The next ‘last, great place’
It was a bright, sunny January day when we set out on the 100-mile drive from Boise to McCall, Idaho. The hills surrounding Boise shined like gold in the winter sun, and we were told they turn a verdant green, “like in Ireland,” during the spring rains. The scenic drive hugs the twists and turns of the Payette River through deep canyons as it heads up the mountains to the Long Valley. If you live in Aspen, or have visited frequently for an extended period of time, no doubt you have expressed nostalgia for “the way it was.” As resort destinations grow and become more homogenized, there is an endless quest for the “Next Great Place.”
Sadly, finding those hidden gems has become more and more difficult. Populations have grown and money has changed what were once rural and remote outposts into ever-crowded resort destinations.So with a desire to find a gem, my wife and I set out on this January afternoon for what we heard was a small resort town with potential in Western Idaho, called McCall. We had also heard about a new ski resort nearby, Tamarack, and wanted to experience it early in its development before it became just another stop on the ski circuit. In addition, the lure of surrounding lakes drew us to this off-the-beaten-track playground; McCall sits hard by the banks of Lake Payette, one of the most beautiful high-mountain lakes in the country. Nearly 70 miles into the drive, the canyon opened up to reveal a huge open valley bordered on the east by the Frank Church Wilderness and on the west by the peaks of the Payette National Forest. The view was breathtaking as we drove past snow-covered farms and through the tiny towns that support them.When we reached McCall, two and half hours after leaving Boise, the streets were filled. It was winter carnival week and the ice sculptors were out in force. Since 1924 McCall has hosted this event annually, and it is the only winter week in which tourists dominate the scene. At stake for the sculptors was a spot in the National Ice Carving Championships in Wisconsin. The town is tiny, with a year-round population of fewer than 3,000 hardy souls. The main drive, lined by motels, hot and sporting goods emporiums, comes to a T at the lakefront and the divergent roads head in opposite directions around the magnificent waters of Lake Payette. As we made our way through town we looked for our home for the weekend, the Whitetail Club and Resort. Luxury awaited us.
The Whitetail Club and Resort is a premier destination hotel and the only five-star hotel in McCall. Located directly on the banks of Lake Payette, the hotel originally opened in 1948 as the Shore Lodge. For nearly 50 years, it was a homey getaway for Boise residents who would motor up for the summer season to stay in one of the 116 motel-type rooms. Nothing fancy, just a good lakeside getaway.In 1999, under the ownership of Manchester Grand Resorts, a San Diego-based developer, it began its metamorphosis into one of the finest lakeside properties in the Northwest. More than $25 million dollars was spent in creating the 77-suite resort, which sits perched above two beaches and a series of docks that host all forms of boating directly in front of the hotel. Within a short walk, one can find 18 holes of golf on a new Andy North-designed 7,200-yard golf course.But of course this was winter and the view from our window was of an immense snow- and ice-covered lake surrounded by snowy peaks. It was gorgeous and we could only wonder what it looked like with blue waters and a summer sun.The Whitetail is the quintessential lakeside lodge. Huge stone fireplaces, pinewood floors and indigenous river rock slabs throughout the main lobby give it a clubby, hunting-lodge feel. On the walls are mementos of days past with photos of families fishing and boating on the lake circa 1950. Large oil paintings of local wildlife add to the ambiance of the public areas.The rooms are spacious and comfortable with marble baths and big fluffy beds covered in 900-thread count Italian sheets and soft down comforters. It is a perfect winter hideaway, and one can spend a full day doing nothing but staring at the lake.But we had a destination in mind. At dusk we headed five minutes away to the Ponderosa State Park, to don snowshoes and hike to the Blue Moon Yurt, where dinner awaited. The trail through towering pines just yards away from the lake shore was stunning.
