Ziplining tours put you inside the canopy of the trees
The progressiveness of the Pacific Northwest is embodied in the offbeat focal points of Oregon: Urban Portland and the adventurous Tualatin Valley
STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHY
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES
A North Carolinian once described her state as a vale of humility between two mountains of conceit … jabs at neighboring Virginia and South Carolina, to be sure, while also a humble-brag about the Tarheel State. Oregon could surely make a similar claim if it chose to. Sandwiched between the powerful economic and cultural bulwark of California and the trendsetting tech-giant of Washington State, Oregon boasts only one large city but substantial natural resources (it’s the ninth largest by area but 27th by population), as well as scenic beauty (more than half its area is forested). But perhaps most significant for a Left Coast enclave, Oregon embodies an ingrained progressivism that infiltrates deeply into the structures of the society: Widespread public transportation, environmentally friendly social policies, some of the nation’s most tolerant marijuana, assisted suicide and gay rights laws. (See sidebar, Page 19.) That’s the kind of crunchy-granola cred that reminds you that not all of America is Trump’s America..
The hingepoint of this proud refuge of liberalism is Portland in the upper Western part of the state (it abuts the border with Washington; Seattle is a mere 150 miles away). In some ways, the region is a study in contrasts: The streets, the compactness (downtown is easily walkable), the homes, the sense of embedded cultural traditions all imbue the city center with an East Coast vibe. Don’t be surprised when strolling among the city’s 600,000-plus residents to see businesses whose signs declare “est. 1879;” even many newer, trendier shops are housed within converted warehouses, factories and even brothels. But drive a few miles outside of town, and you’re in another world of rolling hills (the western profile of the majestic, 11,000-foot high Mt. Hood 50 miles to the southeast is visible from the city) and densely-wooded parks; a little further out, and you’re in farmland, especially the vineyards of the northern part of the Willamette Valley, famed for its tender wines. Which means it’s possible to enjoy both an eco-vacation for outdoorsy adventurers and a bustling, welcoming city for urban progressives.
If you’ve seen the series Portlandia, you probably have preconceived notions of what Portland is like: chill, politically-correct raw-organic gluten-free vegans clad only in Birkenstocks and vintage denim, whose lack of ambition is celebrated. There is definitely some of that. (Observation: Service-industry types aren’t the most diligent, though they are friendly and it’s nice never to feel rushed.) Nevertheless, Nike and Columbia Sportswear are headquartered in nearby Beaverton, and Intel and Adidas are major employers in the region; you don’t need to be a hippie to be happy here.
But you also don’t need to, say, own collared shirts. My entire time in the area, I saw maybe three men (all concierges) wearing neckties, and the priciest, hippest restaurants don’t give you a second look if you arrive in short and flip-flops. Casual is the proud default setting of the society (which means it’s difficult for tourists to stand out among the locals).
And even some of the touristy destination points have a lot to recommend them, even to the indiginous folks. Drive just west of downtown to explore Pittock Mansion to take a breathtaking history tour of a staggering, century-old chateau overlooking the city. The Portland Japanese Garden is just down the street, as is the Portland Zoo. And Powell’s Booksellers is the largest independent purveyor of literature anywhere. You’ll see as many Portlanders in these places as visitors.
Powell’s main store is in the Pearl District, one of the distinct downtown neighborhoods, though they tend to have fuzzy borders. Still, you’d do well to concentrate your activities either here, in Chinatown/Old Town to the east, the West End Cultural District just below Pearl, or even the University District a dozen or more blocks south, where the low-rise, boutiquey Hotel Modera served as our home base.
Many of the overnight accommodations, of course, are gay-friendly, from the Society Hotel in the center of the so-called gayborhood, to Kimpton’s Hotel Monaco, the Mark Spencer Hotel and the Crystal Hotel. Everywhere is an easy walk, so you almost can’t go wrong.
The McMenamin Brothers have substantial holdings across the region, many with a distinctive, funky vibe that reflect the McMenamins’ own preoccupations (the Grateful Dead, native Oregonians, myth and lore and whimsy). One signature spot downtown, the Crystal Hotel, is a focal point for queer Portland. Over the course of its lifetime, the former auto shop has been a shady nightclub, a music venue and a gay bathhouse (the walls are adorned with photos and histories, including the many drag queens and Pride events that have taken place within its structure since at least the 1970s). You can take a walking tour of the upper floors, listen to live music at Al’s Den in the basement or get a drink and bite in the street-level Zeus Café.
