A budget trip to the progressive city of Portland, Oregon

 
LA Times | Travel
 

Porland , Ore. On a drizzly Sunday I had no immediate obligation other than to became one with the languorous and the buzzed at World Cup Coffee and Tea. There, over an economical Americano, I contemplated the city's appeal, particularly for budget travelers: Portland is its own piece of pe...

By Stephanie Shapiro // 09.24.08
 

Porland , Ore.

On a drizzly Sunday I had no immediate obligation other than to became one with the languorous and the buzzed at World Cup Coffee and Tea.

There, over an economical Americano, I contemplated the city's appeal, particularly for budget travelers: Portland is its own piece of performance art, a place where everyday life is a public spectacle and the price of admission is negligible. It's lifestyle as theater. Commuters ride skateboards to work, tricksters post amusing dog portraits on public bulletin boards, and sidewalk-cafe society materializes as soon as the sun comes out.

In most cases, flying to the West for a long weekend on a $500 budget might seem farfetched -- even with the advantage of a $240 (including tax) round-trip ticket on Southwest. Not if you go to Portland. With the city's fine public transportation system, (free within central "fareless square"), renting a car made no sense. A single room in the comfortable hostel where I stayed cost $45 a night. Expenses for food, coffee and miscellany were also modest, and there's no state sales tax, sorely testing my best efforts to spend the allotted $500 during a three-day stay this past winter.

At first, I was a tad leery of visiting this progressive outpost, routinely nominated as the greenest, fleeciest, foodiest, microbrewiest place to live in the United States. Check out TravelPortland.com, where you'll note that FitPregnancy magazine even called the city the best place in America to give birth.

There's more -- folk-rock indie idols the Decemberists and the well-stirred orchestra Pink Martini were conceived in the town often referred to by its airport code, PDX. Besides pulsing with music, theater and the visual arts, Portland is also home to Powell's City of Books, the largest independent bookstore in the universe. All this, and shaving your legs is optional.

For a Baltimorean, would a weekend in Portland be as annoying as visiting your straight-A, skinny sister, who does everything smart the first time? I wondered whether near-perfection robs citizens of the challenge of carving out an identity or making a dent in the urban fabric. If it's all there already, why bother?

Skepticism quickly fell prey to a soft spot for artful urban living. By that standard, the city delivered in a slew of entertaining and beguiling ways.

I arrived on Thursday during a spell of clear and balmy weather that Portlanders called the "February tease." Within 15 minutes of landing, I was on the MAX, the city's light-rail system, bound for the Northwest Portland International Hostel in the Nob Hill neighborhood.

Located in a restored home built at the turn of the 20th century, the hostel percolated with nomadic energy as travelers read e-mails, perused the bulletin board for rides, and shared tales of the road while preparing meals in the kitchen. I checked into a single room, received a "map tour" of Portland from intern Rieko Ikoma, and set off on foot to tour the post-industrial Pearl District.

After a lunch of brown rice, tempeh and grilled vegetables at Get Bento, an organic restaurant in a former filling station, I meandered through the gentrified community of warehouses now home to an inordinate number of shelter stores, as well as boutiques, coffee bars and galleries.

At Matisse, a slightly louche boutique, new clothing assumed a vintage air: a scrupulously crumpled wedding gown, satin-doll frocks and aloha prints that could pass for relics of your mom's 1955 trip to Hawaii.

Next door, Cargo contained a warehouse full of Indonesian artifacts, South African folk art and other decorative items and furnishings from around the world. Next, I visited Jamison Square, a park crammed with moms, nannies and little ones -- testifying to Portland's recent accolade as a birthing haven.

Fortified by a gelato from Via Delizia, I continued to Tanner Springs Park, where the Pearl District's former incarnation as wetlands is honored with an expanse of wild grasses and water rippling with koi.

Later that day, I made my way to the Nob Hill commercial district, near the hostel. In Cannibals, a gallery devoted to art made from recycled materials, I met artist Alicia Justus, who wore siren-red lipstick and a breastplate she had sewn from old buttons and trimmed with pheasant feathers.

Justus, an employee of the gallery and the vintage-clothing shop next door, spoke of "the Portland mission," the charge she and peers have accepted to celebrate all things local and sustainable, from Willamette Valley Rieslings to hazelnuts to the eclectic contents of the gallery itself.

