Moving to Montana Soon
There are many reasons why you read LUSSO. There’s the wit, the attitude, our ability to find new experiences, our sense of style… There are other reasons too, but it all simmers down to one key fact: we know our readers and we know what you want.
On that basis, I’m going to beg your indulgence here and ask that you stick with me until the end of this feature. Because I’m about to tell you tales of karaoke, bowling and tents at an all-inclusive resort. No. Really.
Ah, “all-inclusive”. Two such innocuous words independently but combined they shout “Brits abroad”, “Sun reader” and “prole” with deafening volume. In this instance though – The Ranch at Rock Creek – the phrase’s shortcomings get a thorough working over, leaving them bruised, bloody, trampled in the dust and utterly redefined.
It’s not the only thing that gets reappraised, as The Ranch at Rock Creek is a place that plays around with all sorts of notions and misconceptions: if ever a resort could be described as “tongue in cheek”, well, this is the one. In the brochure, my accommodation is described as a “tent”. Happily, it’s like no tent you’ve ever known. The walls may be canvas, but the floor is hardwood. As is the porch. And the en suite bathroom. It’s heated – beautifully – by two wood-burning stoves. There’s electricity. There’s room for a double bed, two singles and, so that you don’t get lonely, two teddy bears. The only modern trappings the tent lacks are a TV and an iPod dock but if you had those, you wouldn’t appreciate the silence of the Montana night or the gentle, soothing sounds of the titular creek that runs just a few metres from your front door. Besides, if you really need the 21st Century, the tents have wifi. And that’s a sentence you don’t get to type very often.
Perhaps The Ranch at Rock Creek’s biggest achievement, however, is making Montana a desirable vacation destination. Aside from the “Big Sky State” tagline, you’d be pushed to identify anything else that Montana is famous for, with the possible exception of Brokeback Mountain. While that’s apparently a connection they’re keen to downplay, having found myself telling the owner how much I love his “sweet little pussycat nose” some two minutes after meeting him and staying in touch with two other male guests, I’m starting to understand that, er, bonding process.
The owner in question is Jim Manley, who ran a successful hedge fund and started his own investment bank. Despite that success, he never lost sight of a Western-inspired childhood dream of his own ranch, with horses, guns and wide open spaces. When he was in a position to purchase one, the search was harder than expected as, ever the host, Jim had very specific requirements for him and the family and friends he envisaged as guests. The property had to have low elevation but a high alpine feel. There had to be skiing available within an easy drive. There had to be a waterway on the property and a sense of being completely removed from reality and busy roads. The hunt took in the USA and Canada, before the 6600 acres of former mining claim The Ranch at Rock Creek, at the base of the John Long Mountains, ticked the various boxes. And, ever the businessman Jim realised that his vision – “a playground for adults” – was sellable to a wider public, and doing so would ensure that his children could one day inherit the property.
And what a property – and playground – it is. The various accommodation buildings are dotted around the vast acreage. Some, like the tents, are new. Many are refurbished original buildings. All are impeccable. There are certain Montana-themed flourishes yet somehow they remain charming rather than kitsch, and all come with THAT view: miles of greenery, water, horses, hills and that famous sky. More poetic writers than I have tackled this celebrated blue dome: I just spent hours staring into the distance mumbling “it’s REALLY big…”
There are many other ways to get out under that sky. Here, while all-inclusive covers the food and drink aspects (more on those shortly), the real selling point is the range of activities that are also on offer under the all-inclusive banner. For the sake of the horses, I resisted the various riding options – I may be a slip of thing by some US standards but I like to think the horses appreciated my gesture – but they’re a very small percentage of what’s on offer, the range on the range, if you will. Sporting clays left me beaming and reconsidering my attitude to US gun laws. The same applied to the rifle and pistol range, particularly the replica Winchester; uncannily like the toy rifle I owned as a kid although that one didn’t blast satisfying holes in targets. Under the expert guidance of all at the Rod & Gun, the central point for the Ranch’s activities, I was allowed to indulge assorted cowboy and outdoorsman fantasies.
The highlight though was a morning’s fly fishing. There are well-stocked lakes should you be so desperate to catch something but where’s the challenge in that? The real fun is to be had on – and in – the Creek itself, particularly as there’s very patient guide on hand to remind you gently of the technique they’d taught you earlier and, even better, to go and untangle your line from the various bushes, trees and rocks that you will, inevitably, snag more often than a passing trout. There’s a Zen like quality to this sort of skilled fishing, where all you can think of is the process and all you can focus on is the float and the feel of the line. Everything else – bills, office arseholes, domestic disputes, etc – fades away as life becomes you, the rod, the line and the water. Actually snaring a fish is oddly disruptive but still satisfying. I had several strikes, one successful – although the wriggling little bastard jumped out of my hands before I could secure photographic evidence – several failures, yet still returned about as happy as I’ve ever been.
The quality of the air and the tranquillity alone make The Ranch… one of the most relaxing locations I’ve ever been to (never underestimate the soothing qualities that four miles of creek brings) but, while the area and the history scream rough and ready – both qualities vital to that the pioneering spirit – the details here are spot on. Food, from chef Josh Drage, is excellent and, while hearty is certainly an option – I have particularly fond memories of a lunchtime pork chop sandwich – these are not your classic American portions. There’s lightness and balance and a healthy reliance on seasonal items and the Montana “larder”, particularly when it comes to game.
Your three squares are served at the Granite Lodge, the property’s central hub and reception area. This is a fair distance from the tents but it’s a lovely walk (or, indeed, a cycle ride as every property comes with a bike). Besides, the tents benefit from a closer meeting point, The Blue Canteen, where pastries and coffee are available from early in the morning, where local craft beers are available from the fridge, where the charming Kathleen hosts with endless patience and good nature, and where a number of rocking chairs (with blankets for those cooler days and evenings) circle a fire pit, where you can sit to the early hours toasting marshmallows, smoking cigars and staring up at the heavens, that “Big Sky” now dotted with thousands upon thousands of stars.
But then there’s also the logic-defying Silver Dollar. The idea of a bar with bowling alleys, karaoke, darts, pool and assorted big screens (one showing classic Westerns, two showing live sport) seems at odds with the resort’s tranquil luxury philosophy and yet, somehow, it works. My how it works. Barriers are not so much broken down as nuked, hence assorted group sing-alongs, memorable duets – I like to think folk are still talking about Jim’s and my aforementioned take on What’s New Pussycat, and me and a guest of similar physical stature interpreting Tiny Dancer, you know, just for the irony. There was also a duet with a Hollywood star who, after an understandable reticence in the first 24 hours of their stay, rapidly relaxed and succumbed to the general mood. That “all inclusive” thing doesn’t just apply to the facilities and payment: it’s also a neat description of how you’re left feeling, probably doubly so if “normal” life sees your every move dogged by the paparazzi. When your final night sees you sitting around a camp fire with people you didn’t know a few days before, from all walks of life, smoking cigars, toasting marshmallows, swapping e-mail addresses and risqué jokes, you know something’s gone right. When your farewells to the staff that have made your stay so pleasurable almost bring a tear to the eye, you know something truly remarkable has happened.
There are lots of stunning resorts in the world. I feel lucky to have been to so many. None has been so hard to leave as The Ranch at Rock Creek.
Prices start from $950 per night per person for a double room fully inclusive of lodging, phone calls, internet, fully stocked mini bar, all meals and beverages and two on-site ranch activities per day. www.theranchatrockcreek.com.