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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

To Infiniti and beyond between San Francisco and Portland

A scenic summer drive up the scenic West Coast, from California to northern Oregon

Avenue of the Giants in Humboldt County, California.
Avenue of the Giants in Humboldt County, California.

As car hire offices go, the Mountain View branch of Hertz is probably as good as it gets. A smart little art deco-style cubicle used to dealing with executives from nearby Google, Facebook and Apple, the staff are young, earnest and smart. Seeing I’ve travelled from the UAE, one of the guys proudly tells me I’ve been upgraded from a Ford Focus to a brand new Infiniti Q50. “It just came in,” he says. It’s a beautiful car, which is a relief as I’ve got a lot of ground to cover in the next few days.

About 1,500km, to be exact. Although I could cover the drive north to Portland in 10 hours non-stop using highways, I’m taking three days to take in the scenery. A trip down the Oregon coast from Canada back in 2000 had always left me pining for a return. Setting off from Mountain View at 9.30am, I quickly stop off at Google’s main campus, to visit a friend who works there. On the way I see two of the company’s self-driving cars glide along the street, so small and smooth they look like part of a futuristic rail system. A saturated blue sky is stretched behind the blossoming trees of spring, as some of the most unassuming but expensive real estate in the world passes by. After breakfast with my friend in one of the staff restaurants - one would hesitate to call them canteens as their designer architecture and myriad choices of free organic food and beverages, not to mention the free bikes, massages and other perks - puts this company in the A-list of tech employers.

After a quick taster from the BBQ ribs van in the car park, which has just started preparing the staff lunch like it’s a food festival, I’m on my way. The car glides along like a dream, though by battling against the less scenic route the NeverLost satellite navigation system wants to follow, I end up driving all the way through downtown San Francisco to reach the Golden Gate Bridge. Then I hit traffic south of Santa Rosa – and an accident – so it’s later than I would have liked that I reach the bucolic road west through Sonoma farmland to Bodega Bay.

It’s not like it looks in Hitchcock’s The Birds – less bleak – though the sites used in the film require more time to explore and I need to get to Eureka by 8pm, so I push on north. Highway 1 is narrow – a lane in each direction in places – and there are cars in front and behind. But what’s great about doing the drive north is that traffic gets progressively lighter, especially in northern California and southern Oregon, where at times I felt like I was the only one heading north, with the road to myself.

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The Sonoma Coast State Park and the small settlement of Sea Ranch remind me of the scenery near Big Sur, south of San Francisco, though it isn’t as dramatic. The real beauty, for me, starts north of Fort Bragg, where, thanks to depopulation, the rugged stretch between Rockport and Ferndale is known as the Lost Coast.

Alas, I don’t have time to disappear here either, so try to carry on inland to where Highway 1 merges with the 101. Unfortunately, the road ahead is closed, and a local man directs me to a “shortcut” through Brandscomb, an unincorporated community in Mendocino County. The road winds endlessly through woods into the mountains, and soon I’ve got a panoramic view of the northern California coast. Yet the lack of other vehicles or petrol stations is worrying, and the SatNav is confused.

I’ve lost valuable time, but eventually I hit the 101. As I approach the 53,000-acre Humboldt Redwoods State Park, I see signs for a “Scenic Alternative”. Though the road I’m on is already very scenic and evening has arrived, I turn off onto what is known as the Avenue of the Giants. For about 20km, I drive on a perfectly smooth, quiet, tarmacked road between towering redwoods. It’s like being in a video game. Getting out of the car, I breathe in air heaving with life. Sadly, these are some of the last remaining examples of the redwood forests that once covered much of the California and Oregon coast, and one of the last remaining redwood forests on earth. Here, there are 17,000 acres of old-growth redwoods, making it the largest in the world. Some of the trees are 110m in height and up to 2,200 years old.

On the northern exit of the park, rivers flow through forested gorges to the sea, and the lack of “development” still makes you think of the pioneer days of the Old West. I pass Scotia – an old lumber town – and Ferndale – an ornate Victorian offshoot – before crossing an agricultural plain on the approach to Eureka.

After so much beauty, first impressions of Eureka are surprising. A horrible dual carriageway takes you through a dreary, seedy-looking strip, where run-down motels sit side by side with boarded up buildings. Even more incongruously, just minutes away next to a nice harbour, is a well-preserved historic district, home to chic boutique hotels and restaurants, trendy coffee shops such as Old Town Coffee & Chocolates, and fantastical gothic Victorian architecture such as the Carson Mansion and Pink Lady.

The next morning I skip out of Eureka through Arcata, heading north through the Redwood National and State Parks. If you’re on a road trip there’s no need to pay park entry fees, and the 101 through here is one of the greatest free attractions in the world. If, however, you want to stop, appreciate and perhaps contribute to the environment, even the shortest nature walk is rewarded. I stop at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, which is also free, and visit the history centre. One of the few benefits of the Great Depression was that the resulting unemployment was such an issue that under the New Deal, men were put to work in the Civilian Conservation Corps, which replanted millions of trees and helped conserve this and other areas for future generations. Some of the trees here are so massive it’s humbling. How anyone could destroy such a life-giving ecosystem for money is rage-provoking. Now all anyone can do is try to conserve the four per cent that is left.

