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. Coeur d’Alene was the name of the tribe of Native Americans after whom the town was named.
How do you pronounce the town’s 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 d’Alene — that is, CDA. As much as any town I’ve visited, Coeur d’Alene 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, it’s a long list): hiking, biking, swimming, kayaking, paddleboarding, jet skiing, water skiing, lake cruises, a biplane waiting to whisk you above Lake Coeur d’Alene, 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 d’Alene feels like one of nature’s most glorious theme parks: small-town charm crossed with the glories of the wild.
Coeur d’Alene 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, Arizona, or Durango, Colorado.
Perched high in the Idaho panhandle, Coeur d’Alene is both literally and figuratively far from the places that conventional wisdom considers aspirational getaways, like, say, Martha’s Vineyard, Tahoe or Aspen.
But the anonymity only feeds Coeur d’Alene’s charm. If you don’t know about it and don’t make the effort to find out, well, more for the rest of us. But upon discovering Coeur d’Alene, you might wonder how you were ever so incurious about northern Idaho.
It’s 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, California, were doing when I met them one afternoon at Crafted, a craft-beer bar and restaurant that opened last summer in downtown Coeur d’Alene.
The Hensleys had just come from Yellowstone National Park, seven hours southeast by car. I asked if they agreed that Coeur d’Alene belonged in the same sentence as the nation’s most picturesque getaways. Did it, for instance, remind them of their near-to-home getaway, Lake Tahoe?
“A lot,” said Kray Hensley, 71. “But I’d rather be here.”
“California is more built up,” said Pattie Hensley, 70. “This feels more loose. It’s more pristine.”
“Loose” is a fair description of Coeur d’Alene. There’s no pretense here — 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; another stall hawking locally grown wool in a rainbow of colors; and, of course, because this is small-town America, local fudge.
But the town’s secret weapon becomes obvious soon after arriving: that lake. Sitting beside downtown and ringed by piney hills, Lake Coeur d’Alene is an absolute thing of beauty. It’s 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 d’Alene, including the world-famous “floating green” at Coeur d’Alene Resort golf course. It’s exactly what its name implies: a green on the 14th hole that floats on Lake Coeur d’Alene, and it’s accessible only by boat once a golfer chips a shot over.
“I’m a Southern California girl, and I never would have guessed I’d 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 you’d never honk your horn at someone like in L.A. You just don’t 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. (They’re 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, it’s not difficult to imagine that it would have been plowed and developed to the hilt. But Coeur d’Alene 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 won’t lie — 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 d’Alene. Ahem – CDA.
Going to Coeur d’Alene
Other than driving as part of a Western road trip (highly recommended), the easiest route to Coeur d’Alene is flying to Spokane, Wash., renting a car and making the half-hour drive east.