Idaho has long enjoyed relative anonymity, buried beneath a hearty layer of potato puns, but the Gem State can no longer veil its bounty from the public eye. Like a video gone viral, the state recently achieved accidental celebrity status, first for the pandemic-era exodus of remote-working Californians—who were delighted by the low cost of living and easy access to the outdoors—and then for the resulting spike in housing prices. Perhaps it’s no wonder that Idaho has been somewhat overlooked; sandwiched between Washington and Oregon to the west and Montana and Wyoming to the east, it’s the middle child of the American Northwest. The mountainous state is expansive, though, with 28 state parks, more than 25,000 miles of trails—and a population of less than 2 million people. That’s partially why Idaho’s proponents (Hemingway among them) favor it: Folks here are less concerned with who you are and more interested in how you spend your time.
Poorly kept secrets, well-groomed greens, and unexpected architecture in Sun Valley
Maybe it’s the elevation that has me feeling ditzy—I’m from San Diego, and a sea-level-dweller like myself becomes slightly unhinged at 5,750 feet—but as I step out of the Sun Valley Lodge I feel as if I’ve wandered into a snow globe. Fat magpies hop along white-dusted branches to my left, while elegant swans gracefully laze on the pond in front of me. I tilt my head back, smiling stupidly at the sky, and flakes as large as quarters melt gently into my cheeks.
This is highly designed magic. Sun Valley boomed into existence in central Idaho as a well-executed business plan in 1936, the brainchild of a railroad tycoon, a marketing genius, and an Austrian nobleman. Inspired by European chalets, they sought to create America’s first destination ski resort. They succeeded—wildly. What was originally a 3,888-acre ranch became an international hot spot, boasting the world’s first chairlifts and a who’s-who guest list of Hollywood’s Golden Era, photos of whom line the lodge’s hallways today.
“You ready?” Aaron, my friend and, conveniently, this story’s photographer, startles me out of my reverie, and we plod toward his truck in search of belly fuel. In the adjacent former mining town of Ketchum, we find Maude’s, a combination coffee shop and boutique clothing store. After ordering a latte and an avocado toast with poached egg, I try to artfully position myself for a photo in front of the antique pennants lining the wall. A young man offers to model with me.
We laugh, and when I tell him why we’re here, he lights up. “There’s nowhere else like Sun Valley,” he says. “There’s no lift lines; no one cares what you do for a living. It’s all under the radar.” His face drops. “We’d like to keep it that way.”
He suggests Aaron and I do a meal at The Covey, and I nearly spit coffee on him—the owner is a friend of a friend, and we were introduced over text the day before. “Oh, you know Jesse? Like, that Jesse?” he says, pointing. Sure enough, chef-owner Jesse Sheue sits at a window booth mere feet away. After a quick introduction and a promise to meet that evening, I have to dash for my ski lesson at Dollar Mountain.
There are two serviced mountains in Sun Valley: Dollar, ideal for beginners, and Bald, where experts (including the dozens of Olympians who live here) zig-zag through Douglas firs and take on the longest, steepest single-pitch run in the world. Sun Valley is known for its verticals—people are often ready to retire by noon, having racked up between 10,000 and 20,000 vertical feet—so come prepared for greens to ski like blues and blues to ski like blacks. As a once-every-two-years skier, I’ll be touching none of that.
An athletic woman with blazing blue eyes and hot blond hair wearing a bedazzled name tag that reads MP Loewy (the MP, I learn, stands for “Mountain Princess”) greets me in the lobby of SnowSports School. We breeze through the magic carpet hill (i.e., the pre-bunny slope) before heading up the Quarter chair for some parallel turn practice. Loewy and I take a half-dozen runs, watching knee-high tots race past effortlessly, tethered to their parents by leashes. We never make it farther up the mountain on the Half or Full Dollar chairs, but by the end of the lesson, I’m connecting turns with traverses. “Dollar is great for beginners,” Loewy tells me. “It’s always in the sun.” We agree on one final run, and from the chairlift, I spot a large coyote cutting across the top of upper Dollar, its bushy brown and gray fur briefly backlit by the blinding bright mountain before it disappears into a rare patch of shadow.
After returning my gear, I hop on the free Mountain Rides Town Bus—which generally runs from dawn until past midnight—over to Baldy, where I join the lift queue for lunch. Accessible only by gondola or ski, The Roundhouse (originally a lift turnaround) has been an alpine watering hole known for its vistas and fondue since 1939. I’m here to load up on both. I find Aaron at a window seat, and we promptly order a bottle of crisp rosé and a pot of fondue with veggies.
