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Ultimate Northwestern Lodge

In a roundabout way, we have Grover Cleveland to thank for the Freestone Inn. During the 1890's, the 24th president saved the upper Methow Valley from development by creating the Washington State Forest Reserve. He made local boosters hopping mad; luckily for us, it meant that this remote part of the North Cascades was to remain gloriously wild.

Cradled on three sides by snowcapped peaks, four or five curving and twisting hours by car from Seattle, the Methow Valley is the kind of place where tap water tastes better than bottled, road signs warn you to watch for ranging livestock, and poetry is posted next to inspiring overlooks. These days, locals sing a far different tune from that of their prospecting forefathers. Many have abandoned busy lives elsewhere to settle the backcountry: among recent arrivals in the valley are a San Francisco Symphony violinist, some Microsofties, and the founder of Starbucks. Nobody locks a house or a car door. Bar-stool conversation in Winthrop, the valley's hub, drifts through such pressing concerns as organic produce, black-bear sightings, snow alerts for mountain passes, and the latest winter sports fad, ski skating. Terms like conference center and resort can strike instant fear in the hearts of residents.

All of which sort of explains why the tiny, 12-room Freestone Inn took so long to get off the ground. Newly built on a 75-acre homestead, at the head of the valley where steep-as-hell Route 20 leads "outside" to Seattle and Vancouver, the two-story, lodgepole-pine and clapboard inn opened last July, after the owners finally pacified environmental-action groups with their low-impact plans.

As you drive up to the Freestone's front porch, you find it almost impossible to shake the theme song from Bonanza. But all thoughts of the Ponderosa vanish once you're inside and standing under a 30-foot-high cathedral ceiling with tawny pine crossbeams and massive wrought-iron chandeliers. Front and center is a stunning river-rock fireplace. (The inn takes its name from the smooth gravel that lines the creek bed just outside; a freestone in this context is a rock that tumbles down a mountain stream.) Plush lounge chairs and a downy sofa are clustered in front of the roaring fire; black crackle-painted Windsor chairs peek out from the dining area. The smell of fresh-cut wood vies with a heady garlic aroma escaping from the kitchen. Jazz riffs through the Great Room as front-desk staffers Dan and Jennifer, clad in denim and khaki, show you up to your room.

Each of the guest rooms is a natural study in sage, rust, heather, and slate. A junior, gas version of the Great Room's stone fireplace lights with a whoosh at the flick of a wall switch; the king-size bed facing it has a tooled chocolate-leather headboard and a plaid woolen spread. Bear and elk footprints track across hammered-iron wall sconces. A collection of handsome black-and-white photos depicts Methow Valley ranch life in the 1940's: two hands wearing Stetsons chow down on beans cooked in a tin pot; a lady dude, dressed in a fringed Western skirt and vest, takes aim with a rifle. An unfinished-pine armoire houses the TV, one of the many concessions to tenderfeet. Six of the inn's rooms have vaulted ceilings; two have whirlpool tubs; all have balconies or patios, with camp chairs positioned for a view of the skaters whirling across Freestone Lake.

Just before twilight the skaters slip back to their rooms to prepare for a Freestone evening ritual. They warm their hands and feet at the fire, don the inn's bathrobes, and then step across the back porch to watch a brilliant Northwest sunset from the glass-enclosed hot tub. (The slate patio floor is heated to keep feet from freezing on the way.)

No one worries about dressing up for dinner: Patagonia and Nike are more common than Donna Karan, but everyone's too busy absorbing the menu to notice anyway. Chef Jeff James was snatched away from Oregon's renowned Salishan Lodge just before the Freestone opened. He immediately went to work uncovering the best local sources for his innovative Northwest cuisine - tracking down Sally Jackson, who produces her own goat and sheep cheeses in nearby Oroville, and persuading the owner of the Kicking Mule Ranch to provide him with fresh pea pods and baby zucchini. He also started turning locally grown tomatoes, apples, and onions into savory relishes; and laying in a supply of elder and cherry wood to smoke his own game sausages. Among the highlights of James's seasonal menus are wild-mushroom strudel on Walla Walla sweet onion marmalade; molasses-glazed elk osso buco braised in Seattle's Pike Street stout; and the most popular entree, a honey-grilled pheasant breast, served with wild rice-cranberry risotto and smokehouse blue cheese. As you'd expect, the Freestone's wine list favors West Coast vintages. James's best dessert, a cast-iron-pan apple tart with maple-cinnamon ice cream, is a homier version of tarte Tatin but just as satisfying.

