Plenty of Room to Roam at Paws Up

As the light at the end of the tunnel following this unprecedented year becomes visible, my husband and I decided the time was right to venture out for a “safe” yet exciting weekend away. Having spent a good part of this past year in Montana, we decided to take a quick trip to the Resort at Paws Up, a resort outside of Missoula that is widely credited with starting the “Glamping” trend back in 2005. Now there are many opportunities to Glamp (5 star camping), but Paws Up created the genre. Located on 37,000 acres, staying at Paws Up affords you the ability to socially distance yourself from other folks pretty effectively.

We had originally booked a get-away in October, but at that time the Covid cases were exploding in Montana, so the management kindly allowed us to postpone our stay until a later date. We were looking at upcoming events at Paws Up a couple of weeks ago, and when we saw they had a French Laundry themed weekend, that spurred us on to book our stay. March is considered the low season at Paws Up, as Spring takes quite a while to arrive in Montana, so the weather was somewhere stuck between seasons. We enjoyed sunshine and mid 40 degree temps in the day, dropping down to freezing overnight. This created quite a bit of ice and slush- but in truth, we were just happy to have the place “almost” to ourselves.

The idea of having a weekend of haute cuisine, horseback riding, and no responsibility was pretty alluring, so we packed our bags and set out.

We drove from our home in Big Sky, but I believe the majority of guests fly in to Missoula where they are met by staff, and given a Lexus to drive around the property for the weekend. Even the most outdoorsy and fit guests need an automobile to navigate from venue to venue- the property is massive. Because of the weather, the only accommodation open to us was a vacation home (cabin). The tents do not welcome guests until Spring actually arrives.

My husband had a spot picked out for lunch along the way (check in is at 4pm) which he had heard was the quintessential burger spot in Montana, The Big Bull Bar & Grill in Winston MT.

The restaurant was packed and had most definitely NOT gotten the mask memo, so we got a Crazy Burger to go.

The burger was definitely a winner, worthy of its reputation.

As a vegetarian, I decided to save my appetite for one of my favorite old time spots in Helena Montana, The Parrot Confectionery, which dates back to 1922. I really can’t say enough about this place, everything about it is magical. After much deliberation, I picked out several delicacies to try (they will sell by the piece) and savored them one by one. Most of the sweets are made on premises and they are incredible.

They also are renowned for their Chili, which we passed on, but the smell was tempting. Have you ever seen a more nostalgic interior?!

Following the chocolates, we had to have just a taste of another Montana institution, Big Dipper Ice Cream. The main Big Dipper can be found in Missoula, but they do maintain a small outpost in Helena, right next to The Parrot.

The short list of flavors all proved to be tempting…and after much deliberation we settled on Mexican Chocolate and Black Licorice.

The ice cream is always delicious from Big Dipper, and this time was no exception. The saving grace to finishing it all in a few bites was the fact that it was freezing outside, so we had a taste, and moved on.

You can’t pass through Helena without a swing past the State Capital , which is of course, just what we did.

We ended up rolling into Paws Up at precisely 4pm, perfect timing. We arrived at the reception building, and were met by friendly staff members who encouraged us to download the Paws Up app which would provide us with our pre-booked itinerary, as well as maps and the ability to reach a staff member at all times. The interactions we had with staff both preceding and during our stay were exceptional. At every juncture the employees could not have been nicer, more enthusiastic, or more accommodating. I was truly impressed. We booked through our Virtuoso agent, and so received some goodies in our cabin as well as a $300 credit to be used towards activities. The stay at Paws Up is all-inclusive of lodging, dining, house wine, and activities which do not require a guide, but there are a multitude of options to choose from as far as unique experiences- most of which are very reasonably priced. In order to get a sense of the rates, our off season weekend was approximately $5,500.

A small disclaimer before I move on to the review of the resort. I am fortunate to live part-time in Montana, truly one of the most glorious states in the US, and subsequently have the benefit of experiencing the American West in all its glory day after day. Because of my unique perspective, I am not as awed by the facilities at Paws Up as say a family coming from an urban environment, or someone not as well acquainted with Log Cabins and rustic decor. In addition, I think that when the Resort was opened in 2005, the facilities were probably quite a bit more pristine than they are now. There is certainly some maintenance that needs to be done. That being said, if you have a dream of staying on a unique, “authentic” western ranch for a weekend, or week for that matter, and you are not expecting a stay at the level of the Amangiri (which I reviewed here) , you can have a lot of fun.

Getting in to the nitty gritty, we were escorted to our cabin by a very nice fellow who is currently a student at the University of Montana. Our cabin was a two bedroom, 2 bath called the Blue Bomber. It was nicely nestled in the woods with no other neighbors in sight.

The path to the cabin was a bit treacherous due to the freezing and refreezing, which ruled out all the cute footwear I had packed.

The main room in the cabin was cozy, and focused on a nice big fireplace, with the wood in place to get it started.

