The first direct flights from London to Portland start next month. Jade Bremner takes a road trip
I am being sprayed by a fine, refreshing mist as I cycle along the Columbia River Highway through a section of the 4,000ft deep, 80-mile long Columbia River Gorge. Hundreds of gallons of water are toppling from Horsetail Falls, one of six waterfalls I pass. This awe-inspiring forested route, separating the states of Washington and Oregon, dips and turns past beautiful cascades, including Oregon’s tallest, the Multnomah Falls, a 611ft roaring Goliath fuelled by rainwater and snowmelt.
What a fantastic ride. Few people make it to Oregon, yet this northwestern state is one of America’s most picturesque. As well as the waterfalls of Columbia River Gorge, there are colossal lakes, looming volcanoes, vast verdant forests and miles of exquisite coastline. Such an abundance of natural wonders . . . and it’s about to go on the tourist map.
From next month Oregon’s plentiful attractions will be easier to visit, thanks to the launch of the first direct flights (by Delta Air Lines) between London and Portland, the state’s largest city. A new slice of America is about to open up — slightly bigger than the UK, but with a population of only four million.
Columbia River Gorge is a highlight. Onwards we pedal to Chanticleer Point, overlooking the volcanic Cascade Range, with views of Mount St Helens to the north and Mount Hood to the south. Here, we gaze at the mighty Columbia River. “Seventy per cent of the nation’s hop supplies are transported through here,” explains Scotland Forbes of Pedal Bike Tours, who is accompanying me. “Plus, there’s lots of water — it’s no wonder we’ve got good beer.” He’s not wrong about that — there are about 80 breweries in the Portland metropolitan area alone.
I use Portland as my base for a rewarding exploration of this little-visited state. Each day brings another adventure. One day I drive to Mount Hood National Forest, about 90 minutes east of Portland, to see Oregon’s highest peak. In the middle is Trillium Lake, a gorgeously pretty place for a fishing trip, where I enjoy a walk along the series of boardwalks, passing wetland wildflowers and taking in views of Mount Hood above the treetops.
Another day I drive two hours to the south of Portland to the Bagby Hot Springs, where hikers are soaking their bones after tramping through woodland on well-marked trails. The springs were discovered under a cluster of mossy trees by a hunter in the late 19th century. Now they are a tourist attraction, with three bath houses open 24 hours a day (and free to visit). It’s a mile-and-a-half walk along the trail and across a footbridge over the Collawash River. In the distance a ghostly mist rises from the hot springs — from which, I learn, an impressive 24 gallons of mineral-rich, 60C water is emitted every minute.
Inside the wooden bath houses are hollowed-out logs and hand-hewn cedar tubs. I pull a wooden plug to fill one of the logs with hot water, adding a few buckets of iced water to reduce the temperature. Then I sink in. The sun gently flickers between the leaves as I look at the open-air canopy above, before driving back to Portland for the night.
This city grows on me. Portland is home to an endearing collection of weather-washed clapboard houses, retro cinemas, Blade Runner-style tower blocks — and a fair few beards and tattoos. The city’s unofficial slogan is “Keep Portland Weird”, which encompasses everything from left-field music venues and a motorbike scene (celebrated with a naked bike ride every June) to feminist bookshops and, even, a much-hyped vegan strip club. Apparently, this is the world’s first such establishment.
Apart from the oddities, there is the coffee. A large amount of coffee. “In Portland we pride ourselves on craftsmanship and sustainability,” explains Brianne Page from Third Wave Coffee Tours, who I join for a coffee-tasting walk around the city’s Central Eastside industrial area. Portland is one of the top three coffee-obsessed cities in the US, she says, with roughly 850 cafés citywide and 80 micro-roasters.
The city’s coffee aficionados pride themselves on what has been dubbed the “Third Wave Coffee” movement, which turns its back on big chains. Coffee in Portland is all about carefully sourced top-quality beans, with great care given to the wellbeing of producers, Page tells me. We stop off at Stumptown Roasting, where I try a sparkling ginger-flavoured coffee (a cold-brew coffee infused for 24 hours and presented in a beer bottle) and a coffee infused with nitrogen. Heston Blumenthal could pick up a tip or two here.
A similar ethos applies to food. In downtown Portland you’ll find few traditional fast-food chains. Instead, there are food carts and, yes, food cart tours. I join Brett Burmeister of Food Carts Portland for a journey around some of the colourful vendors, who sell everything from Peruvian delicacies to Iranian eats. There are 700 food carts across the city.
Few people make it to Oregon, yet this state is one of America’s most picturesque
This culinary phenomenon took off, I discover, after the financial crisis, when aspiring chefs wanting to open restaurants couldn’t get business loans. Some have done very well indeed. Nong Poonsukwattana is one of the biggest success stories — and generally considered the “queen of the carts”. Her Thai food offering, Nong’s Khao Man Gai, serves only one dish: organic chicken and rice with her special coriander and onion soy chicken sauce. And people love it.
A decade after starting, she owns two food carts and a restaurant, and sells her sauce in supermarkets. I try some and it’s super flavoursome and tangy. Then I go for some potato and leek organic soup from the Savor Soup House. I also sample a Ninja Kick sushi burrito (a sushi roll the size of a burrito, stuffed with tuna, cucumber and tamagoyaki) at Cart Lab, a new communal dining space for small vendors. Oh yes, and I can recommend Voodoo Doughnut, which serves Bacon Maple Bar doughnuts, with rashers on top of the icing.
