May 9, 2004
It took all of five minutes being in Montana for the first time and I was in love. I had driven in from Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, heading north to Sandpoint and then east along Rte 200. Winding along the edge of Lake Pend Oreille, the route took me through breathtaking scenery, past tiny lakeside towns and finally into the state of Montana.
My immediate destination was Kalispell, where I had a reservation at the 1912 Kalispell Grand Hotel. Like other fortunate historic hotels, it had been restored completely and offered surprisingly affordable lodging, made even nicer by sliding in at a business rate.
My room was immaculately clean and very comfortable, not cluttered up with a stash of luxurious furnishings that could have raised the lodging fee substantially. It had everything I needed, including high-speed Internet access.
I slid into the Painted Horse Grill, located off the main lobby. A salad of greens, tomatoes, asiago cheese and balsamic vinaigrette served as the starter for my main entrée of Mediterranean Pasta, an excellent mix of penne, chicken, olives, capers and pimento in a tomato-marsala sauce. With a side order of asparagus, I was set for the evening.
To background music by John Denver, I felt myself falling into the Rocky Mountain spirit. A sense of comfort came over me, brought on by time, space, place, or a combination of all three.
This was it, the turning point of this trip. Like Cashiers was in North Carolina, like St. Francisville was in Louisiana, like Mendocino always is for me in California. I felt like I’d come home.
I brought breakfast and coffee up to my room in the morning, hiding away to hover over writing details – notes, photos, brochures, drafts, etc. Eventually, I knew it was time to set it aside and venture out to explore the area.
One of the draws of Kalispell is its proximity to Glacier National Park. My visit didn’t coincide with the park’s open season, yet my curiosity still pulled me in that direction. I knew I would not be able to get up to the park’s lodge or over to the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road, but I figured it was worth seeing what little I could.
Thirty-two miles north of Kalispell, I arrived at the west entrance. As I had known, the park had not yet opened for the season, but a portion of the road was open. I ventured as far as I could without either getting stuck in remaining snow banks or reprimanded by a park ranger. The scenery was outstanding and I promised myself a return visit someday when I’d have access to more of the park.
I backtracked to the town of Whitefish, a community that offers something for every season of the year. Nestled up against Big Mountain, it is a paradise for winter skiers, as well as a summer playground for hikers, fly-fisherman, river rafters and anyone else seeking outdoor adventure. The presence of art is also substantial, indicated by the theatre, music and dance events about town, as well as the many diverse art galleries.
I found my own little personal Whitefish heaven at Loula’s Café, located at 300 Second St. in the basement of the former Masonic Lodge. Descending into Loula’s was like stepping into a cave of color. High windows allowed in plenty of light, and two of the windows featured brilliant stained glass panels. A giant, brightly colored butterfly kite hung above the counter. Artwork was displayed throughout – paintings, photograph, rag rugs, and other creations by local artists.
I managed to resist the fresh baked pies that Loula’s serves, but it wasn’t easy. Choices for the day included Key Lime, Huckleberry, Blackberry, Raspberry-Peach and Lemon Meringue. I was saved from any potential sugary fate by having a cup of black coffee, which I sipped while enjoying the higher-calorie aromas that surrounded me.
As I sometimes do, I lingered a second night in Kalispell because of the comfortable ambiance of the hotel, combined with the multitude of local areas to explore. I passed the second night jotting down notes and editing new photos.
After checking out of the hotel the next morning, I stumbled upon one more gem before leaving the area. The Central School Café is housed in the former principal’s office of the 1894 Central School. Now operating as The Museum at Central School, this previously dilapidated structure has been beautifully restored by the City of Kalispell and now offers museum exhibits and events thanks to the efforts of the Northwest Montana Historical Society.
I ordered an unusual, but delicious “Hot Salad,” which combined steamed red and white cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and carrots with cheddar cheese, sunflower seeds and sprouts. I vowed to recreate it once I returned home.
Finally, armed with travel suggestions from local conversations, I left Kalispell and headed south.