There’s still a place in America where Bud Light is not the most popular beer, restaurants all over town – even fast-food outlets and street vendors – use seasonal, locally sourced ingredients, and more people play golf on an actual golf course then on an iPhone or a computer.
If you think I’m talking about Austin, you’re almost right. If you guessed Portland, Ore., and the small towns that make up much of the surrounding northern Willamette Valley, pour yourself a microbrew and grab your 4-iron: We’re headed west.
Portland shares with Austin a decidedly relaxed vibe, a wide metropolitan area with a hundred vibrant, diverse neighborhoods, gourmet restaurants, and quirky, bohemian pockets where you can just as easily buy a phallic-shaped doughnut at three in the morning as a cup of micro-roasted coffee. You can rent a bicycle by the hour or by the day, or you can catch a train or a streetcar to nearly anywhere you need to go.
Judging from my visit last month, much of the really good golf is located on the outskirts of town, in Washington County, about 25 minutes from downtown Portland. You might know Washington County from its largest city, Beaverton, the home to Nike, adidas and Columbia Sportswear. (Portland is part of Multnomah County but shares its eastern border with Washington County.)
Of the 12 public access golf courses in Washington County and the dozens more in Portland, you’re here to play three: The Reserve and Pumpkin Ridge, in Washington County, and Eastmoreland in Portland.
Of the three, The Reserve is my favorite. Designed by Bob Cupp and John Fought, The Reserve consists of two distinct 18-hole layouts, the North and South. On alternating days, one course is reserved for members and the other is open for public play. Try to time your visit so you can play the South Course, which features fewer water hazards but more bunkers than the North. Both courses are immaculately maintained, with greens that run smooth and true, and well-defined, thin-lipped bunkers filled with the kind of fluffy white sand that cradles your ball like a pillow. Hammering woodpeckers and nesting cardinals are everywhere. The best hole is a drivable, 305-yard par-4 with a narrow throat and a green guarded by bunkers that look like sand craters.
Pumpkin Ridge also has two courses: Ghost Creek is the public course; Witch Hollow is members-only. Bob Cupp designed both.
The setting is spectacular. Early in the morning, as the sun rises over the Cascades, a thick layer of dew blankets the ground and long shadows loom over the fairways. Much of the course winds along a ridgeline. In the fall, the valley below fills with pumpkins and trees ablaze with autumnal color. The rest of the year, watch for swooshes – nearly every player on the course is wearing something from Nike, which should come as no surprise given Nike’s enormous campus nearby.
In the city of Portland, locals flock to Eastmoreland Golf Course, a classic, old municipal course designed in 1917. The 18-hole track encompasses a crystal-clear lake whose shores are trimmed by acres of rhododendrons. No matter where your drive lands, the fairway will be lined by a botanical garden’s worth of colorful trees and shrubs. Forget what you know about munis; Eastmoreland is a classic design you really should play. (Rumor has it that Walter Hagen called the 463-yard 13th the best par-5 he had ever played.)
Many Portlanders consider their city to be the beer capital of the world and refer to it as “Beervana.” With 32 breweries inside its perimeter, Portland has more microbreweries than any other city. Breweries like Lucky Labrador (canine-friendly) and Widmer Brothers (German themed) have cult-like followings for their wide variety of styles and consistent quality.
Portlanders also like cocktails, and down the street from Lucky Labrador stands a jewel of a place that you might easily pass if you weren’t looking: House Spirits Distillery.
Founded by a small cadre of former beer brewers who see the return of classic cocktails as the Next Big Thing (as do I), House Spirits makes and sells handcrafted, small-batches of vodka, gin, rum, and whiskey from a small pot still tucked in the corner of a cramped industrial space you enter through a roll-up garage door. Of course, there’s a small bar in the center of the room crammed with fruits, juices, and a variety of liquors – for quality control purposes only, they’ll tell you. That’s where you can sample any of their products if you stop in for a tour. Their Aviation Gin is uncannily smooth, a botanical garden of juniper berries, lavender, anise, coriander and orange peel, just like it should be. The return of the Aviation, that classic cocktail of gin, lemon juice, maraschino liquor and a dash of bitters, can’t be far away. (In Dallas, look for Aviation Gin at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse.)
Portlanders are crazy for good coffee shops, too. At Stumptown Coffee, the most artisan of the bunch, baristas grind exactly 16 grams of whole coffee beans for each cup of coffee they brew in an individual French press. A good cup of single estate Guatemalan coffee costs $2.50, though you might be tempted to spring for a cup of an ultra-premium coffee for $15 a cup. I wasn’t.
If you are a Pinot noir fan, you probably already know the Willamette Valley. Twenty-three of Willamette’s 35 vineyards sit in Washington County, the northernmost area of the Valley. Unlike the tonier winegrowing regions of Napa or Sonoma, most of Willamette’s wineries welcome visitors. Drive down any number of long country roads lined with lavender fields and farms anchored by red barns, and you’re likely to run into a winery such as David Hill, Montinore or Cooper Mountain, all of which are steadily moving their production to biodynamic and organic wines.
Portlanders “really take their beverages seriously,” says Michelle Andrich of David Hill winery. “We care what goes into them and how they’re made.”
In the Washington County town of Forest Grove, Oregon’s mountain spring water finds happiness in a variety of award-winning, premium ginjo sakes, the only sakes made in America. Sake brewer Greg Lorenz utilizes the same techniques as the Japanese, deeply polishing grains of California rice until all that remains are smooth, tiny nubbins from which he makes his sake.
“It’s a lot like brewing beer,” says Lorenz, as we walk into a hot, humid chamber lined with cedar panels. “How you treat the rice determines the quality of the sake.”
In the center of the room stands a waist-high, stainless steel tub the size of three billiard tables arranged side-by-side. Inside the tub, hundreds of pounds of polished rice are undergoing the first stages of fermentation. After a day in the spa, the rice will be moved to a fermentation tank, combined with water and yeast, and emerge as sake in a few weeks.
Portland and its suburbs definitely have a nuts-and-granola edge to them, but that’s not to say you can’t find a good burger. In particular, I liked Helvetia Tavern, an old, rustic, working-class place near The Reserve. Sit at the wooden counter and watch time go by through the big picture window that faces the farm road out front. Order the enormous, juicy burger, the one that requires the use of both of your hands and, if you’re like me, the front of your golf shirt. While you’ll see an occasional McDonald’s closer to town, the hometown quick-service favorite is Burgerville, a small, local chain much like In-n-Out. Burgerville’s burgers are made with organic beef, and, instead of fries, you can (and should) order a side of crisp-fried fresh asparagus spears with garlic aioli.
In terms of fine dining, your choices outside of downtown Portland are limited. Chef Paul Decarli mans the ranges at Decarli, his ambitious Beaverton restaurant with exposed red brick walls, knotty plank floors and a Northern Italian-focused menu. Like the best of Portland restaurants, Decarli relies on locally grown, seasonal ingredients to make entrees like his butter-braised halibut and housemade taglietelle with local pancetta, morels, sage and garlic.
In downtown Portland, an area highly touted by foodies and food writers, you can’t go wrong with anything served from one of the many food carts downtown. Seems odd, yes, but Portlanders love them. For sit-down dining, choose a restaurant like Higgins or Blue Hour, or the well-regarded Le Pigeon, a local favorite among the food cognoscenti.
A nonstop, four-hour flight from DFW takes you into the heart of Portland. Oregon’s northern Willamette Valley will not disappoint you. It’s wine, beer, spirits, sake, terrific golf, and outstanding food and reasonable prices, all wrapped up in a cool setting.
If you go, drink a pint of Lucky Labrador for me.