DARBY – The remote Bitterroot Mountains near the tiny, blue-collar logging town of Darby seem like an unlikely hiding place for the planet's greatest hotel, but that's what Business Insider, a New York-based news and entertainment website, proclaimed on its new list of the “30 best hotels in the world."
The honorees include all the lavish accommodations one might expect: A 32-acre oasis of gardens in India where exotic birds surround an 18th century Shiva temple, an Irish castle, a Mediterranean beach club, a private island villa in the Maldives and a game reserve in South Africa. At the Mulia in Bali, Indonesia, guests are regaled with butler service, celebrity chefs and gorgeous oceanfront pools. And that’s just No. 29.
Topping the list, though, was the Triple Creek Ranch on the West Fork of the Bitterroot River, and it caused quite a stir here in Montana.
Owned by former Intel CEO Craig Barrett and his wife Barbara, the former U.S. ambassador to Finland, the 700-acre, 24-cabin luxury hideaway also earned the top-ranking from Travel & Leisure magazine last year, beating out Costa Rican rainforest lodges and Italian palaces.
So what makes Triple Creek Ranch so special?
It’s the excellent customer service and the all-inclusive package of available activities, for the most part, according to marketing and sales director Jennifer O’Donohue.
“We’ve been in the top 20 of the world’s best hotels over the years, and we’re a tiny little 24-cabin ranch in the middle of Montana," she said. "I used to work at a real ‘dude ranch’ you know: more rustic, family-oriented and everybody came in on Sunday and left on Saturday. This is a completely different kind of experience. This is a luxury guest ranch experience.
"Our receiving that recognition really kind of shined a spotlight on the guest experience here as a vacation option. A lot of people may not have been aware of that. ‘Yeah, riding a horse around Montana sounds awesome, but I don’t want to eat franks and beans and I want to sleep in a comfy bed.’ So I think our receiving that designation really kind of made people more aware of the kind of experience they can have here.”
Triple Creek Ranch is unique in that children under 16 are not allowed, so the place has sort of a quiet, relaxing ambiance that is attractive to couples looking to unwind.
There are horses grazing in a pasture, a heated pool with a bonfire pit and unique works of art all over the property. The real draw, though, is the host of activities included in the price: trail rides, fly-casting lessons, fishing in stocked ponds, archery, nature safaris, tennis, snowshoeing, downhill skiing at Lost Trail Powder Mountain, nordic skiing, sapphire panning and other featured seasonal events like wine pairings, artist’s weekends and cooking seminars.
Many of the activities would be considered ordinary weekend excursions for most Montana residents, but they obviously appeal to travelers looking for that mythical "Western" experience. And the fact that they are complimentary makes people's eyes light up.
“We’re all about not nickel and diming people,” O’Donohue explained. “The price you see is the price you pay. We don’t take guests' credit cards the moment they walk in. It’s a very relaxed atmosphere.”
The ranch also works with local outfitters to offer guided rafting-fishing trips on the West Fork of the Bitterroot and cattle drives in the Sapphire Mountains, where Craig Barrett owns 26,000 acres.
“The cattle drives are our most popular activity, but sapphire panning is definitely second,” O’Donohue said. The ranch has “activity coordinators” who help each guest plan their day.
The minimum price for a one-bedroom cabin is $950 per night per couple, and a three-bedroom cabin goes for $2,650 per couple, with many options in between. The price also includes all breakfasts, packed lunches, gourmet dinners, house wines, spirits and snacks. Each cabin comes stocked with a complimentary wet bar, and all feature a private or shared hot tub.
It’s the attention to detail and the customer service that gives the ranch a customer return rate of 47 percent.
“If you sit down at the pool, someone will be out within minutes to see if you want something from the kitchen or a cocktail,” O’Donohue said.
Guests can use golf carts to get around, and when they park, a staff member will come out immediately and turn it around so it’s facing out when the guest comes back to pick it up. When guests leave their room for a meal, the housekeeping staff is alerted and they’ll go tidy up their cabin."
“We like to call them our housekeeping ninjas, because guests never see them,” O’Donohue said.
“The hotel is renowned for its excellent service,” noted the Business Insider article.
The ranch also took No. 5 on Conde Nast Traveler’s list of the world’s best hotels.
The dinner menu changes every night, and guests can tour the kitchen or book a custom, seven-course meal at the chef’s table in a dining alcove in the kitchen.
“The meal we had last night was as good as any five-star restaurant, and you can quote me on that,” said Stephen Vlay of Long Island, New York, who was staying at Triple Creek with his wife Linda last week. The couple spent their afternoon on Wednesday panning for sapphires.
“It’s so much fun,” Linda said. “I did it yesterday and I couldn’t wait to come do it again today.”
The main lodge features a wine cellar and rooftop bar where guests can mix their own cocktails or sit down on a bear rug and work on a unique Stave puzzle next to a roaring fire.
Every once in a while, guests can even take a horseback ride and devour a gourmet barbecue on a ridge with 360-degree views.
The hotel has 150 employees – making it a major employer in the area - and is always busy on the major holidays. Occasionally, the Barretts will host guests at their private home and Craig will give tours of their extensive art collection over cocktails.
“Guests won’t get that experience at most hotels in the world,” O’Donohue said.
In turn, Triple Creek attracts guests from a global market, she said, and these high-profile rankings will only increase the visibility of the ranch.
"It's a nice feather in the cap for us," she said.