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There is this place where the sky is big (part one)

Missoula, Montana, a summer destination

Downtown Missoula peeks out from the trees lining the Clark Fork River while in the distance, the infamous “M” hike switchbacks up Mount Sentinel. (View from the Comfort Inn University) Photo credit Marguerite Cleveland

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Sitting right off Interstate 90, an eight-hour drive from Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) sits Missoula, Montana. You may have stopped for gas on the trek cross-country not realizing the marvelous vacation destination that awaits you.  Missoula offers the benefits of a city with modern up-to-date accommodations, the vibrant nightlife of a college town, interesting museums, great shopping and an eclectic mix of restaurants. All of this is surrounded by the awe-inspiring outdoors Montana is noted for.

Where to Stay:  The Comfort Inn Missoula sits on the banks of the Clark Fork River overlooking Jacobs Island Park in the midst of downtown. It offers comfortable hotel rooms with magnificent views of the river, bike trail, surrounding mountains, the University of Montana and the infamous hike to the "M". Add in a complimentary breakfast and it makes for a perfect family base while visiting Missoula. Insider Tip: Make sure to ask about the bicycles, which are free to use during your stay. Use the nearby bridge to cross the river and access the bike trail. Hotel offers a military discount.

Comfort Inn University, open daily, 1021 E. Broadway St., Missoula, Montana, 406.549.7600

Where to Eat:  Missoula has a wide-ranging dining scene, everything from the casual, cheap-to-eat college faves to upscale farm-to-table restaurants. Just coming off a rafting trip and too hungry to change? ... no worries, dress is anything goes.  Unlike Washington State rules, where families are shuttled off away from the bar, Missoula eateries, breweries and wineries are surprisingly family friendly. Some breweries even have play areas.

For coffee and pastries, head to Le Petit Outre, a locally-owned bakery, which makes great bread. Built inside an old garage, on nice days, the doors are pulled up for an alfresco vibe without the heat of the sun. Great coffee and flaky, French pastries in a glass case make it difficult to make a selection.  Locals flow in and out, selecting breads fresh from the hearth oven. Insider Tip: Try a cannele. I hesitated at the $1.75 price for a thumb-sized pastry, but so worth it.  A traditional French pastry baked in fluted copper molds coated in beeswax. They are baked for over an hour and have a crunchy, caramelized, outer shell with a custard-like interior. Yum!

Le Petit Outre, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday-Friday; 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday-Sunday, 129 S. 4th St. W., Missoula, Montana, 406.543.3311

When lunchtime beckons, try Market on Front, a grocery store and deli located downtown. Eat in or grab a picnic. The Market's buyers focus on local and sustainable products that highlight the community and geographic region. Think grass-fed Montana beef, local breweries and farm-fresh produce. They make a great sandwich. Insider Tip: Located in Holiday Inn building with separate entrance, we passed right by the first time.

Market on Front, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday-Saturday; 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sunday, 201 E. Front St., Missoula, Montana, 406.541.0246

The Red Bird is where the locals go for a couple's night out. Located off the lobby of the historic Florence building, it's like stepping back in time as you cross the restored lobby with its period pieces, including phone booths with rotary-dialed telephones. The Red Bird continues the feel with its art-deco design. Known for its locally-raised meats, which are butchered in-house and paired with fresh local produce, the meals are memorable and support the local economy. Insider Tip: Try the grilled Sirloin topped with ginger-lime bistro butter and finished with a chili-miso sauce. It's a Missoula favorite.

The Red Bird, 5-10 p.m., Monday-Saturday; closed Sunday, 111 N. Higgins Ave., Missoula, Montana, 406.549.2906     

Family friendly restaurants abound in Missoula.  Two to check out are the Montana Club and Notorious Pig. Both offer good, tasty food children will love.

For more information on Missoula, check out Plan your trip and order a free vacation guide. Next week, Part 2 covers what to do when visiting Missoula and the surrounding area.

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