Coeur d'Alene is a friendly pocket of joy in the Northwest

March 30, 2015

A wooden boat in the harbor of Lake Coeur d'Alene

COEUR DíALENE, Idaho ó Two challenges accompany a visit to this lovely, pine-studded north Idaho town.

One involves the name, which translates to "Heart of an Awl," meaning the sharp instrument used to punch holes in leather, which apparently was a big thing back in 1878, when Coeur díAlene was founded. How do you pronounce the townís name? How do you spell it? The good news is that neither much matters. Locals mostly call it "CDA," and you can too. In fact, it will make you sound even less like a tourist. So cross that off your list of worries.

Second, and much more vexing, is deciding what to do in Coeur díAlene ó that is, CDA. As much as any town Iíve visited, Coeur díAlene is a "choose your own adventure" sort of destination. Step out of a downtown hotel and turn one direction for bistros, beer bars and quaint small-town shopping. Head the other way and you find (get ready, itís a long list): hiking, biking, swimming, kayaking, paddleboarding, jet skiing, water skiing, lake cruises, a biplane waiting to whisk you above the Lake Coeur díAlene, wind surfing or just lounging on the beach.

On the average pleasant summer day, all those pursuits happen side by side in the town of 46,000, which is tucked between the lake and the national forest that share its name. Add it all up and Coeur díAlene feels like one of natureís most glorious theme parks: small-town charm crossed with the glories of the wild. Coeur díAlene holds an easy, laid-back magic built for tourism but never overwhelmed by it. Though it sits at 2,200 feet, its northern latitude gives it the feel of a higher-elevation mountain gem, like Flagstaff, Ariz., or Durango, Colo.

Perched high in the Idaho panhandle, Coeur díAlene is both literally and figuratively far from the places that conventional wisdom considers aspirational getaways, like, say, Marthaís Vineyard, Tahoe or Aspen. But the anonymity only feeds Coeur díAleneís charm; if you donít know about it and donít make the effort to find out, well, more for the rest of us. But once discovering Coeur díAlene, you might wonder how you were ever so incurious about northern Idaho.

Itís a stop particularly worth the effort for road trippers bouncing among the great cities and sites of the Northwest, which is exactly what Kray and Pattie Hensley, of Sonoma, Calif., were doing when I met them one afternoon at Crafted, a craft-beer bar and restaurant that opened last summer in downtown Coeur díAlene. The Hensleys had just come from Yellowstone National Park, seven hours southeast by car. I asked if they agreed that Coeur díAlene belonged in the same sentence as the nationís most picturesque getaways. Did it, for instance, remind them of their near-to-home getaway, Lake Tahoe?

"A lot," said Kray Hensley, 71. "But Iíd rather be here."

"California is more built up," said Pattie Hensley, 70. "This feels more loose. Itís more pristine."

"Loose" is a fair description of Coeur díAlene. Thereís no pretense here ó just a quick, seductive charm and progressive Western mentality. The downtown farmers market, for instance, included a woman pouring three of her homemade kombucha teas (which she sold to an eager local audience ó on tap no less); another stall hawking locally grown wool in a rainbow of colors; and, of course, because this is small-town America, local fudge.

But the townís secret weapon becomes obvious soon after arriving: that lake. Sitting beside downtown and ringed by piney hills, Lake Coeur díAlene is an absolute thing of beauty. Itís as deep as 250 feet and hosts all sorts of action, from the aforementioned joys to young children building sand castles on its beach. Such pleasures lie in all directions in Coeur díAlene, including the world-famous "floating green" at Coeur díAlene Resort golf course. Itís exactly what its name implies: a green on the 14th hole that floats on Lake Coeur díAlene, and itís accessible only by boat once a golfer chips a shot over.

"Iím a Southern California girl, and I never would have guessed Iíd end up here," said Carol Kime, 52, who moved to the town five years ago, after her parents did. Until then, she had never even heard of it. "The people are so friendly. They just talk to you on the street. And youíd never honk your horn at someone like in L.A. You just donít do that here."

I met Kime at the dock where the boat tour, which spends 90 minutes skimming across the lake, begins. The tours are an easy way to gain perspective on the town and the beauty surrounding it, so I boarded a cruise one afternoon with several dozen people, mostly families with young children or groups of adults with cases of beer and festive mindsets. The captain announced on the intercom, "They say this is one of the five most beautiful lakes in the world," and whoever "they" were, I believed them. I believed them even more when a local clued me in to which house on that glistening shore belonged to retired football player John Elway and which belonged to the actor Dennis Franz. (Theyíre neighbors, apparently.)

The next morning I visited Tubbs Hill, a rolling 130-acre pine-shrouded peninsula jutting into the lake. It has been protected land since the 1970s; in the hands of a less savvy town, itís not difficult to imagine that it would have been plowed and developed to the hilt. But Coeur díAlene had the good sense to leave Tubbs Hill alone, resulting in a rustic, piney two-mile hiking trail just beside the downtown. On a warm, sunny Saturday, I walked the loop, passing the secret coves and beaches below. Locals swam, splashed, threw sticks for their dogs into the lake and dared each other to jump from the rocky cliffs into the blue-green water below.

The town, and most sense of civilization, disappeared after about 10 minutes, and at its farthest point, it seemed I might have been in the middle of nowhere. It was just me and a quiet view across the broad mountain lake. It was a wonderful sliver of peace, but I wonít lie ó I was glad to know that at the end of the loop, I would be a mere five-minute walk to beer and wood-fired pizza. Such is life in Coeur díAlene. Ahem ó CDA.

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Associated Press