Idaho Calling

New development beckons travelers to this rustic town

By: Jill Fergus

Whitetail Club & Resort
Whitetail Club & Resort lobby
I am sitting on a large hay bale in an old wooden wagon driven by a grizzled local named Joe in central Idaho’s Valley County. Out of a nearby pine grove, a herd of elk, some with startlingly long antlers, slowly make their way over to our wagon. Eventually, they surround us and start munching on the hay which we still happen to be sitting on. Their oversized heads are no more than inches away from our feet. As I am snapping away with my camera and secretly hoping they don’t come to think of me as lunch I realize this encounter is not your everyday occurrence, especially for a city girl like me. However, for those living in McCall, a tiny mountain town 2½ hours from Boise, hanging with elk is par for the course.

McCall, a former mining and timber town, was founded in the 1880s and sits on the shore of glacier-carved Payette Lake surrounded by pine forests with the northern Rockies as a backdrop. There are just a handful of streets lined with rustic log-cabin-style buildings and old pickup trucks parked out front. The population (around 2,500) is an interesting mix of old-timers, forest-service workers, nature-lovers and wealthy Idahoan and Californian families with second homes on the lake. It’s virtually chain-free there’s just one Subway but no Starbucks or McDonald’s.

The winds of change are blowing, however. Valley County is going through a building boom brought on by the opening of Tamarack Resort, one of the Gem State’s largest developments (a 20-minute drive from McCall). The $1.5 billion year-round complex opened in 2004 and will take a decade to complete. The Village Plaza with condos, restaurants and shops will open by next ski season and a five-star Fairmont, backed by Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf, is on the horizon. The developers envision it as an alternative to Idaho’s ritzy Sun Valley resort, and due to its proximity, McCall will share some of that spotlight.

Whitetail Club & Resort
Presidential suite at Whitetail Club & Resort
Some locals understandably have mixed feelings about all the changes. Markets now sell organic foods and therapists administer hot-stone massages, but one gets the sense that despite the growth in the valley, it will retain its small-town atmosphere. Places like the no-frills Pancake House and Bistro 45, a funky wine bar where patrons play board games while sipping merlot, are always packed.

There are a handful of motels along the main street, but the best place to stay is the Whitetail Club & Resort on the lake’s southern shore. Originally opened in 1948 as the rustic Shore Lodge, the property was purchased by San Diego-based Manchester Grand Resorts (which owns several San Diego hotels including the new Grand Del Mar) in 1993 and underwent a $25 million renovation. Many of the original elements remain, including river-rock slabs and pinewood planks in the lobby, and walls lined with old black-and-white photos of McCall, lend a nostalgic touch. The 77 European-style suites feature Italian linens, mahogany furnishings and marble baths, and many have balconies overlooking the lake.

Throughout the lodge, there are stone fireplaces and cozy sitting rooms where guests can unwind after a day of activity, which might include swimming, kayaking or boating on the lake. There’s also tennis courts, four ponds stocked with trout where anglers can try their luck, and an Andy North-designed 18-hole championship golf course. (Nearby Tamarack has great golf too a Robert Trent Jones Jr. Signature course.) Also scattered about the property’s 1,300 acres are numerous hikes and biking paths. Just a few minutes from the hotel is Ponderosa State Park, a 1,000-acre peninsula jutting into Payette Lake. It’s the area’s most popular spot for hiking mountain biking and, in the winter, you can snowshoe through the forest to a teepee-like yurt, where a four-course meal with wine is served.

You won’t have to work quite as hard when dining at Whitetail’s Narrows restaurant, which has lovely views across the lake. The newly installed executive chef Ian Fulton who has worked as a personal chef for Hollywood celebrities including Jack Nicholson offers Pacific Northwest-inspired dishes incorporating local products like rainbow trout, game, Snake River Farms beef, huckleberries and, of course, potatoes. I ordered a pear salad with pecan-encrusted goat cheese and venison prepared osso buco-style, both of which were delicious. The dishes were paired with a selection of fine wines including an Idahoan Ste. Chapelle Riesling.

Who knew Idaho produced wine? It’s just one more reason to plan a visit.


Whitetail Club & Resort
Commission: 10 percent