BIG SKY, Mont. — There are two big destination ski resorts in Montana. Big Sky, near Bozeman, is expensive and polished. Big Mountain, near Whitefish, is not.
You can go as big as you want in Big Sky Country. But which is the real Montana?
I grew up there and can tell you with authority, they both are. Here are some observations from recent visits to both resorts:
Big Mountain: They just renamed this "Whitefish Mountain Resort at Big Mountain," but it's just Big Mountain to Montanans. It has fewer runs and a more rustic village than Big Sky, but many of the condos are nice and affordable, and usually come with access to a pool or hot tub.
The restaurants tend toward ski bum chic: dark, woody, places with lots of burgers, pizza and beer. Prices aren't a lot higher than in the charming town of Whitefish at the bottom of the hill. Kids are welcome most everyplace, and the beer tends to come in pitchers.
Whitefish is near the western edge of Glacier National Park, and the scenery and tourist amenities are spectacular.
The town is served by Amtrak's Empire Builder. On our recent trip, we rode the train from Spokane, Wash., to Whitefish, a five-hour trip in the middle of the night. Cost was $50 per person.
We stayed in town at a golf resort. The hotel sent a van to pick us up at Whitefish's charming old train station. After we checked in, they shuttled us up the mountain, to the hotel's private lodge in the village.
We skied all day, had dinner, then got shuttled back to our hotel in town.
This area nestled between Glacier and giant Flathead Lake has long been one of the most popular parts of Montana, and is awash in out-of-staters buying second and third homes.
But it also remains popular with Montanans, and has maintained much of the state's casual attitude. The blue jeans tend more toward Levi's or Haggar than Ralph Lauren. The people wearing cowboy hats may actually work on a ranch, and many of the customers come from places like Great Falls and Missoula.
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Celebrities do appear. I once rode up the lift with former NFL quarterback Bobby Hebert, the Cajun Cannon. We had a nice chat, but when we got to the top our skis crossed, Hebert fell to the ground and the chair hit him in the helmet.
It's my one and only quarterback sack.
Big Sky: If Big Mountain is burgers, Big Sky is steak. It was founded by a group that included former television anchorman Chet Huntley (the main bar in the Huntley Lodge is called Chet's Place), and is located in the posh Paradise Valley near Yellowstone National Park.
Luxury is the order of business here. The hotels and condos are decorated right out of lifestyle magazines, with prices to match. While there are some generic ski hill restaurants, the dinner places tend be fancy and pricey, including one that can be reached by horse-drawn sleigh. We considered going to a Japanese restaurant with a large family group, but a glance at the menu posted in the window sent us elsewhere.
The staff all wear black cowboy hats, giving a theme park feel.
Big Sky has lots and lots of ski runs and high-speed lifts, so the mountain feels uncrowded. There's a shopping mall where one can buy furs. The celebrity count is often relatively high.
My favorite bar at Big Sky turned out to be in the basement of the village mall, a dark warren frequented by employees who tell hilarious stories about the guests. This bar had two amazing virtues: It allowed cigar smoking and had a video poker machine, allowing for hours of apres-ski entertainment.
If Big Sky isn't quite posh enough for you, it is adjacent to a private ski resort called the Yellowstone Club that is open only to owners of the multimillion dollar homes and their guests. Two of us took a wrong turn down a run, became lost and ducked under a rope to get to the first lift we could see.
The operator informed us that we had crossed onto Yellowstone Club turf and would have to leave. We rode the nearly empty lift (it had heated seats!) to the top, where the operator pointed us towards a trail that would return us to the relatively low rent Big Sky.
But this has also become the reality in Montana, where recreational home-buyers have flocked to the beautiful Western mountain valleys, making them the fastest-growing parts of the state. Private jets are a common sight, as are designer boutiques you would never find in Havre or Miles City.
This, too, is part of Montana.
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