Overlooked Oregon – Places Beyond the Hype

DSCF0631Tell someone you’re going to Portland, and you’ll get two reactions:

"Ugh, why are you going there?" This is usually people from cities like Chicago or New York who can’t fathom that there’s actually cool stuff in other places.

"Powell’s! VooDoo Donuts! Rogue Brewery!" All great, but -- all plummeting toward cliché status.

Get some super-rich drinking chocolate at Cacao.
Get some super-rich drinking chocolate at Cacao.

I made my second visit to Portland in July, and I want to share some things you probably don’t hear about outside the Rose City. This is my Overlooked Oregon list.

Living Room Theaters
I rarely go to a movie theater. Most of the movies are absolutely awful. Well, at the big-time megaplex-style of theater, anyway. Portland’s Living Room Theaters is an exception. About 30 seats per theater, all of them comfy. Movies with real character and dialogue and craft. You can get real food and drink with your movie. And a ticket is all of $10. Go see a movie at Living Room Theaters when you visit Portland.


Overlooked Oregon
Load up at Lardo when it’s sandwich time.

If you watch the Portlandia series, you’ll probably never hear the word "cacao" quite the same again. In this case, though, it’s not a kinky couple’s safe word: Cacao is a small place that specializes in drinking chocolate and other forms of chocolate. Careful – the drinking chocolate is extremely rich. In retrospect, I should’ve gone for the smaller size and come back later for a second. Tackling 5 ounces of drinking chocolate at one shot can be a tall order. Still, delicious and worth a stop.

Lardo Sandwiches
I can’t shut up about this place, nor stop wishing Phoenix had something that comes even remotely close. But, as Jules from Pulp Fiction said, we ain’t got the same ballpark, league or even sport here. We went twice. We ordered four different sandwiches. And don’t even ask me to try telling you which was best -- but the Cubano and pork meatball Banh Mi were particularly memorable. Oh, and Lardo has craft beer on tap.

Fort George Brewery
I’m cheating a bit here. Fort George Brewery is a few hours away on the coast in Astoria. Of course, that should be part of your trip anyway if you’re a proper retro-hipster pop-culture samurai who wants to see the filming location of The Goonies. Fort George Brewery is a cool-looking two-story building -- but look for the annex next door, where you’ll find the Tasting Room. You can still get food, but the atmosphere is more cozy and personable (the bartender was particularly cool). They have hard-hitting oak-aged beers, which I absolutely loved. But if you want an unusual standout, try the Spruce Budd Ale. It’s made entirely with spruce tips rather than hops. It packs a ton of flavor for a beer with less the 6 percent ABV. Atmosphere, food and great beer make Fort George Brewery a must-visit place on my Overlooked Oregon list.

Portland: Bike Friendly, But Where’s the Mountain Bike Scene?

Johnson Creek Portland Oregon
Bicyclist get bridges of their own in Portland. (Photo by Finetooth via Wikimedia Commons)

Singletracks.com has an interesting post called “8 Bike Culture Observations from Portland, OR.”

All its points ring true to me from my recent visit to Portland. The bike-friendly culture starts right at the airport – there’s a repair area where your can break your bike down for flying, or put it back together … and then ride home. How incredibly progressive!

I can also confirm that bicycle infrastructure is extensive. Public bike art? I honestly don’t care about that.

It’s really surprising that mountain bikes are, as Singletracks.com says, such an afterthought. The shops I visited were primarily geared toward road biking. And I noticed a preponderance of big brands. I didn’t see any really cool, independent brands with a strong appearance. I figured Portland’s local, DIY flavor would carry over to the cycling scene. I hoped to lay my eyes on some cool custom steel … and maybe some titanium.

It’s very likely I just didn’t stumble onto it. I’ll bet it’s out there … but the odds of walking into exactly the right place are slimmer than I hoped.

So if you know Portland, I’d love to hear about the lesser-known shops where you discover and ogle the more unusual brands.

Washington State Wonder – The Ape Cave Lava Tube

Ape Cave
A skylight in The Ape Cave opens to the surface.

I’m just miles away from one of the biggest volcanic eruptions in modern history.

Mount Saint Helens. 1981. A blast that re-shaped the landscape in Washington.

Thirty years later -- I’m crawling through a two-mile-long lava tube on its lower slopes. The Ape Cave, named for the Boy Scouts who explored it. Since then, hiking the Ape Cave has become one of the best reasons to visit Cougar, Washington. Some parts are epic in scope, with smooth, uniform walls – so perfectly formed and regular that it’s hard to believe that hardening lava and gravity were the only forces at work.

Ape Cave
A lava formation in The Ape Cave. No, it doesn't look phallic. Why do you ask?

