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MONTANA GEMS - BIG ON SAVINGS, EXPERIENCE AND HOSPITALITY
 
(2014 - Fall/Winter Issue)

Writer: CHRIS HOLLENDERSKI



For those who enjoy a ski vacation, we all know that wonderful feeling as you open the cabin door in the morning, step outside into the crisp mountain air and marvel at the beautiful landscape around you.

After your first few runs you have warmed up enough to ask yourself why we don’t do this more often? It’s not until that credit card bill arrives a few weeks later when it hits you; a world-class winter experience isn’t possible on a tight budget. With the escalating cost of accommodation, $90 lift tickets and dining out, it’s definitely a challenge! However, such is not the case in Montana’s Flathead Valley.

Ski With the Best

Let’s begin with the most popular ski hill in the area, Whitefish Mountain Resort. The 1,214 skiable hectares place it in the top 10 largest ski resorts in the United States. But as we all know, size isn’t everything. We dread 30-minute waits to get on the first gondola of the day and this is where skiing in Montana shines since crowds are non-existent even during peak season. 

The terrain at Whitefish has options for every skill level and I spent a fair amount of my time on Hellroaring Basin, which had me grinning from ear to ear, especially considering the lift ticket cost me $50 at Costco. After a day on the slopes it’s time for every skier’s favourite part of the day—après-ski, which basically means having a few adult beverages while letting your bones rest. Whitefish town has a strip of bars, shops and restaurants to enjoy your post-ski sessions and reminisce on the success of your day on the slopes.

Hightail it to Blacktail

Whitefish Resort is the famous hill in the area, but travellers love discovering hidden gems. Blacktail Mountain sits
farther south and above Flathead Lake, the largest lake in the USA west of the Mississippi River. With almost 405 hectares of terrain and $38 lift tickets during prime season as well as plenty of other specials throughout the week, Blacktail puts most resorts in the east to shame. It’s closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, which can make Wednesdays after a snow dump one of the best places to ride on the continent!

Since there are no hotels at Blacktail Mountain you will have to drive past the Tamarack Brewery on your way back to your lodging. Tamarack Brewery was started by Stanley Cup hockey champion Lanny McDonald and his family. Speaking of the Stanley Cup, you can actually see it during the annual Pond Hockey Classic staged just outside the city of Kalispell every February, so why not sign up a team and enjoy this great event too? Back to the brewery, the $10 sampler will give your taste buds a challenge to determine your favourite local brew. Luckily you can also find their beer at the local stores so you can continue to enjoy it while you’re in Montana.

Plan for Unique Activities

After a good night of après-ski you may decide to sleep in a bit and opt for a unique experience. Herron Park has a vast trail system for cross-country skiers and hikers. There are hundreds of miles of other cross-country trails throughout the Flathead Valley. Or maybe give ice fishing a try on one of the 130 lakes and ponds in the area.     

Snowshoe discovery hikes are offered in the town of Kalispell and it only costs $5 to rent snowshoes. Woodland Park, also in Kalispell, has an ice-skating rink so you can play a pickup game of ice hockey if you still have any energy left. If you plan your visit before or after the ski season, you also have an opportunity to meet some true cowboys and try horseback riding on one of many trails.

A great place to reenergize is the city of Kalispell, smack in the middle of the wilderness. Featuring numerous hotels it’s a great place to stay and especially affordable during the winter season. And there are plenty of choices when it comes to dining, shopping, museums, paths and parks to keep you busy. Don’t miss out on the vast selection of beers and wines at Hops Restaurant to complement their delicious lasagna.

As far as satisfying your appetite, don’t expect big-city prices or small portions. There’s a real local farm-to-table movement happening in this valley featuring hearty comfort food with contemporary techniques using local produce. Your appetite and wallet will be happy.

Flathead Valley also has its foot in the agritourism business. Approximately 50 farms in the area raise cattle, yaks, lamb and chickens and make their own wine, cheeses and fresh honey. The fruit and vegetable options are nearly endless. Pick up the Farm Hands map at the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce, which outlines the farms, times to visit and what each produces.

Finally, a trip to this area without a tour of its top attraction Glacier National Park is a big mistake. Its vast wilderness vistas will amaze you. An exciting way to tour the area in winter is by snowmobile on groomed trails with a guide. Once you exit the park a tasting stop at Glacier Distilling is a definite treat. Nicolas, the owner, is very passionate and eager to share his experience and love of whiskey.

While all the activities in the area will keep you busy it’s the time you spend with the locals you will remember most. They are truly happy to share their valley.

Travel Planner

For more information, visit:

Flathead Convention and Visitor Bureau: fcvb.org

Blacktail Mountain Ski Area: blacktailmountain.com

Glacier National Park: visitmt.com/national_parks/glacier

Glacier Distilling: glacierdistilling.com

Kalispell Chamber/Convention & Visitor Bureau: discoverkalispell.com

Whitefish Mountain Resort: skiwhitefish.com

 
 
 
 
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