The West Coast might not be known for its train service – it doesn’t have the extensive network that the Northeast has – but if you’re traveling in Washington, Oregon or California and haven’t considered making the train part of your travels, you’re missing out.
Portland to Tacoma used to be a regular travel stint of mine, and quite frankly, I’ll take sitting on a train overlooking the Puget Sound over sitting in I-5 traffic any day.
But it’s not just the short distances that are noteworthy in this area of the country. Although it takes much longer than driving or flying, for those with time, Amtrak’s Coast Starlight is everything a romantic train ride should be. Just watch this stop motion video filmed by Kyle Hanson McKee and you’ll see what I am talking about. It’s the love of train travel wrapped up in less than a minute.
There must be someone in Bend, Oregon, who drinks Coors or Bud Light. But I imagine that this mythical, mass produced beer loving android keeps a very low profile so as not to be shunned, like an alcoholic Amish swinger, in what must be America’s best craft beer town. Bend is blessed with an abundance of natural beauty and some 250 days of sunshine a year. There are so many opportunities to hike, kayak, go trail running, white water rafting, skiing or snowboarding that one doesn’t have to feel too guilty about throwing back a few craft beers at one of Bend’s 13 breweries.
With a population of just under 80,000, Bend apparently has the most per capita breweries in the nation. Inside the city limits, there are 10 brewpubs and three breweries (Boneyard has a tasting room open to the public, Below Grade Brewing isn’t open to the public and the Ale Apothecary is by appointment only). There are two more brewpubs in the neighboring towns of Sunriver and Sisters, and I’m told there is one more brewpub set to open later this summer called Riverside and another brewery called Rathole about to open any time now. Bend also has a Cycle Pub that gives drinkers and bike enthusiasts to combine their two favorite pastimes.
But it’s not just the quantity of microbrew offerings in Bend – locals know good beer and in a place with this many breweries, brewers know that their product had better be good. And it is.
On a four-day visit to Bend, my plan was to visit each of Bend’s brewpubs, plus another brewpub, Three Creeks Brewing Company, in nearby Sisters. Tourism officials have established an official Bend Ale Trail detailing where the brewpubs are and what they specialize in. Drinkers can download an app or pick up a passport; those who get stamps from every brewery are entitled to a free mug. The mug is worth no more than about $5, but securing it seemed like a worthy quest.
I started at Bend’s oldest brewpub, founded in 1988, the Deschutes Brewery, which is named after the river that runs through town. I ordered Bachelor Bitter, named after the towering, snowcapped, 9,000-foot peak that’s just outside town, and my wife ordered a Trees of Doom Dunkel as we listened in on a couple who told our waitress they wanted to move to Bend. In the days to come, we’d realize that nearly every visitor in town seemed to be pondering a move to Bend. And by the time I started guzzling my second pint, a malty, sweet little number called a Free Ride Cream Ale, I was ready to move to Bend myself.
In the days that followed, I hit six more brewpubs in the area; below you’ll find some observations about each place.
Three Creeks Brewery- Three Creeks is located about 20 minutes northwest of Bend in Sisters, an interesting little town with a cool, Old West flavor to it. (There’s also a great independent bookstore in town called Paulina Springs Books.) It was a hot day, so we sat outside, facing a parking lot backed by some towering evergreens, and I ordered their lightest beer, a Knotty Blonde, which they advertised as being “as light as the hair of our pistol carrying honey.” It was good but not particularly memorable, though I liked the fact that they advertise all the beer’s stats – including its original gravity (OG) of 1.039, its final gravity (FG) of 1.008, its alcohol content (4.0%) and its International bittering units (IBU) total. (I had to Google these terms to find out that the OG and FG have to do with the beer’s sugar content and the IBU has to do with how hoppy the beer is.)
10 Barrel Brewing Company- As soon as I walked into this Westside brewpub, I wanted to buy the place, or, at the very least, become a regular. There’s an inviting fire pit with benches and tables built around it and half the bar stools are outside. I ordered a “Mike Saw a Sasquatch” Session Ale, a golden Summer Ale, made with Cascade and Sterling hops and honey and 2-row pale malts. It tasted a little hoppier than its low (26) IBU rating suggested but, once again, I loved how much information was provided about the beer.
Bend Brewing Company- This brewpub is right downtown with an obstructed view of the Deschutes River. I sat on the outdoor patio with my 5-year-old son, who made friends with a 4-year-old-girl at the table next to us while I enjoyed a Maibock on a warm spring day. It was a solid choice – clean, with a nice malty finish.
