I awoke on Monday morning to another beautiful, sunny day. I am starting to think that Portland's rainy reputation is a fabrication! I was particularly pleased with the pleasant weather because I was heading on an organised tour to the Columbia River Gorge, a beautiful scenic area with dozens of waterfalls and hiking opportunities along the second widest river in the United States. Several companies offer half-day tours from Portland, but at this time of year, it can be tricky to find tours with enough people to meet the minimum threshold. Luckily for me, America's Hub World Tours had a spot for me ($60) on their morning tour, and after I enjoyed a cortado in my hotel's coffee bar, off I went.
The gorge is about 30 miles east of Portland, a pleasant drive along the highway. Our guide, Carrie (or possibly Kerry or Carey; darn those American vowel mergers!) outlined some of the history of the area as we drove, including the Lewis and Clark expedition. I learnt, for example, that Portland's name was selected via a coin toss: two dudes from Boston, Massachusetts, and Portland, Maine, wanted their hometowns honoured; the latter won, of course.
First, we stopped at the Portland Women's Forum viewpoint, and then on to Vista House, an observatory and overlook that offers a spectacular view through the river valley. Our guide warned us that it was windy and we laughed it off, but it turned out to be rock-the-van, hard-to-stay-grounded windy. Needless to say, we stayed long enough to snap a couple of photos and then hurried back into the van.
Next up was our first major waterfall: Latourell Falls. I say "major" because we'd already seen dozens of smaller ones from the roadside. Although February isn't the ideal time to come to Portland, the rainy winter did mean that the falls were all at their most spectacular. It was a short walk to the base of Latourell and I soon realised that my camera and I were soaked from the mist; fortunately, we both recovered
After a couple more stops, we made it to the main event: Multnomah Falls, which is the second largest year-round waterfall in the United States; it is also the second biggest tourist attraction in Oregon — after a casino! Multnomah is famous for the bridge that crosses it roughly halfway up. I took a few photos and even managed a leap, before hiking part of the way up to the top. It's about a vertical mile to the summit and although the view is supposed to be excellent, I didn't have time to do the full hike, sadly.
Our last stop was at Horsetail Falls, whose cascades hit the basin and fan out like a horse's tail. Somewhere along the way, someone realised that these falls offered the perfect opportunity for thousands of tourists to pose for a hilarious photo that makes it look like they are drinking the water. Ah hem.
Back in Portland, I decided that it was high time to hit one of the food truck pods and picked out the award-winning Nong's, which serves delicious poached chicken and rice ($8.75), There was a bit of a line, but the food was really good: tender, juicy chicken and yummy khao man gai sauce. For dessert, I went to another Portland institution: Blue Star Donuts. Many of their flavours sound amazing, but I went for the raspberry, rosemary and buttermilk doughnut, which was delicious and a beautiful pink shade.
By then, I was in need of some more coffee and stopped for a macchiato at the downtown branch of Barista, a gorgeous, monochrome cafe in the historic Hamilton Building with high ceilings and plenty of natural light. They don't roast their own coffee but showcase a well-curated selection of beans from local and national roasters. My espresso was from local roaster, Coava, and as the only remaining coffee bar on my pre-selected list of ten, I knew that my next stop was going to be Coava's roastery across the river. Well, technically, my next stop was to the world's smallest park, Mills End Park (AKA a small shrub in the middle of a busy road), but then I crossed Hawthorne Bridge to the East Side. It was still such a beautiful, clear day that I could see the snowy cap of Mount Saint Helen's in the distance.
Portland's East Side used to be entirely industrial and there are still a lot of warehouses but they are now interspersed with hip shops, restaurants and especially coffee bars and roasteries. Coava's brew bar is on Grand Street and it's a huge, attractive space with plenty of design touches that call to its industrial heritage. I ordered a Honduran Chemex brew and sat at a table in the sunshine. If you have $2,000 spare, you can even buy the wooden tables, but I settled for a bag of beans and a travel coffee mug. My coffee was perfectly brewed and the Coava team are super-friendly and helpful. The size of the cafe means it feels a little less frenetic than some of the hectic downtown cafes.
Rather than retrace my steps, I caught the streetcar back to the Pearl District, a trendy neighbourhood just north of downtown. The streetcars run in two loops (one clockwise, one anti-) across both sides of the river, covering some of the areas that MAX misses. Depending on your destination, the streetcar may not be the fastest way to get there, but they are fun to ride and only $2. The Pearl District used to be mainly warehouses but has now become a stylish, creative neighbourhood with its red-brick buildings, design-oriented shops and cool restaurants. It's a nice place to wander, too, with plenty of parks and green spaces. I picked up a card from Ecru, a lovely stationery shop, and admired the Ecotrust Building before heading back to my hotel to recharge before dinner.
I had booked a table at Laurelhurst Market, a butcher's and steakhouse located a couple of miles east of downtown along Burnside. Without convenient public transport options, I decided to walk there and back, and it wasn't an especially interesting route, although wasn't terrible either. Laurelhurst Market was excellent: the restaurant itself has an industrial-chic vibe and it was rammed even on a Monday evening. I started with a Norwegian Negroni ($10; aquavit, Cynar, cocoa-infused vermouth), and then set about choosing my steak. In the end, I opted for the ribeye ($39( — not usually my first choice, but I really liked the sound of the candied jalapeño and avocado accompaniments. I also ordered some Yukon potatoes with bacon, broccoli and crème fraiche. The food was all very good: the steak was perfectly medium rare, tender and flavoursome. I didn't have room for a pudding but somehow found myself with a bowl of honey panna cotta with lemon curd and lardo (bacon fat) white chocolate in front of me, which was bloody delicious.
I walked back to my hotel over the Burnside Bridge, taking in the Portland skyline by night. I can't believe my stay is almost over; I think I'm going to have to come back!
My hotel, by the way, was The Society Hotel, a former sailors' boarding house/house of ill repute, which was lovingly restored and opened up a few months ago. The style is similar to the Ace Hotel, but the prices are much lower. My room was small (and the bathroom awkwardly designed) but light, airy and attractively decorated in black and white. There's also a rooftop deck and a coffee/cocktail bar in the lobby; the coffee (from Ristretto Roasters) was great. The area immediately surrounding the hotel isn't the nicest, but within three blocks you are in downtown or the Pearl District, and I never felt unsafe even as a lone female at night. Just use your common sense, like in any big city.