Now, for Something Completely Different: Portland

Well known for its idiosyncracies, Portland’s green attitude takes center stage as the city entices visitors with natural beauty and charming oddities.

By: Marty Wentzel

The bumper sticker says it all: Keep Portland Weird. It’s a city where you can wear your Levis to an opera, take your dog to a pub and learn Swahili in a doughnut shop. While the slogan springs from a campaign supporting local businesses, it can just as easily describe the city’s take on tourists, who quickly discover its combination of good sense and nonsense. At once smart and singular, Portland’s outreach to visitors encourages them to do things they couldn’t do anywhere else but here.

Portland’s individuality plays well with its 533,000 residents and repeat guests, but to first-timers, the Northwest Oregon hub remains a harder sell.

“A lot of clients still don’t know where Portland is,” said Portland Oregon Visitors Association spokesperson Deborah Wakefield. “We start by explaining that we’re on the West Coast between San Francisco and Seattle, but we want to put Portland squarely on every client’s map as its own distinctive destination.”

This fall, the Portland Oregon Visitors Association is changing its name to the simpler Travel Portland.

“Our current name doesn’t fit Portland’s laid-back, easygoing personality,” said Wakefield. “It’s too stiff and bureaucratic.”

In other words, it’s just not weird enough.

Come As You Are
For a good introduction to the idiosyncrasies of present-day Portland, clients will want to learn a little about its quirky past. In the late-1800s, unsuspecting loggers, ranchers and sailors who visited its boisterous waterfront were often drugged, kidnapped and sold to ships as deckhands. Of course, today’s visitors are treated quite a bit better, but it’s easy for them to step back in time on the evening-only Shanghai Tunnels of Portland tour. Clients hear spine-tingling stories of days-gone-by as they follow dark underground tunnels complete with trap doors and holding cells. Afterward, they can stay in the subterranean mood over drinks at a sunken bar called the Shanghai Tunnel.

Food-oriented travelers, meanwhile, get a taste of eccentric Portland by prowling its offbeat food scene. At Voodoo Doughnut, display cases reveal pincushion-doll doughnuts with slim pretzel stakes piercing their innards, oozing raspberry filling. Its Grape Ape comes with vanilla frosting and grape powder, the Triple Chocolate Penetration is topped with cocoa-puffs, and one apple fritter is as big as your head. Open all night and closed all day, the eclectic bakery presents free Swahili lessons on Monday evenings and boasts the largest duct-tape mural in the world. Countless carbo-happy couples have tied the knot in its Voodoo Wedding Chapel.

Thirsty Portland explorers should stop by a restaurant called Saucebox, where monkeys frolic around a neon street sign. A stylishly modern white dining room sets the stage for the Liquor Lab, its walk-in bar-within-a-bar.

“A lot of people come here just to hang out in our lab, where we experiment with liquor infusions and concoctions,” said co-owner Joe Rogers. “We believe that Saucebox started the specialty cocktail movement in Portland.”

Like many top American cities, Portland stands ready with hotels of distinction, but it takes the hospitality concept one step further by welcoming clients with four legs as well as two. The downtown area alone has 14 pet-friendly hotels including the high-class Heathman, Benson, Hilton, Westin and RiverPlace. The 5th Avenue Suites greets incoming furry guests by displaying their names on a lobby chalkboard, and once a month psychic Faye Pietrokowsky offers free dog readings at the boutique property.

“Often the animal tells me it likes the hotel and would rather travel with its human than be left behind,” said Pietrokowsky. “What’s more interesting are the animals’ comments about the food their humans eat. They respond with words like ‘strange,’ ‘peculiar’ and ‘not a good cook.’”

For refreshments, clients and canines alike can head to the Lucky Labrador, Portland’s dog-friendly brewpub where mutts mingle over bowls of water while their masters sip microbrews. Each fall, the pub’s distinctive annual fundraiser called Dogtoberfest Dog Wash raises money for a local animal hospital.

Portland’s arts scene is proof positive that the city does things its own way. The annual H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival pays tribute to the bizarre 20th-century author whose gothic works have inspired dozens of cult films. On a more mainstream note, the city regales audiences with first-class performing arts from Beethoven sonatas to Broadway shows, but what separates Portland from other cultural cities is the look of its audience.

