Monday, November 10, 2014

Home "Sweet" Home

By many accounts, Portland is one of the great food towns of the era. Inventive chefs, locally sourced ingredients, artisanal and heirloom products in all sorts of categories including chocolate and beer (and especially locally raised produce and wild caught fish and seafood) all add up to some unforgettable experiences at the table. And so on each trip back to town, beside seeking out some great restaurant meals on our own, we have taken the time for both walking tours of the city that specialize in gastronomic businesses, and cooking classes in which to hone our skills for back home.

Amazing seasonal ice cream flavors in large portions make a good (and cheap) dinner plan when you've had a full and tiring day.

The company we have used with great success for our tours is Portland Walking Tours, especially the "Epicurean Excursions." (They also offer wonderful cultural tours, but hey, isn't food the heart of culture?) The excursions take about 3 1/2 to 4 hours while you wander in and out of local cultural icons, through the streets of downtown and the Pearl district, and include tastes, treats, local folklore and a grand introduction to life in the city. Because we had previously done a morning tour with its tea and coffee and bakery emphasis, we wanted to try something in the afternoon where liquor might make an appearance. Unfortunately those slots were sold out way in advance, and we had to "settle" for another morning round. Fate was on our side for this one. When we showed up at the sumptuous library room of the historic Heathman Hotel, our guide, Pat, was waiting for us with the good news that we were on a private tour! Not only didn't we have to vie for position to hear and see, but we had the opportunity to ask all the questions and steer the conversation to wherever we pleased. Pat, a fabulously talented local, had stories of her own to tell, being a performing artist possessed of multiple talents, even to the point of having had a small guest appearance on our favorite Portland based television show, "Grimm"! Best! Day! Ever! (Well, until the next and the get my drift.) And don't you know, we did got to eat pizza and try out a grand tasting tray at a brewpub anyway.

Pat introduces us to the legendary food cart scene with an amazing waffle by Gaufre Gourmet. Go check out this page for a visual menu of their sinfully rich products.

Cheryl across the street from "Cheryl's" where we stopped on the tour and then returned again for a solid breakfast before out 4T Trail outing. (See Adventures in High Places)

Portlanders, in our experience, are contagiously friendly. Our guide and one of "Cheryl's" managers.

Dave and I prepare to "taste" (wolf down) a sample of the Portuguese fried rice, a breakfast menu staple here.
Not to be outdone by the restaurants and tour businesses, our hotel, Kimpton's Portland Monaco, shows how true hospitality works by hosting a wine and hors d'oeuvres hour every afternoon from five to six, made notable in this town by the willingness of strangers to mingle, play games, share a canvas to paint on, and just generally feel like everyone dropped in to say "Hi!" Besides drinking and chatting, I spent some time on a watercolor and ink sketch of the scene, calculated to bring back not the reality of the room, so much as the whimsical feeling of the time.

"Momma" always drinks red, while "Dad" goes for white or beer. One reason we rarely order a bottle of wine in a restaurant. 

Sumptuous decor and a lively atmosphere.

The journal page spread. The "mermaid" lamp was actually shaped like that without the head. Somehow it evolved. The goldfish crackers are there to eat, but they are also the hotel mascot, and available in a live version to keep you company in your room if you request one.
Portland city parks have beautiful old drinking fountains, but unfortunately some are "for the birds". It wasn't a hot day, so we weren't quite sure why this pigeon felt the need to cool his/her brow.
Midweek we started getting serious about the idea of the upcoming retirement relocation, and returned to one of the neighborhoods we had previously looked at, on the edge of the Portland State University campus in SW. We re-toured an apartment previously seen three years ago and did a further check of the neighborhood. We were quite happy to find a food cart "pod" just around the corner, and a wonderful plaza right behind the apartment building to sit and enjoy our takeout lunch.

Relaxing at the university right in the shadow of our possible new home.

Our tour was of an upper level apartment that would give us a grand view of downtown, the Willamette River and Mount Hood/ Mount St. Helens in the near distance.

And here is the view from that bedroom window.

Breakfasts throughout the week continued to be enjoyed in "sugar land." While we don't normally eat donuts and other pastries at home, hey, this was vacation.

