Window on the World: Journey to Portland – The Desert Sun
For more than ten years my friend Christy Eugenis has been extolling the virtues of her adopted hometown of Portland. And for more than 10 years, I had been promising to visit.
At long last, in September the perfect opportunity for a Fall getaway to Portland finally presented itself. I had heard and read so many glowing comments about the town, I was anxious to find out what all the buzz was about.
Among the many accolades the town has received, Condé Nast Traveler recently named Portland as one of the top 15 Best Big Cities in the U.S. It was a 2015 Reader’s Choice Award from a poll of Traveler readers who deemed Portland No.10 of the Best Big Cities with a population over 150,000.
Indeed the town’s considerable attributes are well-documented: Portland has been touted as one of the country’s “greenest and eco-conscious” cities, promoting bicycles over cars for getting around and emphasizing renewable/sustainable resources for its power. Portland is also legendary as a cultural trendsetter; it’s the epitome of the millennial generation zeitgeist; and the town is located in close proximity to numerous stunning mountain, river and coastal landscapes; plus it’s gaining a reputation as an emerging notable viticultural region. And with a motto like Keep Portland Weird, what’s not to love?
History Predates Hipness
But perhaps the reputation the Portlanders cherish most is their penchant for eschewing convention in all its forms; Portland famously charts its own path. After all, the region was the destination for 350,000-400,000 pioneers who traversed the uncharted U.S. from Missouri to start a new life on the West Coast. Escaping harsh winters and food shortages in the Midwest, brave pioneers began a migration to Oregon in the mid-1800s, lured by more promising opportunities. Those pioneers endured enormous hardships as they traveled by horse and wagons along the Oregon Trail — 2,200 miles of rough road which ended in Portland’s nearby Willamette Valley.
As settlement continued into the 1880s, Portland’s prime location at the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia Rivers, provided an ideal commerce center for traders from Canada and Britain. Portland was incorporated as a city in 1851, making it one of the oldest towns in the Northwest. Since it was founded, Portland has only burnished its stature as an important West Coast hub.
For a comprehensive overview of Oregon’s fascinating history and the travails of the Oregon Trail, a stop at the Oregon Historical Society is a worthwhile visit and it will provide you with a great sense of appreciation for this unique city and a vibrant sense of place. There are engaging permanent and changing exhibitions on three floors, as well as a research library and museum store.
A West Coast Corridor
Fast forward to present day and it’s evident that Palm Springs and Portland share deep ties.The number of the respective residents of both cities who shuttle back and forth is significant and growing. Thanks to convenient flights to and from Palm Springs International Airport and Portland International Airport, many people claim both cities as their part-time homes.
There are a lot of folks who divide their time and their allegiance to Portland and Palm Springs. And for good reason. The mild winter weather in Palm Springs attracts Portlanders and likewise, desert dwellers swarm to the Northwest for its cool summers.
Eugenis, a long-time Portland resident who spends winters in Palm Springs, is the poster child for the mutual admiration of these two destinations. She and her husband, Stan Amy, co-founder of Portland’s popular organic food chain New Seasons, are both passionately community-minded. As the former owners of Palm Springs’ renowned boutique hotel Orbit In on Arenas Road, they helped spark a robust renovation trend of midcentury modern boutique hotels, homes, and buildings in Palm Springs. Eugenis was also among the early proponents of Modernism Week and made significant contributions to the event’s early success.
Another prominent Portland-Palm Springs resident is Arlene Schnitzer, a trustee of the Palm Springs Art Museum. She and her son Jordan make important contributions to the cultural life of both communities. The Schnitzer family has a wing named for them at the Portland Art Museum.
A River Runs Through It
When my husband and I finally made it to Portland for our visit, we quickly understood why so many people fall in love with Portland. After our brief flight from Palm Springs, we arrived to a clear sunny day in late September. One misconception about Portland is its wet weather — Portland’s rainfall averages 37.5 inches – less than Seattle, Atlanta, Houston, Birmingham, and Indianapolis.
As you approach the city, you are first struck by its setting; Portland is bisected by the Willamette River and the skyline is punctuated by multiple bridges (12 to be exact) over picturesque rivers. Hence, Portland is also known by its nickname: Bridgetown. The newest bridge, the Tilikum Crossing was just opened two weeks before our arrival. The Tilikum is the country’s first bridge in the country completely dedicated to bicycles, pedestrians, light rail and buses.
