Why we went to Portland, Oregon for a weekend
A weekend in Portland, Oregon would normally not make geographic sense for either of us but we were there prior to embarking on a much-anticipated Uncruise.
We expected Portland to be the land of fit, crunchy people, a good bookstore and excellent restaurants. We were right on two of those three and missed altogether that it would be a city of beautiful gardens.
The Benson Hotel in Portland, Oregon
Our base in Portland was the Benson Hotel. The Benson is a literal landmark with over 100 years of history and a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. Its location is convenient for walking to Pioneer Courthouse Square, the Pearl District, the massive independent bookseller Powell’s Books and the waterfront and its seemingly endless events.
The Benson opened its doors for the first time in 1913 and is beautifully built in the (so we had to be told) French Second Empire Style. We liked its old-fashioned opulence with sparkling crystal chandeliers, Paonazzo marble floors and the rich Russian Circassian walnut walls and pillars. Supposedly Mr. Benson, no stranger to picking up large checks, nearly fainted at the bill for the walnut. We hope he would be pleased to see that it’s been meticulously maintained.
During a week spent in Oregon we kept seeing Mr. Benson’s name crop up all over the place. He was quite the philanthropist. His most visible contribution in Portland is 20 bronze drinking fountains he donated in hopes (we assume unrealized) that the city’s loggers would quench their thirst at the fountains instead of saloons. His other public efforts appear to have been more realistic.
Our room at The Benson was large, exceedingly comfortable, had a safe, good free wi-fi and strong air-conditioning. The air conditioning really mattered as it was over 100 degrees on the days we were in Portland. (Don’t worry, that was highly unusual and hadn’t occurred in 13 years.)
The unexpected (to us) gardens of Portland, Oregon
Brunette’s oldest son and his wife had flown up from San Francisco to join us in Portland. Fortunately, they did more advance planning than we did. They suggested an outing to a trio of Portland’s gardens. (They also had us walk more than 9 miles in the heat, including a 3+ mile Hunger Games reenactment down a rock and branch-strewn hillside “path”. Don’t think they’re just some sweet flower children.)
Portland has excellent and inexpensive public transportation which we used to get to the top of the hill near the zoo. From there we caught a free shuttle bus to Washington Park, home to several public gardens. The Rose Gardens were spectacular both in terms of appearance and smell (kind of like a good date). They house the International Rose Test Garden which was a surprise to us. Roses have to take tests? Apparently they do. About 200 varieties are tested and rated on “plant habit, vigor, disease resistance, color, flower production, form, foliage, and fragrance” annually. We were relieved not to be being publicly judged on so many criteria.
We also learned (due to several events being held in the city) that Portland has a famous Rose Festival and is very rose-focused. We would never have thunk that somewhere in the Pacific Northwest would be famous for its roses but you know what they saw about leading ‘horts to culture..
After the Rose Garden we walked through the lush and artfully designed Japanese Garden in Washington Park (another free shuttle ride to get there). We were getting quite hungry by that point in the day but managed not to pluck any of the gigantic bright koi out of the ponds and make our own sushi.
Before setting out (unknowingly) on our Hunger Games reenactment we made a brief stop at the Bonsai Garden which is sort of a subset of the Japanese Garden.
Some other things to see in Portland, Oregon
Portland doesn’t lack for celebrations, parades and events and many of them are held at the waterfront park along the Columbia River. When we were there the Rose Festival was going on followed immediately by Fleet Week. (So sad when you get to the age that the sailors look like dressed up little boys and not hot hunks of manhood.) There’s a schedule for the events here.
Blonde had to get to Powell’s Bookstore in order to consider the visit to Portland a success. Powell’s did not disappoint. There is also an annual writers’ festival in Portland, Wordstock, every year.
Every Saturday, down along the river, there is a market. Just know that this is primarily arts, crafts and food. It is not a farmer’s market which we expected it to be. It’s a mixture of quirky, high quality and standard fare and worth checking out.
Portland seems to have a cult of doughnut worshipers. The two places most hotly contested as number one are Blue Star Donuts and VooDoo Doughnuts. We don’t have any interest in doughnuts which was a good thing because when we accidentally bumbled past VooDoo Doughnuts there was a long line to even get in the shop.
(The doughnut worship may relate to one thing that amazed us about Portland. Remember how we expected to see of fit, crunchy people? Instead, we saw an astoundingly high rate of obesity and a level of slovenliness that made us despair for the future of the country. Apparently the fit, granola-crunching folks have all put on their Lycra and ridden their bikes or kayaks or whatever outside of the city. They weren’t evident in it which really surprised us.)
Speaking of obesity, here are the restaurants we enjoyed in Portland
From our limited research, it appears that Portland, Oregon (much like Portland, Maine) has earned its reputation as a foodie destination. Here is a quick run-down of where we ate and enjoyed our meals:
Imperial – across the street from the Benson Hotel and has a really good fried chicken with honey and hot sauce dish. They also have a strong selection of local beers.
Pieology – a chain (quelle horreur!) that makes a tasty thin-crusted pizza with the toppings of your dreams in less than 5 minutes. Blonde had pesto, olives, artichokes and spinach and it was beyond yummy.
Cafe Bistro in Nordstrom – You may question this as a valid culinary contender but they have fabulous salads (they may possibly sell clothes and shoes nearby) and a great bird’s-eye view over Pioneer Square.
Mother’s Bistro – a wonderful brunch place with everything homemade and excellent coffee.
Veritable Quandry – a completely charming restaurant that’s been one of the top establishments in Portland since 1971. We had excellent dinners and wines here and enthusiastically recommend the place.
We felt that we got a decent overview of the city in our day and a half visit and were anxious to depart on our UnCruise. As we left Portland and its many bridges we were treated to lovely views and, ultimately, a spectacular sunset.
Disclosure: We were comped on our lodging at the Benson Hotel but we still told you the truth about it. .