Saturday, May 3, 2008

Day Trip: St. Maries, Idaho

Day Trip to St. Maries

I’ve always enjoyed taking short day trips with friends, exploring the unfamiliar or seldom-visited nooks and crannies of the Inland Northwest. Lately however, I’m finding that gas-pump shock is putting a bit of a damper on the urge to adventure too far from home base. With that in mind, Lou and I realized it had been ages since either one of us had checked in on the south end of Lake Coeur d’Alene, specifically the quirkily charming community of St. Maries. So, armed with lunch money and hot new sunglasses, we hit I-90 on a recent sunny Saturday, blaring the fantastic new R.E.M. album “Accelerate” and enjoying the warm glow of spring on our faces.

Rolling into an active downtown St. Maries with snarling appetites, I wanted to eat somewhere where we might be able to experience some local history. The Gem State Grill was originally constructed in 1910 as a Red Cross drug store, and according to our waitress Nann, it was “a zillion other things” before the current owners established it as a diner in 1982. It’s got a clean and classic vibe and a good selection of breakfast, lunch and dinner items ranging from the “Apple Tree Omelet” to a nice steak with an Idaho baked potato. It probably seems like they’re all I ever eat but I’m obsessed with finding the quintessential North Idaho burger and the Gem State’s delicious Cowboy Burger is definitely a hot contestant with its thick slice of American cheese, deep fried onion ring and tangy BBQ sauce. The accompanying crinkle-cut fries were golden and perfect. Lou ordered the gigantic $9 Gem Burger which sated even his alarmingly enormous appetite, causing him to groan with satisfaction. There’s nothing too fancy or festive about this place, but you’ll find little to complain about.

Our window booth was a prime spot for some post-lunch people watching, and downtown St. Maries was alive with a spring mix of seniors, leather-clad bikers and young families, many of them coming and going from Main Street Antiques and Espresso, a tiny shop whose “Handmade Fudge” sign came into focus and immediately motivated us across the street to check it out. I couldn’t really justify breaking out the Visa solely for a chunk of Reese’s Pieces fudge so I had to find some other unnecessary thing to spend my rent money on. It’s an itty-bitty store but its crammed floor-to-ceiling with interesting collectables, kitchen implements and touristy kitsch. I came across a small rack of “Fragrances of the Northwest” incense and was intrigued by the notion of “Idaho Essence.” What could the scent of Idaho possibly be? Hash browns? Golf greens? I shuddered at the thought of Rainbow Trout incense and was relieved to see that, naturally, the aroma was that of our delicately-scented state flower, Syringa. Pretty good stuff, actually.

The counter girl gave us two-for-one fudge since they were the last pieces on the tray. “Sorry, these are the only boxes we’ve got,” she apologized as she handed over the goods in a foofy pink and purple floral patterned package. “That’s okay, I’m man enough to handle a girly looking box,” I quipped and she laughed nervously as she bagged our fudge and incense. We were drawn into the Paperhouse store by the insane psychedelic Swiss mural out front, then decided to shuffle a few blocks down Main St. to c
heck out the log-built Hughes House Museum, which is apparently one of the coolest historic buildings in a town full of cool historic buildings. Frustratingly, it was closed despite the fact that a Saturday afternoon seems like a completely logical time for a museum to be open.

It was time to head back to the booming metropolis of Coeur d’Alene, but first I had an urgent matter to attend to. It only took one minute of driving around town before a sign popped out at us from a door at the back end of a dodgy fuel station: “Public Restroom.” I was a little scared; who knew what seedy gas-station-bathroom horrors could possibly lurk behind that door. Dirt and filth? Hypodermic needles? A barefoot Britney Spears? No matter, when you gotta go you gotta go, so I bravely swung open the door and to my surprise it was completely bright and immaculate, inviting even. Charming retro-style red and white checkered floors and a vase of fake flowers made for an unexpectedly classy potty stop. Who would have thought? I’ve got to give kudos to the St. Maries Conoco for the most pleasant public bathroom in Benewah County.


OrangeTV said...

From Huckleberries Online Forums:

Hey Orange, Like you, I'm constantly looking for the best burgers. Here's my run down for areras north of you. The best burger in Sandpoint is at the Dairy Depot- a gas station so it is take out only. The second best is the "Damn Good Burger" at Cafe Trinity. It might be the best, but the $8 price tag brings it down a notch.

In my opinion, the best burger in North Idaho is at the Elmira Store, a dozen miles north of Sandpoint. It is the kind of place you would love. They also have the best huckleberry shakes- served with the metal shake making cup next to your glass. Give a yell when you're ready to head that way and I'll steer you there. Keep up the good work.
Posted by Arpie | 3 May 6:59 AM

The drive between Plummer and St. Maries is one of my favorites, as is the drive between Rose Lake and St. Maries. I drove those highways several times last summer, took some pictures, and enjoyed the beauty of the lakes, rivers, and landscape.
Posted by raymondpert | 3 May 10:34 AM

I was born and raised in St. Maries before moving to Sandpoint in 1999. The last time I was there was September 13, 2007 for my Great-Grandfather's funeral. Haven't been back since.
Posted by Digger | 3 May 12:53 PM

Digger, Did you know any of the Warehime family from there?
Posted by hmk | 3 May 2:02 PM

Went to Heyburn Elemetary, St. Maries Middle School and graduated from St. Maries High in 1997. Raised by my grandmother from the age of 3 on Cromwell Drive-represent! Love the town and wouldn't trade where i grew up for anything.
Lumberjack Pride Baby!
HMK, I know the Warehime family.
Posted by JIMMYMAC | 3 May 2:27 PM

Uncle,Aunt, Cousins. We were pretty close.
Posted by hmk | 3 May 2:56 PM

Lance was a year behind me. How is he doing these days? We had same baby sitter growing up. Is he still around N. Idaho?
Posted by JIMMYMAC | 3 May 3:42 PM

I drive through St. Maries about once per year, on my way to Wallace. I love the White Pine Scenic Route, and I've always liked St. Maries and Harrison.
Posted by James Bond | 3 May 5:16 PM

The name sounds familar, though I couldn't point them out of a crowd.
Posted by Digger | 3 May 5:41 PM

I didn't have much contact with Lance after Scott (my cousin, his dad) got killed in the plane crash. I don't know where he is.
Posted by hmk | 3 May 6:04 PM

At least once a year, for the St. Joe Auto Club's fantastic vintage auto parade.
Posted by deepee | 4 May 6:42 AM

Anonymous said...

Does anyone remember the C&M cafe in St. Maries? My great aunt and uncle ran the cafe until the early 60's. Just wondered if anyone remembered Homer and Ethel Beg.
JMD Seattle

Anonymous said...

St. Maries does get in your bones...lived there three times as a child...think I even remember Dugger. What a personality!!!
I do remember the C&M Cafe and Handy Corner...But would highly recommend Bud's Burger Barn now especially for breakfast
The smell of those glorious trees and the wonderland that lies on the forests to the gurgling 'cricks'...keep calling me.