United States: Portland calling

By Patrice Gaffaney

Patrice Gaffaney finds a lot to her liking in Oregon's hippest city.

The north-western American city attracts young people, hippies and food snobs, all looking to live out their dreams. Photo / Supplied
The north-western American city attracts young people, hippies and food snobs, all looking to live out their dreams. Photo / Supplied

A bookstore that takes up an entire block? This was my idea of heaven and the sort of place

I could have happily spent the whole day, but the four-storey Powell's Bookstore was just one stop on a whirlwind trip to Portland, Oregon's hippest little city.

I'd watched a few episodes of the delightfully irreverent TV series Portlandia - taglined "the dream of the 90s is alive in Portland". It's been variously described as a place where young people go to retire, a utopia for hippies, and a home to snobby foodies obsessed with organic food, so I knew to expect the quirky.

Nearly 600,000 people live in this compact little city, nicknamed, among other things, Stumptown. Apparently, the city grew at such a rate in the 1800s the stumps of trees cut down to make way for roads couldn't be cleared quickly enough and remained visible for years.

The mighty Willamette River meanders lazily through the city on its way to the coast, and the 10 bridges that connect one side to the other give rise to another of its nicknames, Bridgetown.

It's the perfect pedestrian city and Powell's has an excellent walking map which will guide you through the sites.

If walking isn't your thing, Portland has a system of trains, streetcars, buses and trams to choose from. But the best way to become a Portlandian is to take to two wheels.

Portland is incredibly bike friendly - clearly marked bike lanes are on most commuter routes and bike boulevards have been established aimed at keeping cars off these streets in favour of bikes.

The best place to start for an overview is Washington Park, a 64ha haven of green perched atop the city. As well as being home to Oregon Zoo, the site of a renowned Asian elephant breeding programme, it has a fascinating children's museum, plus the Portland Japanese Garden, regarded as one of the most authentic examples outside Japan.

This haven of tranquillity features five separate garden styles, streams and walkways and is a wonderful oasis of calm that offers spectacular views of the city and the impressive Mt Hood, 96km away to the south, a winter wonderland for skiers and snowboarders.

With my head slowly getting around the city's geography, it was time to explore. The city is divided into five quadrants - how Portland - all with their own neighbourhoods, each offering its own distinctive style.

It's an energetic city full of young people, according to my guide, Marcus, the sort of place that people just "walk on in and start living".

It attracts the quirky - The Simpsons' creator Matt Groening comes from Portland and many of the series' characters are named after streets and locations in the city.

People strive to be different. If they have an idea, they go for it, and much of it centres around food and drink.

Voodoo Doughnuts is one such example. Forget sugar-coated circles: at Voodoos, a bacon maple bar has maple icing and, yes, a slice of bacon on top, dirt doughnut is topped with Oreos, and Mexican hot chocolate is dusted with cinnamon and cayenne pepper. Oh, and once you've eaten your doughnuts, you can also stay on and get married on site, legally.

It was bitingly cold the Sunday of my visit and the queue stretched around the block.

Success indeed.

What goes with doughnuts? Coffee. The brains behind Portland coffee roasting business Stumptown, Duane Sorenson, is credited with revolutionising the business and refining coffee drinkers' palates. Sorenson sources his beans personally and is happy to pay over the odds for fair-trade coffee. Starbucks it ain't (thankfully) and it has led to a number of similar concerns opening up across the city.

Coava Coffee is tucked into Portland's Central East Side, a revitalised industrial district regarded as Portland's version of Brooklyn. Coava brands itself on bringing coffee from the farm to the cup. And it's serious. For my breakfast coffee I could choose from one offering taste notes of citrus tea, lavender and blueberry, or champagne, hibiscus and mandarin. I thought it was a tad early for champagne so opted for the lavender variety. And pleasant it was, too.

So, the world's most bizarre doughnuts, coffee that tastes of lavender. What's next? Salt, it seems, and it was here I found a little slice of Kiwi. The Meadow specialises in artisan salt. Its walls are lined with jars upon jars of salt sourced from 29 countries, flavoured to suit. There, among the Barrique Chardonnay and the Cyprus Silver, was Marlborough Flakey, "the ultimate salt for garden greens and blanched fresh vegetables". Apparently Marlborough sea salt has a "uniquely frothy, three-dimensional crystal" unlike any other finishing salt the owners have encountered. Who knew?

Not to be outdone, the Aussies were there as well - their Murray Darling Flake is described as the "frothy head of a crisp lager".

I resisted the jars but my resistance was sorely tempted by the array of Himalayan salt blocks. Weight aside, I imagined the conversation with a Biosecurity inspector at the airport and thought better of tucking one into my suitcase.

Portland's other nickname, Beervana, is justified. It has more brewpubs per capita than any other US city - 51 and counting. Oregon is the second-largest hop-growing state in the US, hence the proliferation of brew pubs, ranging from large-scale operations to neighbourhood pubs, each with their own specialties and many centred in the aptly named Distillery Row in the Southeast industrial district. Beer-lovers' heaven.

Not to be outdone, winelovers have their havens. The South East Wine Collective is a group of nine urban wineries which have banded together to promote their wines and give city-dwellers an authentic wine experience without leaving the city boundaries.
Kate and Tom Monroe started the collective last year and the venture has been a huge success. The bar's design immerses you in wine - literally. The main wall and bench seating are made from old barrels, and glass roll-up doors give an insight into the winemaking world as you can watch the vinification process throughout the year, sipping on the latest vintage and enjoying a tasting plate of delicious, locally-sourced food.

I was in sensory overload by the end of it all so I retreated to Powell's to explore its nine colour-coded rooms, peruse the shelves and think, over yet another coffee.

If young people have gone here to retire, they've found a new lease on retirement life that's made this quirky little city exceptional.

PORTLAND LIFE

Thursday is an odd sort of day to celebrate, but First Thursdays in the Pearl District are something special. On the first Thursday of each month, art galleries downtown open their doors from 6pm to 9pm for a walking tour that encompasses art, wine and music. The neighbouring streets team with artists and street performers.

Then there's Last Thursdays. Over in the Alberta Arts District the day takes on a slightly more indie feel when street performers and artists take to the streets for a monthly art walk in a carnival-like atmosphere.

The Portland Farmers' Market on Saturdays at the Portland State University Campus is not to be missed. It's where the farm-to-fork craze is on full display, featuring fresh produce, meats, farm eggs, artisan cheeses, breads and local wines.

Waterfront Park along the banks of the Willamette River is a tranquil spot that's a magnet for joggers and cyclists and a perfect place to see why one of Portland's nicknames is Bridgetown.

The Lan Su Chinese Garden, inspired by China's manicured city of Suzhou, takes up an entire block and provides a window into Chinese culture and history.

The food cart scene in Portland is legendary. Most are in pods that have sprung up in vacant lots. They're cheap, cheerful and incredibly varied, with everything from a meat and bread bar to garlic and ginger-infused chicken and rice.

IF YOU GO

Getting there: Hawaiian Airlines flies to Honolulu from Auckland three times a week, connecting to daily services to Portland.

Patrice Gaffaney travelled to Portland on Hawaiian Airlines and was hosted by Travel Portland and Travel Oregon.

- Herald on Sunday

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