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Coeur d'Alene

August 06, 1989|JERRY HULSE | Times Travel Editor

COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho — Could that be Huckleberry Finn hiding in the willows by the river, and is that Becky Thatcher strolling down Sherman Avenue . . . the girl in the lacy summer dress?

A warm breeze blows off the lake, and all across town residents rock contentedly in swings on screened porches.

It's a scene that's as nostalgic as an old Saturday Evening Post cover--unhurried and gentle, all of which makes Coeur d'Alene one of America's special hideaways: down home, not terribly sophisticated, even a little romantic.

A glass of wine, a pretty girl and a soft summer day.

A national magazine named Coeur d'Alene among the nation's 10 most livable towns, and National Geographic repeatedly describes the lake for which it is named as one of the five most beautiful on earth.

Coeur d'Alene is an unpretentious town of 25,000 that's given over to simple pleasures and trust. There are residents who never bother locking their doors. Others leave keys in their car ignitions. Even downtown.

Coeur d'Alene is as laid-back as a country fair. Visitors ride through town in horse-drawn carriages, and the Wickiup on Sherman Avenue sells postage stamp-size paintings, Indian jewelry and the carvings of a Montana craftsman. In summertime, proprietress Dodie McNeel sponsors art cruises on the lake with a champagne brunch.

Summer means Hula-Hoops, soap bubbles and sand castle contests, youth ballet, hot dogs and hamburgers, corn on the cob and hand-cranked ice cream served in the park.

Crowds line up at Hudson's for the "best hamburgers in the world." To prove a point, there's almost always a line at the door. Others gather at Roger's old-fashioned ice cream parlor. Or at Cricket's, which is a blast, what with vintage cars poking out of the walls, a clawfoot tub brimming with salads and a drink called the Royal Flush that's served in a toilet-shaped mug.

Other libations are taken at T. W. Fisher's English-style Brewpub, where customers play darts, cribbage and backgammon. T. W. won himself a gold medal for the best pale ale at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver last year. Besides brew, the pub turns out German sausage on a bun and T. W.'s own special Cheddarwurst, along with pizza and lasagna.

Coeur d'Alene is a flashback to the '20s, where on the Fourth of July vintage fire trucks parade down Sherman Avenue alongside Model-T flivvers and flags fly from porches throughout town. Later, as snow falls, Christmas is a magical moment that brings to life near-forgotten scenes from old-fashioned holiday cards.

With more than 100 other lakes and rivers nearby, vacationers go boating and canoeing, rafting and fishing. They hike up Tubbs Hill and explore old mines and ghost towns, and stroll around the world's longest floating boardwalk at Coeur d'Alene's striking new $60-million hotel, with picture windows that frame the lake, a marina and forests that stretch to infinity.

Only 32 miles east of Spokane, Coeur d'Alene is a lifetime removed from the fast lane. One visitor called it America's Switzerland. John Steinbeck was moved by its friendliness.

Summer means art-on-the-green and concerts in the park and sunset cruises on the 110-mile lake, while the town's mayor and his six-piece band play Dixieland and smoothies from the '40s on a floating pier outside the new hotel.

The friendliness of Coeur d'Alene is infectious, extending to Winifred McFarland and Steven Gregory, a husband-and-wife team who fled Hollywood to settle in Coeur d'Alene, where they operate a five-room bed and breakfast with their daughter, Carol.

Entering Gregory's McFarland House at 6th and Foster is like stepping back 100 years to an unhurried time when four-posters were in fashion and lace curtains fluttered at the windows and the notes of a vintage piano echoed through the house.

McFarland House has been refurbished with impeccable good taste, from its original hardwood floors to the country paper that graces its walls. Guests gather at a dining table that was delivered around the Horn, and relax in a glassed-in porch with white wicker furniture and views of aspen trees and neatly trimmed lawn, while the lazy buzzing of bees is carried by a summer wind.

Red-haired Winifred, an ex-actress and one-time protege of Rudolph Bing of the Metropolitan Opera Company, makes McFarland House special, as does silver-haired Steven, whose appearances on stage and in films prepared him for the role that he plays of gentle host at this genuinely friendly B&B--far from the footlights of New York City and the stardust of Hollywood.

The couple came to Idaho in search of a ranch and found peace instead, ministering to stressed-out guests at McFarland House, where a gourmet breakfast changes daily, season to season.

The coffee pot is hot 'round the clock. The cookie jar is always full. And should guests arrive at Thanksgiving or Christmas, the proprietors invite them to a family dinner for which there is no charge.

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