Destination: Idaho
The Idaho Panhandle offers a rich diversity of family fun with abundant outdoor activities.
By Margot Black

When the glaciers of the last great ice age melted, they left a wonderland of lakes, mountains, rivers and valleys across North America. Lush evergreens sprouted up on the mountains and summer sunshine warmed the waters. Modern man came along and added a few theme parks, a brewery and a stunning lakeside luxury resort and spa. Okay, now I’m enticed and eager to explore. I pack my family up and head off on a good old-fashioned road trip to the Idaho Panhandle.

The Idaho Panhandle offers a rich diversity of family fun with abundant outdoor activities, from world-class water parks and theme parks, spectacular lakes and mountains to first-class resort hotels and spas.

A family vacation is always an exciting idea, but slightly terrifying at the same time. The start of our trip involved taking two connecting flights with our one year-old son. Would he cry the entire time? Would fellow passengers hate us? Would I have to buy drinks for every passenger on the plane? Turns out our son was a champ and I was able to save my drinking funds for my husband and me.

Surprisingly, the entire airplane was filled with families with kids of all ages. We made friends and we shared Cheerios. I was so relieved I wanted to hug the other parents. And Alaska Airlines gets a huge high-five for being so helpful. They offer family pre-boarding, they don’t charge for strollers and they even shuffled another passenger so we could have more room in our row. We were off to a good start.

We flew into Spokane International Airport, rented a car and drove about 30 miles to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.

Our first stop was the Triple Play Family Fun Park, which includes a go-cart track, a 20-lane bowling alley, a miniature golf course and its flagship attraction — a 25,000 square-foot indoor water park called Raptor Reef. The water park features a wave pool and children’s lagoon along with waterslides, water guns and a huge tipping bucket that kids seemed to be insanely attracted to. There’s also a family arcade where guests can test their ability on the nine-hole miniature golf course, suit up for a galactic game of laser tag, or try to reach the top of the rock-climbing wall. Day passes run between $15 and $115, depending upon how many attractions you want to include.

All this fun kicked our appetites into high gear and so we visited the park’s Garden Fresh Grill to share a pizza and salads. The great news about this park is that if you don’t want to leave, you don’t have to. It’s attached by a sky bridge to a Holiday Inn Express Hotel and Suites.

We stayed that night at the adjoining Hayden Holiday Inn Express and it gave us everything you would expect from a family visit to a Holiday Inn: clean rooms, friendly staff and even included breakfast, featuring warm cinnamon rolls. I think it’s smart for traveling families to stay in places that offer free continental breakfasts, and apparently I’m not the only one. Every table (and six highchairs) was taken in the breakfast room. Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites, 2300 West Seltice Way, Coeur d’Alene, ID 83814, Tel: 208-667-3100.

The hotel and park offer Play & Stay Packages, which feature a bonus two hours (10am to noon) in the Water Park the next morning. Weekend package rates range from $264 (includes four Water Park wristbands) to $314 (includes bunk bed suite and up to six Water Park wristbands).OPEN: Sunday to Thursday: 10am to 10pm, Friday & Saturday: 10am to midnight. Hayden Triple Play Fun Park, 175 W. Orchard Ave, Hayden, ID, 83835, Tel: 208-762-PLAY.

Our next stop in Northern Idaho was the Silverwood Theme Park. Built by a local inventor and entrepreneur, the park began as a unique showcase for vintage trains, planes and cars. Silverwood evolved into the largest theme park in the Northwest, featuring roller coasters galore and a huge water park called Boulder Beach. (Are you gettin’ into the swim of things? People in Northern Idaho seem to love their water parks!)

Silverwood is a great deal for families; you get two terrific parks – a water park and an amusement park – for the price of one (one-day general admission is $40.99; children 3 to 7 and seniors 65+ are $21.99). There are 10 different water slides, a lazy river (filled with floating families), an Avalanche Mountain raft ride and a few VIP cabanas you can rent for the day in Boulder Beach. We did, and it made everything so easy.

And if that’s not enough excitement for you, walk your family over to the theme park side that has two wooden roller coasters. One goes underground; it’s called Tremors. (I rode Tremors and admit to trembling the entire time). There are also two huge and terrifying steel roller coasters. Additionally, Silverwood boasts a 140-foot drop tower; the Thunder Canyon Raft Ride; a 1915 Steam Engine Train (it’s beautiful and they stage a “robbery” on it) and lots of great rides for kids. The park was originally built around an airfield and its Lindy’s Restaurant pays tribute to aviation hero Charles Lindbergh.

We stopped for lunch at Lindy’s Restaurant and along with our salads and burgers, enjoyed a wide variety of delicious huckleberry inspired delights (Northern Idaho was overflowing with huckleberries during our visit) including huckleberry lemonade, huckleberry smoothies and a Huck Up (Huckleberry syrup and Sierra Mist). Silverwood Theme Park, 27843 North Highway 95, Athol, ID 83801, Tel: 208-683-3400.

Next, we headed to Schweitzer Mountain Resort. Generally known for great skiing and snowboarding in the winter, Schweitzer, with its extraordinary lake views, is a relaxing place for outdoor enthusiasts and families to enjoy a summer mountain stay and offers a surprising number of enjoyable summer activities. These include horseback riding, mountain biking, chairlift rides, tennis, geo-caching, rock wall climbing and hiking. In addition, there’s an activities center that offers visitors assistance and ideas.

