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Basque-ing in Boise, Idaho

Boise is full of pleasant surprises.

All about outdoor adventure and sustainability, this destination in the foothills of the Rockies heats many homes and even its state capitol with geothermal energy pumped from 3,000 feet underground — it’s the only state capitol in the nation to do so. Its downtown is compact and walkable, with 100-plus shops, nearly as many restaurants, a number of microbreweries, growler bars and a rockin’ nightlife. Three rivers — the Boise, Payette and Snake — converge here, their banks rife with the cottonwoods that give Boise its nickname: City of Trees. A 25-mile Greenbelt bicycle and pedestrian path hugs the Boise River, which affords great fishing.

Idaho’s first designated American Viticultural Area, the Snake River Valley, with the ideal microclimates, soil and conditions for growth, boasts the highest density of vineyards and wineries in the state.

Boise’s farm-to-table cuisine scene is lively. Getting here is not difficult. Winters are mild.

Because the city is home several corporate headquarters, including Albertson’s and Micron Technology, and an HP Laser Print division, nonstop flights leave Boise for 21 cities daily. The airport is a 10-minute drive into town, and all hotels offer free airport shuttle service.

Basque Heritage

The largest Basque population per capita outside of Spain lives in Boise.

Lured by the 1800s California gold rush, shepherds from the Basque region, which straddles the border between France and Spain, stopped by the Rockies, settled in Idaho instead. Basque women came to work in boardinghouses where the men lived and started families.

Today, that thriving community keeps its culture alive through schools that teach the Basque language — Euskara — and traditional dances. Jaialdi, a festival held every five years, brings thousands of people to Boise, many from Spain, to compete in traditional competitions. The next festival will be in 2020. Downtown, the Basque Block houses the Basque Museum and Cultural Center, a historic former boardinghouse that’s a treasure of information on these self-reliant people, and the Basque Market, famous for its giant paellas and delicious pintxos, which are similar to tapas.

“We’d all like to be a little Basque,” said Terry Kopp, director of sales for the Boise Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s a culture everyone puts their arms around.”

Groups can participate in cooking classes and wine tastings, or rent the entire block, tour the museum, revel in the dancing and enjoy a yummy meal at one of several Basque eateries. The convention center and downtown hotels are but a short walk away.

Meetings Growth

Not surprisingly, Boise is experiencing tremendous growth.

“In the downtown area alone, three new hotels opened up in the last year and a half, all with meeting space, and a Hilton Garden Inn will open by the end of the summer,” Kopp said. “Certainly, a part of our growth is because Boise has shown up on a number of lists, like Time magazine’s No. 1 city for ‘Getting It Right.’

“But the big news that ups our ante in the meetings market is the expansion of Boise Centre.”

Completed in 2017, the convention center’s $47.5 million makeover increased its flexible space to 86,000 square feet. A theater was converted into a 4,000-square-foot junior ballroom. In addition, a 24,426-square-foot grand ballroom can host 1,220 for a reception, up to 1,670 for a banquet and 2,754 theater-style. The center also has an upscale executive boardroom, 31 meeting rooms, a second-floor patio and an indoor walkway that connects the building’s two sections.

“We went from accommodating 600 to 1,600,” said Pat Rice, the facility’s executive director. “For the industry, we’re still a minnow in the ocean, but for Idaho, we’re the big fish.”

Last July, Boise hosted its largest non-sports-tournament convention ever at the center. Some 1,500 members of the Council of State Territorial Epidemiologists used 13 hotel properties for 3,600 room nights.

“Because of the success of an earlier, smaller convention and site visit here, this group said yes,” Rice said. “Seven of our high-quality hotel properties are within walking distance of the center. We provided transportation for the remainder, which made the convention work well.

“We can now do two conventions simultaneously or combine a convention with lots of local events. Our ideal size is 1,200 if we want to meet ’em, feed ’em and exhibit ’em.”

The center’s main entrance opens onto the Grove Plaza, a rentable outdoor space with a fountain, trees and seating.

The trendy boutique 43 Hotel, with 112 rooms and suites and 1,300 square feet of event space, and the AAA Four-Diamond, 250-room Grove Hotel, the largest full-service hotel downtown, are a short walk away. Attached to the Grove, CenturyLink Arena seats 5,000 for concerts and sports events.