“I went to the symphony recently and sat next to a man wearing biking shorts and carrying his helmet, while on the other side of me sat a gentleman in a tux,” said Wakefield. “This is a come-as-you-are kind of town.”

It’s Not Easy Being Green
Portland stands apart with its superlatives. It lays claim to Mill Ends Park, a two-foot-diameter circle and the smallest park in the world. It boasts Powell’s City of Books, the biggest bookstore in the country. Its 5,000-acre Forest Park is the largest urban wilderness in the U.S., while the Vera Katz Eastbank Esplanade features the longest floating pedestrian path in America.

Portland earns so many kudos it’s hard to keep them straight, making top ten lists like Runners World magazine’s “Best U.S. Cities to Run,” and Outside magazine’s “Best American Dream Towns.” Reader’s Digest called it the “Cleanest U.S. City,” and Money magazine hailed it as the “Best Place to Live in the U.S.”

All of which means good things for visitors, especially clients who appreciate the uncommon efforts a destination takes toward improving its appeal and protecting its assets.

When it comes to environmental issues, Portland has always been a step ahead of most other cities as well.

“Oregonians have traditionally been greenies and want to preserve what we have,” said Wakefield. “That’s why we picked the slogan ‘It’s Not Easy Being Green.’ We were the first state with a bottle bill, and all of our coastlines are public land.”

Portland’s visitor accommodations corner the market on conservation. When clients drive up to the Hotel Vintage Plaza in a hybrid car, for instance, they get a 50 percent discount on their parking bill. This month the same property is donating a portion of the proceeds from its ORganic Night Package to the Trust for Public Land.

Eco-friendly dining rooms are doing their part, too. The Heathman Restaurant recycles all plastic, glass, cans and oils, and it returns fruit boxes and potato sacks to local farmers for reuse.

Portland’s sustainable savvy shines through in public buildings like the Oregon Convention Center, which recently earned its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification. At once ingenious and attractive, the building has been turning heads with its Rain Garden, a series of landscaped waterfalls and pools that purify all the rainwater draining from the center’s 5.5-acre roof.

Touting its green thumb, Portland puts on a whopping four farmers markets each week, with locally raised produce and meats underscoring the pleasures of ultra-fresh food. The green theme also comes alive at the annual Portland Rose Festival parade, which marches to its own drummer with floats covered in organic material like flowers, moss and bark a requirement for each entry.

Unlike some major metropolitan areas, Portland prefers to recycle old buildings instead of replacing them with new ones. Case in point is the Portland Art Museum, which recently completed a $40 million historic restoration of an adjacent 141,000-square-foot structure, formerly a Masonic temple. Linked to the main Belluschi Building by an underground passage and gallery, the new Mark Building provides more room for exhibits as well as a film center, library and meeting space.

Another dramatic transformation has been taking place at the historic Portland Armory building, which Portland Center Stage the city’s leading professional theater company will soon call its new home. When completed this fall, the $36.1 million project aims to become the world’s first historic renovation to earn a LEED rating.

In part, Portland has avoided urban sprawl by transforming the old into the hip and new rather than just building out. Its sophisticated Pearl District was a gritty industrial area just 10 years ago. Likewise, in the 1970s the city did away with a four-lane freeway and replaced it with Governor Tom McCall Waterfront Park, now a riverside mecca for outdoor sports, festivals and concerts. The city is proud of its open spaces, and it has one of the highest parks per capita ratios among U.S. cities.

Some of the tall green things around downtown aren’t trees, however. Portland was one of the first cities in the country to install SmartMeters, solar-powered parking meters serving a whole block of spaces and replacing individual meters.

But why should clients drive around Portland when other options are so easy? Visitors can hop on the city’s sleek light-rail transit system called MAX (short for Metropolitan Area Express), traveling east to west from Gresham and the Portland International Airport all the way to Hillsboro. In 2009, MAX is adding a new North/South line from Portland State University to Union Station, where Amtrak trains come and go.

Portland touts an electric streetcar running a six-mile loop through its neighborhoods, and plans call for extending the line south to connect with another transportation innovation: the Portland Aerial Tram. Opening by early 2007, the tram’s 60-passenger cars will rise from the South Waterfront district to the top of Marquam Hill, home of the Oregon Health and Science University campus.

