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The Capital of Coolness

A host of factors make Portland, Oregon, the best little city in America.

by Paul Gerald

There are so many cool things about Portland, it's tough to decide where to start. This is a city which is constantly rated among the five most progressive, well-planned, and livable cities in America, a city known for microbrews and coffee shops and parks and a booming economy. It also has snow-covered mountains an hour and a half east, magnificent beaches an hour and a half west, and a ton of city-life fun in between. It's enough work deciding what to do in Portland, much less what to tell the world about.

Any visitor who comes to "Bridgetown" can quickly plunge into a favorite activity. Portland has 200 parks, including Forest Park, the nation's largest urban park, with 60-plus miles of hiking and biking trails through 4,600 acres of woods (Overton Park, by comparison, has 342.3 acres). Washington Park -- on a hill overlooking the city, the snowcapped Mount Hood, and the flat-topped Mount St. Helens -- has a zoo, a sprawling test garden for roses, and the largest Japanese garden in America.

On the other end of the cultural spectrum, Portland is a coffee- and beer-drinker's heaven. You are never more than three blocks from a mocha or latte, and there are close to two dozen microbreweries in town. Ordering a pint can be a time-consuming affair in a place with an ever-revolving supply of seasonal beers. The McMenamin brothers have 20 pubs around town and a couple dozen more nearby, including their brewery, Edgefield, out in a wooded 'burb along the Columbia River. There, they have a bed-and-breakfast, two bars, a restaurant, and a $1 second-run movie theatre (one of a half-dozen of those around town). There's even a Brew Bus to take you on a tour of the breweries of Portland.

Central Portland is a model for what cities like Memphis are striving for, except that it never got abandoned or torn down in the first place. Thanks to an urban plan that literally drew a development boundary (known as the "green line") around the city and invested millions into its award-winning public transit system, one has to look pretty hard to find any dead blocks in Portland.

For the determined tourist, Portland offers hot-air balloons, riverboat rides (on boats that are actually powered by their paddles), an amusement park, a fantastic historical museum, and an ocean coast less than 100 miles away. Every weekend from March through Christmas Eve, Saturday Market sprawls all over downtown. It's the biggest continually operating open-air market in the country, with 275 booths selling food, plants, massages, crafts, and every trinket under the sun -- when the sun is shining.

No doubt the thing you've heard most about Oregon is that "it rains all the time." Well, first of all, it doesn't, and second, even when it does rain, it barely gets anything wet. In March of this year, for example, it rained 23 days, but the total rainfall was less than seven inches (not even a third of an inch per day), and that scant total was the wettest March in history. During that time, the temperature never dropped below 40. One sign that you're becoming a Portlander (or "Webfoot") is that you walk out in the drizzle and don't bother with an umbrella. You need your hands free to carry your mocha and current book, after all.

Besides, three important things to remember about the rain are (1) it only happens between late October and mid-May, and the rest of the year is so pretty it'll make you weep, (2) it makes everything lush and green all year 'round, and (3) when it's raining here, it's snowing on Mount Hood. There are three ski resorts 90 minutes from Portland, one of which is open all summer and had a 22-foot base of snow in February. It is possible in this part of the world to ski in knee-deep powder before lunch and watch the sun set over the ocean that night.

Another result of the rainy season is that when it quits raining, Portland goes out. This is a place that claims the highest restaurant-per-capita ratio among American cities and nearly a dozen music venues the size of the New Daisy Theatre, one of which has a "floating" dance floor mounted on rockers and bearings. Two minor-league sports franchises hold league and national attendance records (the hockey team gets 8,484 per game, only 20 percent of which are season-ticket holders, and the class-A baseball team gets 6,700), and the Trail Blazers are second in the NBA in attendance only because Charlotte has a bigger arena.

Portland is a city that feels like a town, a booming metropolis that refuses to get hasty or uncomfortable, and -- as I'll explain in my next column -- a perfect base for exploring the Pacific Northwest.

Sample airfares: Northwest's best fare right now is a seven-day advance, traveling on Tuesday/Wednesday/Thursday each way and spending a Saturday night, for $318 (several flights daily, one nonstop). Southwest from Nashville, seven-day advance with one stop, is $298. For more information on planning a trip to Portland, call 800-962-3700 or surf to http://www.city.net/countries/united_states/oregon/portland/.

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