A family goes off the beaten path for a late summer sojourn in Idaho, finding the perfect mix of nature and nachos.
It’s a late summer mid-morning in the beautifully rugged Bitterroot Mountains and the temperature is already hitting the low 80s. But we’re pulling on fleece jackets, wool hats and headlamps for the first leg of a bike ride along the Route of the Hiawatha. No, we’re not expecting an unseasonable Rocky Mountain snowstorm, but our Rails-to-Trails route along the Idaho/Montana border starts at the century-old, two-mile Taft tunnel. Inside it’s pitch black and the temperature drops to the low 40s. The rest of the ride promises a gentle five-degree downgrade its entire 15-mile length, passing through tunnels blasted out of sheer rock and riding over soaring steel railroad trestles that offer stunning forest vistas.
We stop our bikes–rented from the nearby Lookout Pass Ski Resort, and where we also bought “lift tickets” for a school bus ride back to our car at the top of the trail–about halfway through the tunnel and turn off our headlamps. You know the cliché about it being so dark you can’t see your hand in front of your face? We check that one off the list. And add, “make kid’s yell to their utter delight” as their giddy screams echo through the blackness. After 10 minutes or so of pedaling, we see the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, and a few minutes later, break out into the bright, warm Idaho sunshine.
It’s all downhill from here, with stops to enjoy the stunning scenery, read signs that explain how this railway was carved through the rugged mountains, enjoy a picnic lunch and, at one point, let a black bear amble by about 50 yards in front of us. It’s our third day exploring Idaho’s Coeur d’Alene area, and the ride along the Hiawatha route is yet another new highlight. The adventure also confirms we made the right call on choosing the area to spend our holiday. We were looking for a place that mixed family activities with a sense of nature and the outdoors. The fact that Idaho is easy on the budget and didn’t involve jetlag certainly didn’t hurt.
Both Sides of Coeur d’Alene
Returning to our hotel, my 8-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter–who complained on the tougher parts of the Hiawatha Trail–ask on the bus ride back if can we do it again tomorrow. They also ask when we’ll get to the next water park. Fortunately, besides natural beauty, small-town charm, upscale amenities, and outdoor activities, the area has no shortage of water and theme parks. Since the indoor water park at Silver Mountain Ski Resort is on the road back to Coeur d’Alene, we put it on the day’s itinerary. Besides, the idea of soaking in a hot tub to soothe our sore muscles is sounding better every minute. After arriving, while we soak, the kids sample Silver Mountain’s slides and pools, and only a shot at trying the Flowmaster, which shoots water at high speed up a huge foam-formed wave for fake inland surfing, finally coaxes me out of the tub.
On another day, we visit Triple Play Family Fun Park, a trifecta of frivolity that includes an indoor water park, arcade and outdoor attractions. While my wife goes off in search of a day spa, I become a big kid, racing around the go-kart track and shooting water cannons from bumper boats before heading into the indoor water park. Whether swimming, surfing or snorkeling, I spend enough time in the water that I should grow a set of gills; rocketing down the water slides at Triple Play’s Raptor Reef is some of the most fun I’ve had while wet. We manage to save some energy for the night’s onsite entertainment: Triple Play’s mega arcade and bowling under black lights. To accent the lowbrow vibe, we order hot dogs, jalapeño poppers, nachos, popcorn and sodas for the kids, and local microbrews for my wife and I followed by ice cream bars. I feel like I’m in Homer Simpson heaven, and happy we need only walk a few hallways to our adjacent hotel.
Triple Play is just a warm up for the next day, when we head north to Silverwood Theme Park, which features an adjoining outdoor water park, Boulder Beach. After stashing our stuff at a private wavepool-side cabana, complete with our own concierge, we run to Silverwood’s rollercoasters to beat the crowds. Having visited Disneyland about a month earlier, we’re pleasantly surprised to find a lack of lines and that the park features expansive areas of shade trees and green lawns. We spend the day ping-ponging between Silverwood’s rides and Boulder Beach’s water slides, with stops at the cabana to rest and refuel. By the time the sun sets, my wife and I call a time-out: we’ve had our fill of amusement and waterparks and are ready for some adult downtime. Quiet and quaint downtown Coeur d’Alene perfectly matches our mood, while our new hotel, the Coeur d’Alene Resort, provides an opulent oasis to relax and recharge.
After our previous experience in a mega-chain hotel, walking into our oversize, opulent room on an upper floor of the resort leaves us awestruck by the breathtaking panoramic view of Lake Coeur d’Alene. Our gourmet dinner at the property’s five-star restaurant, Beverly’s, is the diametric gastronomic opposite of the greasy food the night before. We’re also pleasantly surprised that given Beverly’s upscale environment, the wait staff takes extra care to make the kids–and their parents–feel welcome. While we linger over aperitifs and eye the dessert menu, a plate of ice cream with a cotton-candy crown and a candle in the middle arrives, making the whole scene glow–and our kids’ jaws drop.
Taking It Easy In Downtown Coeur d’Alene
After several days of amusement parks, water parks and outdoor adventures, we spend a down day tooling around Coeur d’Alene’s compact city center. While my wife spends the morning window-shopping at the inviting boutiques along the main drag of Sherman Avenue, the kids and I search for bronze statues of Mudgy the Moose and Millie the Mouse, characters of local children’s author Susan Nipp (of the Wee Sing franchise fame) that have been enlisted into a public art/hide-and-seek project. That afternoon we hike Tubbs Hill Nature Park, a rocky, forested promontory that juts into Lake Coeur d’Alene, adjacent to the resort and a stone’s throw from downtown. We stop for a swim in the lake’s warm, crystal-clear waters at one of several sandy beaches along the waterfront trail that rims the park, scouting for large rocks to leap off of into the water. Who needs a water park anyway?
We end our day at Tito Macaroni, the Coeur d’Alene Resort’s Italian restaurant. Fitting with the rest of our trip, it’s a perfect pick for families. While our kids keep busy making their own pizzas near the kitchen wearing chefs’ hats and aprons, my wife and I enjoy homemade pasta and Washington State wines. And like our kids, asking how soon we’ll be back before even leaving the Hiawatha bike trail, as we sip vino and savor our last night in Coeur d’Alene, our thoughts turn to when we might plan our next visit.
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