Editor’s Note: This is the first of a three-part series on Capecchi’s adventures at Triple Creek Ranch in Western Montana. To read Part Two––including a float fishing trip down the Bitterroot River and a mountain hike to an alpine lake in the Bitterroot Mountains––visit StarTribune.com/outdoors next Sunday.
The No. 1 hotel in the world is not in Hawaii, Europe or some island in the South Pacific. It’s in the middle of rural Montana. Triple Creek Ranch (TCR) is tucked away in Western Montana’s Rocky Mountains, and despite its remote location it received the top honor from Travel & Leisure in the magazine’s 2014 reader vote.
From a distance the ranch appears a collection of contradictions: extreme luxury on a mountain’s edge; world-class dining removed from major cities; unique art alongside forests and wildlife; rugged adventures coupled with 5-star service and plush accommodations. Our curiosity piqued by the hotel’s endless list of awards and cult-like “best-place-ever” TripAdvisor reviews, my wife and I decided to head to Big Sky Country and experience Triple Creek for ourselves.
We immediately discovered what all the hype is about.
Montana is, in my opinion, the most scenic state in the lower 48, and the anticipation and scenery built up as we approached Triple Creek through the open vistas and mountain views of the Bitterroot Valley. The ranch is an easy 80-mile jaunt from Missoula International Airport, and when you turn off Highway 473 at the big “Triple Creek Ranch” sign, you enter sacred ground.
The hideaway resort clings to the base of Trapper Peak, the tallest point in the Bitterroot Mountains, and is covered by a canopy of ponderosa pines. We saw a half-dozen elk during our quarter-mile drive up the mountain’s base to the main lodge, then parked the car and drew a deep breath of the fresh mountain air before walking into the lodge and being embraced by the hospitality for which Triple Creek is famous.
“Welcome to Triple Creek Ranch!” said Jennifer O’Donohue, the Marketing and Sales Director whom I’d spoken with in advance of our trip. O’Donohue is an East Coast native who decided she’d rather be a cowgirl than a business exec, and with a wide-brim hat and ear-to-ear smile, she promptly took us in like we were out-of-town relatives. “You guys must be hungry. I just checked, and we have our poolside BBQ ready for you. Would you like me to walk you to lunch? After you’ve eaten we can bring you to your cabin, help get you unloaded and settled in, then if you’d like I can give you a property tour.”
The couple dozen steps we took to the outdoor pool marked the last moments during our time in Montana that we’d feel the slightest trace of hunger. Several days later when my wife and I sadly left TCR to return to reality, we did so with a carefully packed to-go lunch of bison sandwiches, grilled chicken wraps, veggies with hummus and oatmeal raisin cookies for us to enjoy at the airport and on our flight home.
At the moment, some five minutes into our arrival at paradise, we found ourselves sitting alongside a spotless pool lined by pine trees, drinking beer and lemonade, and devouring shrimp, squash, salad and smoked ribs that had been marinated for 24 hours. Life at Triple Creek is good.
And the service, well, it doesn’t get any better than this. A surprise welcome gift was waiting for us in our one-bedroom luxury cabin: a pair of TCR hats and matching bandanas, a tray of cookies and a bottle of champagne adorned with a “Happy Anniversary” note (in my pre-visit questionnaire I mentioned our trip coincided with our wedding anniversary).
The cookies and wine both proved superfluous due to TCR’s all-inclusive nature––think round-the-clock gourmet meals, a wine cellar of +700 vintages, a rooftop bar lounge and a fully stocked liquor cabinet in every cabin–––but it was a kind gesture that showed Jodie and me we were in the hands of hospitality wizards.
“We have an intimate, serene setting here, and guests often say they feel as though they are staying with a friend who has this fantastic Montana mountain home,” O’Donohue said, noting that TCR owners, Barbara and Craig Barrett, open their private home on-ranch to host cocktail hours with guests and provide tours of their personal art collection. “The ethos and spirit of hospitality lived out by Barbara and Craig infuses the rest of the staff. At large luxury hotels you usually don’t see this type of warm, hands-on ownership.”
Craig is the former CEO of Intel. Barbara was the U.S. Ambassador to Finland for two years, taught leadership courses at Harvard and has served on the board of a half dozen companies ranging from Mayo Clinic to Piper Aircraft. The couple fell in love with Triple Creek as guests, and bought the place in 1993.
Two years later TCR became an official Relais & Châteaux destination, and in the two decades since the Barretts have meticulously and methodically upgraded all aspects of the ranch experience. Accolades and awards piled up, culminating with last year’s distinction as the “No. 1 Hotel in the World” according to Travel & Leisure.
