Portland: A trip down quirky lane
Ever wanted to discuss the meaning of life with a complete stranger? Or challenge those daily puzzlements, such as why is a garbage collector emptying a bin that's only a quarter full? In New York, no one would stop to listen; in San Francisco you'd be shut down, mafia-style; in LA no one would hear you from within their cars. In Seattle they'd stop and listen, but probably not say anything. In Portland, they realise, somewhat neurotically, that life is about the details. There's an often-self-conscious effort to connect intelligently with things, which extends to real-life policies, such as two-way bike lanes, solar-powered, self-compacting bins and the new Tilikum Bridge, that hosts every mode of transport apart from cars. At the outwardly pretentious Ace Hotel, a staff member at reception happily discussed with me the likely fate of some clothes I'd left in a hotel in Florida - while a delivery contractor politely waited his turn. Brilliantly parodied in the IFC series Portlandia, and advertised in the slogan "Keep Portland Weird", the city's very local sense of difference is quite real, and great for travellers sick of being fed the same old lines.
Portland, the largest city in Oregon, doesn't have the attractions common to the more popular cities in the United States. About 275 kilometres south of Seattle and a 90-minute drive from the sea, it's not even on the coast. Now a small city with a population of about 600,000, it developed in the 1800s on the back of the timber industry and the Oregon Trail, an east-west trade route that utilised wagon trails and the Columbia River for the transport of people and goods. Like a smaller, grittier version of San Francisco, parts of the city have the slight feel of a Wild West frontier town, complete with a noisy railroad. Architecturally, there are some attractive red-brick and cast-iron-framed buildings and old-style hotels. The centre is relatively compact and walkable, and the city boasts a predictably eclectic dining scene and possibly the world's best coffee. The beauty of the surrounding area, including Mount Hood, a dormant volcano, and the Columbia River Gorge, makes these places worth an extra few days. The lack of hordes of tourists makes a visit easy.
A comfortable bed
The nerve centre of hipsterism, the Ace Hotel Portland is located in a 100-year-old building on S?W Stark Street, close to the Pearl District. Previously the Clyde Hotel, it's got an old-fashioned feel. The lobby boasts a small collection of Jordan Hufnagel bikes ("made just for us!"), which are free to rent by guests. My room has a slightly seedy boarding-house feel to it, but with prices from US$166 (Dh610) per night, including taxes and sharing a bathroom, you're paying for the location and brand. The room-service menu is laughably limited and expensive, and from the corridor I can hear a couple having a loud argument/discussion. The breakfast room, with its eccentrically arranged, locally sourced ingredients and zany staff, could be a scene from Portlandia. I like the view across the road of some unmodernised brick buildings and the Stumptown Coffee Roasters and Clyde Common outlets downstairs.
A safer bet is the Monaco Portland on S?W Washington Street. A 10-storey building from the same era, the hotel, part of the Kimpton group, has a quietly stylish feel that is more American, less "Portland". Well placed for the river and the train station, it has clean and comfortable rooms; doubles from $160 (Dh590) per night, including taxes and excluding breakfast.
Find your feet
The wide Willamette River divides the city into east and west, with numerous steel bridges running across it. The downtown area, trendy post-industrial Pearl District, Chinatown, main train station and most of the parks, shops and museums are on the western side. On the eastern side ("north-east" and "south-east" Portland) are the low-rise, trendy residential areas around streets such as N Mississippi Ave, NE Alberta St and SE Hawthorne Blvd, all of which have their own clusters of shops, arts centres, bars and restaurants. Many hotels offer free bike rentals, and Uber is operating here, so it makes sense to see both sides if you have time. A great place to get a view across the city (and, on a clear day, all the way to the Cascade Mountains) is Portland City Grill, on the 30th floor of the US Bancorp Tower at 111 SW 5th Ave. From here, head across the road to SW Ankeny St, where you'll find the world-famous Voodoo Doughnut, with more than 90 different weird-and-wonderful cake types. At the end of this road is the waterfront, where there's an arts and crafts market during weekends. Heading back away from the river, at 511 NW Couch Street, fans of vintage arcade games can visit Ground Kontrol Classic Arcade, which offers 90 coin-operated games, some of which are up to 40 years old and in their original cabinets. These include Asteroids, an Atari game from 1979, Donkey Kong, by Nintendo in 1981, and Ms Pac-Man, by Midway, also from 1981. Next, head up NW Burnside St for stops at Powell's Books and the Ace Hotel before heading up SW Park Avenue (there is a food-truck market on O'Bryant Square). Here the Portland Art Museum has 5,000 pieces of Native American art from local sites including the Columbia River, dating up to 5,000 years ago.
