Portland, hip city of roses and gourmands

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Glenda C. Booth

At more than 11,000 feet, Mt. Hood towers over downtown Portland, deemed America’s “most livable city” by Places Rated Almanac. The city boasts both the largest rose show and book store in the nation.
Photo courtesy of Travel Portland

Roses have figured prominently in plays, poems, songs and movies, but manhole covers? Welcome to rose-obsessed Portland, Ore.

The City of Roses has an internationally-acclaimed rose garden. Shops sell a postcard picturing roses bursting out the top of a skyscraper. There’s even a song, “The Portland Rose.” And in a prickly twist, the women’s professional soccer team is the Thorns.

Roses symbolize love and beauty, so go for it. Embrace Portland.

Perched on both sides of the Willamette River, Portland is a friendly, walkable city of 600,000 with a small-town feel. It’s won ratings like “most liveable city” (Places Rated Almanac), “America’s cleanest city” (Readers Digest), and “Best Urban Destination for Summer Travel in the U.S.” (Travel­­ and Leisure magazine).

Ageless hipsters

Portland is hip, whatever your age. Fresh, affordable, intriguing food almost falls out the food truck windows. Low-polluting streetcars and light rail make getting around a cinch. Seniors, “honored citizens,” can travel for $1 a day.

Bikers abound, and the new Tilikum Crossing Bridge over the Willamette will serve only public transit, pedestrians and bicyclists, no cars, when it opens in 2015.

Walkers stroll city blocks that are only 200 by 200 feet. “It’s a small town masquerading as big city. It does not feel hustly-bustly here,” resident Alacia Lauer told me.

Entrepreneurs nurture specialty shops, like one that sells only lightbulbs. And Fido is welcomed even at Nordstroms.

Take-out wine and beer at the Local Choice market comes in a returnable growler, a large resealable bottle. The city encourages food waste composting by providing a bucket and bi-weekly pickup. Solar-powered, compacting trash cans dot city streets, and the roof on the Indigo@12West apartment building has windmills.

Aging hippies and young hipsters sport a “Keep Portland Weird” bumper sticker. The city has even reached TV in the IFC television satire, “Portlandia.”

But Portland is more than eco-sophisticates, foodies and idealists. There are world-class corporations like Intel and Nike, a symphony, opera, chamber music, art museum, theater, and a university.

Portlanders practice a “civic ecology,” some say. In the 1970s, to prevent Portland from becoming another sprawling, car-dependent Los Angeles, city fathers and mothers set an urban growth boundary to preserve land.

The city ripped up concrete and pavement to “daylight” Tanner Creek, a stream buried for 100 years, and restore a wetland in center city. Portland boasts 35 acres of green roofs.

There’s even a 141-acre wildlife refuge within the city limits, Oaks Bottom, with 120 species of birds. Peregrine falcons nest under one of the 10 bridges. Snow-capped all year, Mount Hood seems to float above the city, a comforting symbol of stability.

More nature’s nearby. Portland is 90 minutes to the coast, 45 minutes to the mountains. The Columbia Gorge and the Willamette Valley wine country are not far.

For the culinarily curious

More than 400 food carts in Portland offer a diverse range of delicacies, from a bacon cheeseburger dumpling to Saigon-style fried chicken.
© Erica Schroeder | Dreamstime.com

Central to Portland’s vitality is the “food culture,” locals brag — from organic dishes to exotic fusion offerings and everything in between. What other city would claim kale as the “city vegetable”?

There’s a farmers’ market almost every day, and “liquid assets” in almost every block. Portland has more breweries than any city in the world, claimed a tour guide, noting with a giggle that Cologne, Germany, is second.

There are 45 coffee roasteries. For gourmands and non, Portland Walking Tours (www.portlandwalkingtours.com) offers Chocolate Decadence, Epicurean Excursion and food cart tours, led by self-described “food dorks.”

At the craft chocolate maker, Cacao, you can sip silky drinking chocolate during a tutorial on the delicate nuances of this universally popular product. The Salt and Straw offers ice cream with flavors like beer, pear and blue cheese, and olive oil.

The Flying Elephant sells a zingy tomato-orange soup. Hungry for bread? Try the Pearl Bakery, where Julia Child watched baguette making. Farmatherapy serves a cucumber-orange-lemon juice drink to die for. Need a hangover cure? Order the cucumber-kale-spinach-parsley-lemon soother.