The hotel is not officially in the Pearl District, but it might as well be — its position on Burnside near 12th serves as a marker for one of the densest neighborhoods for hangs and head shops, bars and bistros. There are substantial and in diverse culinary opportunities to indulge all over, but especially in this area.
For sweets, Ruby Jewel Scoops serves housemade ice creams sandwiched between a variety of fresh cookies — sort of a more portable version of Amy’s. You can’t miss it as you walk by. The same cannot be said for Pepe Le Moko, a few blocks away. The blink-and-you’ll-miss-it speakeasy is a chill underground rathskeller with an unassuming storefront… unless you go late when people line up outside for a table or stool to free up in the intimate, jazzy, low-lit cocktail lounge. If you want more light, Port City Grill is the area’s reigning “best vista” spot for lunch, dinner or drinks, a 360-degree 30th-floor restaurant with unobstructed skyline views.
Recently-opened Tanner Creek Tavern serves hip modern American fare, like deviled duck wings. It also has a decent tap wall of local brews. Agnes is another new high-end eatery featuring Parisian specialities. Right across the street is the more established — and wildly popular — Tasty N Alder, which hosts a happy hour til 5:30 with drinks and bites; it opens for dinner right after, and doesn’t take reservations, so get your name on the list early so you can delight in uncommonly good items like grilled octopus and panna cotta with fresh berries and vanilla.
Everywhere you eat is pretty relaxed here, including Clyde Common, which has great bites like crispy skin-on drumsticks, flavored popcorn and refreshing cocktails in an open atmosphere.
A block from Clyde Common is Scandals, one of the most established gay bars in the city. Portland has gone through a transition in terms of its gay scene, which many locals are begrudgingly happy about: The former “official” gayborhood adjacent to Chinatown still has several gay bars (C.C. Slaughters is the largest) and clubs (Darcelle XV, owned by the world-recording-holding female impersonator Darcelle who, at 88, is the oldest still-active drag queen on the planet) and rooftops (the Society Hotel, de facto gay if not explicitly so), but the city is so welcoming, a specific gay ghetto is perceived as unnecessary.
If you start at C.C. Slaughters, it’s a brief walk to Lan Su Chinese Garden, an entire city block transformed into a Ming Dynasty-style scholar’s garden. Peaceful and lovely, it’s a soothing bit of calm in the middle of one of the dodgier neighborhoods in the city. You can even enjoy a traditionally tea ceremony inside the teahouse, and vegetarian dumplings and a plate of spicy baked tofu.
The tofu isn’t the only thing that gets baked in Portland — marijuana was legalized for recreational purposes in January 2017. (Although there’s virtually no sales tax in Oregon for retail purchases, there is on weed, and it’s pretty high — so to speak — at 20 percent.) Dispensaries dot the city, and if all are like Serra down near the waterfront where we stopped in, they are clean and open — Trader Joe’s for weed. (You need an ID and have to be over 21; they only take cash; and you can’t smoke on premises or really in any public place, so personal, private consumption is, like, totally copacetic, dude.) The bud wranglers — they call themselves docents, but whatevs — can walk you though the selection process like sommeliers at a wine bar.
Speaking of wine, this is an area that likes to support its local culinary leaders: Not just winemakers, but coffee roasters, distillers, tea purveyors, craft beer brewers and even chocolatiers.
The Willamette Valley runs much of the length of the state, with the northern tip, just outside Portland, known as Tualatin Valley — a largely rural area of 18 towns (among them Beaverton, Hillsboro, Forest Grove and Sherwood), with farmland and wineries stretching along the horizon.
The McMenamins-owned Grand Lodge in Forest Grove is beautifully representative of the Gestalt of the region. This boutique property has no TVs or coffee pots in the rooms, no room service — none of the “traditional” amenities, all of which seems appropriately hip and chill. Who needs a TV screen when you have a window looking out into the greenery of Mother Nature? A former Masonic old folks’ home from the turn of the last century, the space underwent a glorious restoration in 2000 that, from what I can tell, did not recreate its original features so much as celebrate the past while adding quirky touches. Fire doors are sometimes closed, maintaining quite in the halls away from the rooms but also changing the look of the place, as if the walls can move.