The Park, which encompasses a 1,000-acre peninsula, juts out into the middle of the lake and features 14.3 miles of USSA-sanctioned, groomed nordic ski trails and an additional three miles of snowshoe trails. Next March the Park will play host to the 2008 Masters World Cup Nordic Skiing Championships. This night, with temperatures in the teens and a nearly full moon hovering over the lake, was perfect for our trip of a mile or so.The Blue Moon offers gourmet dining in a cozy yurt just steps from the lake. Before we even arrived we could smell the Cornish game hens cooking in the Dutch ovens. It was a magical evening; we sat on wooden benches at a family-style table with about 30 other hungry snowshoers. As people toasted the day beneath the prayer flags that adorned the interior, we felt lucky to have made the trip.The next morning dawned bright yet again and we took off for a day at Tamarack. For rental equipment we stopped at Alpine Sciences, a wickedly cool little mountain sports shop on the way out of town heading toward the ski hill. The shop was full of climbing gear for the summer crowd, who like to explore deep into the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, as well as nordic and alpine gear for the winter travelers who ski either Tamarack or the Brundage Mountain Resort, an older but much respected ski mountain just north of McCall.”Where you from?” asked the man behind the counter as I made friends with the shop’s three-legged dog.
“Colorado,” I replied, trying not to alarm the locals, who clearly fear impending Aspenization of their valley.”Yeah?” he said, “So am I.” He then proceeded to prove his Aspen authenticity by running through a list of the usual mid-’70s suspects, inquiring about their whereabouts.”I came here 25 years ago to escape all that,” he said with a wistful look in his eyes. “And now it looks like the same thing may be happening all over again.” I nodded knowingly and commiserated for a while before asking where his next stop might be.”I got a place picked out,” he said with a wink, “but if I told you where it was I’d have to kill you.”Yes, I decided as we climbed back into the car for the 17-mile drive to Tamarack, the hunt for the next great place is universal.
As we drove into the Tamarack Resort it was easy to see its potential. The resort sits at the base of a ski mountain that rises 2,800 feet above Lake Cascade, a 21-mile-long, 4-mile wide reservoir that offers rich summer recreational opportunities.Nestled fittingly among Tamarack trees (and the ever-present cranes) is the first phase of the resort’s development, the Members Lodge and Spa, a boutique hotel. There is also a collection of white clapboard buildings known as Arling Center, a conference center whose design hearkens back to the area’s local heritage.At the lodge we met Jean-Pierre Boespflug, Tamarack’s chief executive. Along with Mexican industrialist Alfredo Miguel, Boespflug is the financial and spiritual force behind the first American ski resort to open since 1981, when Beaver Creek and Deer Valley hosted their first skiers.Boespflug, a Frenchman, seems to have done all the right things in nurturing the resort to fruition. The development group made peace with Valley County, which had fought the project’s previous ownership group for 20 years. Boespflug and friends paid off, on a dollar-for-dollar basis, the debts of that previous ownership’s bankruptcy, and scaled the project down to a size that was more palatable to many of the area residents.Today Tamarack looks like a winner. Nearly $360 million of real estate on the mountain, around the lake and surrounding the Robert Trent Jones Jr.-designed Osprey Meadows Golf course has been scooped up in the initial offerings.The mountain is a jewel. Seven lifts operated this season, just its third year of operation, serving 2,100 in-bounds acres with access to an additional 5,000 acres of backcountry. While the lake is drained in the winter, the views across the valley from the 7,700-foot summit are breathtaking. To the east is the Frank Church Wilderness across the valley – think of the view from Jackson Hole toward the Gros Ventre. To the west is the Cascade Range and the high desert of Oregon.The in-bounds terrain is intermediate-oriented, but the runs are long and fun with occasional high cornices and tree skiing for experts. The snowfall averages close to 300 inches per year – nearly a third more than falls on Tamarack’s in-state neighbor, Sun Valley.
The real draw, however, is the opportunity for two-season living. We did not see summer sun on Lake Cascade, but the water-skiing and kayaking opportunities on a shallow reservoir that boasts water temperatures north of 70 degrees in August are tough to pass up.The big news at Tamarack is the announcement this past year that Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf are partnering with Bayview Financial to build a new hotel and condominium residence to be operated by Canada’s Fairmont Hotel Group. Its completion will clearly raise the Tamarack’s profile.McCall does not have direct commercial air service. Yet. While town fathers, the resort owners and developers all covet daily Delta and Skywest jets, the remoteness of McCall may be the blessing that keeps growth in check. A lesson can be learned from other resort communities that rely too much on their airports for their livelihood.Kelly Hayes lives in Old Snowmass and has a summer job driving for his wife, Linda.
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