We stayed in the White Pine Lodge, and our contemporary mountain design unit overlooked Lake Pend Oreille and the surrounding mountains. We savored the view during our morning coffee as well as while soaking in the outdoor hot tub. Schweitzer Mountain Resort, 10000 Schweitzer Mountain Road, Sandpoint, ID 83864, Tel: 208-263-9555.

Since Schweitzer boasts a mountain called Huckleberry Hill, and it was huckleberry season, we hiked off in search of some of our own. We didn’t have to look far. As advertised, the hills were exploding with huckleberries. We picked and ate and picked and ate, reminding ourselves along the way to save room for dinner.

The Chimney Rock Grill is Schweitzer’s elegant flagship restaurant offering a variety of regional specialties made with fresh local ingredients. Our dinner was creative, beautifully presented and delicious. I ordered the salmon special and my husband’s plate of Apple – Jack Ribs disappeared before I blinked. We dined amidst a backdrop of cozy fireplaces and large lush sofas. Chimney Rock Grill, Schweitzer Mountain Resort, Selkirk Lodge, Tel: 208-255-3071.

The next morning we found ourselves lingering over breakfast and coffee on the deck of the Mojo Coyote Café, strategizing how we could possibly cram in more activities. Eventually, the view from the mountaintop won, and we gave in to more lingering and switched from coffee to beer. Mojo Coyote Café, Schweitzer Mountain Resort, Lobby Level of Selkirk Lodge, Tel: 208-255-3037.

Our final stop on our itinerary was our favorite; a visit to the charming town of Sandpoint, Idaho. This town is enchanting, everything you would think a small town would be, including the lack of all the generic corporate mega-stores that overwhelm America. Downtown Sandpoint is filled with art galleries, quaint stores and unique eateries.

We stayed at Seasons at Sandpoint Resort, a lakefront community that made me want to move right in. Our apartment at Seasons looked right out onto Lake Pend Oreille. The view was spectacular. Beautifully decorated with huge windows and an ample terrace, I didn’t want to leave (and neither will your kids; the kids’ room in our unit had a Game Boy!) We sipped huckleberry wine as we watched sailboats glide into the resort’s marina. Sandpoint has a very well maintained private sand beach, which is ideal for families with small kids (calm waters, easy access, towels). There’s also huge pool and hot tub that overlook the lake. And if the view doesn’t hypnotize you into tranquility, there’s a spa for an added dose of relaxation. Seasons at Sandpoint, 424 Sandpoint Avenue, Sandpoint, ID 83864, Tel: 877-265-4420.

The Spa at Seasons truly lives up to its claim as “a sanctuary for the soul.” I don’t know if it’s as much for the spa offerings as it is for the hypnotically relaxing view. The best seats in the spa are the pedicure chairs (or “massage thrones” as they like to call them) that look right onto the lake. The Spa at Seasons is world-class, with an impressive menu of sophisticated offerings so leave plenty of time to linger. Better yet, book yourself in there for the entire day. Once again, I didn’t want to leave. Seasons Spa, Seasons at Sandpoint, Tel: 888-263-5616.

INFO: Vacation rentals at Seasons at Sandpoint run $300 to $400 per night, depending upon the season. Booking is done through Sandpoint Vacation Getaways. The Spa at Seasons can be reached at: 208-263-5616.

There are so many activities to take advantage of in Sandpoint, but if you’ve got time for just one, your first stop should be a Lake Pend Oreille Cruise on the Shawnodese. This unique riverboat was designed exclusively for cruising the vast 43-mile long lake. With ample outdoor seating, you’ll want to grab a seat up top to take in the splendor during the daily Lake History cruise. As a special treat for families, children can be “Captain of the Day” and take a turn at the wheel. Snacks, drinks and bathrooms are available on board. General admission: $18, Seniors 60+ are $17, Children three to 12 are $13; two and under free. Lake Pend Oreille Cruises, departure from Sandpoint City Beach Dock, Tel: 208-255-LAKE.

When we left the cruise, we bumped into a local art fair complete with belly dancers and musicians. We danced, we sang, we visited with local artisans and contemplated buying stuff we would never be able to lug home.

Dinner found us at Mick Duff’s Brewing Company, a local brewpub that specializes in — you guessed it — beer and burgers. We sampled several of Mick Duff’s handcrafted ales and amongst our favorites were the Huckleberry Blonde (fruity), the Old Ball and Chain (a strong ale) and the Lake Paddler (my favorite, a pale ale). We washed it all down with a huge plate of gorgonzola cheese fries, which we swore we would never be able to finish and promptly devoured. Mick Duff’s Brewing Company, 312 N. First Ave., Sandpoint, ID 83864, Tel: 208-255-4351.

For lunch we stopped at Babs’ Pizzeria, perhaps the most adorable pizza place I’ve ever seen. Picnic style tables and chairs overlook a little park and the vibe is quirky and casual. Babs herself wasn’t on hand that day, but her mom was, cheerfully serving up pizzas as fast as she could get them out of the oven. Babs’ Pizzeria, 321 Oak Street, Tel: 208-265-7992.

Over the course of several days we ultimately hit several different family attraction stops and stayed at three locations — all with their unique rewards — yet we were never in the car for more than an hour and a half between destinations. My only regret is that we didn’t quite have enough time to fully explore the town of Sandpoint. The town is a unique gem, one you’ll want to savor with your family. We look forward to returning.

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