Eco-friendly Portland has something missing in way too many U.S. cities: personality.
In late afternoon, Portland, Oregon, seen from the airplane overhead, is swathed in more greens than a farmers market in June. The resinous dark blue-green of towering evergreens contrasts with brighter rectangles of well-soaked farm fields, the gray-green waters of the Columbia and Willamette rivers, and the olive hatch covers of tied-up gravel barges.
To quote poet James Schuyler, "I can't get over / how it all works in together."
Enter the airport terminal and it's apparent why Portland has a reputation for another kind of "green." Separate recycling bins await not just newspapers, but also plastics, glass and food waste for composting. Make your way to the transit hub, and chipper uniformed helpers explain how to take light rail into the city. The one-way fare is $2.40. Take that, La Guardia.
Downtown, streets are jammed not with automobiles but streetcars, light-rail trains, buses and pedestrians.
And bicyclists. In garb ranging from classic Portland hipster to young professional, they ply the bike lanes throughout the day, but show up in remarkable numbers at commute times. A full half the width of some downtown streets is marked off for bikes. A recent study showed that 7 percent of the city's workers commute regularly by bike and 18 percent ride to work some of the time.
If the Portland police stop you for riding at night without lights, instead of a ticket they give you a bike light, a pro-biking freebie funded by a local foundation.
Not a surprise, then, to see a fancy bike shop near my hotel. My room at the Ace Hotel in downtown Portland was all done up in the chain's trademark "rustic urbanite" style. Besides the rough wool blanket and vintage porcelain washstand, it had two features to my liking: a Stumptown coffeeshop in the lobby and a view, over some low rooftops, of Powell's City of Books, the country's biggest and best indie bookplex, a block away. Throw in a multi-screen arthouse movie theater across the street and that bike store, and this location was a human-scaled version of heaven, minus the shafts of golden sunlight.
Ace's continental breakfast added to the bliss. A steal at $8, it includes Stumptown French press coffee, organic juice and tea, artisanal cheeses, fresh whole fruit, cured meats, local dried fruits, nuts, yogurt and granola, hard-boiled eggs, pastries from Little T American Bakers, toasted organic spelt bread with jam and house-made pickles. Which made me feel I could bike up the side of Mount Hood.
Instead, I biked a few miles uphill using a locally built West End bicycle, free in Ace's lobby (first-come, first-served), heading east through a downtown that sort of mashes up St. Paul and Minneapolis. Halfway across the picturesque Burnside Street bridge, with its masonry towers and iron railings, I paused to take in a sweeping view up the Willamette (it flows north) and encompassing all of downtown. Downstream lies the unfortunate 1990s blandness that is the Rose Garden Arena, home of the Trail Blazers, and the odd paired spires of the Oregon Convention Center.
The gradual uphill rise of Burnside as it stretched into southeast Portland's residential district reminded me, and my legs, that I was climbing from a major river basin. Those seeking a longer, bigger climb can head further east and a bit south to Mount Tabor Park in the Hawthorne district for a stupendous view back to the city and east to Mount Hood (on a clear day, of course).
It's not a mountain, but Washington Park pushes hard against Portland's western edge and rises steeply enough that it's often shrouded in mist or low clouds. I rode the light rail up there to visit the Oregon Zoo, the International Test Rose Garden and the Portland Japanese Garden. Since I was there in October, the blooms were off the Rose Garden, though its capacious terraces clearly would be a blazingly colorful thing to behold in summer. The zoo was a big pleasant ramble, and the Japanese Garden was a thing of rare beauty, with koi ponds, rock gardens, a stream crossed by zigzagging wooden bridges, a ceremonial tea house and various lush gardens somewhat miraculously situated on a fairly steep hillside.
Though it took a while, I walked back down from there into Portland, transitioning from sedate bamboo glades to urban jungle on upper Burnside over the course of about 45 minutes.
Peaceful though the parks may be, Portland's walkable city center can entertain travelers for days.
There's the Portland Farmers Market at Portland State University (Saturdays, mid-March through December). The cornucopia here extends from the indisputably wholesome (organic kale, exotic beans, fresh legumes and an eye-popping variety of mushrooms) to the deliciously bad-for-you (my Bingo egg sandwich featured two hefty strips of locally raised bacon, a giant organic egg, Tillamook cheddar cheese, pickles and a jalapeño). It's often wet, but not actually raining, so natives know to bring waterproof plastic squares so they can sit on park benches without getting a damp behind.
In the Pearl District, at the northwest part of downtown, big 19th-century warehouses now sell Patagonia and North Face. Stroll here and you'll find coffee shops, galleries, shoe stores, home decor studios, restaurants and a Deschutes craft-beer pub, all in a human-scaled neighborhood that seamlessly blends old buildings with arty pocket parks surrounded by contemporary condos and apartments. The Lovejoy Bakery here lives up to its name.
The Aerial Tram, along the South Waterfront, is part of a major redevelopment south of downtown that is transforming industrial uses to eco-sensitive residential and recreational ones. The lower tram terminal is next to the city's last remaining shipbuilding yard. It sweeps quickly up a steep hillside and offers great views in three directions.
Theater offers a rich vein here. At Third Rail (in a handsome new home at the downtown Winningstad Theatre), I saw a blistering social satire, "The Pain and the Itch," by Bruce Norris. Artists Repertory Theatre staged Pinter's "No Man's Land," featuring Oregon resident William Hurt and his actor son, Alex.
Finally, Pok Pok, in southeast Portland, is not to be missed. Chef Andy Ricker won a 2011 Beard Award for his efforts at this restaurant featuring rustic northern Thai cuisine. The wait is often 90 minutes or longer, but you can endure it while enjoying drinks and appetizers across the street at a sister restaurant. Pretty much everything shared by me and two friends was outstanding, including the sublime mixed drinks, many of which include tea and lime infusions and drinking vinegars.
The food is locally sourced, so it's one of the city's most delicious ways to be green.
Claude Peck • 612-673-7977 On Twitter: @claudepeck