Other times, Sarah and I are on our bellies slithering through tight passages – or gingerly stepping over tall piles of volcanic rubble.

Go the Right Way

We are traveling the wrong direction, by the way. Most people start at the main cave entrance near the parking lot. They head upslope, emerging through a huge skylight. We did the opposite, taking the trail through the forest, crossing a snowfield (yes, even in late May), descending into the skylight.

ape cave
It's not the dark I'm afraid of - it's the stuff in it that I can't see!

Heading down, we discovered, is actually harder. There are a few steep chutes that would actually be easier to climb then descend. My size is an asset here, allowing me to stretch to footholds that are harder for Sarah to reach.

But with our Petzl headlamps illuminating the cave, we move along – swiftly, even. We meet a few groups headed the opposite direction. One group raised our hackles a bit -- someone in the party was smoking – an annoying faux pas. A French family lamented how long they’d been underground, but trudged on.

Things to Wear and Bring

And further we went. The cave, by the way, was cool. I wore a heavy pair of hiking pants, a base layer, a First Ascent Serrano jacket and a Marmot rain jacket. Condensation was falling from the cave ceiling during the entire two-hour trip from top to bottom, so the rain jacket was perfect.

ape cave
This is where you should exit the cave - not enter like us!

The headlamps I mentioned – indispensable. But bring other light sources and batteries, too. You won’t need gloves, despite what some people might tell you. A bottle or two of water is a good idea. If you have a small tripod, bring it for some long-exposure photos.

Finishing Up

By the time we finished, the rain was falling heavier topside. We tried to drive around for a better (that is to say any) view of Mt. Saint Helens. But it was thoroughly socked in by fog. We wound up having an excellent pizza at the Kelso Theater Pub. If you’re looking something to munch on in Kelso, you can also catch a movie while satisfying your hunger. The Theater Pub also has a nice selection of local microbrews.

ape cave 5
This is the ladder that starts your journey.

The Ape Cave isn’t a hard journey – it’s not technical or as tight a fit as other caves I’ve visited. But it’s fun, and a really cool example of volcanism at work. It’s length can make it a touch monotonous, especially if you’re hungry. But I enjoyed it, and I would recommend to anyone who’s OK being separated from the sky for a few hours.

ape cave trail
Me near a field of volcanic rubble.
ape cave slug
A slug I nearly squished accidentally. Isn't it cool?!

ape cave trail
The forest near the Ape Cave are beautiful.

Review: Inn at Northrup Station in Portland, Oregon

The Inn at Northrup Station
Relaxing in a room at The Inn at Northrup Station

My three nights at the Inn at Northrup Station in Portland, Oregon, took me back to New Zealand. The Kiwis have no shortage of quirky hotels with all the comforts of home. Here in the U.S., this is just a rarity.

What makes it stand apart from other hotels in Portland? And in the country, for that matter?

First, there’s an in-room kitchen. A stove, four burners, a full-sized refrigerator. Now, Portland has all the restaurants you could ever want. So why bother with a kitchen? Because of the abundant farmer’s markets. Sarah and I went to a Saturday market -- scored some morel mushrooms, fresh pasta, crab, baby bok choy. We turned it into an awesome feast.

The Inn at Northrup Station
Even the outside looks pretty slick.

The neighborhood also stands out. It’s right on the Portland streetcar line, which connects to the MAX lightrail (to the airport and many other points). You’re walking-distance from Jeld-Wen Field (home of the Portland Timbers MSL team), the Pearl District, an uncountable number of shops and restaurants. And yes, brewpubs.

The Inn at Northrup Station
Baby bok choy cooked up just right.

And give Northrup Station style points. No bland beige or institutional furniture. Purples, yellows, reds -- I know plenty of people who’d like their house to look like a room at Northrup Station. It oozes "hip," but not "hipster."

The service is far more personal and friendly than average. The staff members are friendly, ready to print your boarding passes, give you free tickets for the street car or directions to just about any cool spot. You also get a free if unspectacular breakfast. Didn’t bring a computer? Just slide behind one of the Macs.

Finally, the price is reasonable. Less than $150 a night in the beginning of summer – with all the fees and taxes. Just try equaling that in Seattle or Vancouver.

Inn at Northrup Station
A hotel room with a kitchen - a must if you want to try local flavors (like morel mushrooms) cooked your way.

When I return to Portland, I’ll stay here again. I’ll try scoring a room on the third (top) floor -- some people have heavy footsteps.

But if all I get is a second-floor room, I still won’t complain. Not with all the other factors adding up to a great and unusual hotel.

Follow the Inn at Northrup Station on Twitter or like it on Facebook. And you can follow Wandering Justin on Twitter while you’re at it!