Real everyman symbols of Portland’s food culture are the not-to-be-missed 400 food carts (www.foodcartsportland.com) — stationary vehicles crammed onto parking lots or pods. Vendors slide open their windows late morning to dish out delicacies from all over the world into the evening, prompting CNN to give Portland the title: the city with “the world’s best street food.”

Examples: The Dump Truck, for a bacon-cheeseburger dumpling; Eurotrash, foie gras; Big Top Waffles, build your own; Rua, Saigon fried chicken; Brazilian House, coxinha, drumstick-shaped chicken balls; Mama Chow’s wontons. There are oodles more.

Try Voodoo Donuts, where there’s always a line for the popular peanut butter donut. Voodoo made the Guinness Book of World Records for the “World’s Largest Box of Doughnuts,” a jumbo, pink 200-cubic-foot box weighing 666 pounds and holding 3,880 doughnuts. Check the “Where to Eat Guide” and indulge at eateries like Andina (Novo-Andean), Bollywood (Indian), Jake’s Famous Crawfish, Uchu Suchi and Fried Chicken, and more.

Back to roses: Mixologists at the Hotel DeLuxe’s Driftwood Room push a champagne cocktail dubbed Rose-Colored Glasses — gin, rose syrup, lemon juice and champagne. Yum.

Art, books and gardens

Besides eating and drinking, there’s plenty to see and do. Pioneer Courthouse Square, “Portland’s living room,” has 300 events a year, including free concerts.

The Portland Art Museum showcases Pacific Northwest artists, starting with Native Americans. There are also Arctic natives’ crafts (wooden snow goggles and ivory toggles) and 19th and 20th century paintings of Mount Hood. The Portland History Museum tells the state’s story from Native Americans to the Oregon Trail to today’s industries.

The must-see Powell’s City of Books is synonymous with Portland. The largest bookstore in the U.S., it’s a block square, three stories tall and always populated with bibliophiles plying the miles of bookshelves filled with over one million old and new offerings, out of print books, and books on every conceivable subject.

At 1,000 feet above the city stands the Pittock Mansion, a sandstone edifice with 14 styles of architecture, built by former Oregonian newspaper owner Henry Pittock. On a clear day, the Columbia River and Washington state are visible from the garden. Mrs. Pittock established the Portland Rose Society in 1888, which still today is a “rose support group” that advises on cures for rose problems.

Portland’s Japanese Garden is the most authentic outside Japan, 5.5 acres of peace — formal gardens, streams, koi ponds, raked sand, and a teahouse. Garden designer Takuma Tono has said that the running water “initiates a dialogue through the garden.”

In mid-town, the Chinese Gardens are a city block of manicured tranquility and reflecting ponds that engage all the senses with materials from China, including 500 tons of rock and 300 plant species and cultivars.

And yes, roses. The five-acre, International Rose Test Garden has roses of every shape, size and color — over 590 varieties and 10,000 plants. It was started in 1917, when Europeans sent roses to the states for protection during World War I, and Portlanders realized they have a perfect rose-growing climate. 

An annual June festival (www.rosefestival.org) celebrates roses with the largest rose show in the nation, the coronation of the rose queen, and a grand floral parade led by the Royal Rosarians. Businesses and volunteers layer floats with roses — enough roses, promoters say, to send your mother a dozen roses, every day for 30 years.

If you go

Portlanders say any time is a good time to visit. Weather-wise, there are few days over 100 degrees and few days in the 20s. Summer averages in the 80s. Portland is known to be rainy, but the rains are rarely heavy.

There are festivals all year, such as the Waterfront Blues Festival in July, literary festival in October, holiday ale fest in December, and the Chocolate Fest in January.

Check with the Visitor Center (below) for lodging options.

The downtown Heathman Hotel (www.heathmanhotel.com, 1-800-551-011), on the national register of historic landmarks, gained “visibility” as the setting for parts of the racy tome, 50 Shades of Grey. Rooms start at $224 a night.

US Airways has July flights from BWI for around $560 round trip. The 38-minute, airport-to-downtown trip on MAX light rail (www.trimet.org/max) costs $2.50.

For more information, contact the Portland Visitor Information Center, www.travelportland.com, (503) 275-9750.

Glenda C. Booth is a freelance writer living in Alexandria, Va.