Oregon: State of origins

By Patrice Gaffaney

Oregon's wine country has plenty to offer, finds Patrice Gaffaney.

The Astoria-Megler Bridge links Oregon with Washington. Photo / AP
The Astoria-Megler Bridge links Oregon with Washington. Photo / AP

So, here I am atop Astoria Column. My legs and lungs are screaming after climbing the circular inner staircase to the top (164 steps, apparently, but I stopped counting to concentrate on my breathing). The view makes it all worthwhile.

Spread out before me is a panorama that takes in the picturesque town of Astoria, the surrounding tree-covered rolling countryside and the massive Columbia River flowing into the Pacific. Astoria, about a two-hour drive from Portland, is the oldest American settlement west of the Rockies.

The Astor family built the column in 1926 to commemorate the region's early history. Astoria is a mini-San Francisco. Its steep streets boast Victorian craftsman homes, many of which have been restored and turned into bed and breakfasts.

The well-preserved, cute little town has been the setting for a number of movies, most notably The Goonies (fanatics can visit the house used), and Kindergarten Cop (fanatics, if any exist, can visit the school in which much of it was filmed).

In keeping with the San Francisco theme, it even has its own version of the Golden Gate Bridge. The Astoria-Megler Bridge, a steel cantilever bridge that spans the Columbia River for 6.6km and links Astoria with Washington. This weirdly shaped bridge is so huge it seems to rise majestically out of the water and disappear into nowhere.

Not far from Astoria is Ft Clatsop national monument, a replica of the fort used by those intrepid expeditioners Lewis and Clark in 1805-06 when they wintered over in Oregon after spending two years traversing the Northwest passage. The two endured 106 days of rain and cold in their log-cabin fort and wandering around it is a chilling reminder of the intrepid nature of those early pioneers who gave their all to open up the country.

After our tour of the fort, it's back into the Evergreen Escapes van to meander along the ruggedly beautiful Oregon coast. The 570km coastline has, justifiably, been set aside as public land and the road to our next stop, Cannon Beach, gives us plenty of chances to view the spectacle of the Pacific surf washing up on pristine beaches, flanked by towering mountains in the background.

Cannon Beach is a beautiful little seaside village. This gem of a settlement has become a hub for cultural activity in the area and is teeming with arts and crafts galleries, cafes and restaurants.

But the beach is the focus and Surfsand Resort, right on the oceanfront, is an idyllic spot. Its balconies open straight on to the boardwalk alongside the beach and each room has stunning views of the sweeping white sand beach.

It's blowing a gale and threatening rain but a walk along the sand to Cannon Beach's landmark Haystack Rock is compulsory. This rock is to Cannon Beach what Lion Rock is to Piha and it's every bit as breathtaking up close. On a good day you might be lucky enough to spot some puffins and cormorants but they are sheltering on my visit.

The next day dawns bright and sunny and we head inland to the Willamette Valley, Oregon's wine country, stopping on the way to fortify ourselves with a meal at the Joel Palmer House in the charming little town of Dayton.

The house is on the National Historic Register and the food should be on a culinary equivalent. The family-run restaurant specialises in wild mushrooms and truffles, and our banquet showcased both: wild mushroom soup, three mushroom tart, broccoli puree with white truffles and wild mushroom risotto with white truffle oil. Perfection on many plates.

Willamette Valley proudly declares itself as the way California's Napa Valley used to be. Stretching for some 200km, this fertile valley is home to about 300 boutique wineries. The area produces 72 varieties but pinot noir is by far the most prevalent - 90 per cent of Oregon's pinot noir is grown in the Willamette.

Red Ridge is a destination for the senses. It was established in 1973 and is regarded as one of the wine industry's founding fathers, specialising in pinot noir, pinot gris and chardonnay. Its Tuscany-like setting has plenty for a day's excursion as, over the years, the family has expanded the enterprise to include olive oil production and lavender.

After a tasting of the wine varieties on offer, stroll around its extensive olive grove then tour its state-of-the-art olive pressing facility, wander through its neatly clipped lavender field then finish off in the nursery for a selection of herbs and specialty plants and the store to take home some of its wares. Lavender chocolate anyone?

The Stoller Vineyards is another must-see.

Its 150ha parcel of land on the southern slopes of the Dundee Hills began life as a turkey farm in the 1920s by the present owner's grandmother. When turkey production became unviable in the 1990s Bill Stoller bought the property from his cousin and began the task of grape growing. Now, it's the third-largest vineyard in the valley boasting 77ha of the former farm planted in vines.

The Stoller winery is seriously environmentally friendly and has received as many accolades for its solar-powered, glass and wood tasting room and wine-making process as it has for its pinot noir and chardonnay. The tasting room overlooks a natural amphitheatre with ancient oak trees around which the turkeys used to roam.

It's hard to leave but our final night's accommodation awaits: Abbey Road Farm where I get to sleep in a converted grain silo. And yes, the room is round.

It's the brainchild of Judi and John Stuart, who bought the farm in 2003 aiming to
convert it into a large goat dairy. One thing led to another and they now have a unique
bed and breakfast operation involving three "silo suites".

The couple offer a 30-minute walking tour to get your bearings and meet the resident goats, sheep, even llamas, all used to stop the vegetation from turning into a jungle.

It has an organic vege garden from which Judi weaves her magic to create the menus. And those goats are put to good use, as I found out after my night's sleep in my round room - the hearty breakfast featured Judi's exquisite goat's cheese, a perfect way to start my final day in this stunning corner of Oregon.

Further information:

Astoria Column: astoriacolumn.org
Fort Clatsop: nps.gov/lewi/planyourvisit/fortclatsop.htm
Cannon Beach: cannonbeach.org
Surfsand Resort: surfsand.com
Red Ridge Vineyard: redridgefarms.com
Abbey Road Farm: abbeyroadfarm.com

Patrice Gaffaney travelled to Oregon courtesy of Hawaiian Airlines, House of Travel, Travel Oregon and Travel Portland.

- Herald on Sunday

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