The more I read up on Portland, though, the more I understood that it is not some counterculture Shangri-La sprung full blown at the juncture of the Willamette and Columbia rivers. The city, no matter how many "best ofs" it has garnered, has its own shameful chapters of racial redlining and neighborhood decimation. In the early 1970s, Portland grew a conscience and embarked on a period of enlightened redevelopment that continues today with support from that all-important urban ingredient, the "creative class."

The precarious balance struck within the creative class between avowed bohemians and aspiring yuppies emerged as a frequent Portland theme over the weekend. I would chat with Rob King, co-owner of Discourage Records (a "punk vinyl collector superstore") in Portland's eclectic Hawthorne community. Like Justus, King was a champion of local color. Noting the rise of nearby condos, he intimated that more ominous development could follow. "I don't like chains," he said.

That evening, I spent an hour reading the titles at Powell's City of Books, which far surpasses the size of any book chain store, yet has preserved its independent idiosyncrasies. Where else would you find more than two dozen editions of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," an entire section devoted to North American railroads and also put your finger on "Pain and Passion: The History of Stampede Wrestling," by Heath McCoy?

Powell's regularly features guest authors, and that evening, Dan Kennedy read to a large crowd from "Rock On: An Office Power Ballad," the saga of his short-lived career in the music business. When Kennedy failed to stump listeners on several rock 'n' roll trivia questions, he expressed his amazement. "You're in Portland now!" someone shouted by way of explaining the audience's collective pop literacy.

The next morning, after a breakfast of free bread donated to the hostel by Ken's Artisan Bakery, I set off on a long walk, past Pioneer Courthouse Square and over to the Ira Keller fountain, a maze of descending pools made for splashing on summer days, but not running in winter. Circling back, I crossed the Hawthorne Bridge, which provides lanes for pedestrians, bikers and vehicles and a majestic view of the Willamette River below.

Many blocks later, I reached my planned, albeit arbitrary, destination, Three Friends Coffeehouse and Cafe, which I had read about in "The Zinester's Guide to Portland," a "low/no budget guide to visiting and living in Portland." There, as two AmeriCorps volunteers discussed lesson plans, I eavesdropped and sipped a cappuccino, whose foamy peak rose above the mug in emulation of nearby Mount Hood.

I spent the day as a boulevardier, stopping at Red Light Clothing Exchange, a sprawling shop filled with the jolie laide clothing favored by indie fashionettes. An espresso at Stumptown Coffee Roasters, more window shopping, and then the rain came. I hopped aboard a bus and recrossed the bridge, then switched to the MAX for the ride back to Nob Hill.

My ample use of Portland's public transportation did not include the city's most recent addition: an aerial tram. Although it was constructed primarily to serve staff, students and patients shuttling between Oregon Health & Science University's two campuses, the Portland Aerial Tram is the sleek crown jewel of Portland's public transportation system. Rising 500 feet for a three-minute ride between Marquam Hill and the South Waterfront district, the tram, opened to the public in 2007, affords visitors a $4 round-trip panorama of the city below.

After a brief rest at the hostel, I set out again, this time to the Museum of Contemporary Craft, to examine an absorbing exhibit of jewelry "harvested from the cycle of consumerism." Again, Portland's emphasis on sustainable living surfaced. The show's curator was Ellen Lupton, a professor of design at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

In a downpour, I continued to the Classic Chinese Garden, one of the few vestiges of Portland's once bustling Chinatown. Over walkways and bridges, inside the Celestial Hall of Permeating Fragrance, a scholar's study, and in an authentic teahouse, I felt transported to the time of the Ming Dynasty.

That night, I had dinner at the Blue Moon Tavern & Grill, part of the McMenamins pub empire built by two brothers in dozens of restored buildings in Oregon and Washington state. After trying a rich and syrupy "handcrafted" Scottish ale, it was time to retire.

The next morning, I bought a cruller from a tattooed hipster at Voodoo Doughnuts, a Portland landmark complete with a wedding chapel. Around the corner, it was the first day of the season for artisans who sell their wares at the Saturday Market under Burnside Bridge. I bought a couple of bracelets made from soda cans (again, the recycling theme) and returned to the hostel to pack.

As I crammed my clothing into an overnight bag at the hostel and smelled the coffee roasting at World Cup across the street, I wondered what kind of drink I would order there to celebrate a $500 mission well accomplished.