McMenamins Old St. Francis School Brewery- This place was converted from a school to a hotel and brewpub in 2004. It was Central Oregon’s first parochial school, opened in 1936, and it has an incredibly ornate 102 degree Fahrenheit soaking pool that looks like one of the fancy bathhouses in Budapest, not to mention a cinema, three cozy pubs and an outdoor fire pit to drink by.
This was my favorite brewpub in Bend, both in terms of atmosphere and quality of beer. I had a seasonal English Brown Ale that was nutty, a little smoky and deliciously creamy and smooth. Something like a beer milkshake, it was the best beer I’ve had in a very long time. Next time I return to Bend, I plan to stay in the hotel.
Old Mill Brew Werks- This is a neighborhood brewpub in the Old Mill District that serves good food and has some tasty beers. We sat outside and I had another English Brown Ale that was outstanding, though perhaps a notch below the version I drank at McMenamins and a bit pricey at $4 for a small 10 ounce glass. But our waitress was friendly and her story – she has a masters degree in Science but doesn’t mind working in a brewpub because she wants to live in Bend – reinforced my impression that this is a place worth rearranging one’s life for.
Crux Fermentation Project- Located in an industrial area adjacent to downtown Bend, this place is Bend’s newest brewpub, at just a year old. It was full of happy drinkers, many of them parents with their kids in tow, like us, on a warm, sunny, Tuesday afternoon. I sampled the Marzen and an On the Fence NW Pale Ale, and couldn’t decide which one I like more. They were both outstanding.
There was a large group gathered for a birthday party, and the birthday girl gave my sons her leftover cupcakes. Another couple, who were watching a game of horseshoes on the patio, told my wife that they moved to Bend from San Francisco eight years ago and haven’t regretted it for a moment since.
I asked our waiter why the place was called a project, rather than a brewpub, and I thought his answer was a perfect metaphor for the city itself.
“We call it a project because it is like a project,” he said. “We’re constantly tinkering, trying to make it better. The place will always be changing.”
I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, and therefore I have an affinity for any photos that combine mountains and water. No matter where you are in the region, be it Oregon, Washington or British Columbia, you’re bound to find a mountain view from a body of water, and the sight is just as striking every single time. In this photo, Flickr user James Wheeler takes us to the Fraser River in British Columbia, where we get an excellent shot of Mount Baker. As you can see, in this corner of the world it doesn’t always rain.
Who wants to move to Bend, Oregon, with me? Oh, I know what you’re thinking. I already have a perfectly good place to live. Why would I need to move to a small city in Central Oregon? If you’re asking yourself this question, you’ve probably never been to Bend, because it’s one of those places that gets under your skin. Drop by for four or five days, as I did earlier this month, and you can’t help but envy those who call this place home.
Bend makes it onto a lot of Best Places to Live lists, particularly the ones you see in Outside, Men’s Health and other publications that value recreational opportunities and craft beer, rather than career climbing. I was fully prepared to be disappointed by the place, but instead I was seduced. The weather was perfect with sunshine, temperatures in the 70s and clear blue skies and vistas of snowcapped mountains in every direction. And everyone we met, even those we encouraged to tell us something bad about Bend, told us the same thing: we love it here.
My first I-Want-to-Move-to-Bend moment came on a hike to Dillon Falls, just minutes outside of town. We were hiking on a path alongside the cool, rushing waters of the Deschutes River. The sun was out and it was perfectly quiet, save for the melodic rush of the powerful rapids. I watched the river flow and couldn’t help but view it as a metaphor for how quickly life goes by. It’s too short not to be in a place you love, right?
Before you quit your job and move to Bend based upon my half-baked advice, I should admit that it isn’t perfect. The unemployment rate is 11.3 percent and that number doesn’t even accurately reflect how bad the economic situation really is, because there are also lots of people who have only part-time work or full-time McJobs with wages so low that they are forced to drink mass produced beer. (Contrary to popular belief, you cannot use Food Stamps to buy craft beer in Bend, at least not yet.)
Bend experienced one of the country’s steepest boom and bust real estate swings, before and after the Great Recession, and though the price of homes has gone down, it’s still far from cheap. And although the climate is sunny and dry, it can get quite cold in winter. So there you go. Bend isn’t perfect. No place is. But even if you don’t want to move there, you at least have to visit. Here’s why.
And even if you’re not a skier, take the ride out to Mt. Bachelor and continue on the Cascade Lakes National Scenic Byway (parts of this byway are open only in the summer) for some glorious alpine scenery.
When it comes to good beer, there’s an embarrassment of riches in Bend. I have no clue how 10 brewpubs and three breweries (with more set to open soon) stay in business in a city of 80,000, but as a visitor, you can only benefit from the stiff competition. I visited seven brewpubs in four days and felt like I had just scratched the surface of what must be the best craft beer scene in America.
