The bride's face was wet with tears—or was it rain? It was April, and the little party stood shivering on a hill overlooking Montana's Triple Creek Ranch as the wind rose and the first drops fell. This was the groom's first trip to the ranch, the bride's second. Her previous visit had been a case of love at first sight, and she had decided then and there to be married outdoors on this scenic perch overlooking the Bitterroot Mountains—should Mr. Right ever turn up, of course. But even now, with the raindrops diluting the Champagne and the mountains merely peeking through the fog, we understood why she wanted to tie the knot here.
Spread out on 400 acres, bordered by prime fishing rivers and those towering mountains, Triple Creek is the quintessential western rustic-luxe retreat. Located in Darby, which is 75 miles south of Missoula, this Relais & Châteaux property consists of 19 spacious, attractive cabins tucked between clusters of pines and rushing creeks. And for those who must stay connected to the world, Triple Creek Ranch has a $6,000 state-of-the-art personal computer with Internet access in the lodge recreation room, one of the few clues to the ranch's ownership: Barbara and Craig Barrett, the latter the CEO of Intel.
We had come here to disconnect, however, so it was perfect that we wound up in Big Sky cabin. One of the more recent additions to the complex, it is the highest cottage on the hill, and affords a sweeping view of its namesake, both day and starry-night editions.
Over breakfast the next morning we observed a mysterious shuffle outdoors as staff members moved plastic bags from place to place. Later we found out it was an attempt to thwart Buford, a black bear who had become a regular, but very selective, forager here—pawing through the garbage in search of crab legs and Dijon mustard while scattering everything else.
We spent that first morning taking a gentle two-hour horseback ride through the foothills of Trapper Peak. Our guide was the quietly authoritative Kristin Medford, who certainly looked the part with her lived-in cowboy boots and hat and an oiled western duster. She had taken one look at me—I'm five feet tall—and assigned me to Tadpole, one of the resort's sweetest horses. "Welcome to my office," she exclaimed exuberantly as we crested a rise and looked out over hilltops liberally dusted with wildflowers.
That evening in the dining room—an unsettling display of the taxidermy talent in the area—we ran into the newlyweds under the moose head. Over dinner we struck up a conversation with a couple at the adjacent table, longtime regulars who had fallen so in love with the area that they had started building a retirement home here. "But you know, I have mixed feelings about that," the woman said. "We've stayed here 13 times and we're always made to feel like family. Even at dinner. They must have a list of vegetables my husband doesn't like because they never put them on his plate. So, while I'll be glad when the house is finished, I'm also sorry because it will mean that we won't be able to stay here again."
I understood. Staff members learn guest names and preferences and outdo themselves meeting the guests' needs. When I admired Kristin's duster, a staff member telephoned various area stores to find one in my size, then dispatched a colleague to pick it up. I questioned the practice of serving salad forks chilled—they were painfully cold to the touch, reminding me of airline service— and from then on received room-temperature cutlery. When I mentioned that one of my favorite wines was on the wine list, the waiter uncorked a bottle even though I wanted only a glass.
The sole aspect of the ranch that didn't measure up was the food. The appetizers were up and down: overly garlicked shrimp with pesto and cream, but a decent, if understandably mild, jerk-spiced quail. Main courses were the real weak point—dry grilled marlin in an unappetizing ginger cream sauce (cream turns up in an unusually high number of dishes); tough, chewy duck breast served with a cherry sauce; a tasteless chicken breast in an apple cider reduction. The desserts were straightforward (peach cobbler and carrot cake, for example) but flavorful and perfectly executed.
At dinner I overheard guests at nearby tables telling fish stories—this is supreme trout-fly-fishing country, after all. (A River Runs Through It was shot on the nearby Gallatin River.) So even though I have had no luck at the sport, I decided to try again. The intrepid Rick Thomas was assigned to me, and the next morning we set out for the east fork of the Bitterroot River; I was armed with determined optimism, he with his secret cache of flies.
The star of the collection was Big Freddie, a fuzzy centipedelike dry fly created by Rick's stepfather, who also created Fernando, the big fish in the film version of A River Runs Through It. Nonetheless, Rick tried to play down Big Freddie's power, mentioning that Bitterroot fish are pretty canny, even during prime fishing season (late June—early August). I actually had two bites in four hours, but I didn't respond because I thought the hook was caught on a log. I consoled myself with the fact that it was a beautiful day to be on the Bitterroot. (Had I been desperate for a trophy, I could have tried the ranch's trout-stocked pond when we returned.)
That night we could barely keep our eyes open through dinner. But we forced ourselves because an aurora borealis had been predicted. We took our places after sunset on the deck, and just as we were about to fade, streaks of blue-green light flashed through that big sky—a grand finale to our great escape.
Triple Creek Ranch
Address: 5551 West Fork Stage Route, Darby, MT 59829
Reservations: 800-735-2478; 406-821-4600; fax 406-821-4666
Tip: For the most privacy, reserve Stage Stop, a spacious house outside the main lodge complex with a full kitchen, outdoor hot tub, and a panoramic view of the West Fork Valley.
Disclaimer: The information in this story was accurate at the time of publication in July 2000, but we suggest you confirm all details with the service establishments before making travel plans.