"We planned to begin the discover-new-lands-and-eat-lots-of-food road trip on Saturday, but when my 92-year-old grandmother came down with a 103-degree fever and needed antibiotics pumped through her veins ASAP, the trip began several days late and unfortunately, McCall, Idaho, was knocked off the itinerary. On late Monday afternoon, with Grandma home from the hospital, we packed our bags and headed north on I-15. Utah's freeway isn't entirely scenic, so I entertained my parents with Traveler podcasts and Julian Barnes's novel, England, England.
"Sun Valley, Idaho, was the first stop. With no vacancy at the Sun Valley Lodge, we found a motel in Ketchum. The Clarion Inn was nothing special, but it fit my father's budget and my AAA three-diamond requirement—anything less and you're in for nubby blankets, dirty carpet, and the occasional hair. We ate dinner across the street at Globus—a chic Asian restaurant—but wished we'd gone instead for a deep-dish Ketchum Combo pizza at our old favorite: Smoky Mountain Pizza & Pasta.
"We spent the following morning drinking 'Bowls of Soul' from Java and watching preteen figure skaters practice spins on Sun Valley's outdoor rink. The resort, which dates back to 1936, still looked good: well-groomed but classically understated. Perhaps because of nostalgia (we vacationed here frequently in my youth), Sun Valley remains one of my favorite resort towns in the country. (I suggest visiting in post-Labor Day September when summer crowds have subsided and the chill mountain air sets in.)
"Onward-Ida-ho! We drove through Sawtooth National Recreation Area, home to the 1,500-acre (607-hectare) Redfish Lake. The lake—once so full of spawning salmon the water looked red—is now loaded with boaters and, sadly, bland in color. We preferred the smaller and lightly populated Petit Lake, accessible only by an unpaved road.
"While the life cycle of salmon is inspirational, the Sawtooth Fish Hatchery, our next stop, was anything but. Sure, the hatchery was successfully replenishing the chinook population in the Snake River, but the finger-length smolt (baby salmon) trapped in cement bathtubs made me sad. We stopped for lunch at the north end of the park in Stanley, Idaho. An established river-trip entry site, the tiny town mostly consists of log-cabin fishing supply stores. Word of mouth (and a Sunset Magazine article) sent us to one of the few restaurants: The Stanley Baking Co. (14 Wall Street; +1 208 774 6573). The food was awesome, especially the snickerdoodle cookies and the Italian sandwich—a delicious mash of Italian meats, pesto, and arugula on ciabatta bread.
"Back on the road, as I was reading aloud one of Alice Munro's short stories and Mom was snoring in the back seat, Dad caught sight of a candy store sign—how do you pass up homemade chocolate fudge?—so we stopped in Darby, Montana. More road with more beautiful scenery led us to Missoula in time for yet another meal. Per the recommendation of family friends who 'come to Missoula for the food,' we had dinner at the Depot. Its high-dollar menu shocked my father: 'Can you believe these guys in T-shirts are spending 30 bucks on steaks—and, in Montana!' Needless to say, we ordered the $10 burgers and a prime-rib salad off the bar menu. I, meanwhile, drooled over the jumbo lobster tail and accompanying melted butter of our next-table neighbor."
"I now deem Hilton Garden Inn the best roadside hotel chain in the U.S. (Though still top-notch, my old faithful Hampton Inn has slipped to second). The HGI's spacious, clean, free-Internet rooms—with beds that could be mistaken for Westin's Heavenly line—are such a good value ($118 per night), we chose to keep ours another night. This meant we'd have to drive to Spokane and back (400 miles round-trip) before nightfall, but Dad couldn't pass up the deal.
"Next morning, back in Idaho on I-90, Mom and I spotted brown road signs indicating 'Historic District Ahead' and made Dad pull off. While the town of Wallace held the main historic attractions (old buildings and a railway museum), the AAA book mentioned the abandoned mines of Gem and Burke up a canyon and nine miles out of the way. We conned Dad into a detour that, well, 'wasn't worth the gas,' but I was mildly enthralled by an old mill that had been blown up and other condemned silver-mining structures.
"Famished, we arrived at the Coeur d'Alene Resort around noon and immediately sat down in the Dockside restaurant that was still—phew!—serving breakfast. We liked our eggs and smoked salmon, but it was the huge, buttery pecan cinnamon roll that was most memorable. And the view: Our window table overlooked the resort's impressive marina and the pine-encircled, navy blue lake. With a quick stop at the Coeur d'Alene Golf Club to see its famous floating green (the 14th green floats 100 to 175 yards from the tee—a computer changes its location daily), we drove on and crossed yet another state border.
"Spokane looks like any old town in the West. It reminded me of Denver and my parents of Boise. We scouted out the two fancy hotels downtown. The Davenport, was impressive in its gilded, over-the-top style, but stuffy. When the front desk wouldn't show us a room, I was mildly offended. Especially when the concierge at the Hotel Lusso across the street hailed a bellboy to lead us on a thorough, three-room tour. We concurred we'd stay in one of the Lusso's modern and comfortable rooms 'next time.' Before we headed 'home' (to Missoula's Hilton Garden Inn), we walked through the European and Japanese Gardens in Manito Park—by far, the highlight of Spokane.
"We dilly-dallied in Missoula the next morning, taking a long and excellent breakfast of blackberry pancakes at Two Sisters and touring the University of Montana campus. Clearly, we weren't too keen to get home; especially Dad, who would only fill up the gas tank half-way in order to double our stops. We stopped in Butte, Montana, just 'cuz we'd always heard about Butte.' We stopped in Dillon, Montana, because we needed gas (and serendipitously found a Patagonia outlet in its otherwise dead downtown). We stopped in Spencer, Idaho, because it was famous for its nearby opal caves—we examined and purchased opals from a miner. We stopped in Idaho Falls for dinner at the Brownstone Restaurant and Brewhouse (455 River Pkwy.; +1 208 535 0310) because we were 'kind-of hungry.' And, only two hours away from home, we stopped in Pocatello for the night because our driver, Dad, was tired and storm clouds promised a wet and 'possibly dangerous drive.' We checked into a sub-par Best Western, gorged on a coffee/Heath Bar/brownie ice cream concoction from Cold Stone Creamery, and laughed ourselves to sleep."