“Everyone who comes to town will want to ride our tram,” said Wakefield. “The three-minute trip will provide amazing views.”

In downtown Portland, you see people jogging, biking, kite-flying, Frisbee- playing and carrying kayak paddles. Hugging the Willamette River and presided over by snow-capped Mt. Hood, it’s a strikingly active city with beautiful scenery. Clients can book jetboat and sternwheeler tours or rent a kayak and explore the downtown waterfront on their own. They can hike the trails of Forest Park or pedal a two-wheeler along Portland’s 67 miles of bike paths. Steel Bridge, which spans the Willamette, reserves one deck exclusively for pedestrians and bikers. Unexpected adventures call to clients at every turn.

If your clients still don’t understand the meaning of “Keep Portland Weird,” tell them not to worry. To get it, they need to go there.

“Clients have either never been to Portland, or they haven’t visited for 20 years and don’t realize everything that’s going on here now,” said Stephen Galvan, Heathman Hotel’s sales and marketing director. “Then there are people who still compare it to Seattle.”

On the contrary, there’s no place like Portland, where weird most certainly means wonderful.


For clients who want to time a visit to Portland with one of its signature annual events, here’s a rundown of upcoming calendar highlights.

July 22: Festival of Cheese. This year’s celebration showcases more than 700 artisan cheeses from makers around the country. Clients stroll from booth to booth tasting varieties like raw cow’s milk Gouda, local chefs prepare dishes for tasting and servers pour Oregon wine and beer. Hilton Hotel. 503-583-3783

Aug. 11-13: The Bite of Oregon. Celebrating its 22nd birthday, the state’s largest food, beverage and music event is an epicurean and musical bounty. It’s also a benefit for Special Olympics Oregon. Gov. Tom McCall Waterfront Park. 503-248-0600

Sept. 2-4: Art in the Pearl. The Pearl District’s 10th annual Labor Day weekend festival fills blocks with art, theater, music and hands-on activities for all ages. The stage features a variety of live songs and dance from cultures around the world as well as music from this country’s cultural roots. Northwest Portland Park. 503-722-9017

Sept. 7-17: TBA = Time-Based Art is Happening. Presented by the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, a magnet for people who take creative risks, this festival of regional, national and international artists presents theater, dance, music, film and visual exhibits. Various locations throughout Portland. 503-242-1419

Oct. 1: Portland Marathon. Now in its fifth year, this 26.2-mile footrace has been proclaimed the Best People’s Marathon in the West by
Runners World magazine. Starting downtown, the course traces the many faces of the city, provides panoramic views and crosses the St. Johns Bridge, one of the most beautiful suspension bridges in the world. 503-226-1111

Oct. 6-8: The H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival. Professional and amateur movie-makers present their cinematic interpretations of weird tales during this annual event honoring the 20th-century master of gothic horror H.P. Lovecraft, whose nickname was The Lurker in the Lobby. Hollywood Theatre. 503-281-4215

Nov. 24-Dec. 30: Christmas Festival of Lights. Welcoming over 50,000 visitors annually, this ecumenical lighting and music festival is quite possibly the largest Christmas choral festival of its kind in the world, with 140 holiday music concerts by a total of 5,000 musicians performing in a 600-seat chapel. The Grotto. 503-261-2400

Feb. 9-24: 2007 Portland International Film Festival. Celebrating its 30th anniversary, PIFF packs 100 films from 30 countries into two weeks each year. More than 33,000 people attended the 2006 festival, which included 160 screenings in three downtown theaters. Various locations throughout Portland. 503-221-1156

March 29-April 1: Faux Film Festival. Counterfeit commercials, phony movie trailers, mockumentaries and other celluloid spoofs draw fans to this amusing annual event. Entries are guaranteed to make audiences laugh, or at least groan, with films shown each night in the 470-seat Hollywood Theatre. 503-281-4215


5th Avenue Suites

The Heathman Hotel

Hotel Vintage Plaza

H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival

Lucky Labrador


Oregon Convention Center

Portland Aerial Tram

Portland Art Museum

Portland Farmers Market

Portland Oregon Visitors Association
(Soon to be Travel Oregon)

Portland Rose Festival

Powell’s City of Books


Shanghai Tunnels of Portland Tour

Voodoo Doughnut