It’s hard to decide which Oregon to explore. Do we gape at the Columbia Gorge waterfalls? Scarf seafood overlooking the rocky coast? Devour a serving of Shakespeare in a small town? Plunge inland through deep forests to Crater Lake? Or revel in Portland’s food scene?
All. We want it all. We’re off in a rental car for a two-week grand tour.
Our Southwest nonstop drops us, and we rent a car. I swear, the hardest driving we’ll do in two weeks involves navigating the one-way streets and go-right-to-go-left routings of Portland. Happily, downtown Portland has light rail. We park the car and use it.
Parking’s free at Inn at Northrup Station (2025 N.W. Northrup St., northrupstation.com, $245). Not only does this brightly decorated Pearl District hotel provide free breakfast, it also gives us free rail passes and beer tastings. Rain ditches our plan to explore the city’s gardens, so we learn about the state — including an explanation of why there’s no self-serve gas (tradition) — at the Oregon Historical Society (1200 SW Park Ave., ohs.org, $11).
Lunch — sorry, food trucks; we can’t help indulging in a favorite — is razor clams at Jake’s Famous Crawfish (401 S.W. 12th Ave., bit.ly/2e1sgk6). Dinner’s hand-tossed pizza and deft bouillabaisse at Serratto (2112 N.W. Kearney St., serratto.com), a quick walk from our hotel.
Hands down, the gorge along the Columbia River that divides Oregon from Washington east of Portland (columbiarivergorge.info) is one of the stars of our tour, even in the rain and fog. We pick up Columbia River Highway at cute Troutdale. Along the way are 27 falls, and we check out a handful, all glorious. It’s an easy quarter-mile hike down to the base of 249-foot Latourell Falls. We breathe in the oxygen. At the crown jewel, 620-foot Multnomah Falls, we find a silver lining in the raincloud: The usual tourist flood is, today, a trickle, and we score a coveted space in the parking lot. The mesmerizing column of water gushes, strengthened by snow melt.
Following a drive across the 1937-built Bonneville Dam, we grab salad and brew at Thunder Island Brewing (515 S.W. Portage Road, thunderislandbrewing.com) in Cascade Locks, then head down Oregon 35. Known both as the Fruit Loop (it’s farmy) and Mount Hood Highway, it leads to the eternally snow-capped, 11,250-foot peak. Hood is hooded in fog on this day. After stopping at Foxtail Cider for a hard cider tasting (2965 Ehrck Drive, foxtailcider.com; the dry-ish Sir Isaac is my favorite) and at Draper Girls Country Farm (6200 Oregon 35, drapergirlscountryfarm.com) to score local strawberries and visit some goats, we drive fruitlessly up the fogged-in mountain, where we see absolutely nothing.
On to the hilly town of Hood River, strewn with lavender-girded Victorian and Craftsman homes. From our sunny room at the 1911-built Villa Columbia Bed & Breakfast (902 Oak St., villacolumbia.com, $199), we can see the river before walking to crunchy fish and chips at Sixth Street Bistro (509 Cascade Ave., sixthstreetbistro.com) capped by an outstanding mixed-berry cobbler featuring marionberries, those irresistible, plump, reddish blackberries that, as you will see, are a favorite of mine.
After a first-rate breakfast of berry-yogurt parfait, bread pudding and sausage the next day, we drive east to the Dalles, not a geographical formation but the name (meaning “sluice”) of a small riverside town in which we enjoy a wine-tasting at Sunshine Mill and Tasting Room (901 E. Second St., sunshinemill.com) where Cheez-It crackers were once made and tasty wines — Quenett and Copa Di Vino — are made now.
Juicy burgers at Baldwin Saloon (205 Court St., baldwinsaloon.com) precede a good sleep at Celilo Inn (3550 E. Second St., celiloinn.com, $134). A long, uphill driveway gives off a Bates Motel-ish vibe, but updated rooms and amenities (glass of welcome wine, breakfast, fitness room) and, especially, a view of the Columbia River and the Dalles Dam make this a perfect stay. By morning, the fog has lifted, and guess what we can see? Mount Hood.
We make for the coast, stopping in Cannon Beach for a fresh Dungeness crab at Ecola Seafood (208 N. Spruce St., ecolaseafoods.com), then drift down the coast to our lodging aboard the Newport Belle paddlewheel (2126 S.E. Marine Science Drive, newportbelle.com, $150), firmly docked on Yaquina Bay just across the water from our favorite area restaurant, Local Ocean Seafoods (213 S.E. Bay Blvd., localocean.net). There, indulge in an aromatic Brazilian stew, packed with rockfish, prawns, crab, mushrooms and coconut milk.
