Being the last quadrant of the United States I'd yet to visit, the Pacific Northwest has been on my bucket list for a few years now. I checked that box at the end of May after spending a week in Oregon, including three days in the city of roses. If you're planning a trip to Portland, here's where to lay your head, what to feast on, and where to walk off some of those calories.
If you're obsessed with caffeine and plan your morning around where - and more importantly when - you'll be getting your fix, get yourself to a sleek Stumptown coffeehouse. It's coffee for coffee geeks. The single-origin drip I ordered lived up to every piece of praise I'd read and heard. It's my new benchmark for coffee. I'm not kidding.
Unlike Chicago, where food carts are banned for reasons beyond my comprehension, Portland teems with them. They're located in pods scattered around the city, where clusters of trucks serve up everything from schnitzel to four-inch tall breakfast sandwiches like the one we nabbed from The Brunch Box (www.brunchboxpdx.blogspot.com) at the corner of Southwest 5th Avenue and Stark Street.
Sexual innuendo aside, (one of the many slogans is "The magic is in the hole") the doughnuts at Voodoo Doughnuts (22 Southwest 3rd Avenue, voodoodoughnut.com) are pretty tasty, especially the gooey Portland creme. Plus the pink box screams "I stood in line forever to obtain fried goodness," to passersby.
Two miles from downtown is the Hoyt Arboretum, a peaceful greenspace that feel worlds away from the bustling city. Walk, jog or stroll along the 12-mile trail system, stopping to check out the more than 1,100 species of plants. See if you can find the Dawn Redwood, a deciduous confier tree thought extinct until it was rediscovered in a remote part of China in the early 20th century.
Nearby is the tranquil 5.5 acre Japanese Garden ($9.50 for adults, www.japanesegarden.com) and the International Rose Test Garden (free and open from 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily), worth at least a quick looksie and a much longer chunk of time if the some 7,000 varieties of thorny blooms are unfurled.
Located on the Portland State University campus downtown, this farmers market is one of the best I've visited. You'll find vendor after vendor hawking everything from hot pepper jam to farm fresh hazelnuts (Oregon is the single largest producer of hazelnuts in the U.S.). Grab a quick lunch from many of the food vendors there, or pick up souvenirs for loved ones back home.
Dubbed Beervana, Portland is teeming with breweries. The state boasts 110 brewing companies, which produced 1.1 million barrels of beer and generated $2.44 billion in economic activity in 2011, according to the Oregon Brewers Guild. From Bridgeport to Rogue Ales, if you're a beer lover, there's a good chance your favorite brew hails from Portland. One of my favorites is Deschutes Brewery (210 NW 11th Avenue, www.deschutesbrewery.com). Stop in and skip the usual suspects in favor of sampling the beers you can't find here in Colorado.
Newer to the Portland scene is the up-and-coming distillery scene. If you're really gung ho, buy a Distillery Row Passport (www.distilleryrowpdx.com) to get you free tastings at a handful of distilleries. We visited New Deal Distillery (1311 SE 9th Ave. www.newdealdistillery.com) and spent an hour working our way through their lineup - two gins, four vodkas, a coffee liqueur and my favorite - a spicy, intense ginger liqueur I really ought to have made room for in my suitcase.
From Colorado chefs to food writers to Portland natives and even the New York Times, everyone seemed to chant one resounding Portland restaurant name: Pok Pok (3226 Southeast Division Street, pokpokpdx.com), and now we understand why. This isn't some Asian fusion confusion. This is the real deal. Try as much as you can fit in your stomach, but whatever you do, don't skip the sticky-but-oh-so-worth-it Vietamese fish sauce wings (get them spicy). Wash it all down with a tamarind whiskey sour made with fresh lime juice, palm sugar and bourbon.
If you're near the Pearl District at lunch, swing into Andina (1314 Northwest Glisan, www.andinarestaurant.com), a Peruvian restaurant that's warm and sophisticated. The plates comes in three sizes - small, medium and large and are best shared family style so you can cram as many flavors into your mouth at one sitting as possible. While the empanadas de carne - little pastries stuffed with slow-cooked beef, raisins and Botija olives - were quite tasty, it was the mixta nikkei causa, a traditional lime-scented potato puree layered with spicy tuna and crab salad and topped with a crispy breaded prawn that we fell in love with.
The downtown area of Portland is undergoing a renaissance and it's also very centrally located; the nearby TriMet MAX light rail and bus systems make it easy (and cheap) to get to any part of the city using public transportation.
The Hotel Vintage Plaza (422 SW Broadway, www.vintageplaza.com, rooms from $179/night) is a romantic boutique hotel inside a circa-1894 Romanesque brick building that offers all those little extras I love - bikes you can check out, plush robes, coffee in the morning, unfiltered apple juice in the afternoon and wine in the evening. It's also within walking distance to Pioneer Square and the MAX light rail and buses. My only beef? Trade the Starbucks coffee for Stumptown and this place would be pretty close to perfect.
A few blocks away is The luxurious Heathman Hotel (1001 SW Broadway, portland.heathmanhotel.com, rooms from $180/night), a 150-room property that has strong partnerships with Portland arts and cultural institutions - it's adjacent to the Portland Center for the Performing Arts and the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Be sure and browse the hotel library that's stocked with more than 2,000 books, each signed by an author who also stayed at The Heathman.
Nothing beats the smell of books. And walking into Powell's City of Books (1005 West Burnside Street, powells.com), which occupies an entire city block, the air is thick with the smell of the printed word. The store stocks more than a million new and used books, after all. Grab a map, or, even better, just get lost in the color-coded rooms of what is the largest independent chain of bookstores in the world.
Waterfalls, hiking and jaw-dropping photo ops, no wonder more than 2 million people visit the Columbia River Gorge each year. One of the country's first National Scenic Areas, The Gorge is well worth a day visit, and more if you have the time to spare. Drive along the historical Columbia River Highway and stop along the way at the multitude of waterfalls. Check out the Bonneville Dam and the adjacent fish hatchery where you can see Herman, the giant 75-year-old sturgeon before stopping in charming Hood River for a tasty lunch on Full Sail Brewing Co.'s deck. Soak up the sun and sip a beer while watching kite surfers catch the wind.