Deep in Potato Country, a Golfer's Paradise

Idaho's Couer d'Alene and the Circling Raven Golf Club will delight any summer sporter.
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Let's play a little word-association game, shall we? When I say "Idaho," you say ... That's right, "golf."

I am proud and humbled to have such a knowledgeable readership so in tune with my thinking. We go together like meat and potatoes.

Northwest Idaho has one of America's more spectacular golfing getaways, thanks to Circling Raven Golf Club and nearby Coeur d'Alene Resort (golf packages from $199 to $849).

This isn't the easiest place to get to, but then that's why they call it unspoiled. And a one-stop flight through Minneapolis to Spokane, Wash., followed by a 45-minute drive is unlikely to french-fry your nerves, especially when you see the payoff.

Beauty in the Backwoods

As much as I love golf, it's the rare course that merits the hassle of air travel. Circling Raven does. (The course is an amenity of the adjacent Coeur d'Alene Casino Resort Hotel, though you don't have to stay there to play it.)

It was designed by Gene Bates, whom cognoscenti and cognoscenti alone know as the former architectural partner of PGA Tour star Fred Couples.

Such arrangements generally resemble the nerd in high school who does the star quarterback's homework, so it's nice that Bates gets full credit for this masterful layout.

Admittedly, he had a hell of a canvas to work with: 620 dramatic, rolling acres -- more than three times the size of an average course -- unblemished by any housing.

This purity accentuates the vast scale; yet there is a wonderful attention to detail and variety throughout the design, which doesn't coast along on the setting for its greatness.

New Yorker

film critic Anthony Lane once dissed a Joe Mantegna performance by saying (I'm paraphrasing here), "His fancy suits seem to be wearing him." Such criticism can't be leveled at Circling Raven, where you'd have to work hard to come up with quibbles.

And the value is unbeatable, at $90 on the weekends in high season. The greens fees would be two or three times that in any metropolitan market.

I played the layout three times in two days and enjoyed each subsequent loop even more than the preceding one. OK, one quibble -- I didn't spy a single circling raven.

I did spy a filching raven at the Resort course at Coeur d'Alene, a five-star getaway all the way, if the clear No. 2 in the area's one-two golf punch. The bird was flying off with a bag of -- what else? -- potato chips in its beak (clearly, a raven less influenced by Poe than by P.G. Wodehouse).

This was funny for many reasons, not the least of which is that Coeur d'Alene is known for

ne plus ultra

customer service and course conditioning. Just try to find a misaligned blade of grass while on the way to the bathrooms, which are tucked, military bunkerlike, under tee boxes.

In fact, we had been cautioned by a veteran staff member to tuck any food inside a basket behind the cart's seat. (I wouldn't be surprised if that bird dropped the snack bag in a trash can when it was done.)

The experience of Coeur d'Alene golf is indeed topnotch: a five-minute boat ride from the hotel to the course; carts with chrome rims, mahogany dashboards, tilted steering wheels and heated seats; bunker rakes concealed in special in-ground tubes; very well-trained, mandatory forecaddies; and more than 20,000 red geraniums decorating the holes.

Still, the course itself is wedged onto a smallish parcel of land, and some oddities result. The driving range has players hit balls out into the gorgeous lake (fun, even if plunk-plunk-plunk may not be the last sound you want to hear before heading to the first tee).

There are three par-3s in a four-hole stretch early in the front nine. Yet as the free-spirited, sometimes-oddball yang to Circling Raven's more traditional, serious yin, it works wonderfully well.

Coeur d'Alene is chockablock with fun, exciting holes and scoring opportunities, thanks to reachable-in-two par-5s and drivable par-4s.

Most famously, its 14th hole may be the world's only true island-green par 3, as it requires a water taxi, named Putter, to reach the putting surface.

I made par there and received a commemorative certificate from the ship's captain -- the kind of thoughtful extra touch resort guests receive in abundance.

Beyond the Greens

After the round, I took another boat ride, this time around Lake Coeur d'Alene. It is at once serenely and shockingly beautiful.

Aquatically speaking, only something outrageous could compete, and the resort's bilevel, 30,000-square-foot spa does with the $100,000 SilverTAG shower.

It's a computer-operated shower --- now, there are three words you wouldn't expect to find sequentially -- with 18 showerheads and up to 30 different frequencies creating a precision hydrotherapy treatment called Pure Essence.

At $25 for 10 minutes, it's not unreasonably priced, either. It's worth it for the story alone, never mind the relaxation.

The $10-million Spa offers several such unique experiences.

Many of the specialty baths, wraps and scrubs utilize the medicinal value of local flora and fauna, like spruce, cedar and lake algae.

I like lake algae as much as the next guy, but most of us will gravitate to the Gentleman's Private Barber area for a shave and a haircut and maybe even a scalp massage, hot towel treatment and mani-pedi.

Almost all of the resort's 337 rooms have lake views, but the most enjoyable one is from your table at Beverly's, its gourmet restaurant.

The food is as superb as the wine list is long -- and at more than 1,500 bottles from 11 countries worth more than $1.5 million in sum, that's saying something.

My group was fortunate enough to get a tour of the collection with Eric Cook, the resort's unpretentious sommelier. Any oenophile worth his Sauterne -- and I had a superior one after my Russian coastal diver scallops -- should take the opportunity to seek out Cook for a recommendation.

Beverly's is a filet-mignon eatery, but the hopping little town of Coeur d'Alene also sports one of the country's most acclaimed burger joints, Hudson's Hamburgers, celebrating its centennial in 2007.

The options are hamburger, cheeseburgers, double hamburgers and double-cheeseburgers, with pickles and onions or without. Pie for dessert. That's it. No fries -- in Idaho, no less!

If that's a surprise, keep in mind that a hundred years of customers can't be wrong. Indeed, for the uninitiated, Coeur d'Alene is full of great surprises.

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Evan Rothman is a freelance writer living in Staatsburg, N.Y., and senior writer for

Golfweek. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, Esquire, Men's Journal and other leading publications.