And sometimes they can. Several secret passages are embedded in the woodworking and freaky paint jobs. The basement spa, called Ruby’s, is allegedly named for a witch who haunts the grounds. (Ghost stories feel authentic within these corridors.) Hallways are dotted with seating vignettes, as if you’d be expected to stop on your way to breakfast to read from one of the books in your room. (The rooms in The Attic, the funky third floor, are named for books by the likes of Pacific Northwesterners like Ursula K. Le Guin (The Left Hand of Darkness) and Richard Brautigan (Trout Fishing in America). Run downstairs for a drink at the Ironwork Bar, or a bite at the Ironwork Grill, where we enjoyed a hearty breakfast. (There are several other dining options on premises, as well.) Or walk upstairs to the first-run movie theater inside the hotel.
For more on-site relaxation, get a soothing and invigorating facial at Ruby’s Spa, or take a dip in the rustic, kidney-shaped soaking pool. Or take a half-hour drive to Beaverton, and you can partake in a European-themed spa experience at the British Manor Spa.
The downtown of Forest Grove, just a mile or so down the main drag, is a quaint few blocks of boutiques and some nice restaurants. Someone recommended the Hawaiian resto Kama’aina, but we settled in at Bites, a super-cas pan-Asian-fusion eatery with delish but reasonably-priced cocktails (the lovely Japanese slipper was just six bucks), ahi tuna tataki, deep-fried tempura avocado wedges drizzled in spicy aioli and a Pacific Northwest take on shrimp and grits made with cheesy polenta and juicy prawns.
Forest Grove is a good central location inside the Tualatin Valley for exploring two genuine draws to the region: the outdoors and its concomitant activities, and the obsession with craft-style adult beverages.
Tree To Tree Adventures in nearby Gaston offer canopy ziplining excursions, from a tour of half a dozen heart-pumping runs (the longest: a 45-second quarter-mile flight from 30-plus feet above the forest floor) to obstacle courses and other activities. You can also go hiking amid the low ranges (the elevation is only 300 feet). But if you really want to experience nature the way it was meant to be, with more than 17 wineries in the region (as well as about 60 local breweries), set aside at least one day exclusively for wineries.
Although not as storied as Napa or Sonoma to the south, the wine-growing region of Oregon is one of the three most extensive in the U.S., with the Willamette Valley especially famous for its pinots — pinot noir, pinot grigio, even the obscure varietal pinot blanc. (The weather is too cool, even in summer, for the hot day/cold nights needed to forge a hearty cabernet sauvignon or zinfindel.) But actually, that output is more diverse than you might expect. Ponzi Vineyards in Sherwood — one of the founding wineries of Oregon’s boom and the only one centered in Tualatin Valley — will happily serve you a progressive flight on the scenic patio at their tasting room, including a reserve chardonnay that is so unlike the predictably oaky butter-bombs of California that you’ll wanna check the label twice to make sure you didn’t mishear. And the winery is one of the few in the U.S. that grows the Italian dolcetto grape, for a rich red.
After a flight of wines here, you’ll probably want to head into town and wander among the shops, produce stands and attractions. Be sure to stop in at South Store Café. Located in a century-old farmhouse, its kitschy touches (eclectic decor, period photos and mismatched furnishings) belie some serious food, especially the pastry window, where a jam scone will make your mouth sing. Or try a half-sandwich that’s big enough to make you glad you didn’t get the full-sized.
For an unexpected local delight, the Forest Grove-based SakeOne was the first craft sake distillery in the U.S., taking advantage of the naturally soft water in the region. There’s a tasting room where you can sample a vast array of subtle variations in the sake culture, from flavors to clarity to what works best cold or warm. Some of the SakeOne brands (Momokawa, Moonstone) are available in North Texas, but thrill your friends by bringing back the G Fifty, a refreshing and intense specialty sake currently in limited distribution.
After more exploring — maybe another winery? You’re on vacation, after all — stop in at the still-new Midway Firehouse Pizza in Hillsboro, a kind of boots-and-pickup honkytonk eatery which has a surprisingly extensive tap wall of mostly local brews and some kicky pizza; one, the Tiller taco pizza (discounted for taco Tuesdays, natch), does a phenomenal job of capturing the essence of a taco in the idiom of pizza. (As in many aspects of life, the 9-inch was plenty filling, especially if you share or get a salad or side of pepperoni chips.)
At La Provence in Orenco Station, I enjoyed a different kind of flight — one of sippable chocolats, from Parisian-style to Italian to mint or spicy. Served alongside a filling breakfast of big, buttery croissants and fluffy omelet, it’s an elegant European touch that reflected a lot of the Old-World touches that repeatedly surprised me about this raw jewel of the Pacific Northwest.
To see more of Arnold Wayne Jones’ photo’s from Portland, visit DallasVoice.com.