With the wheel of cheese in our bellies providing momentum, we ride the gondola down the mountain, ready to explore. Despite Ketchum’s size, its creative footprint is large, with more than a dozen galleries and multiple theaters for performing arts. I start at The Community Library. Founded in the 1950s by 17 women who wanted to give Ketchum’s culture a little oomph, the architectural marvel completed a $13.5 million renovation just before the pandemic. Exposed wood runs the length of an exceptional vaulted ceiling in the main room. The centerpiece is a stone fireplace that extends upward to kiss the beams and cascades down into a cozy, Mid-Century Modern seating area. I’m tempted to pluck a book from the shelves and melt into the scene, but the library’s thrift store beckons.
Around the corner and down the block, the Gold Mine lives up to its name, with entire rooms dedicated to snow gear and equipment, all at superb second-hand rates. A vintage puffer from The North Face tempts me, until I remember that back home it’s 70 degrees and sunny. Back at the resort it’s a steamy 83—at least in the outdoor heated pool, which releases the tension in my skied-out muscles. Post soak, I watch ice-skating families sliding stiff-legged across a frozen pond, the odd practiced child gliding into twirls. A large red sleigh hauled by two 8-foot-tall Clydesdales approaches the front of the inn, and couples and families climb in and wrap themselves with Pendletons before being whisked off on a ride through the forest. I would join, but Aaron and I have an appointment to keep.
On a side street in downtown Ketchum, The Covey glows like an A-frame candle. The action inside is just as inviting: an open kitchen where high flames tickle an earthen oven to the left, a room-length bar to the right, and tables—all full—in between. We order what Jesse Sheue calls a grown-up version of mac and cheese and a salad topped with thin shavings of frozen blended pear that lend a deliciously icy sweetness to crumbles of salty feta.
Full and happy, I head out for a solo stroll before bed. The crisp air cooling my happy-flushed face, I wander past The Sawtooth Club, where Hemingway used to imbibe, and briefly consider stopping in. I’m distracted, though, by something behind the building: 600,000 acres of dark sky reserve and a ceaselessly winking night. It looks as if someone pricked thousands of tiny holes in a black piece of paper and gently fluttered it before the sun.
Basque bites, street art, and “Boise Nice” in the state capital
In anticipation of two hours on the road, we rise early for an adventure. At the Sun Valley Nordic & Snowshoe Center, we meet Nordic director Steve Right: snowshoeing at the Sun Valley Nordic Center Haims, who straps on his snowshoes while telling me that there are 40 kilometers of trails in the area. “We are Nordic Town, USA,” he says. “Just hosted an Olympic qualifier race!” We opt for a tame scenic route that crosses multiple bridges along Trail Creek. I’m an avid hiker, but I feel like that kid in the oversize shoes and puffy layers in A Christmas Story, moving bulkily behind Haims’s graceful strides as we traverse the widest section of creek. Something rumbles to our left, and suddenly a herd of elk emerges from the trees, crests a hill, and marches into the distance. I take the majestic appearance as a farewell gift from the valley. Time to drive to Boise.
The scenery changes from mountains to glittering trees dusted with frozen dew to cityscape, where high-rises meet brick warehouses with faded lettering, among which we find our lodging. The Modern Hotel and Bar, a boutique motel with a clean, quirky aesthetic and killer food and beverages, is named for a Basque boarding house that the owner’s grandmother ran many years ago in the town of Nampa, about 20 miles west of here.
Curious about the local Basque community, we walk 10 minutes to a corridor known as The Basque Block. In the late 1800s, people moved from the Basque Country of Spain and France to the American West, initially to be sheepherders and ranchers; today the largest concentration of Basques outside of their native land resides here. When we turn onto Grove Street, the smell of sizzling onions and garlic hits us like a train. We spot a man working a massive paella pan on the porch of The Basque Market, a specialty grocer that prepares lunch alfresco on Wednesdays and Fridays. Aaron joins the queue, while I head inside to order from a rotating selection of pintxos (small plates), opting for lightly breaded calamari, a mushroom pinwheel, and Manchego with membrillo (quince paste), along with a couple of glasses of txakoli (a light Basque white wine). We snag a seat next to the floor-to-ceiling shelves stocked with goods from Basque Country and dig in, barely speaking until our plates are clean.
