Big Fork, Mont.: Yuletide

This cheerful village on Flathead Lake takes a step back in time for the holidays.

holday carriage ride through Bigfork, Mont.

Teamster Alan Quimby escorts revelers on carriage rides along festive streets.

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Visitors to the winter parade in Bigfork, Mont., might think they've stepped into a Currier and Ives lithograph. Snowsuited kids, grinning parents in ski caps, and happy dogs line the main street, Electric Avenue, which is illuminated by Christmas lights and enveloped in snow. A wee fairy rides past on a handsome mule, Santa waves from a sleigh filled with children, and harnessed sled dogs bark gaily as if to say, "Let us take you for a ride."

Artistic and civic spirit make this unincorporated burg of 2,000 at the northeast corner of Flathead Lake a great place to celebrate the holidays. The Saturday morning before Thanksgiving, residents don red elves' caps to drape down-town's chalets and brick buildings with pine boughs, garlands, red bows, and brightly colored electric bulbs, then enjoy an art walk in the afternoon.

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On New Year's Day the Annual Flathead Lake Polar Bear Plunge draws hundreds who start the year with an exhilarating leap into and out of icy waters, then celebrate with a beverage.

Named in the book The 100 Best Art Towns in America, Bigfork boasts 17 galleries. You can peruse the works of more than a hundred Indian groups in Creative & Native, bold abstracts in Sacred Dancing Gallery, and whimsical pottery along with contemporary jewelry and watercolors in Art Fusion. You'll likely come across an artist at work—painter Brett Thuma, perhaps, or sculptors Bob Stayton or Ken Bjorge. Huckleberry preserves from Eva Gates and Christmas ornaments from Electric Avenue Gifts' amazing array—1,500 square feet filled with holiday cheer year-round—make can't-miss stocking stuffers.

Each December weekend offers a slate of seasonal events. Kids whisper in Santa's ear at La Provence Restaurant. Outside, visitors can tour the local scene from a horse-drawn carriage or pick up the nature trail that runs next to downtown and ski or hike as they gaze down on the "wild mile" of the Swan River cascading below.

Traditional Christmas Royal Teas at Chris' Tea Cottage, a lovingly renovated 1920s log cabin, have a timeless appeal. A harpist or a string quartet provides the sound track and a wood-burning stove puts out cozy warmth as customers enjoy luscious scones, finger sandwiches, and petits fours proffered on silver tier servers and antique snack sets.

Drive into Bigfork during the holidays and you'll sense that time has slowed, edges have smoothed, and life is simpler—and more fun.

Photography by Bert Gildart

This article was first published in November 2008. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

If You're Going: 

Pick up the Idaho & Montana map and the Idaho, Montana & Wyoming TourBook. For more information, contact the Bigfork Area Chamber of Commerce: (406) 837-5888, bigfork.org. Area code is 406.

EATS

La provence Rich chocolate soufflés. 408 Bridge St., 837-2923, bigforklaprovence.com. Showthyme Try the stacked king crab salad. 548 electric ave., 837-0707.

SLEEPS

Bridge Street cottages From $85. Contemporary and luxurious. 309 Bridge St., 837-2785. Mountain Lake Lodge From $89. Views of Flathead lake. Five miles south of town. 14735 Sylvan Dr., 837-3800.

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