My favorites were McMenamins Old St. Francis Brewery, for its killer English Brown Ale and its atmospheric pubs, Crux Fermentation Project, for its tasty Marzen beer and its patio, and 10 Barrel Brewing Company, because I love their fire pit and indoor/outdoor bar. But all of Bend’s breweries are worth a visit, and if you manage to hit them all and collect stamps to prove it, you’ll get a nice little souvenir mug from the visitor’s information office.
For a city of its size, Bend has a remarkable array of good restaurants. I didn’t have a single bad meal anywhere. I had a carnivore’s pizza at Deschutes Brewery that was out of this world; some very memorable oatmeal cookies at Lone Pine Coffee Roasters, a stylish little café in an alley location in downtown Bend (thank you, Anna Brones); and some surprisingly outstanding New England Clam Chowder at Parrilla Grill. My colleague Pam Mandel sent me to the Sparrow Bakery for breakfast and I quickly became addicted to their vanilla and cardamom spiced ocean rolls (see photo below).
But the Bend restaurant that I’m still dreaming about, a week after returning from Bend, is Big Island Kona Mix Plate, a casual Hawaiian-style place in the Old Mill District. I had the mixed plate with bulgogi and spicy chicken and couldn’t remember the last time I tasted anything so divine (and affordable at $10 a plate with two sides.)
When Cate Cushman, a real estate broker we met, moved to Bend in 1976, the town had a population of less than 15,000. Cushman, a Georgia native, had been traveling across the country in a Winnebago with her first husband when they fell in love with Bend and decided to stay. Nearly 40 years later, she’s certain that she made the right move.
Bend’s population more than doubled in the ’90s, and continued to rise in the last decade, from 52,029 in 2000 to 76,639. Much of the population gain can be attributed to Baby Boomers from California moving to Bend to retire, but you don’t have to look very hard in Bend to find young people who have moved there as a lifestyle choice. Some call Bend a place to experience “poverty with a view,” but I think that, for many who move there, the point is to step out of the rat race, slow down and enjoy the finer things in life.
Take Sibel Edmonds, for example. I met Sibel at the Bend Brewing Company one afternoon this month and she told me that she looked all over the whole world for the perfect place to live and raise her daughter, Elle, and settled on Bend, thanks to its natural beauty, cultural offerings, good schools and sunny, dry weather, among other things. I don’t know if Sibel is right or not, but I like the idea of being in a place with so many idealistic people who are looking for their own little utopia. Bend may or may not be a good fit for us, but I got enough of a taste of Bend’s good life to know that I want more.
“Portlandia” might lead you to believe that Portland is home only to tattooed baristas with the occasional mustache, but it’s also an epicenter for outdoor activity; every Portlander has his or her activity of choice, and with so many outdoor activities easily accessible, it isn’t difficult to get a taste of the attitude that keeps this city alive. Nearby Sauvie Island is popular with cyclists who like long rides through rolling farmland. The hikers and trail runners flock to Forest Park, home to over 70 miles of trail and the 30.2-mile Wildwood Trail. Water enthusiasts head to Hood River and the White Salmon area out in the Columbia Gorge, but there is also plenty of kayaking to be had in and around the city center.
Portland is always abuzz with new activities, new bike tours and an outdoor event to attend. Mount Hood Skibowl recently opened up the ski area’s new 500-foot zipline, and you can even ride it in the winter. Mountain bike enthusiasts will want to check out the new Lumberyard Bike Park, an indoor bike park with plenty of technical riding trails fit for all skill levels. If you’re more into road riding, Velo Cult is the current stomping grounds for cyclists that like a good night out – it’s a bike shop, bar and venue, and there is quite frequently an event of interest being held. And of course if you’re hell-bent on combining one of Portland’s other favorite pastimes – beer drinking – with your adventures, Brewvana offers the occasional “Boards and Beer” tour, which features a day on the mountain followed by a sampling of local brews.
Whatever your activity of choice is, Portland probably has it. Just make sure to do it with an Americano in hand.