Next, we head to the Basque Museum and Cultural Center, where history unfolds in a maze of photos and stories, my favorite being an exhibit of salvaged aspen cuttings carved with detailed arborglyphs by sheepherders. We then pop into the Anduiza Hotel, a converted 1914 Basque boarding house. The rooms on the upper levels rent as offices, and behind a glass door on the main level a set of stairs leads down to a vast subterranean fronton, a court where people play pelota, a vigorous handball-like sport. The dusty cream walls are covered in dark dots, swarming in density closer to the floor—a tally, I realize, left by thousands of leather balls over the course of a century.
Above ground once more, Aaron and I continue exploring downtown Boise. We step into Ward Hooper Gallery and Vintage Swank, where the namesake artist’s bold prints hang on the walls alongside his curated collection of vintage goods, from colorful Fiestaware sets to letterman jackets. Catty-corner, we discover Freak Alley, the Northwest’s largest street-art gallery. The first painting was done here in 2002, and now the alleyway is a constantly morphing masterpiece of visual arts, a welcome mash-up of styles and themes—just like Boise itself. One of the state capital’s best-kept secrets, in fact, is that it has served as a resettlement city for refugees since 1975. The result? A diverse, culturally rich community.
One standout product of this policy is the refugee-run Sunshine Spice Cafe, a short drive away, on the west side of the Boise River. Yellow hues dominate here: cookies, cakes, puddings, even lattes, all flavored with (and colored by) saffron, the so-called red gold of the East. Four young Afghani sisters—Bahar, Khatera, Narges, and Homeyra Shams—opened the café after coming to Boise in the early aughts, eager to pursue the education they were denied under the Taliban. They had no experience baking, but after finishing school they practiced ceaselessly, combining their professional and creative skills to start the business in December 2019. “We learned while we had our grand opening,” Bahar says. “Not just baking, but making food beautiful.”
The dedication has paid off: Khatera was a James Beard Award semifinalist for outstanding baker this year. I grab a saffron cookie and a box of wonderfully aromatic tea, then hoof it back toward the Modern.
Aaron and I arrive just in time for the hotel bar’s daily guest happy hour. The cocktail menu looks like a graphic novel, each drink with its own movie poster–like page, but it’s the Celery and Smoke (a mezcal and tequila concoction freshened with lime) that stands out. We’re not in need of a big dinner (that paella was no joke), so we order a couple of snacks—crispy cauliflower, spiced with dukkah and pepperoncinis alongside a smear of charred baba ghanoush, and a salad of local greens perked up with crunchy granola and tangy pickled onions—and melt into our barstools.
Catching a second wind, we layer up and tread back out into the cold, walking a few blocks to a speakeasy where the bartenders might breathe fire, if you ask them nicely. Press & Pony has two entrances—one an inconspicuous door in the adjacent french fry–only restaurant, the other a set of double glass doors and a heavy red curtain on West Idaho Street—that lead to a long, narrow bar with space for about 25. Tchotchkes celebrating the weird, wild, and inebriated cover every inch of wall. Behind the bar, signs state the rules of patronage. Rule No. 1: “Be Nice. Boise Nice.” When I ask the bartender, Erik Schweitzer, what that means, his well-twisted handlebar mustache twitches above a smile. “You’re not from Boise, are you?” he says. “We are happy, with genuine hospitality. No one here is angry or in a hurry. I take it for granted, but my friends from New Jersey… it freaks them out.” The cocktail menu sure is nice: The Denim Blazer combines my love of coffee, High West whiskey, and drama when it’s set on fire. It’s even nicer the second time I order it.
Buttery bliss, endangered raptors, and Boise’s sky-high scenery
After last night’s turn at the speakeasy, only the promise of Janjou Pâtisserie can get me out of bed this morning. Aaron drives us to an unassuming strip-mall, where Moshit Mizrachi-Gabbitas laminates layer upon layer of dough to form flaky, perfectly crisped croissants—what she calls her “obsession.” The Israeli pastry chef and her team make 1,200 of them a week, each batch taking two to three days to complete. “A lot of chefs that come here try to please the American palate,” she says. “I do the opposite—I try to educate it.” Her croissants are a masterclass in baked goods that aren’t too sweet, and Boiseans have proved to be quick studies: They know to get here early or face empty cases. “Someone wrote that I’m the first woman in Idaho ever to be a semifinalist for a James Beard Award,” she says with a half smile. “Not bad for an immigrant.”
