Portland, Oregon is usually not on the agenda of most tourists visiting the United States and is quite underrated. But it is a great city and extremely beautiful, fully deserving of a visit.
The fact that I have my aunt, uncle and three cousins living there made it that much more attractive. And so it was that, on a recent work trip to the US, I took a flight from San Francisco for a weekend visit to what is rightfully called the 'Switzerland" of the Pacific Coast.
Many Indians of the current generation know Portland because it is home to chipmaker Intel's largest concentration of facilities and talent in the world. Today, Intel Oregon has more than 20,000 employees at these facilities west of Portland in Washington County. And I suspect many of the Indians who travel to Portland are parents, siblings and relatives of the significant numbers of Indians who work for this and other IT firms. Creative companies such as Nike and Wieden + Kennedy have also chosen the city as their headquarters.
Located on the West Coast of the USA in the state of Oregon, Portland has three dominating features. The first one is Mount Hood, a permanently snow-covered peak about 1.5 hours inland away from Portland. The mountain is about 11,000 feet high and offers a great spot for skiing, snowboarding, or for a trek up the mountain. This has been the site for Winter Olympics training for quite some time due to its snow cover, and a long ski-route.
The second is the Hood River, which flows from the snow melt of Mount Hood, all the way to the Pacific, via Portland. This river and its tributaries are also the venues of the famous salmon runs: Salmons are born in a freshwater nursery deep in the river from the ocean and as soon as they are big enough to make the trek, they swim from their nursery down the river to the Pacific Ocean. After spending their adulthood in the ocean, they come back to the same nursery where they were born, overcoming great obstacles and an uphill terrain to spawn the next generation of salmon!
The third feature is the Pacific Ocean - Portland is about a 60 - 90 minute drive from the Pacific Coast. We didn't have enough time to go to the coast -- maybe the next time I am there!
I had planned for a 36-hour stopover in Portland and landed there on a Saturday morning. After a heavy breakfast at an IHOP (where you can get pancakes with everything) near the airport, we headed to Mount Hood first. The plan for the day was to head out to Mount Hood and then loop around it to go back to Portland while driving along the River Hood. The route would afford several scenic photo-opportunities.
As we drove up to Mount Hood, I clearly appreciated why this area is called the Switzerland of the West Coast. The road winds and cuts through miles of woods to suddenly reveal the awesome Mount Hood. The woods are home to miles of trekking trails, where one could get truly close to nature.
There are several lodges around Mount Hood, where one could stay overnight or over a weekend to spend time at the serene and awesome mountain. Families also usually stay in the lodges and trek through the woods surrounding the mountain for several hours. The mountain, unusually, also affords a chance to ski in the dark as well. While we were there, the ski lift was operational and there were several people skiing and snowboarding down the peak.
Clearly, to appreciate everything that the mountain offers, one would need to spend at least a week!
Portland is a city of long drives. All places worth seeing in and around Portland are only 1.5 to 2 hours away, and it is wise to carry an international driving license and rent a car to get around to these places, as public transport and other modes of transportation to locations outside the city seemed sparse. Cars seemed to be the most convenient option -- and it enabled us to take several detours to great scenic spots outside Portland!
Both Mount Hood and River Hood are named after Viscount Hood, who was the Admiral of the British Royal Navy in the late 1700s, in whose name these areas were claimed after a British expedition party going up the river.
On the way, the River Hood flows through several woods, which offers great picnic spots and hiking trails. We stopped at a well-known spot on the way to the Hood River Meadows, near a creek of one of the tributaries -- just a few meters off the road. That spot marks the beginning of one of many well-marked hiking trails and opened into a secluded clearing with several picnic benches. We were lucky to have a great day -- sunny with a light breeze. Many families had taken the opportunity to get out of the house and were leisurely hiking, with their dogs, and taking several photos of the beautiful nature scenes.
It is important to have paper roadmaps, or downloaded offline maps, for these road trips, as there are several signal dead areas throughout the drive, and tourists less familiar with the route, can easily take a wrong turn and head to a completely different place!
As you drive around, you will chance upon several fruit farms that give you the chance to pick your own fruit to take home. We were there in the middle of the cherry bloom season and a lot of the orchards were turning pink and white this time of the year.
The river Hood also runs as the border between Oregon and, its northerly neighbour, Washington state. On the way, we crossed over Indian reservation land. Native Americans living on the reservation land have the right to fish as much as they can during specific months of the year. Many of them have opened up restaurants and shops where one can enjoy fresh riverine fish.
On the way back to the city, along the river Hood, we stopped at Multnomah falls - the highest free-falling waterfall in the US. It's a narrow stream of snowmelt that falls over 600 feet. The best part about this is that one can trek right up to the point where the water starts streaming over the edge into the waterfall. The Multnomah falls have an Indian legend behind them - the daughter of an Indian Chief was unhappy about a wedding she was about to be forced into. Without any other option in front of her, she decided to jump over the edge, and her tears then become the Multnomah falls.
Although a small city by US standards, Portland is a cultural melting pot and is extremely liberal and accepting of people of all kinds. This culture has drawn many refugees to the US from across the world, which also gives its character.
Later that day, we went to a popular Ethiopian Restuarant for our dinner. The small Ethiopian community in Portland have given the city about 2-3 Ethiopian restaurants, which are immensely popular among the locals for its flavourful cuisine and unusually communal dining style. Many other cuisines have taken root here in this city and allows the residents and tourists to have a mind-boggling variety.
We rounded off the day with a visit to one of the tallest buildings in Portland, at the top of which was the posh restaurant - the Portland City Grill. Although the building was short by New York and Chicago skyscraper standards, the 360-degree view was amazing. One could spend hours just observing the buzzing nightlife both inside the restaurant and on the streets. The restaurant also serves some of the best desserts that I have ever had - and we had ordered 3! I highly recommend trying the creme brulee, tres leches and the chocolate bomb.
We had reserved the next day for shopping and a family get together. Portland is a great place to shop as they don't have any sales taxes -- so, in a way, you get bargain prices on everything!
On the way back to the airport, we stopped over at a bridge reserved only for pedestrians, cyclists and the local train. Portland is a city of bridges -- all bridges over the River Hood tributary flowing through the city -- and is often called Bridgetown. This particular one was a great vantage point as one could see Mount Hood along with all the bridges in the city.
Portland is quite different from the New Yorks and San Franciscos of the world, and is a great destination for a relaxed holiday where one can spend a lot of time to unwind in the great outdoors, and otherwise, just disconnect from the daily hubbub of life. Clearly this visit was too short - Portland deserves at least 3-4 days of your time to begin exploring all that it has to offer.
The question about what you can do in Portland is easily answered if you have friends or relatives who will drive you around. But even if you are not lucky on that front, you will discover that there are scores of things to do and see -- flower festivals, gardens, museums, film and music festivals, all kinds of outdoor activities, eating out, and so on.
Reaching Portland directly from India is easy, with KLM offering flights to the city from Delhi and Mumbai to Amsterdam and onward connections from there. KLM will start flights to Amsterdam from Bangalore soon. Other places from where you can fly non-stop to Portland include Frankfurt, London and Tokyo. You can also fly to Portland from all major American cities.