Over two days, both of us, along with fellow journalist Michelle Winner, experienced a whirlwind tour of Portland, the state’s largest city. Portland has so much to offer that we couldn’t do justice to everything available, but we sampled enough for two exceptional days. Even though Michelle lives close by in Oregon, the three of us combined sightseeing with learning, good food and fun. We decided since we could not cover it all, we would focus on Portland’s history.

We stayed at the historic downtown Benson Hotel that is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. Truly, it is a grande dame of Portland. Our first night, we had an Italian dinner at Pazzo’s Restaurant with excellent pinot noir. The following morning, Lila Martin of Visit Portland took us to breakfast at the Imperial Café in the Imperial Hotel. It adjoins the Portland Penny Diner. Chef Vitaly Paley met with us and described his menu. Together with Kimberly Paley, they described the Café’s very impressive wood fire oven as well as a history of the building. It was constructed in sections that were later joined expertly. The Penny Diner was named after the penny that was tossed at that location to determine the city name between Portland and Boston. Obviously, Portland won the toss.

At the Oregon Historical Society, Kerry Tymchuk, Executive Director, gave us a tour. This museum offers a very complete, eclectic view into a great many historic facts about Oregon in many interactive exhibits:

1. Astoria, the first American western settlement.

2. Work of missionaries.

3. Indian wars, including eventual subjugation of the tribes and ravaging effects of disease brought by American and European immigrants.

4. During World War II, internments of Japanese/American citizens and decorations for valor received by Japanese/American troops who fought in the European theater.

5. State building boom spurred on by the lumber industry, extending from the late 19th century through post World War II years.

6. Black experiences of those who settled in the state. An overwhelming percentage, around 99%, started by working for railroads.

7. Model Conestoga wagons used by pioneers headed for Oregon. Note that wagons were for goods and supplies, while the people walked.

Pittock Mansion – This historic structure was built by a wealthy Portland entrepreneur, Henry Pittock, from 1909-14, when he was already aged 75 –80. Employing a four story French Renaissance style, not Victorian, with 16,000 square feet and many innovations ahead of their time, Pittock built his home for wife and family. What we found extremely interesting was Pittock’s attention to detail to make sure his staff had confortable working conditions and quarters. The intercom system, plumbing, and many other home details are still impressive today. Pittock died in 1919, and his widow and various family members still lived there until 1958. When the last Pittock relative closed the mansion in 1958, it stayed empty and suffered severe damage from a 1962 storm. A local women’s group raised funds and they and the city bought the estate in 1964 and restored it thoroughly.

 

 

Our tour group took lunch at Papa Haydns. We especially enjoyed a very large carrot cake dessert, big enough for the three of us to share. Our last Portland segment was a high point, touring the Benson Hotel. It is now celebrating a centennial, and considered a classic Portland establishment. A local businessman, Simon Benson, started construction in 1912 and saw it completed in 1913. At unprecedented expense, he brought in Russian wood and Austrian chandeliers for the lobby. Now, its main restaurant, the Palm Court, is located right in the lobby. A fine dining restaurant, El Gaucho, is connected. The London Grill was once public, but since January 2012, is now available for private events.

Appetizer at The Benson Photo: Maralyn D. Hill
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Appetizer at The Benson Photo: Maralyn D. Hill

By taking over the adjacent Oregon Hotel and merging it right in, total rooms are 287. The Benson’s ratio of staff to rooms is 225/287 or about 80%, considered high for top hotels. Exceptional service was evident throughout the hotel. It is a four-star hotel that provides 5-star service.

We took a hotel tour, guided by General Manager Ronald Gladney and Director of Sales and Marketing Leslie Caldwell. Its current owner is the Coast Hotel Company, owner of hotels in both Canada and U.S.  We saw a variety of rooms, including the Presidential suite, banquet facilities and an impressive 2000+ bottle wine inventory.

 

Then, we topped off our tour by a private dinner with Benson Executive Chef, Gavin Russell, creatively specifically by him. We enjoyed ten courses, including two desserts and wine pairings along the way. Maralyn has experienced many Michelin Star dinners, and remarked that the menu prepared by Russell was comparable to them. There was a heavy focus on healthy entrees. Guests can avail themselves of this experience with pre-planning.

 

Our whirlwind tour lasted only two days, but we enjoyed every minute of it. Truly, Portland has much to offer and deserves additional visits. learn more about the area at http://www.visitportland.com/

This article was originally published in Vacation Station Magazine.  You can hear the radio show there.

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