Blue Star Donuts

Humor, but I think they wouldn't mind if you take it seriously and share.

Enough donut to last me for a year of donut eating: Blueberry Bourbon Basil

Another favorite bakery in which we donned hairnets and toured the kitchen, Pearl Bakery.

Luckily (for our svelte figures, unluckily for the sheer thrill it might have been,) we would not be around for the Feast Portland event. You gotta love their honesty and hype on the banner: "artisanal everything" "waistline destroyer" "4 day food coma" !
On our last night in town, instead of a having regular restaurant meal, we decided to go "participatory" by signing up for a class in Moroccan flavors in cooking at the local Sur La Table kitchen store. Not only did we have a fun time, gain some useful skills, and eat a great meal, but we actually met a lovely couple who live in the same neighborhood we are thinking of moving to! Small and friendly world, this city.

Dave, who never lifts a knife in the preparation of food at home (except to cut up a banana for cereal) shows some admirable talent with a chef knife and an onion.
And so, a too brief sojourn in "the mighty gastropolis" comes to an end. Did I mention the airport is only fifteen minutes from downtown, and was voted "best in America" by Travel and Leisure Magazine readers? Can a town be too good?

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Adventures in High Places

And so we continue the  story of our Northwest adventure this past September with a little look at some of the other high places we encountered. Of course a trip far from home always begins with the never ending thrill of flight. Ignoring all the incredible inconveniences of doing so, I still love to move high above the earth to get to where I am going.

Takeoff from the shorter runways and city airspace of Chicago, Midway, is always exciting.

The drama of clouds is interesting for a while, but then you miss seeing that huge expanse of country you are moving over.

My travel partner and I often sit across the aisle from each other for a little extra freedom, but this time we managed to sit together with an empty middle seat. Yeah for room to breath!

My carry-on is always a backpack at my feet containing all my entertainment and nourishment to make the confinement less odious.

While he watched a movie, I practiced my drawing (and storytelling) skills. Water soluble marker and a water brush are easy to use in a tight space. Because I generally work in a Moleskine journal, I sometimes gesso the page to give the watercolor something to attach to (and not bleed through).
I always research and plan extensively on travel to new places so that we can find maximum fun and waste as little time as possible looking for things to do. On this visit I was determined to ride the aerial tram that rises from the Portland river front to one of the highest points in the city at OHSU, the Oregon Health and Sciences University. (Be sure to check out the amazing photos on the Tram's home page. The day we rode was a little hazy so I didn't get the good shot of Mt. Hood.)

Upon researching the ride I fell upon the opportunity for folding it into a great all day adventure about town called the the 4T Trail. The gist of it is: learn how to traverse a large loop of the city encompassing three forms of public transit (train, tram and trolley), but enjoy a serious hillside, deeply wooded, trail hike through several adjoining city parks, beginning at the entrance to the zoo in the West Hills and ending on the OHSU campus at the tram. Brochures with seriously detailed directions were printed and the adventure began after a hearty breakfast at Cheryl's on 12th.

The first order of business is figuring out how to buy a one day pass from the ticket machine and then just standing by for the next train.

Dave gives me his silly stare as we head off for the starting gate: a deep tunnel ride and a very long elevator up to reach the Oregon Zoo.
After crossing over a major highway and following the map we found the start of the trail.

Lucky for us, it was a beautiful day, not too hot, and the trail was nicely packed, neither muddy or loose, because the traversing of four to five miles of steep root and rock entwined switchbacks proved to be more than my ordinary workout! We encountered very few humans (and no animals to speak of) except for a few seriously fit runners and trail bikers, and the occasional city employee working a "situation" of some sort.

At about the half way point, high above the city behind me, we take time for a short break.

Looking west, hard to believe we are in the city.

After what felt like many hours we stumbled out of the woods and onto the OHSU campus at a parking lot with no obvious sign of the tram. A bathroom pit stop and several inquiries later, we found the medical building where the tram arrives and departs on a quite regular schedule, and after enjoying the outstanding view from inside the building, we ventured out to ride the tram standing inside a deceptively large car with numerous doctors, nurses and medical students to descend in all too brief a ride to the river below.

The view from inside the hospital.

Outside in the loading area as the tram arrives.