The city’s vibrant energy is immediately palpable and we were quickly swept up in it. Our Portland headquarters was the newly-designed Kimpton Portland Vintage Hotel (named for the area’s wine industry, get it?). It had recently undergone a $15 million dollar renovation. The rooms are spacious and stylish, and offer complimentary WiFi. It’s a quintessentially hip outpost but they let us check in anyway.
The hotel’s evening complimentary wine hour is a convivial scene with live music and wine samples from Portland’s many wineries. If this is what we can look forward to when Palm Springs has its very own Kimpton hotel, we can expect a lively scene of attractive millennials who populate the hotel lobby while sipping wine and playing pool in the hotel’s game room.
Neighborhoods: The Sum Greater than its Parts
The Kimpton’s downtown location was perfect for walking to the riverfront, the famous Saturday Market (also held on Sunday, it’s Portland, go figure), and the city’s numerous neighborhoods.
Like New York’s boroughs, Portland’s neighborhoods have their own distinct personalities. The neighborhoods, best explored on foot or bike, divide the city into directional sections, i.e. Southwest (Downtown), Southwest/Northwest (Old Town/Chinatown), Northwest (Nob Hill), Northwest (Pearl District), Northeast (Alberta Arts District), Southeast (Division/Clinton) and so forth.
Amy’s New Season’s stores (15 in total) give 10 percent of after-tax profits to local nonprofits and have contributed to the gentrification of many of the neighborhoods. Walking through the neighborhoods, we discovered so many surprising and fun attractions, shops, boutiques, and watering holes.
In the Northwest/Nob Hill area we happened on McMenamins Rams Head Pub which has colorful Prohibition history. The proprietress in the early 1900s was a gracious hostess who served her guests illicit spirits in elegant teacups. Today, the Rams Head Pub is still a local favorite watering hole in this neighborhood. In the tradition of authentic pubs, Rams Head also serves up a selection of hearty menu items.
Portland Dining and Imbibing
Portland is a fabulous destination for discerning palates to savor. With its craft beer movement combined with its superior culinary scene and robust wine production, foodies will revel in the food scene here. Perhaps Portland was destined to be a culinary superstar since it’s the birthplace of the original foodie, the legendary James Beard.
This part of the Northwest is also emerging as a wine region worth noting. Within 30 minutes of Portland is the Willamette Valley, Oregon’s most notable AVA (American Viticultural Area) that boasts more than 225 wineries. For craft beer aficionados, Portland is the Mother Lode with 60 craft breweries — the most of any city. Portland’s craft beer movement has even expanded to crafting hard cider. And for coffee snobs, you won’t be disappointed – Portland takes its java just as seriously as Seattle.
Food trucks are very much a part of the Portland dining scene, in fact, food trucks, also known as food carts, are practically a way of life in Portland with more than 400 of them. Scattered throughout the city in vacant parking lots, you’ll find “pods” of food carts grouped together and they are permanently located in the same spots, unlike the mobile type of food trucks in other cities.
Our culinary adventure in Portland didn’t end at food carts, we had stellar dining experiences at Mother’s Bistro, a downtown comfort food favorite; Cocotte, a cozy French bistro that will make you think you’re in Paris; and an exceptional Italian dining extravaganza at Pazzo Ristorante, in the Kimpton Vintage Hotel.
Gorgeous Columbia Gorge
Portland is famous for its many urban gardens – the renowned International Rose Test Garden, the Lan Su Chinese Garden and Forest Park. But most impressive is its close proximity to astounding scenic beauty. The most notable highlight of our sojourn to Portland was the Columbia Gorge. From downtown Portland you are only a short drive to the Columbia Gorge area. The Historic Columbia River Highway (Highway 84) winds along the mighty Columbia River which travels 1,200 miles.
The scenic highway takes you past several vista points and five spectacular waterfalls.The 70-mile Historic Columbia River Highway will mark its centennial in 2016. Be sure to add a road trip on this historic byway to your Portland itinerary.
Lydia Kremer is a freelance travel writer in Palm Springs. She can be reached at [email protected]
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