An old photograph in room 8 shows a lanky young rancher with a devilish grin, dressed in a snap-brim fedora, suspenders, and a dark suit with a handkerchief in the pocket. Jack Wilson bought the Freestone spread in 1946, built six cabins along Early Winters Creek, and started guiding Easterners into the forest on pack trips. Wilson soon gained quite a reputation as a mountain man: Edward R. Murrow, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, and eight U.S. senators stayed in his rustic little bungalows, rode his horses, laughed at his tall tales.

The six cabins still stand beside the creek; having received some much-needed renovations, they're an excellent choice for anyone bringing kids or seeking extra privacy. Each cabin has a stone fireplace, a small kitchen, a queen-size bed (one also has two twins), and modern plumbing - a vast improvement over the retired two-seat outhouse still perched on the creek bank. Two newer lakeside lodges have multiple bedrooms, living rooms, and full kitchens. The inn expects to add, in the coming months, another wing to the main building as well as nine more cabins, and to fix up Jack Wilson's derelict barn for hoedowns and barbecues.

What the Freestone lacks in resort-style perks (no room service, no nightly turndown; rooms have small closets, and breakfast is buffet-style), it makes up for with a warm welcome. Staff members address you by name and go out of their way to offer tips on what to do in the area. As winter roars out of the Yukon, dumping mounds of snow on the Methow Valley, locals don't gather around the woodstove to wait out the cold; they strap on Nordic skis or snowshoes and take to the powder. The Methow Valley Sport Trails Association, with a large volunteer force, grooms more than 100 miles of graded ski-touring trails, giving the valley one of North America's top cross-country systems. (In summer the trails serve as horseback-riding, hiking, and mountain-biking paths.) On a winter morning, after a breakfast of hot oatmeal and fresh-baked muffins, guests ski out the inn's front door and don't come back until the sun ducks below Sandy Butte. You can take your pick among open meadows, lake loops, and riverside or forest paths, watching along the way for mule deer and cougar tracks, or for eagles overhead.

And then there's heli-skiing. From his base in Mazama, a mile down the road from the inn, Randy Sackett revs up his six-seat helicopter every day between mid-January and mid-April and heads for the virgin slopes in Okanogan National Forest - 300,000 silent acres of deep powder at elevations as high as 9,000 feet. He'll even swoop down to pick you up and drop you off on the Freestone's front lawn.

If you've ever read The Virginian or seen the film version with Gary Cooper, you'll find the town of Winthrop oddly familiar. Novelist Owen Wister reportedly took notes for his 1902 western while visiting friends here. Capitalizing on the connection, Winthrop has become something of a Tombstone clone - false fronts, hand-painted signs, wagon-wheel decoration. But it's also a true town, albeit one without a single stoplight or ATM, where a pickup piled with hay bales is parked beside an out-of-state Mercedes and everyone greets you on the street. It's awfully hard to pass up the walnut fudge at Sheri's Sweet Shoppe and the freshly made pies at the Duck Brand Cantina - but the real draw is the Stillpoint Massage & Day Spa, where Monica Caulfield works magic on muscles kinked by those heli-skiing runs.

Heading back to the inn, you might stop at the Winthrop Brewing Company pub, which occupies a little red schoolhouse (genuine), and pick up a half-gallon Mason jar of their Grizzly Paw Honey Rye to go. Pull up a chair on your balcony at the Freestone, gaze out at the surrounding peaks gleaming pink and orange, and listen to the wild creatures coming home for the night. Then raise a glass to Grover Cleveland, who made all this possible.

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