“The announcement was exciting to us because it was a reader survey, so it’s a very genuine honor––you can’t pay for that award or game that system at all,” O’Donohue said. “There was also a feeling of David vs. Goliath here because typically a much larger operation with many times as many guests as us wins that award, so for this remote 24-cabin ranch in Montana to be named No. 1 in the world was really powerful.”
TCR has received #1 for small inns and lodges in the U.S. for five consecutive years, O’Donohue said, but this worldwide honor has piqued interest in travelers from Spain to Argentina while simultaneously raising the profile of luxury ranches as a whole.
“Ranchers in Montana are some of the hardest working folks you’ll ever meet and a stay at one of Montana’s luxury ranches helps introduce parts of that lifestyle to people who are not familiar with it,” said Tia Troy, Communication Manager at Glacier Country Regional Tourism Commission. “Guests get to actively participate in some of the work and activities that are done on a regular basis by working cowboys, things like roping cattle, riding across a meadow on horseback or rounding up cows on a cattle drive, while still having a very comfortable stay with nice, higher-end touches.”
For Day One at Triple Creek, my wife and I indulged in those higher-end touches, saving the more active adventures of a river float fly fishing trip, mountain hiking at 8,000 feet, and a self-guided wildlife safari for Days Two and Three.
The beauty of Triple Creek, however, is that its famous 5-star service and gourmet food is served on the mountainside, surrounded by breathtaking scenery and heart-thumping encounters with Mother Nature. Hence, even our “lazy day” at the ranch was infused with awe-inspiring elements of Montana’s great outdoors.
For example, our post-lunch property tour was stunning not only for the immaculate cabins with mountain views and outdoor hot tubs under the trees, but also because the instant after O’Donohue mentioned elk were often spotted near a particular cabin a large bull presented himself to us.
When Jodie and I then went to the plush rooftop lounge for a mid-day happy hour (hey, the bartender starts serving at 3pm), we enjoyed not only fancy, colorful cocktails but also friendly, colorful birds. The lounge interior was exquisite, and taking our drinks out to the deck was akin to having a drink in the world’s nicest treehouse.
Several drinks and two hours later found it time to think about our next meal, so while Jodie prepared for dinner I took our golf cart to one of the stocked trout ponds on property; TCR gives each group their own golf cart to use during their stay. Once again, it occurred to me what a world of contradictions Triple Creek is, as I caught an 18-inch brown trout on a dry fly while Jodie primped and prepped for dinner in our cabin’s luxury bathroom complete with a steam shower.
Had I wanted, the staff would have cleaned and cooked my trout for dinner, but I went out on a limb and figured the wild mushroom and game stew, grilled curried chicken, watercress and red crab salads, pan seared beef tenderloin, fresh Hawaiian au fish, pecan butter cake and ice cream would suffice. Besides, I reasoned, we still had that untouched tray of anniversary cookies––not to mention s’mores by the campfire should starvation threaten.
Dinner was sublime, amplified by a warm dining room atmosphere enhanced by a massive fireplace and a high ceiling showcasing wonderful mounts of moose, elk, bison, deer and even mountain lions. Each meal, in fact, was a highlight in itself. I must say that while Jodie and I have been quite fortunate to dine at many award-winning, 5-star restaurants around the world, we have never been anywhere with better food than Triple Creek.
Executive Chef Jacob Leatherman continues TCR’s theme of delightful contradictions; the highly decorated chef received top training at New York City’s prestigious French Culinary Institute and worked at big-city French restaurants before following his love of fly fishing west to the Rocky Mountains. This season marks his 10th at Triple Creek, where he is surrounded by a talented crew committed to delighting guests.
“We keep meticulous notes on our guests’ preferences,” O’Donohue said. “We had a couple stay with us five years prior and in their file we noted the wife preferred bib lettuce on her salad. When they came back five years later, on their first evening dining with us we presented her salad with bib lettuce and she was amazed.”
Our first dinner at Triple Creek was capped off with a surprise anniversary treat delivered with a “Happy Anniversary” note artfully etched out in chocolate.
Delighted with our dinner and first day at the hideaway resort, Jodie and I lingered briefly at the campfire outside the main lodge before retiring to start our own fire in our cabin’s wood-burning fireplace. It is profoundly quiet up in the mountains at Triple Creek. Serenity abounds, and with our bellies full and our minds anticipating the adventures ahead, we fell quickly to sleep.
The only sound was the crackling fire.
The website for Triple Creek Ranch is TripleCreekRanch.com. For more information, call 800-654-2943 or email info@TripleCreekRanch.com.