Food & WineTravel

Big Sky Country

With a maximum of 66 guests attended by a staff of 130, Triple Creek Ranch in Montana is a privileged spot of Western adventure and comfort any time of year. But in low season, when branches of ponderosa and lodge pole pines are laden with snow, the pleasures of receiving breakfast in one’s cabin (bacon-cheddar pancakes, anyone?) are doubly satisfying. The Relais & Châteaux property in the heart of the Bitterroot Mountain Range of the Montana Rockies (access from the Missoula airport) is adults-only, and each cabin boasts a wood-burning fireplace.

Rates are inclusive of all meals, house wines, and spirits, as well as activities including horseback riding, cross-country and downhill skiing, ice fishing, snowshoeing, and guided fat-tire snow biking. The activities desk is staffed from early morning until 11 PM to help with your schedule and can generally lend whatever gear or outer layers you may have forgotten to pack.

The 1000+-piece collection of Western art throughout the property is the pride of owners Craig and Barbara Barrett. He is a former CEO of Intel, while she has served as Ambassador to Finland and chairman of the Aerospace Corporation. The ranch’s reserve wine cellar has received a nod of approval from Wine Spectator, and the ranch hosts an annual event in partnership with Napa Valley’s Chappellet.

The nearby Sapphire Mountains got that name for a reason; a fun and unique activity on property is sapphire panning. The ranch has an arrangement with a couple of mines whereby barrels of sapphire-laden gravel are brought onto the ranch to be panned, sifted, rinsed, and inspected cup-by-cup on a metal tabletop by patient, treasure-seeking ranch guests. From several yards away they look like they’re engaged in a group jigsaw puzzle, everyone intently focused, looking for the telltale bit of translucence (don’t be fooled by a tiny quartz fleck) among the grit and pebbles.

Or for a special and unforgettable morning, the activities desk can arrange a musher and team of Alaskan huskies for a dogsled ride through the Rye Creek Canyon area. If you’ve never been on a dogsled, you might expect it to be noisy with barking. In fact, the dogs only bark when they are at rest; they are happy and eager to run, the sound is soft wintry silence broken by the occasional command. “Gee!” means right, and “haw!” means left. Swaddled in blankets, you will ascend from a base of 4,000 feet up to 6,800 feet before dismounting to receive a cup of hot chocolate and gaze down upon French Basin, an area traversed by Lewis and Clark on their expedition.

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