May 16, 2004
If I were to be asked where, during many years of cross-country travel, I’d had the very best meal of my entire traveling history, I wouldn’t need to hesitate before answering. I’d explain—and I have, many times—that it was out in the middle of nowhere, at the end of a road bordered by vacant fields, far from any town or city activity, and way off the radar of most discriminating diners.
Years from now, I’ll be able to describe the salad of fresh greens, cucumber, tomato, radish and carrots that was nestled under an orange-ginger vinaigrette dressing. I won’t have any trouble remembering the half artichoke that was served as an appetizer or the warmth of the freshly baked bread sticks against my fingers. There’ll be no problem reminiscing about the Pine Nut Crusted Halibut that was served with wild rice, asparagus, fresh fruit salsa and a port-butter wine sauce. Nor will I forget that, after wistfully passing on dessert, a petite sorbet with strawberry and flower garnish was softly placed on my table.
But let’s backtrack to my prior research, when I learned of the historic hot springs spa located south of Livingston, MT, and north of Yellowstone National Park. With affordable accommodations in the older section of the resort, it was just the type of place I look for on the road. I booked a room and, on a sunny spring day, landed in Pray, Montana.
Chico Hot Springs Resort and Spa came into existence in 1900 when the main lodge was built to accommodate the many travelers who came to the area to soak up the healing mineral spring waters. The three-story Victorian building is the center of most of the onsite activity, with a variety of guest rooms upstairs, a dining room downstairs, a saloon adjacent to one side of the building, and a large mineral pool just outside the saloon.
Though newer guest rooms and cabins are scattered around the property, I welcomed the chance to stay on the top floor of the historic main building, which still offers a few original, economy rooms with bath down the hall for an amazingly low fee. Honeymooners, families, and upscale vacationers would most likely opt for other accommodations. But for me, traveling alone and on a budget, the cozy rooms were just perfect.
I dragged my overnight bag up two flights of stairs and quickly settled into my room. I then decided to start right off with the resort’s primary attraction: a soak in the large, outdoor pool, easily accessed through a hallway inside the lodge. Popular with both overnight guests and locals with day passes, the area was crowded, but not uncomfortably so. A smaller, shaded pool offered slightly hotter mineral water.
When hunger strikes, it’s not necessary to wait for the main dining room to open. Casual fare is available in the Poolside Grille, convenient for enjoying a burger between soaks. The same menu can be ordered inside the saloon, where guests can also play a game of pool or foosball. If it’s a Friday or Saturday night, live music is an added bonus.
As if the mineral pools, saloon activities, and fine dining aren’t enough, Yellowstone National Park is close enough for a day trip. In addition, a day spa is available for massages and other tempting treatments, and the Chico Horse Barn offers trail rides.
I headed to Yellowstone the following day, having thoroughly enjoyed my stay at Chico Hot Springs. Before leaving, I picked up a copy of the resort’s cookbook, A Montana Table. I couldn’t resist the chance to take some of their recipes with me. Preparing them with the same expertise would surely be a challenge. But with the memory of that exquisite meal, it was certainly worth a try.