Columbia River Gorge – a designated National Scenic Area just outside Portland, Oregon – spans 80 miles and boasts the highest concentration of waterfalls in North America. At 620ft, Multnomah is the tallest.
Surrounded by forested cliffs and ridges, it’s a breathtaking sight and spirit-revving soak when you get near – and just an hour’s drive out of the city.
Portland, I’m fast discovering, is full of surprises.
Oregon’s largest city, Portland sits between California and Washington State in the US Pacific Northwest. It might be somewhere you’ve heard more and more of in recent years – perhaps for its burgeoning craft food and drinks scene, or hip neighbourhoods brimming with colourful houses and cool boutiques (dubbed a ‘city of makers’, Portland is a hive of creative entrepreneurs). It also made headlines as a focal point for racial justice protests following the murder of George Floyd in 2020.
For me, the promise of great food is the biggest attraction – which is why on my first morning, I set an early alarm and find myself sat on a drizzle-dampened bench, tucking into a breakfast burrito at the Farmers’ Market at Portland State University (portlandfarmersmarket.org).
The gooey meld of cheesy potato, egg and crunchy greens instantly hits the spot, and just a 10-minute walk from The Heathman Hotel where I’m staying (yes, 50 Shades Of Grey fans, the same Heathman Hotel), it’s well worth the skipped lie-in. Plus there’s nothing like a farmers’ market for soaking up local life.
Today, a crisp, June Saturday morning following a night of rain, downtown Portland is uncrowded and calm. Locals amble the stalls lining a leafy, dew-fresh square, as vendors cook up dumplings, noodles and deep-pan pizza, alongside fresh pastries, fruit, veg and honey, and buckets overflowing with vibrant blooms.
Oregon is an outdoorsy mecca, with a wealth of forest trails, hills, lakes and rivers reachable within a short drive from the city, and rugged coastline and mountains further afield.
First Nature (firstnaturetours.com) offers a range of guided activities and tours, such as kayaking, rafting and hiking. We spend a day out of town, starting with an excursion to the aforementioned Columbia River Gorge. You could easily enjoy a more challenging trek here, but many of the waterfalls are visible from the Historic Columbia River Highway, and accessible via short walks (if you’re arranging your visit yourself, note permits to the area are required between late-May and September).
Multnomah Falls has a wheelchair-accessible viewing platform, and getting close enough for that reviving face-pelt means a five-minute walk up a path (there are steeper trails if you want to hike to the top).
Wine with a view
A little further out, the landscape gives way to sweeping vineyards, flower fields and fruit and hazelnut orchards (Oregon is the nut’s biggest producer in the US). An ideal way to explore the scenery – and sample its treasures – is a tour with MountNbarreL (mountnbarrel.com). We opt for their Pine Grove tour ($200USD/£163pp), a relaxed half-day e-bike meander through the lower Hood River ‘Fruit Loop’, with bike hire, wine, cider and lunch stop included.
All the places featured are family-owned and operated, explains founder and guide Ali Mclaughlin, as we cruise along quiet roads and farm tracks. We lunch at The Gorge White House (after a flight of their delicious ciders) and pitstop at Mt. Hood Winery, where visitors can enjoy the estate’s famed pinot beside views of a snow-capped Mount Hood.
Our tour ends at nearby winery Wy-East – the Native American word for Mt. Hood – whose close proximity to the mountain means the vineyard boasts 100% volcanic soil. Today, heavy cloud means we can’t see the iconic peak, but its majestic influence shines through as we sip chardonnay on the hillside.
Fun and feasting
Closer to town, Amaterra Winery (amaterrawines.com) offers a mouth-watering seasonal menu in their stunning restaurant, against a backdrop of the Willamette Valley. Just a few miles outside the city, it’s well worth a visit (a spa is in development too).
Aviation Gin, owned by Hollywood’s Ryan Reynolds, is set to launch tours at their Portland distillery in July (it’s all under wraps for now, but watch this space).
It’s not all about booze though – an absolute delight for anyone fond of a good brew is Smith Teamaker. We head to their main site on SE Washington St, about a 15-minute drive from the hotel, for breakfast followed by a tea tasting and tour of their factory (they also have a café on NW 23rd Ave). Everything is designed to highlight their teas in some form or other – such as their delicious hazelnut granola and Chai ($10). Check their website for details of upcoming tours and to enquire about tastings (smithtea.com).
When it comes to eating out, there’s tons to choose from. Real winners are Oma’s Hideaway for Southeast Asian dishes with a twist (omashideaway.com, mains are around $16-32), and Paadee (paadeepdx.com, bigger dishes are mostly around $11-19) for stylish Thai comfort food. Portland has a thriving street food scene too. For lunch, head to one of the city’s food cart pods – yards filled with foot trucks and seating areas – such as Hawthorne Asylum (foodcartsportland.com).
Soak up the city
To really feel like a cool local, leave time to mill around town too. A favourite spot is Nob Hill, where you can stock up on artisan chocolate from The Meadow and get in line for legendary ice-cream at Salt & Straw on NW 23rd Avenue, and dip in and out of coffee shops, boutiques and vintage stores galore.
Downtown, don’t miss a visit to Powell’s (powells.com), Portland’s largest independent bookstore with floor upon floor of ceiling-high shelves. I happily while away a couple of hours browsing, before walking to the Portland Art Museum (portlandartmuseum.org, adult entry $25), which has a great collection of historical and contemporary Native American art.
There are pockets of nature in the city, too. At Portland Japanese Garden (japanesegarden.org, adults $19.95), situated on the West Hills with great skyline views, you can join a group tour and soak up some serious tranquillity, as you meander through its winding paths surrounded by lush, moss-coated trees.
Swing by the tearoom for a pot of Japanese tea and sweet treats, before heading down the hill to nearby Washington Park to check out another gem – the International Rose Test Garden. America’s oldest official public rose test garden, it features more than 10,000 roses and helps explain another of Portland’s names: city of roses.
City of makers, city of food, city of roses… However you choose to sum up Portland, it’s a city that’ll leave you wanting more.