The West may be wild, but culture abounds: Rainbow Ranch, Big Sky

We never tired of sipping a glass of wine (or if we did we’d just switch over to a hand-crafted cocktail) while appreciating the “A River Runs Through It” view of the Gallatin River winding through the forested mountains.

Spinach and Amaltheia feta salad at Rainbow Ranch Restaurant
Rainbow Ranch
R & R at Rainbow Ranch

The Back-story

Joan and I, two girlfriends on the dark side of 50, had made plans to meet in Big Sky, Montana, to explore the Wild West in luxurious style and discover the answer to Life’s Big Question, “If we stand under the Big Sky, will our butts looks smaller?”

We also couldn’t wait for our maiden visit to Yellowstone Park.

The Problem:

We arrived right after the *!@#$%^&* Government closed all the National parks!

The Perfect 2-part Solution:

Rainbow Ranch Lodge room
Loved the nightly fire

1. Luckily we were booked for a superb R & R getaway at Rainbow Ranch Lodge, where a wilderness stay offers every conceivable luxury, including a nightly delivery of homemade cookies.

And the nightly bubble bath
And the nightly bubble bath

Our rooms featured mega-sized, woody bathrooms with a 6-foot soaking tub and a rainforest shower stocked with Molton Brown amenities, a comfy king bed dressed in luxurious Anichini linens and radiant floor heating.

Montana Wagyu Carpaccio
Montana Wagyu Carpaccio

The RR Restaurant’s fine-dining menu showcases Montana ranch-to-table cuisine (Mesquite grilled Bison, Rocky Mountain Elk, Montana Wagyu Beef, farm-raised game, fresh fish) and an extensive wine list that has repeatedly earned Wine Spectator’s Award of excellence.

Fred Flintstone-sized Rocky Mountain Elk for dinner
Fred Flintstone-sized Rocky Mountain Elk for dinner

We were happy to experience the rugged West from the vantage point of our inviting window seat next to a crackling wood-burning river rock fireplace.

We never tired of sipping a glass of wine (or if we did we’d just switch over to a hand-crafted cocktail) while appreciating the “A River Runs Through It” view of the Gallatin River winding through the forested mountains, which was the magnificent view from our room.  We couldn’t have been more comfy-cozy, nestled into our plush oversized robes, feeling like “buttah” after our massages at the lodge’s Outpost Retreat, contemplating whether we had enough energy left to get ourselves over to the outdoor hot tub and enjoy the sunset from there.  We love the cowboy life!

Counted down the minutes to happy hour at the welcoming bar
Counted down the minutes to happy hour at the welcoming bar

The 21-room lodge Ranch is bustling during ski season and summer, but it’s also special to be there ‘tween times, when many come  for the peace and quiet. If you’re feeling more ambitious, the concierge will be happy to arrange an outdoor adventure such as fly-fishing, horseback riding, kayaking, hiking, hunting, white river rafting, etc.

Ousel Falls
Ousel Falls

We thoroughly enjoyed our easy-peasy hike to the gorgeous Ousel Falls, which Summer, the appropriately named, cheerful girl at the front desk steered us to, since we were feeling a bit low-energy from the altitude (oh, who am I kidding…we just loved acting like lazy slugs). It’s a good thing we did our hike before Joan (the wussiest half of our duo) finally read the instructions next to the big canisters of bear spray at the front desk with many tips such as “Do not use the bear spray for anything other than charging bears, moose or mountain lions.”  After she calmed down a bit, I promised her that we would just take a short stroll right behind the property to work off a bit of the Mesquite Grilled Bison Hanger Steak, House-Made Elk and Pork Sausage I had scarfed down at dinner.  Unfortunately, we immediately ran into a couple of happy hunters who had just bagged a bear. Needless to say, from then on all further explorations consisted of scouting out the best brewpubs.

