Generally when Australians talk about visiting America, it’s a trip to one of a handful of places, or a collection of said places; Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Aspen, Miami, New York. The slightly more adventurous might include a stop in New Orleans, Washington DC, Boston, Nashville or Austin. I don’t think it’s because people aren’t interested in exploring the vastly undiscovered remainder of the country, it’s because we’re drawn to these big cities to visit family and friends, or to attend a festival or event. As someone who has been to America half a dozen times, and included New York in all of those trips, I’ll be the first to admit my concept of real America was clouded to say the least. Thankfully, last month, that changed when I joined a group of Expedia Viewfinders for an epic taste of Americana in “Big Sky Country”, Montana.
Montana is the fourth largest state (by size) in the USA, it’s also the third least densely populated state after Alaska and Wyoming. A road trip across the 150,000 square mile state would take roughly 12 hours, but you could easily spend two weeks exploring the magnificent landscapes and picture perfect towns.
Our trip kicked off in Missoula, located roughly a two hours drive west of the state’s capital Helena. Downtown Missoula is small enough to walk around in a day and boasts a handful of excellent dining and drinking options. Those craving the all American, retro diner experience cannot miss Uptown Diner, while coffee lovers flock to Break Espresso or Black Coffee Roasting Company. On Saturdays the community comes together for the Missoula Farmers Market which is a wonderful way to try the fresh produce, chat with friendly locals and soak up the small town vibe. Across from the market Scotty’s Table serves up substantial plates for lunch, providing the perfect foundation for a trip to Kettle House Brewery or Montgomery Distillery. Plonk Wine Bar and Restaurant is a Montana institution with locations in Missoula and Bozeman, and after a fabulous dinner there, paired with equally excellent wines, it’s not hard to see why. After dinner locals head to Top Hat Lounge for live music, or to a handful of classic dive bars like The Rhino and Stockman’s to welcome the next day.
The people of Montana are obsessed with the outdoors. It’s not just a way of life, but a major tourist attraction, bringing billions of tourist dollars to the state each year. It’s not uncommon to chat to folk who’ve visited and never left, drawn in by world class fly fishing, hiking, rafting, RVing and even Rodeo. Even just around Missoula there are a host of activities for the keen outdoorsman (and lady) – day hikes around Mt Sentinel are a popular choice, or there’s the Clark Fork River, where you can try rafting with Montana River Guides, tubing and even surfing, for those game enough to try Brennan’s Wave off Caras Park.
We left Missoula and headed North towards Whitefish, stopping at Ninepipes Lodge for lunch and a live performance by American Indian singers and dancers, who showcased the various techniques that accompany a range of rituals and significant cultural events.
The next two nights were spent at Averill’s Flathead Lake Lodge – without doubt, the highlight of the trip. The all-inclusive ‘Dude’ Ranch (a term that once referred to cultured and wealthy Eastern socialites that came out West to see what life was like for the other half) has been operated by the Averill family since 1945 and sits on the picturesque shores of Flathead Lake in Bigfork. The property is breathtaking to say the least, and provides guests with the best of both worlds, combining traditional ranching activities with those of a summer lake getaway. Once you’ve checked in everything is at your disposal, from horseback riding and canoeing to boat cruises and most importantly, the bar. On Wednesdays all the guests are invited to dinner at a secret family location nestled high in the Flathead Forest, travelling there via horseback or the family’s custom fire truck. The accommodation, the activities, the staff, and the Averill family provide a truly authentic Montana ‘Cowboy’ experience. It’s a magical location run by a great family who seem to have the ranch formula down to perfection. I didn’t want leave, and I will definitely be back!
Our trip concluded in Whitefish, where The Lodge at Whitefish Lake became our base for activities for the final three days. The city is best known for its winter skiing at Whitefish Mountain Resort and its proximity to Glacier National Park in the summer. It’s also home to some of the friendliest people on the planet.
We took a tour on the famous open top Red Bus into Glacier National Park for a drive along the region’s famous scenic Going-to-the-Sun Road before a boat cruise on stunning Lake McDonald (Lake McDonald Lodge runs the cruises). Glacier National Park remains fairly quiet until Going-to-the-Sun Road officially opens (late June/early July or whenever the snow can be removed!) but it’s a great opportunity for hikers and cyclists to enjoy the road without crowds. After years of discussing it, I finally took a fly fishing lesson with the team from Glacier Anglers operating out of Glacier Outdoor Centre. Experienced local fisherman are on hand were on hand to teach us the proper technique for casting and setting the hook before we tried our luck in the huge trout ponds on site. I managed to net a couple of beautiful Rainbow trouts – no biggie.
Like Missoula, Whitefish is home to some impressive restaurants, distilleries and great local bars. We had great meals at The Boat Club restaurant within The Lodge at Whitefish Lake and at Grouse Mountain Lodge, with both menus promoting delicious local produce. In downtown Whitefish on our free evening different parties dined at Tupelo Grill and Wasabi Sushi Bar which received great reviews. I managed to sample some local ale from Great Northern Brewing Company as well as a phenomenal vodka and coffee flavoured liquor from Spotted Bear Distillery. I also had a rather large evening with some new friends at the Great Northern Bar on a selection of spirits from Glacier Distilling Company among other things. For a real local American bar experience Bulldog Saloon delivers in droves, and Sweet Peaks Ice Cream is a must for post dinner scoop.
As I write this now, recalling a jam packed itinerary across a solid seven days, I feel like there’s so much more to uncover in Montana. As a destination for Australians it doesn’t get much better, with the locals stoked to have you and endless summer and winter activities on offer. Everyone I spoke to about my trip was so intrigued. Everyone said the same five words, “I’d love to go there.”
Go on then. You won’t regret it.
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