Monday, February 21, 2011

Keep Portland Weird

As the billboards and bumper stickers around town proclaim, there is an underground campaign alive to “Keep Portland Weird.” Well, they needn’t worry. This gorgeous city of natural beauty has plenty of quirks…but it also has everything else a city should have: a walkable, hip urban downtown with big department stores; a wide river lined with parks and paths; a slew of trendy restaurants and brewpubs in old brick and stone buildings; a lively street musician scene that ranges from classical duos on corners to zydeco bands in the plaza; an amazing light rail network that’s free downtown; parks and gardens with grand views of distant snowcapped peaks and volcanoes; thousands of young people filling the downtown bars and streets; and perhaps the nation’s best fleet of food trucks with dozens of them dishing up everything from Scottish bangers to sushi.
But the soul of Portland are the three B’s, which this “city of roses” can claim above any other American urban center: beer, bicycles and bookstores. The bikes are everywhere, giving Portland a real European feel. On the river path, it’s actually dangerous to be a pedestrian, there are so many bikes zipping past. But these are serious bikers – people who commute to work and do their part to keep Portland green.

Good beer is plentiful too. Portland claims the most brewpubs per capita, and they certainly have lovely ones downtown. The Oregon Brewpub Guide (available for free at airport) lists 156 brewpubs in the state, and that’s just where they make the beer. Every restaurant has a sophisticated beer selection. You’ll find microbrew taps all around, even in strange places. I saw a small bar with three taps and three stools in a hardware store in Canon Beach. Who doesn’t occasionally need a beer when buying tools?
And for books, there’s Powell’s – the biggest new and used bookstore in the world covering an entire city block with more than one million volumes in 3,500 different departments. It’s even bigger than it sounds, with 6,000 buyers and browsers in the store every day. Powell’s is almost never closed. It’s open 365 days a year, from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. And if you want to combine books and beer, some of the best pubs are just a few minutes walk, especially the Deschutes Brewery & Public House, Bridgeport Brewpub + Bakery, and Henry’s 12th Street Tavern.

Want some substance? A block from Powell’s is Jake’s, a Portland seafood institution for 119 years. Sit at the bar for a bowl of New England or Manhattan clam chowder for $6, served with a half pound of warm sourdough bread, in a Victorian setting of carved wood, glass and mirrors.

Downtown Portland is best enjoyed at night – only because there are so many better things to do in the day. Within an easy drive of an hour or two you can walk along a stunning beach past tidal pools and giant rock formations; visit a reconstruction of a fort where Lewis & Clark spent a winter; hike to a dozen waterfalls (some of them 600 feet high); take in sweeping views of the Columbia River Gorge; drive through some of the most gorgeous farmlands in the world filled with stands selling (in season) fresh pears, peaches, apples and berries; and hike on the ridge of snowcapped Mount Hood, above the famous Timberline Lodge.

Portland by Rail
Before heading out on day trips, it’s worth spending an afternoon exploring Portland’s Washington Park – easily accessible by light rail from Pioneer Courthouse Square (the center of downtown) on the Blue or Red line. Buy the one-day pass for $4.75. The Washington Park station, about 15 minutes away, is the only underground station in Portland, but at 260 feet deep, it’s really underground. This is the deepest train station in North America and third deepest in the world. The elevator takes 25 seconds to reach the surface and the temperature at the bottom is always 50 degrees. There are exhibits at the station on the 16 million years of geologic history above you.

Strangely, the elevator comes up in the middle of the park, across the street from the highly popular Zoo. If you don’t have time for a zoo and want to tour the park, take the free bus (show your rail pass) and ride to the International Rose Test Garden (free) and the Japanese Garden ($8). There are miles of trails here, thousands of roses, and beautiful views of Mount Hood and downtown. The Japanese Garden is incredibly tranquil with bridges and splashing waterfalls connected by gravel trails. Portland is called the “City of Roses,” and the amazing rose garden here is one reason why.

Daytripping on the Coast

You could spend a month touring the spectacular Oregon coast, but if you just want a taste on a Portland weekend, head west 1.5 hours on Hwy. 26 to Canon Beach, the most attractive and upscale resort town in the area. The village is filled with overflowing flower baskets, nice shops on brick plazas and courtyards, and weathered shingle cottages. The main street is lined with outdoor cafes, all with their own gardens and flower boxes. Flowers do very well in the ocean air and they are everywhere.
For lunch, try the local guest beer and an “Oyster Burger” at Bill’s Tavern Brew House.
The highlight of the beach, just a ten minute walk from town, is Haystack Rock, a black mountain of a boulder just offshore that juts up 235 feet into the air. At low tide, you can walk to the base of the towering rock, see a rare colony of Tufted Puffins and wander around tidepools filled with crabs, colorful sea stars, snails and coral. Docents are on hand on weekends to explain the creatures above and below the surface.

Nearby, Ecola State Park has a twisting road through an old growth rainforest, that winds through ferns and trees covered with deep green moss to one of the most famous coastal views in Oregon. The park has been used in many films including Kindergarten Cop, and appears in most Oregon calendars. There are hiking trails to vantage points where you can look out on a wild scene of pounding surf and coastal rocks, many forming small islands that are now home to barking sea lions.

Explorer William Clark and his Indian guide Sacagawea hiked here in January 1806 to investigate reports of a beached whale, which Indians had told them about. Clark was wintering with Meriwether Lewis and their men at the log Fort Clatsop they had built, several miles away.

