James Patrick Kelly
Moon Idaho author James P. Kelly, a former chef, earned a journalism degree from Boise State University before becoming the restaurant critic at the Idaho Statesman. He has written numerous food and travel-related features for Northwest Palate and other magazines and websites. We asked James to share with us some of his insider tips on Idaho, and he was happy to oblige.
Discover Idaho with James P. Kelly
1. What are some recommendations for first-time visitors?
I like to steer newcomers toward the Lowman Loop in Southwest Idaho. This beautiful route, just north of Boise, runs through the funky, old mining town of Idaho City—complete with backcountry yurts, river rafting, and plenty of hot springs to soak away your worries. Travelers who are into big lakes and pine trees should head to Payette Lake in North-Central Idaho, which boasts a riot of water sports, including canoeing, kayaking, waterskiing, and sailing.
2. Boise has the largest Basque population outside Spain—where do you recommend stopping when walking through the Basque Block?
The Basques love food and wine. I highly recommend starting your tour of the Basque Block at Bar Gernika, a reliable Basque tavern and eatery where old Basques and hipsters like to hang out. Try the delicious paella and a plate of chicken croquetas washed down with a glass of Rioja. Next door you’ll find the Basque Museum and Cultural Center, where you can take in some local Basque history. Finish off your tour across the street at The Basque Market, a good place to load up on imported wines, cured meats, and cheeses. If you want to spend the night on the Basque Block, I would recommend the Leku Ona Hotel.
3. What would be a perfect day in Snake River Valley wine country?
The Sunny Slope area of Caldwell, in Southwest Idaho, is the focal point of this burgeoning wine region. Sit on the patio at Hells Canyon Winery and sample the estate wines while nibbling on cheeses and bread. After that, head to Koenig Vineyards, Williamson Vineyard, Ste. Chapelle Winery, and Fujishin Family Cellars—a designated driver is recommended at this point. Finish off the day on the deck at Bitner Vineyards, which boasts a panoramic view of the valley and nearby Owyhee Mountains, and stay at the winery’s small bed and breakfast if you want to make it an overnight trip. You can find a downloadable wine country map at Idaho Wines.
4. What are some popular places and activities for outdoor enthusiasts who visit Idaho?
The Sawtooth National Recreation Area, just north of Ketchum, is a beautiful piece of Idaho where you can backpack into a myriad of alpine lakes and fish for feisty trout during the summer. Redfish Lake is an idyllic spot to row a boat, though it can get crowded at times. Nordic skiing is popular in this area during the winter months. The North Valley trail system is an excellent byway for cross-country skiers. Galena Lodge is a good place for hot chocolate.
5. What can travelers expect when navigating Central Idaho’s Rocky Mountains?
Summertime is peak season in this stretch of the Rockies. The roads are usually in good condition during the warmer months; during the winter and spring seasons, however, many of the high-mountain roads (except the main highways) are snowed in. If you’re planning to backpack in the Rockies, keep in mind that your probably won’t be able to access the alpine lakes until the middle of summer. The region had an excessive amount of snow and associated runoff this year, making for problematic and dangerous stream crossings well into July. You have to keep your wits about you out here.
6. Idaho has some unusual annual festivals—which one’s your favorite, and why?
I would have to say the Trailing of the Sheep Festival in the Sun Valley area. This autumn event celebrates Idaho’s storied sheep industry with lots of Basque dancing, Peruvian music, and lamb cooked in just about every conceivable form. My favorite part of the festival is when thousands of sheep are herded down Main Street in Ketchum on their way back from high-country rangeland.
7. What locations would you recommend for birdwatchers?
Centennial Marsh near Fairfield is the place to be in early summer. Not only will you see plenty of sandhill cranes, curlews, and blue herons, the marsh also comes alive with blue camas lilies, Indian paintbrush blooms, and other wildflowers. If you want to see Rocky Mountain trumpeter swans, head to Harriman State Park in Southeast Idaho—the majestic birds hang out there all winter.
8. As a local, what do you consider to be the best restaurant in Boise?
My favorite restaurant in Boise isn’t really a restaurant at all; it’s the cocktail lounge at the Modern Hotel. This swanky little bar recently revamped its menu and it now has some of the best food in town—all made with seasonal and local foodstuffs. Try the apple cider-braised pork belly with heirloom tomato coulis or the toothsome cassoulet.
9. Idaho is a skier’s paradise. What are your top three places for hitting the slopes?
That’s a tough question to answer because Idaho has such great skiing, but I think my three favorite places for fresh powder are these:
1. Brundage Mountain – It doesn’t get the same fanfare that Sun Valley does, but this ski resort in North-Central Idaho offers 1,300 acres of skiable terrain and a nearly 2000-foot vertical drop. Plus, the lift lines are never too long.
2. Schweitzer Mountain Resort – Located in the Panhandle, this spot gets the award for the best view at any ski resort in Idaho. The sweeping panoramas of Lake Pend Oreille and the Selkirk Mountains are breathtaking, and the skiing rocks as well.
3. Grand Targhee Resort – It’s actually just over the Idaho border in Alta, Wyoming, but Idahoans have adopted this magical place as their own—and who wouldn’t? The powder here is incredible; the resort gets more than 500 inches of snow annually. Need I say more?
10. What are a few of Idaho’s top kid-friendly attractions?
In Boise, the MK Nature Center is a fun place. Here, kids can get face-to-face with rainbow trout and other cold-water species in various stages of the lifecycle, and it’s free! The Nez Perce National Historic Park near Lewiston offers all kinds of great kids’ programs at its interpretive center, which overlooks the historic Spalding site. And, of course, Silverwood Theme Park—just north of Coeur d’Alene—is extremely popular with kids and adults alike. Who doesn’t like a wild roller coaster ride now and then?
For more information on Idaho, buy a copy of Moon Idaho.