Depressingly, in Klamath, a town in the Yurok Indian Reservation, a casino and other garish development has been allowed. Crossing over the state border into Oregon’s Curry County, the town of Brookings is also depressing, but the surrounding landscape similarly beautiful. It’s as if all the ugliness has been contained, and I hope it stays this way. The road I’m driving on is subtitled the Iraq, Persian Gulf & Afghanistan Veterans Highway - I wonder why the countless dead civilians in these countries can’t be honoured at the same time.

To my left, the road hugs the jagged-edged coast studded with huge broken rocks. Between Gold Beach and Port Orford is known as the Wild Rivers Coast, where rivers flow down from the vast Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. Hundreds of hiking trails allow infinite possibilities for outdoor exploration, but again I have to keep driving. From Bandon to Coos Bay also has a wild feel, and I’m the only one on the road for much of the time, in pouring rain.

Coos Bay is relatively prosperous, with the biggest port between Seattle and San Francisco. I check into a nice Motel 6 and have dinner at a Japanese restaurant on the waterfront. The following morning, the rain has cleared. Driving back out of town, I stop at the Kozy Kitchen II diner, which has been going since 1969 and is virtually unchanged both inside and out. After a breakfast of loaded hash browns and an English muffin with cream cheese, I start my final full day of driving.

The Oregon Coast Highway takes me alongside the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, part of the Siuslaw National Forest. To my left is 60km of wild beach backed by towering sand dunes; to my right, a ribbon of full-to-the-brim lakes and rivers giving way to mountains and forest. It’s so beautiful, clean and abundant that if, like me, you grew up in the inner city, you may find yourself suffering in retrospective anger at what you have missed in life. I was fortunate enough to see and experience this particular stretch almost 20 years ago: now I wish I’d grown up here. With every turn nature outdoes itself – deep forests, wide rivers, endless streams, crashing waves, jagged rocks and glittering lakes. Camping, horseriding, ATV driving or just walking in the clean air and soft sun – who needs anything else?

Heading north, there’s still more in the form of scenic headlands – such as Cape Perpetua, where the winding road is cut into the cliff edge. You can only stop at dedicated viewpoints, but there are plenty; Sea Lion Caves, Devil’s Churn, Thor’s Well.

At Newport, a scenic fishing town on Yaquina Bay, I have a delicious lunch of oysters and fish tacos before heading east on Highway 20 to Corvallis and then onto Highway 5 and the flat Willamette Valley leading to Portland.

I arrive at the Jupiter Hotel, a trendy lodging in a revamped motel at 800 East Burnside Street. The attached Doug Fir Lounge is a faux log cabin, filled with bearded clientele in lumberjack shirts discussing their latest trips to Asia. I unload the car and lock it up in the garage before collapsing in my room, which is like a designer studio.

Later I walk around the corner and don’t get further than Marukin Ramen, a Japanese ramen-only restaurant only currently available in Toyko and Portland. The deliciously rich and spicy noodle bowls are served on a limited rotating menu and cost about $9 (Dh33) each.

The following day it’s back to the 1960s in the Arts District of NE Alberta Street, where I meet a friend for lunch at the Vita Café, a vegetarian and vegan place where the waitresses look like they’re working at a commune. For dessert we head to Salt & Straw, a local ice cream company offering both classic and seasonal flavours, from pear and blue cheese to wild-foraged berries. I love the strawberry honey balsamic with black pepper and the honey lavender, but almost all of them would be impossible to resist. I’m fussy about ice cream, but this is Portland.

Ice cream at Salt & Straw, Portland. Courtesy Rosemary Behan
Ice cream at Salt & Straw, Portland. Courtesy Rosemary Behan

For dinner I head across the magnificent Steel Bridge over the Willamette River, a two-deck vertical-lift bridge opened in 1912, to the Downtown area. Since I last visited in 2015, a lot has happened in the city, including the opening of the Pine Street Market, which is a historic building which has been turned into a food hall. A friend and I hit Trifecta pizza for starters and then the Kim Jong Smokehouse for great bibimbap with honey Gochujang Chicken. We order an Uber to the Bagdad Theater on SE Hawthorne Boulevard, and a guy called Andrew picks us up in a Tesla Model S. “What kind of music do you like?” he asks, handing us a specially-curated iPad, but I prefer to talk to him about his main job as a consultant.

To work off some of the eating, the next day I drive to the Columbia River Gorge with a Texan friend, Mike, who has moved here from Abu Dhabi, where he worked as an urban planner. It’s a 40-minute drive to the Eagle Creek Trailhead just south of Cascade locks, and a gorgeous hike from here to Punch Bowl Falls. Clear rivers, forested mountains, waterfalls and the ever-present glory of luminous green and blue.

The lobby of The Society Hotel, Portland. Courtesy The Society Hotel
The lobby of The Society Hotel, Portland. Courtesy The Society Hotel

That night I move to Portland’s historic Chinatown area in Downtown, and stay at the Society Hotel, a former mariner’s home dating from 1881. My room is like a designer prison cell, with bare walls and a brick wall for a view. Downstairs is a gorgeous café with a roaring fire. Dinner is back over the river in St John’s, yet another extraordinarily retro area with original 1970s signage on some of the shops, and specialist purveyors of tea, coffee and other items (just don’t expect to be able to get tea and coffee at the same shop). I eat at McMenamin’s, and remark to the waiter that this look like an interesting building. “Oh yeah”, he says. "This was built for the 1905 Lewis & Clark Expo and these are the original features.”

Only in Portland, Oregon.