Wake-up call for Portland

 

Go Citybreak:Sometimes characterised as a place where young people go to retire, this sleepy Oregon city is about to be catapulted into the limelight by a new TV comedy show lampooning the locals, writes SARAH BREEN

PORTLAND IS NOT the first place you think of when considering a city break in America but a new TV show could be about to change that. Portlandia, a comedy series created by Saturday Night Live’sFred Armisen and produced by 30 Rock’sLorne Michaels has just launched Stateside and could do for the Oregon city what Sex and the Citydid for New York.

Locals are divided about the merits of Portlandia, which lampoons the city’s notoriously left-wing inhabitants in a series of sketches. Some resent the fact that its co-creator, musician and actress Carrie Brownstein, is an outsider who was born and raised in Seattle, while others possibly just can’t take a joke. Thankfully, not everyone is easily offended. One venue, the Mission Theater, is even getting into the spirit of things by screening the show free of charge every Friday night, followed by live music from local bands.

I arrive in Portland armed with an outdated guidebook, a couch to sleep on and little more. I really only know that the city is famed for its thriving music scene (Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love are rumoured to have met here in the Satyricon nightclub) and that it boasts dozens of microbreweries, earning it the nickname Beertown amongst others. I’ve also heard that unlike much of America, the public transport is top notch and eco-conscious locals actually use it. Good news for someone with only two legs to get around.

Weather-wise, the Pacific Northwest is much like Ireland, although it gets considerably warmer during the summer. Still, it’s more than a little chilly, not to mention wet, on this late January morning. In desperate need of some caffeine to get my weekend started, I head down SW 3rd Avenue in search of hipster hangout Stumptown Coffee Roasters, where I’m told I’ll find the best cup o’ joe in the city. As predicted, the airy shop is jammed with kids on iPads and after realising just how old and unhip I am, I grab my satisfyingly bittersweet hazelnut latte (Fairtrade, natch) and continue on my way.

Exploring the Pearl District, where most of the city’s ubiquitous creative types work and live, it’s easy to see why Portland has a reputation for being, well, cool. In the 1800s, it was one of the busiest ports on the west coast and, thanks to California’s gold rush, expanded rapidly. Although it was given something of a facelift in the 1950s and 60s, some of the original Chinatown is still standing, as are parts of the Italian and Jewish areas.

The 1970s was the beginning of a new era for the city as planners directed their focus on creating neighbourhoods, preserving open spaces and building public transport links. Unlike other west coast cities, such as Los Angeles, Portland’s bike and pedestrian-friendly status mean it’s not short of atmosphere or character. It’s also home to more vintage furniture shops and art spaces than I think I’ve ever seen in one city.

Another local institution that definitely requires a visit is Voodoo Doughnuts. This tiny 24-hour shop has a cult following and sure enough there is a sizeable queue, including what looks like a school tour, outside when I arrive, famished. Not bad going for 4pm on a Friday afternoon. When I eventually reach the top, I see what all the fuss is about – my doughnut is soft, fresh and filled with the most divine raspberry jam concoction I’ve ever tasted. Definitely worth the wait, and maybe even the flight.

AS CITIES GO, Portland is compact and easy to navigate, once you remember to check whether you’re NW or SE on street signs. It’s divided into five sectors: Northwest, Southwest, Northeast, Southeast and North, with the Willamette river running from east to west and Burnside dividing north and south. The light rail system or Metropolitan Area Express (MAX) is regular, reliable and free to ride within the city centre, making neighbourhood hopping, even with a bike in tow, a breeze. There is also an excellent bus service as well as a streetcar, which runs about every 15 minutes.

The following day I decide to head southeast to Hawthorne, which was once rundown but after some rejuvenation is now considered the bohemian heart of the city.

It’s also synonymous with hippies and secondhand shops and is full of independent cafes, restaurants and bars. The ornate Bagdad Theater Pub, on the corner of SE 37th Avenue, is a landmark here and is the perfect place to go for a quick bite to eat or to have a beer while you take in a movie. Time permitting, the leafy residential streets and Craftsman homes of the Southeast are a property snoop’s dream and they’re not in short supply.

For people watching, it doesn’t get much better than Pioneer Square, known by the city’s PR machine as Portland’s Living Room. As well as hot dog vendors and buskers, 26,000 people pass through this red brick venue every day making it the most visited site in the city. Although it’s virtually empty when I stop for a quick frank, when the temperatures rise I’m assured it’s bustling and home to exhibitions, festivals and cultural events. Just around the corner is Pioneer Place, a deceptively large mall that houses shops for every budget, from GAP to Louis Vuitton, as well as a pocket-friendly underground food court. (Side note: Portland is a tax-free city, so the price you see on the tag is the price you pay at the till. Good news if you like to shop, as I do.)

At night, it would be almost rude not to sample some local brews in one of Portland’s many bars, which range from genuine dives to modern lounges. The Horse Brass Pub on SE Belmont Street has more than 15 local beers on tap, from India Pale Ale to lager, as well as imports and guest beers that rotate constantly. Most restaurants, even some chains, serve microbrews too. If local wine is more your bag, there are plenty of places downtown offering extensive tastings from some of Oregon’s 300 wineries while the Whole Foods Market (three branches citywide) carries a good selection for off sales.