Portland Summer Fun: Tree to Tree Adventures

Tree to Tree Aerial Adventure Course
Ready for aerial action

I just have to jump. And grab a rope. Then swing over to a tree stump.

Just one thing: I’m at least 40 feet above the forest floor. (see video at bottom)

This is the Black Diamond section of Tree to Tree Aerial Adventure Course in Gaston, Oregon … Day 4 of my visit to Portland, and I’ve found my favorite of the local attractions. It’s a maze of aerial rope obstacles and zip lines. Some are just a foot or two off the ground. But if you’ve got the grapes, go big!

Tree to Tree Aerial Adventure Course
Sarah works it hard and shows us how it's done.

Easy to say before I was up here sweating out this rope-swinging thing. It’s physically easy. And the lobster claws connected to my climbing harness are connected just so. The staff drilled safety into us. I paid rapt attention.

Still I hesitate. The brain -- it doesn’t want to do this. But I finally grab a hold and swing.

Thump. Both boots touch the stump. One left. Lunge. Swing. Thump. Onto the next.

Few of the next obstacles give me much trouble.

Tree to Tree Aerial Adventure Course
The beginning of the double-black section.

The last one is a monster: several beams hanging from a taut overhead wire. They sway enthusiastically with each step. It’s a wild ride. I’m burning a ton of energy, using every muscle in my arms. When I finish, I’m too blown out to tackle the three Double Black Diamond obstacles.

My wife, though … Sarah tackles the obstacle that schooled me. She’s like a cat. She heads to the Double Black section. It’s a studious and methodical effort, but graceful enough. And efficient. She heads to the second obstacle. She is almost through it -- and then she’s swinging from her safety cables.

Tree to Tree Aerial Adventure Course
A ground-up look at the obstacles at Tree to Tree Aerial Adventure Course

There’s no reason to hang her head – I’m impressed. A tidy demonstration of efficiency, breath control and focus.

By the time she takes the final zip line to terra firma, we’ve decided: Tree to Tree Aerial Adventures is one of our favorite places ever – right up there with the Agrodome in Rotorua, New Zealand. And that’s some serious praise.

Watching the Portland Timbers – A Traveler’s View

Portland Timbers, Ajax, Jeld-Wen Field
It's a perfect day for the Beautiful Game in Portland. And the noise is already going long before the match begins.

The kickoff is 30 minutes away. But already, loud voices chant and sing. Trumpets blow. The sound of drums bounces off the concrete.

Where am I? Manchester’s Old Trafford? St. James Park in Newcastle? Liverpool’s famous Anfield?

No. I’m in Portland, Oregon, at Jeld-Wen Field. And yes, these people are chanting mightily for soccer.

There’s a friendly match (or exhibition) on tap, with Dutch champions AFC Ajax making a visit to the Rose City. They’ll play first-year Major League Soccer franchise Portland Timbers. They might not have a pedigree to match that of Ajax. No reputation for Total Football or as a breeding ground for top players.

All the Timbers have are Sal Zizzo, Kenny Cooper and the fans – most notably the Timbers Army. Oh, they also have Timber Joey, a bearded, smiley colossus on patrol with a gas-powered chainsaw. He’s there to make sure you’re cheering. Not that he needed to prod the crowd much. Timbers have a relatively long soccer history  (for a U.S. side, anyway) dating all the way back to 1975.

Throughout the match, I wondered what the Ajax squad thought of the Timbers. They issued a 2-nil beatdown that wasn’t anywhere as close as the scoreline. Ajax showed smooth, assured control of the ball. Their formations morphed with astounding liquidity, rapidly changing to match the situation. Their second goal? Midfielder Demy de Zeeuw could’ve just hammered it in – but no. He opts for a more complicated and stylish scissor kick. It’s the sort of move you won’t see at even 10 percent of the matches you could watch. That’s the Ajax way … soccer should – no, must – must entertain.

No matter how Ajax regard their opponents, I hope Jeld-Wen Field, the Timbers fans and the city of Portland made an impression. It’s a very nice stadium, the fans are in great voice and it’s a terrific city.

I also love that Portland ardently supports the Timbers. Throughout the city, you’ll see people in Timbers regalia and bars urging people to watch matches there. I saw about three people wearing Trailblazers NBA shirt. Contrast this with Washington, D.C. or Denver – there, I saw barely an signs outside the stadium that MLS existed. In Portland, people are abuzz about the franchise.

I notice a funny little habit of the Timbers fans during the Star-Spangled Banner: After every few lines, they’d wave their scarves or banners in the air and make a whooshing, rocket-like noise. Kind of funny, and very unusual.

Good luck to the Timbers, and thanks for turning this visitor from the desert into a fan.