By Bill Malcolm
Portland, Oregon makes for a perfect vacation that combines the stunning beauty of the Pacific Northwest with great food and libations—and a vibrant, hip scene where LGBTQ+ life is integrated into the mainstream (albeit off-beat) culture.
I took a one stop on Southwest out to Portland. I like Southwest because you don’t pay extra for anything: bag checking is free, there is no ticket change fee, and the fares are competitive (especially without the add ons). My other favorite airline, Alaska, also has plenty of flights to the Rose City.
Once at the airport, hop on the TriMet MAX light rail to downtown or environs. The fare is just US$2.50. It is good for all MAX trains, TriMet buses and the Portland Streetcar. Plan your trip at trimet.org.
Portland is very walkable; the blocks are short and everything is close together. You won’t need a rental car and of course they have the bike sharing system too as well as scooters. If you do rent a car, don’t planning on pumping your own gas. It is against the law. Instead, the gas stations do it for you.
WHERE TO STAY
Portland downtown hotels frequently tack on a resort or “amenity fee” of around US$30 a night to their already high rates. Stay at the Park Lane Suites and Inn instead to skip the fee and pay a lower rate. You get your own apartment and can enjoy the Goose Hollow-Nob Hill-Alphabet District neighborhood. It’s a short walk to the downtown attractions, Washington Park (and the Rose Test Gardens), and the boutique shopping and restaurants on both NW 23rd and NW 21st avenues. Pick up a to-go meal at the nearby Zaputo’s Grocery Store.
WHAT TO DO
A visit to Washington Park and the Rose Test Gardens just west of downtown is a must. The views of Mount Hood are stunning and on a clear day you might catch a glimpse of Mount St. Helens.
A visit to the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area (and Multnomah Falls) is another must. Catch the Gorge Express Shuttle (columbiaGorgeExpress.com) from the Gateway Transit Center (on the Max light rail line) to Multnomah Falls. The short hike to the top of the falls is worth it. You can also catch the shuttle to Rooster Rock State Park, one of the few state parks with its own clothing optional beach. Finally, the shuttle continues onto Hood River for more views of the Gorge. You can catch the wind surfers in Hood River. If you have a car, return along the Washington State side by taking the Bridge of the Gods at Cascade Locks. You may want to explore Mount Adams (the second-highest volcano in the region) by taking the Hood River Bridge over to Washington.
Another option if you have a car is the notorious Fruit Loop. Head north from Hood River past fruit orchards, wineries and breweries. Details at www.hoodriverfruitloop.com.
Meet the locals for a run or walk in the Frontrunners Club. They meet Saturdays at 9 a.m. at the Vera Katz Esplanade Riverwalk on the Willamette River. If you are lucky, Poison Waters (aka Kevin Cook) may drop by for the warm up (See Picture). They also meet Tuesday evenings. The Adventuring Group also has lots of hikes to nearby (and far away) attractions. The walk along the Park Blocks south of downtown towards Portland State University is very pleasant.
A visit to the huge Powell’s Book is a must. Just across Burnside Avenue from downtown, it is located in the Pearl District (formerly the Northwest Industrial District). The Saturday Farmers Market is also fun and from there you can walk along the Tom McCall waterfront park for miles.
No trip to the Rose City is complete without seeing Darcelle XV’s drag show at the Darcelle XV Showplace (208 NW 3rd). At 88, Darcelle (aka Walter Cole) is the oldest drag queen performing in the world and has been doing the shows for 47 years. A movie about her life comes out in September and Oregon Public Broadcasting did a documentary show on her. Warning: the Rhinestone Cowboy scene is not for the faint of heart. Tickets: +1.503.222.5338.
Next door is the festive CC Slaughters and Rainbow Lounge (219 NW Davis). Scandals Bar at 1125 SW Harvey Milk (aka SW Stark Avenue) is the only bar left on what was once Vaseline Alley (the gayborhood). They have a great outdoor patio. It’s across the street from my favorite restaurant, Jake’s (try the salmon), and one of my favorite hotels, The Mark Spencer. Gentrification of gayborhoods across the country has taken its toll and Portland is no exception. The notorious Majestic Steam Baths is now the Crystal Hotel, but Portland still has two for now, Steam and Hawk’s.
Other fun bars: Silverado at 610 NW Couch, and Stag’s at 317 NW Broadway, which both have dancers. .
MORE INFORMATION FOR YOUR TRIP
Downtown hotel rates are quite high so staying on the east side near the convention center is a bit cheaper. The airport hotels are also cheaper but away from the nightlife.
Bring an empty suitcase and replenish your wardrobe. Oregon has no sales tax (except on rental cars and hotels).
For more information and travel ideas, pick up a copy of The Willamette Week or The Mercury. The two alternative weeklies cover the city including LGBTQ+ activities.
Portland is a more charming and down to earth version of Seattle with a better climate, including summer (as they actually get one). The weather stays dry through mid to late September and the best hiking in the nearby mountains is during this time. The people are friendly and it is definitely worth a vacation visit. If you have time, you can catch Amtrak up to Seattle or even Vancouver, B.C.
I love the Northwest. With the volcanos, nearby ocean, and year-round greenery, it is one of the few places that still has a unique regional feel. You will want to come back.
Bill Malcolm is a former resident of Portland, Oregon. He now lives in Indianapolis where he writes the nation’s only LGBTQ+ value travel column. This syndicated column appears in publications in Florida, Palm Springs, Chicago, and other cities.