Today, the National Park Service has erected a replica of the small fort. It’s a short drive to the park to see and hear living history programs about how difficult it was to survive in the wilderness. In 1804, President Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis & Clark and 31 explorers to follow rivers across the great American West to the Pacific Ocean. It took them a year and a half and they traveled 4,000 miles before they finally reached their goal. Before heading back, the explorers spent 112 days at Fort Clatsop. It rained on all but 12 of them, rotting their clothes and making life miserable for the flea-infested men. Today at the national park, it’s pleasant enough out in the woods, but it does seem a far cry from the flowers baskets and shingle cottage cafes of Canon Beach.

Into the Gorge and Around Mount Hood

The big day trip from Portland is traveling the Mount Hood National Scenic Byway, a 150-mile loop that takes you up the Columbia River Gorge and to the base of the 11,239-foot, snowcapped Mount Hood. Leave early – there are lots of stops and short hikes along the way.

For the best light on the waterfalls, start by heading east on I-84 to the pretty little village of Troutdale (Exit 17). Here you pick up the what’s left of the Historic Columbia River Highway. When it opened in 1916, this was the first major paved road in the Northwest, and one of the great engineering marvels of the world. The original Columbia River Highway had 18 bridges spanning rivers and canyons, and was built as a scenic road for Model T’s to allow access to the incredible natural beauty of the area.

Much of this 1916 road was destroyed or abandoned in the 1940s when Interstate 84 was built, but there is still a 22-mile section of the original highway open and it is an amazing drive, coming so close to waterfalls that their spray will land on your windshield. There are pull-offs, vistas and plenty of short hikes. The first two “must” stops are the strangely named Women’s Forum State Park, and Vista House at Crown Point. Both have views up the gorge. The Vista House was opened in 1917 as a “comfort station” and, at 733 feet high, it is one of the grand views of the road.

From here, the highway spirals down to the river and begins a stretch lined with seven huge waterfalls. First up is Latourell Falls, definitely worth the short hike. Bridal Veil Falls is a steep hike through woods, pretty, but there are better falls ahead.

The showpiece, and the most visited natural attraction in Oregon, is Multnomah Falls. There are two falls here, the big one drops 542-feet into a pool crossed by a foot-bridge, with a second drop of 69-feet under it. If you combine them, the 620-foot drop makes this the third highest year-round falls in the nation. And certainly the most crowded. On a Saturday in July, I had to wait to cross the bridge – it was packed solid with literally hundreds of people. You can escape the crowds by hiking the steep 1.2 mile, paved trail to the top of the falls, but in truth, the view is limited compared to the effort, especially with so many other viewpoints available.

But even with the crowds, this is an incredible sight. There’s an attractive old 1925 lodge, and the visitor center has free maps to the many hiking trails and hidden waterfalls to be found along the gorge.

Back on I-84, it’s 33 miles to Hood River, a very pleasant town with a main street lined with cafes, shops and antique stores, and home of the Full Sail Brewing Company (the name comes from the windsurfing that takes place on the river here, where it is always windy). If you can get in the small pub at the brewery, it’s the perfect place for lunch, but also crowded. No worries. There are many pubs and restaurants in town for lunch.

From here, head south on Hwy. 35, making a stop in a few miles at Panorama Point, a small hill that looks across the farm country to towering Mount Hood. This fertile Hood River Valley produces 225,000 tons of cherries, pears and apples a year, prized fruit that is shipped around the world. There are 30 farms, wineries and specialty stores selling their products along the way, on a route that is amusingly called “The Fruit Loop.”

The highway twists, climbs and circles 44 miles into the Mount Hood massive, gaining elevation through forests of pine. Take a turn west at Government Camp on to Hwy. 26 and then follow the turnoff and continue climbing to 6,000 feet and the Timberline Lodge. Opened in 1937, this wood and stone structure, built of local products with a central stone fireplace in-the-round, was used as the location for the movie The Shining. Trails lined with wildflowers, or across snowy glaciers lead up to even more stunning views of Mount Hood, or there’s a chair lift up to 8,000 feet if you don’t care to walk. The late afternoon light is gorgeous on the year-round glaciers that curl down the mountain and the lodge with its big fireplaces and snow just outside is fun to poke around.

But as the sun starts to set, remember, it’s 63 miles back to the pleasures of Portland…and all those waiting food trucks, brewpubs and music. With any luck at all in traffic, you’ll be back in Powell’s, long before they close, for a final browse in the stacks of books and a late evening of IPA’s, pale ales, bitters, stouts and porters in Portlands incredible selection of brewpubs.

The Nines hip lobby bar.
Where to stay:  Everything downtown is within walking distance. Don’t be put off looking at maps. Portland’s blocks are half the distance of normal city blocks (an early attempt to create more corner lots) so everything is closer than it appears. The town is divided into cute names for its various areas (Chinatown – there are no Chinese here, Old Town, Historic Waterfront District, etc.) and even more confusing, it is broken up into four quadrants that make sense to locals but are mystifying to visitors: NW, SW, NE and SE. They have to do with the 
crossing of Burnside Street and the Willamette River dividing the town into fourths. Ignore it. The heart of the city is between 12th Ave. and the river, with I-405 closing off the north and south, and no matter where you are in that area, you can’t go but a block or two without finding something interesting. But do check out the area northwest of Burnside…a little sketchy here and there, but lots of great pubs and young people. The Nines is an incredibly hip and wonderful hotel right on Pioneer Courthouse Square; if you can afford it, stay here.