5 years ago, Portland was up there with Omaha in terms of places I wanted to visit. I had barely heard of the city. When I worked at Microsoft, it was only ever mentioned as a shopping destination, a place to buy a new computer or tv, as Oregon has no sales tax. Since I moved to Vancouver, everyone seems to speak of Portland as an environmental utopia – a place where everyone bikes, public transit is free, and restaurants serve local, organic food.
As a birthday surprise, Emily planned a trip for the two of us to Portland. Amtrak has been running a direct train to Portland for the past few months (and will continue until at least the end of the summer – I highly recommend the trip!). We got up really early on Friday morning, road our bikes down to the train station (5 minutes, all downhill), and at 7 am our train left en route to Portland.
I really love travelling by train. The seats are comfortable, there is lots of leg room, the ride is smooth, you can get up and walk around, and there is no such thing as a traffic jam. Supposedly, you can even drink your own booze. I’m not sure what the ideal time to show up at the train station is – we were there an hour early, and that was too much time, even for clearing customs (the other great benefit – not stopping at the border for customs) and loading our bikes into the baggage car. The train has a plug for every pair of seats that we used to watch movies on my laptop.
The only downside of rail travel is it is slower then driving or flying. The infrastructure in Canada and the US has barely been touched for 40 years. On a lot of bridges, the train had to slow down because it is not safe to go at full speed. Can you imagine if that were the case on any highway? People would freak out. Yet it is the norm for train travel. On our journey south we had to transfer onto buses between Everett and Seattle because a mudslide the night before had made the tracks unsafe for passengers, even though our train was allowed to continue without us. Luckily it only delayed us a few minutes, but a small delay on passenger rail often grows. Later we had to stop to let a freight train pass (which slowed us down by another 10 minutes), as freight has priority over passenger rail and is allowed to go faster because less people care if a freight train derails.
Portland lived up to many of the stereotypes I had of the city. There’s a quite environmentalism that pervades the city. People just bicycle, recycle, and eat local. There’s no smugness to it, it’s just the way things work here. The hotel we stayed in (Marriot Courtyard City Center – highly recommended!) was LEED certified, celebrated earth hour, and had bike parking for guests, but it didn’t seem overly environmentally friendly.
We visited the farmer’s market on Saturday morning and it blew me away. I thought Vancouver had great farmer’s markets, but this one was about 5 times larger then Vancouver’s biggest market and was packed with people, all enjoying a sunny morning in a park in the middle Portland State campus. Most of the restaurants we visited emphasized their “sustainable” menus items, which I think was meant to indicate that the food they served was local and organic.
Experiencing the food in Portland was one of the highlights of the trip. Portland has two food innovations I’d love to see copied in Vancouver – the food cart and brewpub theatres. Food carts in Portland are more then just hot dog carts. They are converted mobile home trailers that are semi-permanently located on the edge of parking lots. And some of them serve excellent food. From what I read, some aspiring chefs start with food carts, as the start up costs are lower. Now, brewpub theatres are just that, theatres that serve beer – usually some of Portland’s fabulous micro-brews. Emily and I went to the Living Room Theatres on Saturday night and watched a great foreign film (Terribly Happy), and I got to have a beer and sit in a big, comfy sofa chair. It’s such a perfect idea, and it exists because Portland has looser regulations then Vancouver – the food carts, brew pub theatres, and many of the converted house restaurants we ate in would all be illegal in Vancouver.
Some of the other touristy highlights were:
– Visiting the Saturday market. It was too packed with people to do much shopping, but it was a vibrant scene.
– Walking around in the Japanese garden was very zen. Then we Zoobombed down on our bikes from Washington Park into Nob Hill.
– Shopping in Hawthorne Village, which was kind of like Main Street or Commercial Drive in Vancouver, with vintage clothing, Japanese nick knacks, and lots of good restaurants.
– Getting smarter at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. A decent science museum, similar to Science World in Vancouver.
I’m really glad we took our bikes down to Portland. Amtrak only charges $5 for a bike reservation fee, and getting around Portland is really easy on bikes. When we first arrived and saw the street cars zipping around (all free downtown), I didn’t think we’d use the bikes. However, they really came in handy in Washington Park and for exploring the east side. Portland has done a lot to make biking easy. The street cars all have multiple hooks for hanging bikes inside. All of the downtown bridges have bike lanes. And, the biggest change from Vancouver – finding bike parking was easy. Everywhere we went had bike racks, and throughout downtown there are bike corals where they’ve converted a single parking spot into enough space to fit a dozen bikes on the street. The only problem we found biking around Portland was figuring out what streets were bike friendly. Luckily, most were, but there is definitely a lack of signed bike routes and connected bike lanes. Often we found ourselves biking down a bike lane only to have it disappear with no indication where we should go.
Portland is an impressive city, but it isn’t perfect: there are a few ugly freeways dividing large parts of the city; a lot of the commercial district felt very disjoint, even more so than Vancouver; and there were surprisingly high numbers of obese people and smokers. However, I loved the bike friendly feel and the great food options.
I want to go back to Portland again this summer. The train makes it very easy to visit for a long weekend, and there is still more I want to see and restaurants I want to try. I also want to take advantage of the zero sales tax – I’m thinking of picking up a new camera or a smart phone next time.