Meet the locals
Like them or not, you'll come up against Portland's finest hipsters in the Ace Hotel and at the interconnected Stumptown Coffee. In the lobby, the locals are the ones staring seriously at laptop screens or very deliberately reading newspapers (don't even think about brandishing a smartphone, as they think they are too cool for that); at Stumptown, both the baristas and guests take themselves very seriously (and they know exactly who is next in line, so don't think about not waiting your turn or trying to hustle the queue forward). They take their coffee very seriously, too, and it's ferociously strong and delicious. Fans of good, reasonably priced Vietnamese food can get a taste of the Portland way of doing things at Lúc Lác, where the list of rules pertaining to customer etiquette is ripe for parody - other than that, it's an attractive venue. Those wanting to literally soak up the local atmosphere can visit the soaking pool at McMenamins Kennedy School in north-east Portland, not far from the airport. Here a bar, restaurant and hotel are housed in an old-school building. For $5 (Dh18) per hour until 8pm, you can (in swimming clothes) soak yourself in the communal outdoor chlorinated saltwater pool. It's in an attractive and secluded courtyard, but the pool is quite small and can be crowded, so you'll be able to make conversation easily.
Book a table
In recent years, Portland has developed a reputation as a foodies' haven, priding itself on style combined with local produce. As in many parts of America these days, diners are spoiled with choice and competitive pricing. Clyde Common has a great atmosphere, down-to-earth service and is good value - starters such as salad cost from $9 (Dh33); mains such as fritto misto with fries cost from $12 (Dh44). Also popular is Higgins, with salads from $10 (Dh37) and burgers (Carmen Rang grass-fed beef on a toasted hearth-baked roll) from $15 (Dh55).
Across the river, in a grittily trendy industrial area, Le Bistro Montage on 301 SE Morrison St offers down-to-earth service and a delicious, well-priced menu, including various types of jambalaya from $13.95 (Dh51); a macaroni menu (its signature one is spicy, with Cajun gravy, jalapeño and Parmesan, for $9.95; Dh37); and a linguini menu - rock shrimp with garlic, cream basil pesto sauce and Parmesan is for $14.95; Dh55).
Just outside of town, in the village of Troutdale on the way to or from Columbia Gorge, the historic and semi-rural setting of the Black Rabbit Restaurant & Bar, on 2126 SW Halsey Street, lets you indulge in beautifully presented local food, much of it from its own garden, unpretentiously served. Try the heirloom tomato salad with fresh mozzarella ($11; Dh40), hamachi ceviche ($15; Dh55) and roasted free-range chicken with butter whipped potatoes ($24; Dh88). Should you find it difficult to leave, you can also stay the night - the property is also a hotel.
Portland has vintage boutiques such as Wanderlust and modern malls such as Lloyd Center, though, thankfully, the latter are pretty much hidden from view. Powell's Books has a cavernous range of new and used books, plus an amusing selection of gifts.
Portland's connection to the outdoors is one of its biggest selling points. Mt Hood, the highest mountain in Oregon at 3,429 metres, is 80km away and the Columbia Gorge (see mthoodterritory.com, travelcolumbiarivergorge.com and hood-gorge.com) runs into the outskirts of the city itself. Take in the Oregon Scenic Byway and stop at Wildwood Recreation Site before driving up to Timberline Lodge, which intersects with the Pacific Crest Trail, made famous in Cheryl Strayed's novel Wild - and you'll wish you had another two weeks, a backpack and no job. Driving towards Hood River (hoodriver.org), tour part of the Hood River County Fruit Loop, stopping at the Draper Girls Country Farm for fresh-pressed (non-alcoholic) apple "cider" before lunch at the 3 Rivers Grill. Have a look at the town of Hood River before heading for an ice cream at the retro Eastwind Drive-In and a look at the magnificent Bridge of the Gods. Driving along the Historic Columbia River Highway, stop at Multnomah Falls and Bridal Veil Falls, and then, lastly, for sunset at Vista House.
What to avoid
Winter weather. Don't expect Californian sunshine, even in summer - the skies are frequently grey and cloudy for nine months of the year, so take an umbrella or rain jacket.
Emirates flies twice daily from Dubai to Seattle, and onward to Portland with its partner Alaska Airlines, from Dh6,625 return, including taxes. A train from Seattle takes about 90 minutes and costs from $25 (Dh92) each way through Amtrak.
Read this and more travel-related stories in Ultratravel magazine, out with The National on Wednesday, March 23.
Updated: March 21, 2016 04:00 AM