Many Arizonans travel to the Pacific Northwest and enjoy its contrasts with the Southwest. There’s the beauty of the coastline and several mountainous national parks. The vibe of cities such as Portland and Seattle is different from Phoenix. And of course the Northwest is renowned for superb cuisine, wines and brews.

Been there and done that? Not if your travels haven’t included northern Idaho.

Idaho is part of the Pacific Northwest? Not many of us think that, but geographers say the Northwest extends from the coast to the Rocky Mountains. And here’s a little known fact: Idaho has an ocean port.

Northern Idaho is a beautiful, interesting area with much to see, do and enjoy. Plus it lacks the crowds and traffic common in more traveled parts of the Pacific Coast.

Getting to northern Idaho is easy for Arizonans, with direct flights from Phoenix to Spokane, Washington. Then it is a 30-minute drive on Interstate 90 directly east to Idaho. However, my travel group took a scenic two-hour drive south from Spokane along Highway 195 to Lewiston, Idaho. We passed through the expansive Palouse Prairie region, an entrancing landscape of rolling hills.

As we approached the end of our drive, we paused high above the confluence of the Clearwater and Snake Rivers for a spectacular view overlooking Lewiston, Idaho and Clarkston, Washington.

Lewiston and Clarkston? Yes, this is Lewis and Clark country. The Corps of Discovery passed here in October 1805, 17 months after leaving the Mississippi River and two months before reaching the Pacific Ocean.

My group spent two memorable days in Lewiston, population 32,000. It is Idaho’s Pacific Ocean port (accessed via the Columbia and Snake rivers). The beautiful Hells Canyon National Recreation Area lies to the south. Three members of the Lewis and Clark expedition ventured there, but soon turned around due to cold and hunger.

We had it easier, taking a jetboat tour by Snake River Adventures into Hells Canyon. This Arizonan was surprised to learn Hells Canyon is deeper than our Grand Canyon. In fact, Hells Canyon can be considered the deepest river gorge in North America at nearly 8,000 feet. Our stay in the canyon included a stop for lunch that included sampling a few wines. What would Lewis and Clark have thought?

I particularly liked a red blend with the enticing name of Forbidden Fruit (by Basalt Cellars, which has a tasting room in Lewiston). It featured lusciously ripe but well-balanced fruit and very good length.

For dinner, we made an enjoyable half-hour drive upstream along the Clearwater River and one of its tributaries to Colter’s Creek Winery. The quaint tasting room/restaurant is located in an attractively restored building. Dinner was excellent, featuring local ingredients and beginning with Berkshire pork and fregola sarda stuffed Marsanne grape leaves with marinated feta. Yes, this is today’s “rural” Idaho.

We also had the opportunity to taste 10 or so Colter’s Creek wines. I generally preferred the reds, especially the unusually named Bordeaux-style blend “Koos·Koos·Kia, Idaho” with impressive strength and complexity on nose and palate. Nearly equal in quality was the winery’s full-bodied Petite Verdot “Snake River Valley”. My favorite among the whites was the Riesling “Lewis-Clark Valley” in which rich fruit paired with vibrant acidity.

The following day began with breakfast at Lewiston’s funky Mystic Café, where there were many attractive options. We then departed on a trolleybus for a highly interesting, entertaining tour of downtown Lewiston led by Garry Busch of Idaho History Tours. Mr. Busch conveyed his love for local lore and history with impressive freshness, and there was a surprise appearance by a character from Lewiston’s earlier years in the Wild West.

That afternoon, we drove into the countryside to visit Lindsay Creek Vineyards. Like most wineries in northern Idaho, it is locally owned and operated, in this case by fifth-generation farmers Art and Doug McIntosh. Their winery and tasting room is a beautiful, sleekly modern structure sitting high in an open, broad landscape. Lunch was accompanied by several Lindsay Creek wines. I enjoyed the Riesling for its refinement, pleasing balance and hint of sweetness. The better reds were the spicy long-lingering Counoise, strong well-balanced Mourvedre and rich long-finishing Petite Sirah, all made from Washington State grapes.

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Our travels through farmland around Lewiston included a visit with family-owned 13 Foods, producers of chickpeas, lentils, red beans and black beans with international distribution. Check out recipes on the 13 Foods website. Idaho may be known for its potatoes, but is also in the top 10 states for production of 29 other agricultural products.

Our last stop in the Lewiston area was Clearwater Canyon Cellars, which recently completed a new tasting room and winery building on the edge of town. Owners and winemakers Coco and Karl Umiker produce impressive wines. Once again, I preferred the reds over the whites, but admired the winery’s white blend “Lolo, Lewis-Clark Valley” for its fresh acidity and long finish. My favorite red (and favorite wine of the trip) was also a blend: “Selway, Lewis-Clark Valley.” It featured a refined attack followed by power, complexity and length. I also thoroughly enjoyed the winery’s Syrah “Umiker Vineyard, Lewis-Clark Valley” with its smooth texture, rich fruit and expressive finish.

On to Moscow! That’s Moscow, Idaho, and be sure to pronounce it MOS-CO. Dinner was at Nectar, a fine owner-operated downtown restaurant and bar that buys directly from local farmers. And speaking of farmers, don’t miss having breakfast/brunch/lunch at Moscow’s Farmers Market on Saturdays between May and October.

Up to this point, our travels had been more rural than cosmopolitan, but a stop at Coeur d’Alene Resort on the shoreline of beautiful Coeur d’Alene Lake provided a change of pace. With golf, gourmet food, spa treatments, lake cruises and more, the resort addresses an upscale lifestyle. As for wine, the resort’s 14,000 bottles encompassing 2,100 selections is reportedly the largest restaurant selection in the Pacific Northwest. The resort also has outdoor activities such as lake kayaking, whitewater rafting, hiking and biking.

Our final destination was Sandpoint, Idaho, only an hour’s drive from Canada. Sandpoint is a very pleasant town of 7,500 on the shoreline of scenic Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho’s largest lake. The region has plentiful outdoor recreation, highlighted by several nearby ski areas including Schweitzer Mountain Resort.

Sandpoint doesn’t come across as a wine destination, but we had dinner in the town’s Pend d’Oreille Winery, tasting a variety of dishes with ingredients from local farmers. My favorite white was a Chardonnay “Reserve, Cuvée Julie Vickers Vineyard, Snake River Valley” with deep color, light oak and impressive refinement. I also liked the Albariño “Washington” with beautiful fruit, attractive acidity and extended finish. Among the reds, I greatly enjoyed a well-balanced, lengthy, Syrah-based, non-vintage dessert wine “Oui!, Washington” that resembled port.

Looking back on this trip, traveling in northern Idaho was a unique experience. Small towns, small wineries and big landscapes – all part of the Pacific Northwest.

John Vankat is a Flagstaff resident, plant ecologist and writer on wine for the Arizona Daily Sun and Northern Arizona’s Mountain Living Magazine.

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