Awakened by the cry of gulls the next morning, we find our captain has made us a lovely spinach quiche. We walk half a mile to the Oregon Coast Aquarium (2820 S.E. Ferry Slip Road, aquarium.org, $22.95), where otters and sea lions frolic, an octopus stares balefully, and various sea creatures swim and undulate. Then it’s on down the coast, stopping frequently to gasp at the view whenever the fog deigns to lift.
After heading back north to catch a lunch at Wildflower Grill in Lincoln City (4250 N.E. U.S. 101, thewildflowergrill.com), because it has simply the best marionberry cobbler in the universe despite having also the most difficult driveway to emerge from anywhere in the universe, we drive on down the coast to Yachats. Not much going on in Yachats, where we spend a night in an old, not-updated but clean motel called the Yachats Inn (331 U.S. 101, yachatsinn.com, $94) that abuts a nice strolling trail along the Pacific Ocean.
The attraction: Cape Perpetua, a headland filled with tide pools, churns and steep bluffs up to 800 feet above the rocky coast. The fog lifts its hem a few times for us.
Having never ventured south of Yachats, we do so. What we find is a gloriously broad beach and a fine inn, Pacific Reef Hotel (29362 Ellensburg Ave., pacificreefhotel.com, $162) with huge, airy rooms including a deck with Adirondack chairs upon which to sit and overlook the waves. At night, there’s even a little film about the Oregon coast played upon a scrim we can see from the porch. We wish we’d brought mosquito repellent. The bugs are big and hungry.
My fried oysters are nicely cooked at Spinner’s (29430 Ellensburg Ave., spinnersrestaurant.com), but hubby’s prime rib is overcooked. It is, the waiter explains, the last slice. That should, we note, have been revealed.
We head inland by dipping into California, driving twisty roads shoulder-to-shoulder with giant redwoods, spying huge sand dunes along the way to tiny Ashland, charmingly bedecked with hanging baskets of petunias and filled with little coffee houses and shops. We’re here for three days, meeting friends from Denver and Houston, renting an Airbnb house in town, hiking the steep trails of Lithia Park and attending the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which runs from February through October (osfashland.org). Both a stark “Julius Caesar” with amazing fight choreography and a delightful, new stage edition of Tom Stoppard’s film “Shakespeare in Love” provide conversational fodder for the six of us. The best food outside Portland is here: short ribs and a good yet reasonably priced Oregon wine list at Brickroom (35 N. Main St., brickroomashland.com) and freshly made spanakopita and marionberry crisp at Greenleaf (49 N. Main St., greenleafrestaurant.com).
Crater Lake National Park
Oh, my. How could we not bask in this sunny oasis of snow (even in summer; elevation’s 6,178 feet) and brilliant blue water? A mirror for the surrounding mountains, Crater Lake (nps.gov/crla), created by volcanic eruption thousands of years ago, is the deepest lake in the U.S. at 1,946 feet. It demands to be stared into. I do so, managing to find an unoccupied rocker on the porch of Crater Lake Lodge. A prairie dog pops up through the snow to say hi. We hike along the south rim, running into both snowbanks and mosquitoes amid the trees.
We spend the night at Crater Lake Lodge (craterlakelodges.com; book a year in advance), paying $269 for a nice but unfancy room that — here’s what matters — overlooks the lake. Even in a heat wave (approaching 90 degrees), the night breezes take care of us, and the lack of air conditioning doesn’t matter. The only downside: the lodge’s food, which mostly ranges from mediocre to strange (“artisan cheese tray” offered two scoops of pimiento cheese). The marionberry crisp, though, is divine.
Driving through miles of ramrod-straight pines, we follow the rushing Deschutes River to the high desert and Bend, a mecca of sage-dotted mountains and good hiking, as well as rafting, along the forested river.
The true heat wave catches us at this point, and at 100 degrees, hiking’s not appealing. I take a short one and enjoy breathing in the pine air. At the Shiloh Inn (3105 O.B. Riley Road, shilohinns.com), our king room overlooking the river costs $144.74. We love the pad thai and elegant atmosphere at Noi Thai (550 N.W. Franklin Ave., noithaicuisine.com).
Back to Portland
On our last day, we head back to school. The Kennedy School (5736 N.E. 33rd Ave., mcmenamins.com/kennedy-school) has been converted by McMenamins Hotels into a delightful inn. Our room ($215), a former classroom, includes a chalkboard and cloak room. A hall monitor might be needed: The hotel includes three delightful bars, $4 first-run movies and a free pub lecture series. Over burgers and beer, we learn about the history of the Ku Klux Klan in Oregon. This is a school I like.
The next morning, free coffee in hand, we come to terms with our impending exit. What will I do without my marionberries?