The hard earned reward ride. Mount Hood is out there in the mist.
The Willamette River that divides Portland into East and West neighborhoods.
Downtown, on the West side. In the center of the shot is the high rise apartment building that may become our new home next year. It too has these views!
A new bridge scheduled to open next year. New trolley lines as well will make transit across to the East side neighborhoods much more practical. 
And so, the final adventure in high places is on the way back home, Mt. Hood, always snow capped, waving goodbye for now.

Next up: Home Sweet Home, a look at some of the culinary pleasures of the city.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

A Perfect Beginning

Our "big" vacation this summer was a return after three years to our favorite travel destination, Northwest Oregon. The big difference this trip was the knowledge that retirement and relocation are just around the corner, and so everything we saw had the flavor of knowing this: soon to be at home. On all our previous trips here we spent time in both city and country, traveling the length of the state from Portland to Ashland and all sorts of places in between. This time our new trip starter was fairly close at hand, about two hours north and west along the Columbia River, to the historic shipping port of Astoria. 

Whenever I research places to stay in a new town I go for the best we can afford (or are willing to stretch for). This time we let our gut reaction to the beautiful pictures on their web site lead us to the Cannery Pier Hotel. Built to resemble an old factory, the hotel rests atop 100 year old pilings and actually sits in the river. The rooms facing north have the feeling of being staterooms on a cruise ship and beside being beautiful and comfortable, have a front row seat for a busy schedule of all sorts of water traffic, notably huge international freighters coming and going right past your windows. 

Just arrived after a long travel day from Chicago, a quick change and a chauffeured ride to nearby Bridgewater Bistro in one of two classic cars owned by the hotel.

Our favorite kind of dining, sharing small plates. The river view seating and live pianist didn't hurt either.

The commons area in the hotel with the "cruise ship" view.

An elegant "state room" starts with a wonderful bed. 

A bathroom with a view (so you can soak in the tub and watch the river at the same time.)

The Astoria-Megler Bridge is four miles long as it crosses this mighty Columbia River, and prominent from many vantage points in town.

The first of many giant cargo ships that sailed by my window.

The "cruise ship" view from our own balcony.
After a restorative night's sleep and a great dinner, we set off to see the riverfront part of the town by walking several miles of the River Walk. We passed old and new, crumbling and restored. Because it was Sunday, and a holiday weekend, many businesses and factories were closed, but there was evidence of a vital economy in town (beside the tourist economy, that is.)

A mix of the old, the modern, and the return to nature.

A riverside town park with a viewing platform.



All manner of wildlife seeking their living...

The heron posed for me, but the seals under the docks just barked, and refused to come out for photos.

There are still canneries in town.

But everything is a clean and tourist friendly, too.

Most of the length of the river walk is also traversed by a trolley car line, so you need to keep your wits about you when crossing bridges.

The hotel had free bike "rentals," but we decided to forgo the possible hazards of riding for a more simple mode of transit.

A view of the Cannery Pier Hotel.

Maritime Memorial Park

The Red Building (that's the real name)

On Labor Day Monday we decided to give up a planned trip to famous Cannon Beach and just continue to enjoy Astoria for a while more before heading off to Portland. One of the most famous sights is high up on the top of the hill town at an elevation of 600 feet (in a town that is at sea level), where you get to climb an addition 164 step spiral staircase inside to reach the viewing platform. This is quite a workout for a somewhat "older" person such as myself, but I set aside my trepidations and went for it.

The Astoria Column

The view Northwest toward the Pacific

This spiral "sgrafitto" frieze is seven feet wide and 525 feet long and tells the story of 14 significant events in the history of Oregon and Astoria.

Wearing a porcelain giraffe necklace that I bought at the Sunday Market from artist, Eric Berlin.

The view South to Saddle Mountain

Young's Bay

A beautiful topographic map of the region. The shiny spot is the hill we are on.

Back at he marina and cruise ship docks, we watch the morning's charter fishing tours bringing in their catches and having them cleaned and packed to take home.

A too short, but wonderful introduction to a fascinating town.

Don't I look relaxed already?

Ready to move on to Portland, but this lovely place is now on our short list of what will hopefully be just a weekend getaway.