Enough of the eating — it’s time to explore some more. The rugged Cannon Beach is an easy 90-minute drive from Portland through national parks, dense forests, logging lands and expansive rich green pastures. Along the way you can stop at one of the many roadside walking trails. My favourite pitstop was Bloom Lake Trail in Clatsop State Forest.
I pull into Cannon Beach’s picturesque town and I take in the sweeping panorama of the sands, the dramatic cliffs and Haystack Rock (seen in the film Point Break). The town is a haven for artists and sprinkled with galleries, coffee shops (naturally), guest houses and little breweries.
It’s the beach that’s the biggest draw, though. Despite a whipping wind, jumper-clad families are relaxing on deckchairs, picnicking and building sandcastles along the nine-mile cove when I visit. This is a magical place. I could spend the afternoon watching the tumultuous waves crashing on to the coast.
Other coastal towns, however, await, including the kitsch beach town Seaside (a 15-minute drive north). Seaside is home to mini golf, fish-and-chip shops and an arcade. It’s a good place to rummage around book and antique shops or visit the Schwietert’s candy store, with more than 40 flavours of saltwater taffy, including pumpkin pie and maple bacon.
Farther north is the pretty, weather-tattered city of Astoria, which in 1811 became the first permanent US settlement on the Pacific coast. Later settlers were of Scandinavian descent, which is reflected in the architecture — with its backdrop of rich green mountains and dark red wooden panelled houses, you could be in Norway. Astoria is usually a pretty sleepy kind of place — other than during its rambunctious Scandinavian Midsummer Festival, that is (with its Abba tribute bands, Viking dances and Miss Scandinavia contest).
One day I drive 50 miles to the north of Portland to visit the base of Mount St Helens in Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Here I discover Ape Cave, the longest continuous lava tube in the continental US (I am reliably informed). Hikers, armed with at least three torches (official park advice), can walk into the depths of the cave.
There are two routes through the tube, which was formed 2,000 years ago: an easy one through the lower cave takes an hour, and a more challenging route through the upper cave takes two hours — with more than 25 boulder piles plus an 8ft-high lava fall to clamber over. With the sunlight fading, I opt for the first. It’s a spooky walk through a passage reaching 30ft high in places. One of the best features is the “Meatball”, a lava boulder wedged in the cave’s ceiling. If you look carefully, you’ll spot stalactites and stalagmites and flow marks on the walls.
“Did you meet Bigfoot?” asks a hiker I pass on my way out of the cave. I look puzzled. “Ape Cave is supposedly named after the legend.” There is also a story that a group of miners were attacked by an Abominable Snowman here in the 1920s. I’m glad I heard this story after my lone trek in the dark and, before I’m in darkness again, I return by road to the bright lights, eccentricity, and coffee shops and food carts, of Portland.
Need to know
Jade Bremner was a guest of Travel Portland (travelportland.com). The art deco boutique Hotel Lucia (hotellucia.com) in downtown Portland has doubles from £127 a night and is decorated with photographs by Oregon’s Pulitzer prizewinning David Hume Kennerly. Ace Hotel’s cleverly adorned loft-style studios are from £156 a night (acehotel.com), and come with vintage sofa, a cat mural and a record player with a box of local records. Direct flights with Delta Air Lines run from Heathrow to Portland from May 26, from £800 return (delta.com). Explore Portland by bicycle with Pedal Bike Tours (pedalbiketours.com).
The best places to stay in Oregon
By Ben Clatworthy
Canopy by Hilton, Portland
Canopy by Hilton — the company’s new “affordable lifestyle” arm — is opening four more properties this year. In the famous Pearl District among cobblestone streets and stylish upscale boutiques and restaurants, its outpost in Portland is due to open in the autumn. Expect to find nods to local culture in its design, stylish rooms and a cool cocktail bar. Its restaurant will serve dishes with a focus on local produce.
Details Rates are yet to be set (canopy.hilton.com)
Minam Lodge, Eagle Cap Wilderness
With floor-to-ceiling windows and custom-made furnishings, the new rooms at Minam Lodge are expected to be popular. Opening next month, the lodge has three small upstairs rooms with queen-sized beds and a shared bathroom. The master room, the Eagle Cap Suite, has its own bathroom and the best views. The estate, reached by an 8½-mile hike or chartered plane to its airstrip, also has cabins and tents.
Details Lodge rooms cost from $245 a night for two. The master suite costs $595. Full board costs $125 a night (00 1 541 362 4453, minam-lodge.com)
Commodore Hotel, Astoria
This hotel in downtown Astoria lay empty from 1965 until 2009. Now it’s a cool boutique bolt hole, with a laid-back vibe. There are 18 rooms, of which eight are suites with private bathrooms. The ten smaller “cabins” have plush shared bathrooms with marble floors. The rooms are sleek, with low-slung sofas, red-brick tables and crisp linen.
Details Room-only suites cost from $140 (£112) a night. Room-only cabins are from $60 (00 1 503 325 4747, commodoreastoria.com)
Timberline Lodge, Mount Hood
In winter Mount Hood gets blasted by snow, but once summer arrives and the snow melts, it’s a great base for hiking adventures. Timberline Lodge, which featured in the film The Shining, is the best place to stay to explore the area. It’s a classic American ski hotel, with Alpine-style rooms, log fires and wood-panelled walls.
Details One night room-only costs from $250 (00 1 503 272 3311, timberlinelodge.com)
The Inn at Cannon Beach
This is a charming, popular lodge-style hotel, with large comfortable rooms and a pretty garden with Adirondack chairs for lazing in after a busy day’s sightseeing. It’s a short walk to the beach. Rooms come with gas fires, tan leather sofas and kitchenettes.
Details Rooms cost from $165 (innatcannonbeach.com)