Headed back to the ranch after bumping into this Bear hunter
Headed back to the ranch after bumping into this Bear hunter

2. Although I didn’t get to cross hiking in Yellowstone off my bucket list, we were able to engage in another fascinating activity: Escape to RR and Get Cultured at Amaltheia Organic Dairy, a USDA certified organic goat dairy and cheese plant located in located in bouthwestern Montana since 2000.The two have buddied up to offer an exclusive cheesemaking class and private tour of this award-winning, sustainable dairy farm (normally not open to the public) specially for RR Guests.

Spinach  and Amaltheia feta salad at Rainbow Ranch Restaurant
Spinach and Amaltheia feta salad

We couldn’t wait to roll up our sleeves and learn the basics of cheese making, particularly after tasting the restaurant’s spinach salad, bejeweled with dried cranberries and luscious bits of Amaltheia feta.

Joan and Nate making feta at Amaltheia Dairy
Joan and Nate making feta at Amaltheia Dairy

We then drove to the small cheese plant in Belgrade where we met one of the owners, dynamo Sue Brown, (Melvin, her British hubby/co-owner was back at the farm tending to the over 400 goats and 50+ pigs, not to mention the occasional Llama).  Sue turned us over to her son, Nate, who would guide us through Goat Cheesemaking 101. After donning the fetching hairnets and jackets, we soon were up to our elbows in a warm vat of feta cheese. We sliced, diced, crumbled and finally scooped the cheese into the molds, while Nate explained the basics of the pasteurization process, cultures, whey, and the healthier nutritional differences of goats milk cheese. We were surprised to find out that it takes 5 pounds of goat milk to make one pound of cheese.

An Almatheia cheesemaker
An Almatheia cheesemaker

The 29-year-old organic vegetable farmer and cheesemaker was a wealth of information, but his eyes really lit up when we got to the topic of his organic pigs, who are fed the nutritious whey cheesemaking leftovers. This results in a nuttier, buttery flavor and a pinker color to the meat.

“I just love pigs,” Nate enthused. “They are awesome animals.” When asked if he had a favorite, he immediately replied,  “Isabella”, who will be having her first litter this January. Born the runt of the litter, Nate used to feed her goat milk from a baby bottle until she’d fall asleep in his arms. Awwww.

This sweetheart of a guy is currently girlfriend-less so I’m putting out the word in his behalf. When I pestered him to tell me what he was looking for, he blushingly replied, “Well, she should like living on a farm and she has to be funny.”

Hey girls, Nate's available!
Hey girls, Nate’s available!

We left the plant armed with copious samples of their flavored chèvre, (the Perigord Black Truffle and Roasted Garlic and Chive were my faves) feta and their unique whole (goats) milk ricotta, to drive the six miles over to the farm to meet Melvin, Isabella and all her animal friends.

Sue and Mel and Isabella (the black pig) at Amaltheia
Sue and Mel and Isabella (the black pig) at Amaltheia

We took one short detour, to pick up some bread for our cheese, and then it was back to the ranch for cocktails in the infinity-edge hot tub.  The perfect ending to a perfect day.

Nightcap in the hot tub
Nightcap in the hot tub

Rainbow Ranch Lodge’s “Get Cultured” package includes a two-night stay, a bottle of wine and Amaltheia cheese plate upon arrival, a full-day excursion with transportation to Amaltheia for the cheesemaking class and farm tour. Rates start at $730 for two guests excluding tax and gratuity. The package is available for Tuesday arrivals in September and October 2012, and the cheesemaking class and farm tour are only available on Wednesdays. For more information rainbowranchbigsky.com.

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Janice Nieder
Janice Nieder could be the love child of Indiana Jones and Julia Child. Previously a specialty food consultant in NYC, Janice is currently a SF-based culinary tourism writer who has wined & dined her way through 80 countries. To keep things in balance, Janice also enjoys writing about her Girlfriend Getaways which include spa visits, soft-core adventure, cultural events, shopping, boutique hotels, and chef interviews.