The bedroom was large, but the finishes were not of the highest quality. The pillows were quite lumpy and the sheets while clean, were pilled- not necessarily what I would have expected.

There was a stairway that led to a loft, which we didn’t make use of, but if we were traveling with friends or family, it would have been nice.

The loft had two twin beds, though I didn’t check to see if the pillows or sheets were of a better caliber.

The Master Bath was spacious, with a double shower, but again, the finishes were in the mediocre category. The extra bath did have a washer dryer which was a welcome amenity, especially after our horse back ride.

The highlight of the cabin for me was a life sized statue of a German Shepherd which was a good stand-in for our dog, who we left at home with a baby-sitter.

We enjoyed a nice welcome gift of snacks as well as champagne, wine, and chocolates. There was also a coffee maker in the kitchen.

We quickly unpacked and got ready for the French Laundry event. While no chefs actually made the journey from Napa to Greenough Montana, it happens that Sunny Jin, the Executive Chef at Paws up is a French Laundry graduate, as is Paws Up Chef Alison Beasley. The guest chef who flew in from The Kahala Resort in Hawaii, Jonathan Mizukami, put in many years at the French Laundry as well, so they are clearly well-versed in that style of cooking. Each Chef had responsibility for one dish per evening, and the results were delicious. Having been cooking and cleaning dishes for a year of lock-down, it was an unbelievable treat to have artfully prepared dishes presented to us one after another. I chose to go with an alternative gluten-free, vegetarian menu, and I think that in many cases my dishes were even better than what was prepared for most of the other guests.

The dishes portrayed below were the ones tailored to my diet. They were as sublime as they look. The Butter Mochi dessert in the last photo which was the same for all of us, was incredible. Each course was explained by the chef who created them, and were paired with wines from Daou Vineyards in Paso Robales, CA. The visiting representative was very happy to educate and share generous pours of each selection.

As you can see, the main dining room, Pomp, allows for plenty of opportunity to distance from other guests. All the staff maintained their mask wearing throughout the meal, as did all the Paws Up staff, aside from the those we interacted with for outdoor activities.

The adherence to the distancing and mask wearing went a long way to offer comfort for those wanting to dip their toes in to returning to normal travel.

In the morning we stretched out the kinks from our lumpy pillows and headed to breakfast where we were treated to some fluffy huckleberry/ white chocolate chip pancakes (with candied hazelnuts),

as well as Brisket Hash topped with poached eggs. I enjoyed some oatmeal (not exciting enough to photograph)!

I retired to the cabin and read by the fire, while my husband went to shoot clays. He found the staff amenable, and enthusiastic, and really enjoyed himself. Our afternoon’s activity was a snowy horseback ride, so we fortified ourselves with another hearty meal (fried chicken sammy and sweet potato fries), and then got changed.

The protocol before activities is to meet in the very extensive (and nicely curated tbh) retail shop. There is no end to the amount of Paws Up swag you can bring home with you. Once our small group of riders had congregated we drove to the horses. It was practically a 15 minute drive, which helps to give a perspective on just how large the property is.

Our Wrangler was Bekka, who gave quite a bit of thought as to which horse she should match to each rider. Having grown up riding, I had never ridden in the snow, so I was excited. The horseshoes have spikes on the bottom to give the horses more stable footing.

This ride was really quite glorious. The horses were responsive, and seemed well taken care of. Bekka was sure to keep everyone together while pointing out the sights.

We were able to view many of the campsites along the river, which were very picturesque.

Following the ride we returned to our cabin and tossed our muddy riding clothes in the washer and got ready for dinner. The second special evening unfolded much like the first, though there was the added aspect of entertainment provided by a terrific musician named Tom Catmull.

My choices again were tailored to my dietary restrictions, and I thought they were outstanding.

The lighting in Pomp is a bit dark and moody which doesn’t help in trying to capture the nuances of the meal, but trust me, it was excellent.

After the meal we returned back to the cabin, and my husband decided it would be a great idea to test out the Pizza Delivery service that Paws Up touts. He failed to notice the fine print which states that the pizza is delivered alongside a myriad of other tempting delights. I was quite full fom dinner, clearly he was not.

The Bacon & Onion pie received kudos from him, and he is extremely particular about his pizza.

Along with salads, and a delicious marinated pineapple dish, we received this plate of brownies, candy , and Big Dipper Vanilla ice cream. This may have been the highlight of the evening.

All in all, we had a great time at Paws Up, but would I return? Probably not. My Montana experience is quite a bit better than what I was offered at the Resort, but I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to City Slickers desirous of an all inclusive Ranch Vacation. It would make an ideal destination for a family reunion, as there is no shortage of activities to keep a multigenerational family busy. With regards to the wear and tear of the facility, they are introducing a new product for adults only this summer- called Green-O (the resort is located in Greenough MT) that will be modern glass cubes overlooking the river. Those might be a more luxurious option if you are considering a trip. Again, I applaud the Chefs and staff who really did a terrific job, I just wish it was a bit more luxurious.

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