Inn at Northrup Station: Located in Northwest Portland, you’re within easy reach of the trails of Forest Park. All of the suites feature fully equipped kitchens, which means that even though you’re paying more than you would at some of the city’s budget hotels, it’s easy to prep your own breakfast and lunches to go before you head off for a day outside. From $139. 2025 NW Northrup Street, www.northrupstreetstation.com
Jupiter Hotel: A converted motor inn, the Jupiter Hotel is a funky boutique hotel that caters to those truly looking to take part in the Portland vibe. The adjacent Doug Fir Lounge, where you can get a $8 plate of eggs, hash browns and bacon for breakfast and then move onto the all day cocktail menu, feels like a space age log cabin, and is a popular hangout because it also houses a live music venue that attracts big names. They also have onsite bike rental as well as ZipCars, so you can either spin around town on two wheels or get out for the day to more adventurous spots like the coast or Mount Hood. From $79/night. 800 East Burnside, www.jupiterhotel.com
Oregon State Park Yurts: Yes, it rains in the Pacific Northwest, but that certainly doesn’t stop people in Portland from getting out of town and into the outdoors on weekends. Many of Oregon’s State Parks have yurts available for rent, even pet-friendly ones. If you’re headed to Portland for an extended stay, this is a fun and budget-friendly option that lets you explore Oregon’s outdoor spaces with the comfort of a warm bed. Cabins from $24/night, yurts from $35/night. Oregon State Park Yurst and Rustic Cabins.
Eat and Drink
Food Carts: Here’s the thing about Portland: you don’t have to look far to find a food cart. Local favorites include The Cultured Caveman (think hipsters on paleo diets) and The Honey Pot (sweet and savory hand pies, yes, please!). Note, however, that the Portland food cart scene is constantly changing and a good resource for keeping up on it is Food Carts Portland. If you’re in need of some food cart encouragement, you can also download the Portland food cart board game that the local newspaper, the Oregonian, put together. One word of advice: before you do any food cart scouting check out the detailed map – there are often over 475 food carts in operation at one time, you will want to plan ahead.
Base Camp Brewing: It would only make sense that in a city like Portland, adventure and beer would come together. Opened with the outdoor enthusiast in mind, Base Camp Brewing in Southeast Portland makes beer, as they call it “for the adventure-minded palate.” The interior looks just like the name would have you believe, and you’ll even find a canoe hanging from the ceiling. High-octane beers after a day outside? How Portland of you. 930 SE Oak Street, www.basecampbrewingco.com
Luc Lac: In between a morning of hiking in Forest Park and an afternoon on a Portland bridge tour by bike, hit up Luc Lac for lunch. A Vietnamese phrase that means “in movement,” it’s the perfect lunch or happy hour spot for the traveler that wants a delicious yet budget-friendly meal in a good Portland atmosphere. The vermicelli bowls are an excellent deal because of the amount of food to price ratio, and at happy hour you can sample a variety of $2 small plates. 835 SW 2nd Ave, http://luclackitchen.com/
Kayak: Make your way to the Kayak School at Next Adventure Paddle Sports Center, which offers a variety of kayaking trips, as well as introduction, whitewater and sea kayaking classes. If you want a more urban trip, try the Ross Island tour, which will get you a good view of downtown Portland from the water. To escape the sounds of the city, check out the trip to Sauvie Island, an island just north of town and predominantly filled with farmland and wildlife refuge.
Hut Trip: In the summer at nearby Mt. Hood National Forest, Cascade Huts offers self-guided, multi-day mountain biking trips. They maintain a system of huts, which means you bike single-track and arrive at your backcountry abode, fully stocked with supplies. In the winter they do the same for snowshoers and cross-country skiers. For a multi-day trip in the cold of winter, you can’t go wrong with a warm mountain hut. http://www.cascadehuts.com/
Bike: You can’t visit Portland and not get on a bicycle. If you’re visiting in June be sure to check out Pedalpalooza, a three week long extravaganza of bike events, including the popular Naked Bike Ride and lots of organized rides themed around popular Portland pastimes like whiskey drinking. The city is currently working on getting a bike share program up and running, but until that happens there are a handful of good rental options around town. Portland Bike Tours (which can get you on a single speed so you can feel like a real Portlander) and Pedal Bike Tours can set you up as well as recommend preferred routes and tour options, like the Lava Tour, which takes you to Portland’s extinct volcano, Mt. Tabor. The Portland Bureau of Transportation has a collection of helpful maps when it comes to bike routes.
If biking isn’t up your alley, the extensive network of public transportation will serve you well. Getting from the airport into Portland is easy thanks to the MAX light rail system, which gets you downtown in about half an hour – a $2.50 ticket is valid for two hours. Buy books of tickets in advance on Trimet’s website or at the Portland Visitor Information Center located in Pioneer Square downtown. Google Transit will help in planning your route (its recommended bike routes are also good) or you can also use the Trimet website or the Trimet smartphone app. ZipCar is also a great option if you want to get out of town for a few hours.
Any Portlander will tell you that an active afternoon should always be followed up with a beer. With over 70 brewpubs and microbrews, it would be inexcusable to not drink a locally made craft beer. Recently published “Hop in the Saddle” is an excellent resource for the beer and bike lover, offering up maps to bikeable craft beer routes, well suited to anyone that wants a taste of true Portland culture. Rent a bike and go. http://www.hopinthesaddle.com/