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Travel: The Wild, Worldly West

Brett Anderson

“Big Sky?” the question inevitably comes. “Is there really a town by that name? I thought it referred to the state.” Which, of course, it does. But the former truly encapsulates the spirit of the latter, with its lodge-pole and shingled edifices clustered along far-stretching, wind-whispering Western roads that roll beneath the shadowed granite immensity of the Madison range. The Gallatin River weaves through this basin on the northern border of Yellowstone National Park, flowing past current-carved rock and the deep, violet shade of pine forests in summer; past ice-dusted stone monoliths, glacial pools, and snow drifts in winter. It is an American place: vast of dimension, lavish in scenery, and rich in un-mined potential. It is also the sort of place where, one expects, nothing ever really happens. And while, one is told, things occasionally do, this is precisely the quality that, for much of the past century, has drawn denizens of the crowded and altogether too eventful urban world—people such as Ted Turner and Warren Buffet—to the region in search of escape. During that time, the Rainbow Ranch Lodge, under various names, has stood there to greet them.

Located south of the town of Bozeman, Mont., the Lodge unites history, rustic beauty, and very contemporary comforts on an expanse of riverside acreage. To pull open the main lodge’s heavy pine doors (the handles of which are fashioned from the reels of vintage fishing rods) is to step back to 1919, when the property’s original proprietors, the Lemon family, opened the Halfway Inn (so named because it lay halfway between Bozeman and Yellowstone). Antique light fixtures bathe the timbered interior in a sepia-toned glow that is reminiscent of the many daguerreotypes of Native Americans that adorn the walls.

While the atmosphere and exacting, friendly service may entice one to linger around the lodge all day, visitors will want to take advantage of the area’s generous list of year-round activities: white-water rafting, fly-fishing, horseback riding, mountain climbing, kayaking, and superb skiing at Big Sky Ski Resort, only 15 miles distant.

No matter what the season or the schedule, the Rainbow Ranch’s motto—“The West may be wild but it’s not uncivilized”—is most palpably borne out, at the day’s end, in the dining room, where proprietor Patrick Hurd has applied the skills he acquired as a restaurateur and sommelier at some of the Caribbean’s finest resorts. Together, he and Chef Michael McAuliffe, formerly an instructor at the Western Culinary Institute, have created an imaginative menu that balances exotic international with more homespun flavors: Choices range from pan-fried Caribbean conch in lemongrass and apricot buerre blanc to elk or pan-roasted angus tenderloin wrapped in pancetta.

To accompany the fare, guests can select a bottle of their favorite vintages from the lodge’s most spectacular chamber, the Bacchus Room, a painstakingly constructed Tuscan-style wine cellar with a Western flair that also serves as a private dining room. Complete with antique arched wrought iron gates imported from Italy and river-stone walls, the Bacchus Room houses 7,000 bottles of Italian, German, Californian, Bordelaise, and Burgundian wines—all hand-selected by Hurd. “A lot of the wineries represented here didn’t even have distributors in Montana,” he explains. “So I had to persuade them to come into the state just so we could offer their wines.” And, indeed, few are the establishments in Montana’s breathtaking backcountry that can rustle up a bottle of 1989 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti at a moment’s notice.

Rainbow Ranch Lodge, 409.995.4132, www.rainbowranchbigsky.com

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