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Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, is a relaxing lakeside retreat

July 26, 2009|Christopher Reynolds

reporting from coeur d'alene, idaho

Say yes to huckleberries, yes to lazy days by the lake, yes to fast bikes on long trails.

Say no to fancy French pronunciation. Say no, also, to white supremacy. And say no, thank you, to the Rocky Mountain oysters at the Snake Pit restaurant east of town, unless you like bull testicles.

Follow this simple advice, and you'll probably do just fine here in the middle of the Idaho panhandle, where the lakeside city of Coeur d'Alene (pronounced core-DA-lane) draws travelers and second-homers from all over the West.

At the docks, you can catch a ride to the golf course, take a 90-minute cruise on Coeur d'Alene Lake, hop on a float plane or rent a kayak. At McEuen Field, a youth baseball diamond between the main drag and the lake, you can sit in the bleachers, munch on a $2 hot dog from the snack shack, then stroll down to the water's edge or up to the Moose Lounge for a cold one. At the Wolf Lodge Steakhouse on the eastern end of town, you and your beloved can share a 34-ounce sirloin steak.

Now that I've spent a few days here, I have an idea why many Southern Californians (including more than a few Los Angeles cops) have retired to northern Idaho, why so many travelers arrive every summer -- and why some stay away. Whenever somebody starts talking about "the light at the end of the tunnel," I'll think of Idaho for reasons I'll explain in a minute.

The hub of action in Coeur d'Alene is the lakefront, where the 18-story Coeur d'Alene Golf & Spa Resort rises next to City Park. On a grassy expanse here, the Rotarians and the Kiwanis appear to be locked in a vicious struggle over who can provide more benches, playground structures and bandstand improvements. Wooden lifeguard towers overlook a family-friendly beach. Float planes, cruise boats and a gaggle of rental watercraft line the dock, and a sculpted moose stands sentinel at Independence Point, where local teens like to sunbathe and practice their slouches.

Every few hours, though, the sun or the scenery overcomes one of them, usually a boy. He'll slowly back up, like a gymnast preparing for a floor exercise, then rush forward, hurl himself through the air, soaring over the concrete steps and the stenciled letters saying NO DIVING, then splash down into the water. They do the same from nearby Tubbs Hill, but from boulders and cliffs.

Maybe the water exerts some sort of gravitational pull. The lake stretches south for 25 miles and fills with all sorts of pleasure craft in the summer. Hiking and biking paths are threaded around its 135 miles of shoreline.

The city of Coeur d'Alene (population about 41,000) is neatly spread around the resort. The lakefront area's main drag, Sherman Avenue, is peppered with restaurants, a few motels and numerous galleries, including several that focus on glass art and Western art.

Apparently, Coeur d'Alene's name comes from the early days of interaction between this area's Indians and the French-speaking traders who eventually showed up. As this story goes, the American Indians were tough traders, so a settler concluded, in French, that these bargainers had "the heart" (coeur) "of an awl" (d'alene).

Tastes are conservative here. The city is about 95% white, and the county, Kootenai, voted 62% for John McCain. Over the years, there have been some whose politics have fallen beyond the Democrat-Republican spectrum. One of the nation's most notorious white supremacists had his clubhouse just outside town for three decades, until nine years ago, when neighbors and lawyers shut him down. (For more on that, see sidebar at kept an eye out on Sherman Avenue for hints of those troubles, but in four days I never saw any. Instead, I kept seeing signs that Coeur d'Alene, with its growing trade in tourism and second homes, could begin to look a little bit like Sun Valley, at least in summer. If the clocks around here once seemed stuck in 1959, they're ticking now.


The resort, the 800-pound gorilla of tourism around the lake, opened in the 1960s, then expanded in the '80s. And then in 1991 it added a widely admired golf course with a floating 14th hole. You see lots of expensive boats in the hotel marina, including one that carries guests to the golf course. You get spectacular views from the hotel's upper floors, including from the fancy Beverly's restaurant.

Whether you stay in a $220 resort room or a $79 motel room (as I did, at the Resort City Inn), it's easy enough to pass a summer's day: If you're not golfing or fishing, you're on a lake cruise boat, on the beach, paddling in a kayak or dangling a few hundred feet above the lake on a parasailing ride.

To get lunch or get out of the sun, you walk up to Sherman Avenue. And if it's a Wednesday afternoon in summer, there will be a little farmers market at 5th Street.

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