Twenty minutes and two croissants apiece later, we’re eye level with bald eagles, California condors, owls, and falcons at the World Center for Birds of Prey. The headquarters for an international nonprofit, The Peregrine Fund, this education center and incubator has raised more than 6,000 endangered birds of prey in its 50-year history. It’s currently home to two dozen raptors—birds characterized by sharp talons, curved beaks, and excellent vision—some born into captivity, others rescued. Staffers stroll the grounds with feathery friends perched on leather glove–clad hands.
One introduces us to Oliver, a Verreaux’s eagle-owl whose wings brush the top of my head as he jumps from wall perch to hand. “If you want to know the health of an environment, look to birds of prey,” the bird’s handler says. Raptors are at the top of the food chain—the same one we rely on—so if poisons are jumping up to them, you can bet we’re full of toxins too. Those black bait boxes that lure in rodents to consume poisonous pellets kill not only rats but also the hawks and owls that feast on them. I gulp and make a mental note to change my pest control service back home.
As we wind back down the hill toward Boise, still buttered up from our morning pastries, we consider skipping lunch. We’ve made plans, though, to dine at Kibrom’s Ethiopian & Eritrean Cuisine, near Veterans Memorial Park. If only it were walking distance from our hotel… but wait—there are bikes! A whole fleet is available for free at the Modern, so we trade in our motorized wheels for pedal power. We are quickly rewarded: As soon as we cross the threshold of the restaurant, the familiar warmth of turmeric, berbere, and cardamom spices summons my appetite. Husband-and-wife owners Kibrom Milash and Tirhas Hailu started cooking in Ethiopia, where they ran a restaurant in the Shimelba refugee camp after fleeing war in neighboring Eritrea. They were granted asylum in Boise in 2013 and opened the city’s first Ethiopian restaurant, earning a loyal following. Coincidentally, Idaho is one of the world’s top producers of teff, the grain used to make injera, the spongy, slightly tangy fermented flatbread that also serves as plate and utensils in Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisine. I tear a wide strip from my plate and pinch the gomen (seasoned kale and potato stew) and vinegary salad, savoring the fresh flavors and envying the locals for their access to this spot.
Boiseans also benefit from the nearby Snake River Valley wine region and a hoppin’ craft beer scene. Just over the Greenbelt (the city’s 25-mile riverside park) from Kibrom’s, Garden City has the state’s largest concentration of breweries, wineries, and cideries per square mile. We cycle by Telaya Wine Co., known for its award-winning expressions of Idaho- and Washington-grown grapes, but today beer is in order, so we park our bikes at Barbarian Brewing. These guys will put anything in a barrel—cheesecake, pistachios, Gushers—but they’re known for sour beers. In place of my afternoon tea, I sip a surprisingly pretty Earl Grey sour topped with dried flowers.
Our ride back to the Modern is crisp but picturesque, the bike path following the Boise River before crossing back into the city, and soon we’re freshening up for a dinner to talk about at Kin, a tasting-menu place from yet another James Beard Award–nominated chef, Kris Komori. Every night there’s just one seating, in one room, at one long table. Maître d’ and co-owner Remi McManus greets us at the door, behind which lie the dining table and the sitting room, a space that doubles as a gallery for rotating artists. I order a Moron (a gin cocktail with fresh carrot and ginger juice) and mingle with the other guests—all locals, a surprising number of whom are doctors who moved here for the outdoors. The menu changes every four to five weeks, spearheaded by one member of the team and then developed in collaboration. Tonight, Matt Chmiel takes the helm with a five-course exploration of his Polish heritage. A bright take on śledzie featuring local sturgeon and fresh dill, followed by a sour rye soup and a beet dough–wrapped mushroom pierogi, set us up for golonka, a tender pork knuckle accompanied by a healthy helping of roasted cabbage. It’s fine dining unlike any I’ve experienced: young and playful, spirited yet refined. The presentation and execution feel elegant, but the vibe is pure accessibility. “We take what we do very seriously,” Komori tells me, “but we don’t take ourselves seriously.”
After the meal, as our fellow diners settle into their full bellies, McManus kneels down and asks me and Aaron if we can handle one more drink. We follow him through the casual-eats side of Kin (moody and dark, with natural accents and a prize wheel to help the indecisive pick a cocktail) and down a cavernous hallway. Soon we reach a bank of elevators, one of which takes us up, up, up. At the end of a carpeted hallway, what would otherwise be a small corporate office has been transformed into Ampersand, an invite- only private bar and event space for those in the know. Emptied Champagne bottles, blown corks, half-peeled citrus fruit, and picked-over canapés from a just-dispersed party are overshadowed by the view: floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the city, the mountains glowing in the distance. I sigh. Boise is pretty nice.
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