid to rest after visiting Bernice’s Bakery, est. 1978.
These sophisticated looking sweeties make it virtually impossible to “just say no!” My favorite flavor was a dead tie between the “Red Velvet Ding-dong dip” and “Local Laurie’s Lavender”.
Insider tip: a little Hollywoodish trivia: Christine and Marco Littig are happily married and co-own the much-loved Bernice’s Bakery. However, many years before, Marco was married to Cheryl Strayed for six years, although he was portrayed as “Paul” in the film “Wild”.
Also head for Montgomery Distillery which is run by Ryan and Jenny Montgomery, 5th generation Montanans whose passion is interpreting the finest Old World spirits from around the globe distilled exclusively from Montana-grown grain. Join them for a tour of the stillroom to see their grain-to-bottle process or just belly up to the industrial/chic bar for cocktails made from their small-batch spirits. Thumbs up for their haunting Nickelback Pickleback made from a smoked aquavit with pickled carrot brine.
Insider tip: if you offer a sweet and/or sexy smile the affable bartenders are happy to offer tastes of the different spirits.
The contemporary Missoula Art Museum sets a standard that all museums should follow: “FREE EXPRESSION / FREE ADMISSION”. In honor of their 40th-anniversary, MAM is hosting an incredible solo exhibition of John Buck’s enormous hand-carved wood sculptures including the premier of his newest kinetic piece, “State of the Union”.
Insider tip: MAM has recently unveiled its design for the Missoula Art Park, which looks like a winner. This outdoor, plaza-style gathering place will offer artsy tables and chairs, bike racks, with a rotating selection of sculptures.
And, for a special treat, MCT, Inc. packs a double whammy. It’s the parent company of both a community theatre production company and the world’s largest touring children’s theatre. This season the amazingly talented troupe of locals can be seen in Sweeny Todd, Sound of Music, Mary Poppins, or the hilarious Tony Award-winning spoof, The Drowsy Chaperone.
En route to Whitefish, spend a fun-filled foodie day in Kalispell feasting on some of Montana’s finest eats.
Best breakfast: The Knead Café serves fabulous homemade bread and scones and I’m still dreaming about their Cajun Sausage eggs bennie!
Best lunch: Newbie DeSoto Grill sets the standard for Montana BBQ. Cool, car-centric surroundings, live music, friendly service, cold craft beers, and perfectly smoked “Q” paired with an addictive bacon Mac and Cheese ensure this spot will become a classic.
Best dinner: Hops Downtown Grill claims to serve Montana’s best gourmet burgers (varieties include juicy American Kobe beef, wild boar, buffalo, elk or yak burgers) 100 craft beers and artisan wines, and I’d have to agree.
Insider tip: stock up on reading material and sweets at Norm’s News Soda Fountain & Candy Shop, where you can choose from 1,500 magazine titles and 800 types of candy.
Whitefish – gateway to a winter playground
Continue on to Whitefish, where your final destination is the European-style, ski-in/ski-out, Kandahar Lodge at Whitefish Mountain Resort. This unique mountain retreat, with its rustic elegance, plush antique furniture, huge river rock wood-burning fireplace and wellness center evokes memories of the grand lodges of yesteryear.
Try and snag one of the spacious suites, decorated with rugged pine and leather furniture, a granite bathroom with a deep soaking tub and a full kitchen, which you might want to use to whip up a little breakfast. However, for a remarkable meal, make dinner reservations at Cafe Kandahar, owned by Chef Andy Blanton, 2014 James Beard nomination for “Best Chef of the Northwest”. The best way to experience his delectable cuisine is by ordering the seven course Chef’s Tasting Menu. Matching wines, selected by Sommelier Andrew Kriss from their acclaimed wine list, will greatly heighten your pleasure.
Insider tip: if you’re as wowed by Chef Andy’s food as we were, you’ll be happy to know he also offers private cooking classes. He is an equally talented teacher since when I later prepared his Forest Mushroom dish, I was asked for “my” recipe, definitely a first for me!
For fun in the snow, it’s your call whether to go downhill or cross-country skiing, fat tire biking, snowboarding, ice fishing, or snowmobiling. For a crazy fun adventure bundle up and go dog sledding at Base Camp Bigfork, where you can mush your own team of Inuit dogs. At the other end of the spectrum, it was equally wonderfully to strap on a pair of snowshoes and walk for miles exploring the unspoiled beauty and peaceful solitude of Glacier National Park. Bonus points for this activity since, for once, absolutely no athletic ability is required!