Exploring Portland and the Oregon Coast

The Pacific Northwest is very ‘hot’ for Kiwi travellers at the moment. In 2016, I’d enjoyed visiting Vancouver and the Canadian Rockies, Alaska’s inside passage and the Californian coast. As we now have many clients keen to self-drive this region, my partner and I decided to return in August 2017 to explore the part I’d missed – Portland, the Oregon Coast and the road north to Seattle.

By total coincidence, we found ourselves in Oregon’s biggest city – Portland, for a Solar Eclipse – the first in continental USA since the 1970’s, and watched the sky grow dark and the lights come on from the rooftop of Portland’s very swish airport! The ‘zone of totality’ was a hundred miles to the South with hundreds of thousands of eclipse chasers heading there, keen to catch a sight of nature’s greatest show as it crossed the Oregon Coast and then passed right across the state.

Portland has acquired a reputation as one of the USA’s most liberal and progressive cities, with the popular TV show ‘Portlandia’ gently poking fun at it’s bohemian, ‘hipster’ eco-warrior reputation. Portland is certainly best described as a cultural experience rather than as a place to tick ‘must see’ sights off the usual tourist wishlist. Live music is a big drawcard – this is the home of ‘grunge’ after all, and we enjoyed a look around the (in)famous Crystal Ballroom music venue. The city doesn’t have many ‘iconic’ buildings and isn’t especially photogenic compared to nearby Seattle or Vancouver. Instead, it enjoys its quirky reputation and boasts a sign with the plea “Keep Portland Weird”. It’s the home to big corporations like Nike and Intel which has aided its economic success but Portland’s appeal for me was its reputation within the US for craft brewing – it’s become something of a ‘Beervana’!  Portland has more micro-breweries than any other world city. The other big draw is wine – from the nearby Willamette Valley’s wineries – it’s especially famed as a Pinot Noir growing region, although the Chardonnay, Riesling and Pinot Gris aren’t bad either. It’s also a foodie mecca – but typically with a twist – as Portland boasts hundreds of food carts offering every conceivable international and local cuisine.

So, we found ourselves in a region famous for the grain and the grape! Purely in the spirit of research, we booked on a 3 hour ‘bike and beer’ tour, which proved to be a fun, if rather unsteady way to get a sense of the city’s North West quarter, home to many of the original craft breweries. Biking is a great way to experience this city, as it’s laid out on a grid system either side of the Willamette River, it’s pretty flat and very cyclist-friendly. Surviving unscathed after a brush with some lovely hoppy IPA’s and APA’s, the next day we enjoyed a 5 hour tour of the very pretty Willamette Valley region with visits to three of the wineries. This would certainly appeal to fans of the movie ‘Sideways’ as over half of the tastings were for of Pinot Noir varietals!

Popular sidetrips from Portland are East to Mt Hood, a hikers paradise in the summer, and South East to Crater Lake, America’s deepest (2000ft!) and possibly bluest lake. Unfortunately, on a tight time frame, we didn’t have time for either, and the Eclipse had made Oregon’s popular tourist spots even busier during the summer than usual, so instead we collected a hire car in Portland, drove South on the I-5 freeway to just North of Eugene, then headed West to hit the Oregon Coast at the little village of Florence. Just south of here are the towering sand dunes of the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area.

The Oregon Coast is something of a hidden gem. A lot of our travelers have driven the storied ‘Big Sur’ in California, that rugged stretch of California’s central coast with its winding turns, seaside cliffs and views of the often-misty coastline. Well, having now driven most of the Oregon Coast up Highway 101, I’d describe it as similar but less touristy.Most of the people we met were Oregonians who were very proud of their state, and keen to protect its integrity from what they perceived to be an influx of wealthier Californians from the south.

The Oregon Coast is relatively sparsely populated and like Big Sur has numerous state parks for hiking and beach combing and a number of pretty fishing villages, light houses and historic bridges to enjoy. I’d perhaps best describe it as being a bigger version of NZ’s own wild West Coast with massive headlands offering dramatic views, and long sandy (and largely empty) beaches with crashing surf. They get plenty of rain and mist along this coast, but we were fortunate to only experience sunny days over the whole week. We also enjoyed craft beer in beachfront brewpubs and only great seafood – the clam chowder, oysters, crab cakes and tuna are all to die for here!

Highlights of the Central Coast would be the Cape Perpetua Scenic Area just south of Yachats, where we enjoyed some great hiking trails, the lovely Depoe Bay, where we saw lots of grey whales feeding just off the coast and Newport with its world-class aquarium. I can highly recommend a spectacular B&B at Depoe Bay where the whales were visible from our room overlooking the beach.

In the North Coast we especially enjoyed a stroll along Cannon Beach, Oregon’s answer to Carmel, with its pretty grey shingled beachfront restaurants and art galleries and the 80m high Haystack Rock dominating the beach. Further North near Tillamook, the Three Capes Scenic Loop drive is well worth the detour for the sweeping coastal views that reminded me of Victoria’s ‘Great Ocean Road’. Finally, the historic town of Astoria, the oldest town west of the Rockies, on the Washington/Oregon state border was well worth a visit with its elegantly preserved homes and B&Bs.

Crossing the mighty Colombia River on Astoria’s impressive historic bridge was a real thrill, Lewis and Clark’s famous expedition having ended here; then the impressive scenery continued as we continued to head North on Highway 101 towards Seattle, where we dropped our rental car. With limited time ahead of taking in a big game of soccer that night at the impressive Century-Link Stadium, we had only time to wander the famous Pike Place Market, Seattle’s most ‘must visit’ place with it’s fun and funky shops, and to enjoy the spectacle of the workers throwing fish to be wrapped.

In contrast to its very gritty neighbour Portland, Seattle is a much glitzier (and steeper!) city with gleaming glass and chrome tower blocks, and it was interesting to read how its CBD is quickly being taken over by the e-commerce giant Amazon. Seattle is home to Boeing, and the Boeing Factory tour is well worth it if you have time, as is the excellent Museum of Flight. Starbucks are ubiquitous here too as the famous coffee chain was started in Seattle, although I’m inclined to think we still have far better flat whites and lattes here in NZ! It was fitting that the soccer game we enjoyed was Seattle vs Portland, among one of the most fun and passionate group of sports fans I’ve ever seen. At the end of the road trip, perhaps it was fitting that the game finished in a 1-1 tie!