Hitting the rails to Portland
Vacay.ca occasionally publishes articles on destinations outside of Canada. In this article, contributor Michelle Hopkins discovers Portland, Oregon, and the unique joys of train travel in the Pacific Northwest.
Story by Michelle Hopkins
PORTLAND, OREGON — Some of my most memorable travel experiences have taken place on trains: that brilliantly sunny day when my beloved father and I took a memorable ride to Whistler months before he passed away; or the years we had hop on the train from Nova Scotia back home to Quebec after spending the summer at the beach.
So, when I was invited for a weekend getaway to one of America’s hippiest, most eclectic, food-crazed cities — and let’s not forget a leading microbrew destination — I didn’t hesitate.
Whether you call it P-Town, Stump Town, the City of Roses or Bridge City, Portland boasts some of the most lauded food trucks (600 and counting) and eateries in the United States, a multicultural blend of residents and a booming art scene. Even the buildings exude a mix of heritage and an avant-garde aesthetic that any hipster would love.
Meanwhile, there is something fundamentally “old world” about travelling by rail.
I headed to Pacific Central Station in Vancouver to board an early-morning Amtrak Cascades train for the eight-hour trip. I took my seat and soon pulled out of Vancouver. Within less than an hour, as the train snaked toward the border town of Bellingham in Washington state, the landscape changed from city scenes to views of rural life.
There’s nothing quite like watching the countryside roll by from the comfort of your seat … sipping a glass of wine, smiling at the thought of those stressed-out car commuters stuck in traffic jams.
I soon befriended fellow rail-rider Shannon Sweeney. She was looking forward to a girls’ getaway and opted for the train for the same reasons as me — to avoid traffic congestion and relax and enjoy the views along the route that one can only see by rail.
I also met Charles, a transplanted Portlandite who was more than happy to talk about the city’s best attributes: “There is a common saying about Portland: Keep Portland Weird. And the city lives up to this in so many ways. We have one bronze sculpture of a naked lady in the centre of town that drew lots of negative comments when it first went in over 30 years ago. It’s now a very popular photo opportunity.”
On the way to Union Station, Charles filled me in on what to expect. He noted that Portland is walkable, clean and a hallmark of urban planning. Its public transit system is highly regarded and inexpensive, with fares starting at just $1 (all dollar figures U.S.). Like many North American cities, Portland has resurrected old warehouse districts into cool neighbourhoods with restaurants, bars, local shops and farmer’s markets.
For me, the exploration of the city started when I bid adieu to my new friends and stepped out of the train and into Union Station. The train station makes a wonderful first impression, a sight any traveller who appreciates history and architecture will appreciate.
Local Food Delights In Portland
You know those one-of-a-kind eateries that are so authentic; those beloved hangouts that you just have to pry the names out of from the locals? Portland is filled with favourite local haunts and I was given a front-row seat at a few of them.
Here’s just a small sampling:
Natural Selections: A self-professed carnivore, my boyfriend, Brent, reluctantly agreed to dine at this vegan eatery in the Alberta Arts district. This part of town is still being gentrified and it’s a diverse mix of little shops and small intimate restaurants. As Brent perused the Bill of Fare with a resigned kind of look on his face, he checked out entrees such as the kale and Asian pear salad, winter squash tartar and roasted sunchoke with fennel and apple jus. After I cajoled him to give it a try, he dug in and soon forgot we were supposed to be sharing.
When chef Aaron Woo came over to meet us, Brent had to admit that his creative team of cooks changed his outlook about vegan dining.
Location: 3033 Northeast Alberta Street
Menu Price Range: $45 for a four-course tasting menu
Andina: One of the most touted hotspots in the city is this upscale authentic Peruvian restaurant that assaults all of your senses in the most delicious way. The dishes and flavours carry stories all their own; as does the music and art work. Words such as adventurous, modern, inventive, and tickle your taste buds can be used to describe the cuisine. You know those eateries where you just don’t want the culinary journey to end … that’s Andina.
Location: 1314 Northwest Glisan Street
Menu Price Range: $22-$39 for dinner entrees
Nuvrei Patisserie & Cafe: Nestled in the Pearl District, Nuvrei Patisserie & Cafe’s croissants, macarons and other Parisian confections could stand proud in France. We arrived mid-morning and the lineup snaked out the door, but we didn’t have to wait long. Brent looked to be in Nirvana as he bit into a buttery warm croissant, then into a bright red macaron. I was equally impressed by the avocado turkey and housemade sage sausage bagel sandwiches. (I shared, I didn’t eat both, although I could have.)
Location: 404 Northwest 10th Avenue
Menu Price Range: All menu food items less than $10
Voodoo Doughnut: What do Arnold Palmer, Memphis Mafia and Maple Bacon have in common? They are names of some of the fried holy cakes at Voodoo Doughnut. They are nearly a religion here. If there was ever a business that captured the quirky spirit of Portland, it’s Voodoo.
Location: 22 Southwest 3rd Avenue (original location)
Telephone: 1-503-241-4704 (open 24 hours daily)
Menu Price Range: 95 cents and up
P.S. — The food-trucks are an attraction all their own and definitely worthy of a visit. Once you’ve purchased your food, head to one of the many green spaces throughout the city for a picnic, including its famous Japanese Garden or Lan Su Chinese Garden.
Where to Stay in Portland
Portland is one of those cities with a strong sense of self. With its funky, whimsical and exciting art and design scene, many hotels here are nothing short of unique. We stayed at the Hotel Monaco in the heart of downtown, close to the Pearl District, the famous Powell’s Books (you can lose yourself for hours in this landmark literature institution) and Pioneer Square. The plush bold fuschia lobby is a great place to be for its nightly complimentary wine and beer socials. (Fabulous appies too and some nights feature a local pianist.)
More About Riding the Train to Portland
Amtrak Website: www.amtrak.com
Fares: A recent search of the Amtrak ticketing website for a weekend trip from Vancouver to Portland returned one-way adult fares of $65.
Length of Trip: The Vancouver-to-Portland route is scheduled to take 18 hours, 16 minutes. Be sure to bring your passport because the train stops at the US border crossing at Blaine, Washington.