Outside of the city there’s much to do and see, although you may need to rent a car for convenience sake. Mount Hood, a dormant volcano, is an hour away and an adrenaline junkie’s dream. Here you can ski and snowboard during the winter months and hike, white-water raft, climb and mountain bike with the outdoorsy Pacific Northwesterners the rest of the year.

IF YOU’RE MOREthe beach bum type, Oregon’s rugged coast, with picturesque towns such as Astoria and Seaside, are only a couple of hours away, as is Depoe Bay, a popular whale watching site. For fresh air, waterfalls, picnics and glorious views without the travel time, the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area is just 20km outside the city.

For me, Portland itself holds too much charm to venture far outwards on this short trip. With excellent coffee, colourful locals and those tempting microbreweries around every corner, it’s actually hard to travel more than a few miles without getting distracted. According to Fred Armisen, it’s the city “where young people go to retire” and after 24 hours I decide I could definitely see myself living here. Although a diet consisting only of doughnuts and beer probably wouldn’t do a body good, would it?

Get thereAer Lingus (aerlingus.com) flies from Dublin to Portland via Chicago. Continental Airlines (continental.com) flies from Dublin via Newark.

Portland where to . . .

3 places to stay

Value: Portland Hawthorne Hostel, 3031 SE Hawthorne Blvd, 00-1-503-236-3380, portlandhostel.org. Beds from €20, rooms from €35. Offering private rooms and dorms, this homely Hostelling International property provides a cheap and cheerful base from which to explore the city. Travellers on a budget will want to take advantage of the free baked goodies and $1 all-you-can-eat DIY pancakes in the mornings. Reservations advisable in summer.

Mid-market:Hotel Modera ,515 SW Clay Street, 00-1-503-484-1084, hotelmodera.com. Rooms from €86. This boutique hotel opened in the summer of 2008 and has quickly became one of Portland’s treasures. Light years away from the Days Inn that used to occupy the same block, a facelift has left this mid-century building structurally intact while creating a smart, retro-modern space, complete with faux-fur throws, inside. The Living Wall in its courtyard alone is worth a visit.

Upmarket: The Nines Hotel, 525 SW Morrison Street, 00-1-877-229-9995, thenines.com. Rooms from €145. Occupying the top nine floors of the landmark Meier Frank Building (Macy’s department store is below) this $148 million (€108 million) renovation project has created a light and luxe gem in the perfect downtown location, adjacent to Pioneer Square. Its stylish ground floor restaurant, the Urban Farmer, is a local favourite for guilt-free organic steaks.

3 places to eat

Value: Bunk Bar, 1028 SE Water Avenue, 00-1-503-894-9708, bunkbar.com. Fancy a massive, mouthwateringly good sandwich and a cold brewsky to wash it down? Bunk is the place for you. Good food, plenty of atmosphere and free live bands from 10pm every Tuesday.

Mid-market:Little Bird, 219 SW 6th Avenue, 00-1-503-688-5952, littlebirdbistro.com. A baby brother to the long-established Le Pigeon, Little Bird is only open a couple of months but is already making waves for its simple but perfectly executed French-fusion cuisine. The steak frites here are particularly good.

Upmarket: Castagna Restaurant, 1752 SE Hawthorne Blvd, 00-1-503-231-7373, castagnarestaurant.com. Deservedly named Restaurant of the Year by the Oregonian in 2010, the food in Castagna is delicious, unpretentious and decidedly European while the room is smart and airy. Don’t expect American super-sized portions here. Reservations are recommended.

3 places to go

Landmark: Pittock Mansion, 3229 NW Pittock Drive, 00-1-503-823-3623, pittockmansion.org. For exceptional city views, as well as a glimpse into Portland’s architectural past, Pittock Mansion and its surrounding park is a must-visit. Built by Henry L Pittock in 1914, the imposing structure incorporates Turkish, English and French design influences and is open to the public with daily guided tours $8 (€6) admission fee for adults applies. Cyclists beware: access is via a steep hill.

Museum: Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, 1945 SE Water Avenue, 00-1-503-797-4000, omsi.edu. Kids and adults alike will get a kick out of this enormous museum which incorporates a first-class planetarium. The OMNIMAX, which is a sort of dome-shaped IMAX theatre with a 6,532 square foot screen, is a definite highlight.

Outdoors: International Rose Test Garden, 400 SW Kingston Avenue, 00-1-503-823-7529 portlandonline.com/parks. Home to more than 8,000 roses, this spectacular garden is the oldest of its kind operating in the US. It’s the perfect place to stop and, well, smell the roses although you can expect large crowds in summer.

Shop spot

Powell’s City of Books: 1005 W Burnside, 00-1-503-228-4651, powells.com. No trip to Portland would be complete without visiting the largest independent book store in America. Standing four stories high and covering an entire block, Powell’s offers both new and secondhand books of every conceivable genre. Don’t be shy about taking a map when you arrive. You will need it.

Hot spot

The Hop Vine: 1914 N Killingsworth Street, 00-1-503-954-3322, thehopandvine.com. This North Portland bar and bottleshop has recently been renovated and is now a popular spot for both locals and tourists. The beer selection is great, the staff more than friendly and the burgers delicious. It’s also worth dropping in for the tempting weekend brunch menu. Keep an eye out for special events nights at the bar.