Americans jokingly refer to remote Boise, Idaho, the way we Australians refer to the “back of Bourke” or even, Timbuktu.
In other words, the city of Boise (pronounced ‘Boy-see”) is regarded by many as the end of the earth – and thus, hardly worth visiting.
On the eve of our drive there, I read an obituary in The New York Times and the final line made just such a derogatory reference to poor old Boise.
“As I tell my students, ‘You are not writing for me, but for the world. Or at least for your Aunt Nellie in Boise, Idaho,’” the obit quotes deceased author Keith Botsford.
But that didn’t put us off visiting Idaho’s capital, to the west of the Rocky Mountains; far from it.
Boise was the perfect stop-off between Wyoming and Oregon, we’d decided, looking at the map a few weeks before the trip. Would the place live up to its reputation as Drearysville?
First, to my surprise, I found I had a friend living there! When googling Boise, I found an article by a woman I’d met several years ago in Aspen, Colorado!
Turns out she was so enchanted with Boise, she and her husband had moved there. I messaged her on Facebook and arranged to have coffee.
Heading in to the town, we’re reminded of the drive into Denver: a big freeway, elevated high plains, surrounded by mountains.
But unlike the sprawling Colorado capital, which has billowed in recent years, Boise is far more compact and thus, easy to get into. (Denver has a population of about three million people, whereas Boise, only about 225,000.)
Soon we’ve found our modern high-rise hotel, Inn at 500 Capitol in central Capitol Boulevard. Happily, our spacious suite has views of the Capitol Building, the city skyline and the Rockies beyond.
Though it’s after 6pm, it’s still bright and sunny outside. In mid summer, the sun doesn’t set until about 9.30pm.
What a delight to be able to wander out and explore on foot and “uncurl” after our lengthy drive as we search for an evening nosh.
Our friendly concierge assures us there’s no shortage of eateries along 8th Street, just a three minute stroll away.
We resolve to head there, after checking out the historic area known as the Basque Block.
Here there are historic buildings, once boarding houses for Basque immigrants from south-west France and northern Spain who began settling in Boise from the early 1880s.
Thankfully the area has been well preserved, combining a homage to the town’s past with a food market and bustling restaurants.
We’re soon seated at a pleasant outdoor eatery, tucking into delicious calamari, trout and steak, washed down with a decent Pinot. What great cuisine the Basques brought to the region, we reflect, well sated.
It’s only when we ask for the bill, the waiter informs us that the restaurant was the only “non-Basque” one on the block! We then wander down to 8th Street, the town’s social hub.
It’s abuzz with cafe after cafe, chokers with al fresco diners. Each eatery is decorated with rainbow banners, celebrating a recent gay pride festival.
Bright flowers adorn the entire street, and fit young people whizz past on scooters and bicycles.
The colourful street art also lights up Boise; everywhere you turn there’s either a mural, or a piece of sculpture. Even the bus stops and electrical boxes are decorated.
Heading back to our hotel, we pass a pub with a young James Taylor playing beautiful, melancholy songs. Two young women sat outside passionately embracing.
Undoubtably the Boise of yesteryear was much about cowboys and ranchers, like so many small mid-west towns, and more socially conservative.
But Boise has moved with the times. Its murals and sculptures help illustrate this more liberated, vibrant and youthful persona.
“I moved to Boise three years ago,” says our friend Sally over coffee, when we meet up with her at the hip veggo cafe, Wild Root Cafe (276 N 8th St) next day. “Just called in to visit my sister, and loved the place so much, my husband and I moved there soon after that.”
“You can hike or mountain bike in the Boise foothills, and be back at your computer a few minutes later,” she enthuses.
“I love the open, progressive feel the place has. And housing is so much more affordable here. It’s a youthful, vibrant community and there are so many outdoor activities for the kids. ” she adds.
And while once it would have been tough to run a successful PR business in remote Boise, “These days it just doesn’t matter,” she strokes the hound at her side.
“My clients couldn’t care where I’m based, I’m always contactable and I fly to New York a couple of times a year,” she beams.
We stroll together a block or two, with Sally pointing out some of her favourite eateries and shops.
“I have to get back to work now. But this place is worth visiting!” She farewells us outside an enticing chocolate shop, The Chocolat Bar (805 West Bannock St.)
We’re inside its doors before you can say “Bye, bye Sally,” tucking into a rich dark coconut chocolate, and Decadent Caramels made on the premises.
Back in N 8th, we browse in Rediscovered Books, a bustling independent bookstore set up 13 years ago by a couple. It frequently hosts author events; were I a Boise regular I’m sure this would be my local haunt!
Returning to our hotel, we borrow a couple of bikes from the concierge and set off for a ride along a tree-lined pathway through the Boise River Greenbelt, a recreational trail that extends 32 kilometres alongside the river, through various parks along the way.
As we glide beside the river, we feast our eyes on local trees, birds, and exercising locals.
We end up back at a municipal park near our hotel, Julia Davis Park. It’s home to a series of museums and cultural attractions, including the popular Boise Art Museum (670 Julia Davis Drive), The Idaho Historical Museum and the Idaho Black History Museum.
“The end of the earth” couldn’t be more attractive!
It’s also the site of a beautiful rose garden, a magnet for locals and tourists alike. Pete and I find ourselves wandering around, as enthused about these fragrant delights as Costa on his gardening show!
It’s clear, during our 24 hour visit, we’ve only scratched the surface of this very likeable, attractive city.
We’d love to be there for a couple more days, but we must press on; there is much ground to cover on our drive to San Francisco.
And while it’s true Boise is a long way from everywhere else – it took six hours to get there from Jackson, and our next destination, Bend, Oregon, is three hours away – we can see why the locals are proud of their attractive city.
Next time we re-visit, we’re be sure to allow two or three days to explore.
Inn at Capital 500 – innat500.com
Photographs: Peter Rigby and Inn at Capitol 500