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Matt Lee | Photo: Courtesy of the Resort at Paws Up | March 4, 2013
Saddle up, cowboys, and head out for unprecedented luxury in the Wild West at The Resort at Paws Up.
We’re sitting in the hot tub drinking a nice glass of wine when we see a bear.
OK, that’s not exactly what happens: In fact, my housemate, a friend of ours and I are sitting in the hot tub on our deck at the Resort at Paws Up ranch in western Montana, drinking a nice glass of wine when one of the resort’s guides pulls into our driveway and tells us that there’s a black bear in the forest right behind our abode.
More curious than frightened, we get out of the hot tub, trek up the path a few dozen yards, and, poking around the brush like a giant, black raccoon, there he is: the second wild bear I’ve ever seen in my life—and the second I’ve seen in two days at Paws Up!
You can see bears all over Montana. And you can find hot tubs and nice bottles of wine all over Montana. But what you can’t find anywhere else in Montana is a ranch as wildly luxurious as The Resort at Paws Up (pawsup.com), situated on 37,000 square acres of territory that Lewis and Clark once passed through. Think: 3,200-square-foot, three-suite Wilderness Estates residences with 1,700-square-foot decks, the aforementioned hot tub and a Kia Soul to help you navigate the ranch. Countless professionally guided activities, including fly-fishing, sporting clays, ATV tours, rappelling, horseback riding and hot air ballooning.
Genuine world-class dining featuring everything from “refined rustic ranch cuisine” like elk short loin with spring onion and spice berry rub to out-of-this-world preparations of more traditional western eats like bison chili and black angus brisket. Just a few days will make you a believer. From raucous nights at the ranch’s bar, Tank, two-stepping to live bluegrass, to hoisting a trout out of the sprawling Blackfoot River, this is where the jet set comes to really get wild.
Speaking of dining, we happen to visit Paws Up on its annual Montana Master Chefs weekend. While the ranch hosts a number of big events throughout the year, Master Chefs is special, drawing in foodies from around the country. Each year, a number of former Top Chef contestants visit to not only cook for guests, but also participate in a Top Chef-style cook-off challenge. This year, the toques of honor are local hero Dale Levitski, of Frog N Snail and Sprout fame, Ryan Scott, Ariane Duarte and Hosea Rosenberg.
For the first night’s dinner, held at the rustic but elegant on-site Pomp restaurant, Levitski and Scott prepare an amazing five-course meal paired with exceptional wines from Jason Haas and Tablas Creek Vineyard. Courses include Levitski’s duck confit perogi l’orange, a variation of which can be found on the menu at Sprout, and Scott’s roasted Maine lobster with shiitake mushrooms. The following night, Duarte and Rosenberg spend all day preparing standouts like coriander-cured pork loin with habanero pickled carrots and rosemary scented venison loin. On both nights guests leave wowed by the cuisine and very, very full.
“The food is over-the-top; the combinations are over -the-top,” says Levitski, who’s participated in the Master Chefs weekend for the last three years. “You never realize how busy you’re going to be every time you’re there.”
The Bravo star isn’t just referring to the intense cooking schedule. As busy as the chefs are, they make plenty of time for activities, guided by the Ritz-Carlton-worthy Paws Up staff. One activity in particular speaks to this kid from Arlington Heights.
“I have to shoot,” says Levitski. “That’s one thing I really look forward to; I get very into it.”
A star diver in high school and college, Levitski’s athleticism is on full display when, one afternoon, he blasts clay after clay out of the gorgeous Montana sky as effortlessly as he juliennes veggies.
While life at Paws Up could not get more refined in terms of the five-star accommodations, dining and service, the activities are as authentic as the giant stuffed grizzly you see in the lobby when you fly into Missoula International Airport. When we head out for a 90-minute ATV tour, one woman quickly turns back: Whatever she had in mind, it wasn’t conquering this occasionally rough terrain at a fast pace. Not surprisingly, fishing is one of the most popular activities, as the resort is located in the golden triangle of Montana fly-fishing: Anglers can hit the Blackfoot River on the ranch or, nearby, the Bitterroot, Missouri or Clark Fork rivers. And even a leisurely horseback ride through the conifer forests results in a black bear sighting—something only slightly less exciting to this city boy than seeing a woolly mammoth.
If city slickers are tempted by the painted Montana landscapes and pre-Columbian clean air, but not by roughing it, they can forget the activities and head to Spa Town. Located on a brook, shaded by pines, it is, nominally, made up of “tents”—but, like the blinged-out “tents” you can choose to stay in at the resort, the spa tents have nothing to do with what you remember from Boy Scouts. Inside Spa Town’s canvas enclosures you’ll find hardwood floors, full baths and showers, and heated massage tables. And forget the Zen Muzak: the brook, birds and wind blowing through the trees supply a far more peaceful soundtrack than any Bose speaker could.
While nights at Paws Up often culminate in a few libations with other friendly “campers” at the convivial, cozy Tank, this weekend reaches its apex with the much-anticipated Master Cook-Off. Levitski won in 2011, but this year, he’s controversially edged out by Rosenberg.
Clearly, though, there are no losers at this event.
“It’s a great way to get out of town with people who are really interested in the food,” says Levitski. “The guests are awesome, I’ve met a lot of friends, the staff is amazing. It’s the friendliest place ever.”
Lewis and Clark never had it so good.