Weekend Getaway: Boise, Idaho

Editor's Note: As a special travel feature for September, TheStreet.com offers a series of weekend getaways, each designed to help you find the Good Life. Enjoy!

Idaho is much more than the home of Napoleon Dynamite and Ore-Ida potatoes.

Thanks to its unparalleled scenic beauty, millions of acres of national parks and world-class ski resorts, it is rapidly becoming known as a high-end adventure-travel destination.

So it's no surprise that Idaho's capital, Boise, offers a unique welcome to the discerning traveler.

The wild west is tamer in Boise, and the city is making a concerted effort to present more sophisticated choices to go along with its rustic setting.

By far the most cosmopolitan city in the state, Boise is a small, friendly and comfortably compact locale, with a downtown that's easy to navigate on foot.

It's both a college town, sporting a youthful influence that is increasingly shaping local culture, and a corporate haven, housing major corporations such as Boise, Albertson's and Micron Technologies.

Another plus? Lodging is quite reasonable.

I stayed at Boise's only four-star hotel, the Grove Hotel ($159-$259), which was close to everything downtown and a convenient base camp.

Other notable options are the Statehouse Inn ($80-$95), The Anniversary Inn ($139-$289), and the unusual five-room Basque boarding house and restaurant Leku Ona ($65-$85).

Basking ... in History

Boise is home to a large and tightly knit Basque population, descendants of the northern Spanish sheepherders who settled the area in the nineteenth century.

The current Basque-American mayor won office by a landslide, and a sapling from the Tree of Guernika, the symbol of Basque independence, grows on the capitol grounds.

From the back of the Grove Hotel, you can stroll down a tree-lined walkway to Grove Street and head right into Boise's unique Basque central.

This is a several-block area that functions as a center of operations for the Basque population and provides a window into the culture for the rest of us, complete with restaurants, cafes, a museum and even a Basque market.

One interesting touch: The words of various Basque folk songs are inscribed on the sidewalks throughout the neighborhood.

The Basque Museum & Cultural Center contains exhibits and demonstrations that examine this unique heritage and functions as a cultural center for Basque activities.

Traditional Basque Dancers

(According to the museum's store manager, Nikki Gorrell, Idaho's Basque-descended population is the nation's second largest, behind only California -- but is tops when calculated per capita.)

Next door to the museum is the Basque Center. Built in the 1940s, it serves as a gathering place for the Basque population and features dancing, music and other events.

Some of the unique classes at the center are taught by a traditional children's dance group, 'Ko Gazteak.

The music group Txantxagorriak instructs students in the usage of the trikitrixa (accordion) and the pandareta (tambourine).

Take the time to sit at the center's bar and sip kalimotxo -- red wine mixed with Coca-Cola -- and listen to beret-topped locals speaking Euskera, the Basque language.

Across the street from the Center, Tara and Tony at The Basque Market offer a wide selection of Basque and Spanish provisions, including olives, cheese, olive oils and Basque coffee, as well as homemade regional dishes to take with you on your way.

Eat, Drink and Be Merry

Indeed, one of Boise's most important attractions is its food: There are countless restaurants and cafes featuring Basque regional cuisine. What does that entail? Lamb dishes, chorizo sausage, beef tongue, red bean soup and rice pudding, all served family style.

I had a delicious lamb grinder with pepper and onions at an informal and inexpensive outdoor cafe, the Bar Guernika Basque Pub and Eatery.

The barman explained the origin of the cafe's name and tree logo -- it was in honor of the Basque village brutally bombed by the Germans and immortalized by Picasso in his famous painting "Guernica."

A few steps from the Bar Guernika lie the ample offerings at Goldy's Breakfast Bistro. Hip decor, music by John Lee Hooker and Aretha Franklin and condiment-laden lazy susans on each table make this a popular restaurant with a long wait on weekends.

For a more formal dining experience, Mortimer's is located in the historic Belgravia Building in Old Boise.

Among the local regional fare Mortimer's features are trout raised in Buhl, Idaho, (from where the tasty fish are delivered to dining tables worldwide), those famous Idaho potatoes, Kobe-style beef from Snake River Farms, elk chops from Black Canyon Elk Ranch and local Idaho cheeses.

Epi's Basque Restaurant can be found 10 miles to the west, in the Boise suburb of Meridian.

Epi's used to be in the town of Hailey, close to Sun Valley, and enjoyed a very famous clientele -- Bing Crosby, Ernest Hemingway and even Colonel Sanders -- but moved to its current location in 1999.

Epi's serves classic Basque fare like red bean soup, lamb txilindron (lamb stew), and beef tongue Viscayan style: spicy and garlicky, showcasing the unique Basque choricero peppers.

If you venture out of the Basque area, a bit further north, near 13th Street, lies another section of Boise's historic district: Hyde Park.

It is a small, artsy area with historic shops, antique stores and more delicious cafes, such as the Java Hyde Park and the Bowl of Soul.

Above and Beyond

A major annual Boise attraction is the Idaho Shakespeare Festival, which runs from June through September. It features modern plays, as well as the traditional Shakespearean repertoire.

You can relax on a blanket, take in a performance and then watch the stars come out over the Boise River -- one of my favorite ways to experience the local scene.

A large percentage of Idaho's land is devoted to parks and recreation areas, and since Boise is located centrally in the state, scenic day trips are easy to take.

Heading north from the city, the Sawtooth National Forest and Sawtooth National Recreation Area offer some of the most stunning mountain scenery you'll ever encounter.

Nestled at the southern base of the Sawtooths is the former mining town of Ketchum, which serves as the gateway to the Sun Valley resort area.

Ketchum offers a variety of outdoor recreational activities, such as hiking, biking and horseback riding. And the Ketchum Cemetery includes Hemingway's final resting place; the great writer spent his last years in the area.

In 1935, in an effort to attract passenger rail traffic to the West, chairman of the board of Union Pacific Railroad W. Averell Harriman engaged Austrian Count Felix Schaffgotsch to search the West to find the ideal site to develop the best ski resort in the world.

The result was Sun Valley. Once a top destination for celebrities like Clark Gable and Gary Cooper, it's still one of the best resorts in the world for ski fans of all types.

Sun Valley is less than three hours from Boise by car, and is serviced by Alaska Airlines, Delta and Sky West.

And if you've got the time, don't miss the 750,000-acre Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve.

Its massive lava beds, spatter cones and craters were formed not by one volcano, but from long fissures across the Snake River Plain known collectively as the Great Rift.

Otherworldly Craters

Beginning about 15,000 years ago, lava welled up from the Great Rift, covering a vast area.

The most recent eruption occurred a mere 2,000 years ago, and geologists believe that future events are likely.

A 7-mile loop road, open May through October, includes access to hiking trails that take you around the highlights.

Even if you're not a fan of Tater Tots, a few days in the crisp air of Boise will clear your head and broaden your horizons -- both visually and culturally.



Enjoy the Good Life? Email us with what you'd like to see in future articles.

Russell Dean Vines is the president and founder of The RDV Group Inc., a New York-based security consulting services firm, and a bestselling author. His most recent book is "Phishing: Cutting the Identity Theft Line," published by John S. Wiley and Sons.

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