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Trip Report: A Week in Portlandia

Who: Julianne Lowell, 27, and partner, 30 

Where I Went: Portland, OR

When: September 2012

High Points: Swift Lounge/The Swifts

When you arrive in Portland, first thing’s first: It’s imperative to grab a cold beer at one of the city’s many neighborhood bars. We started off our visit with a few rounds and a late dinner at Swift Lounge, which serves some of the best bar snacks around. Let’s just say: I could eat a bowl of their crispy Brussels sprouts, sautéed in olive oil then roasted with toasty garlic, every single day.

The bird-loving bar is named after the Vaux’s Swifts that, since the 1980s, have used Portland as a gathering place as they prepare to migrate to Central America and Venezuela. Every year in late summer, thousands of the traveling swifts return to the same Portland chimney to rest for a few nights before continuing on their way, and each evening’s descent and entry into their makeshift roost is truly spectacular to see. We were lucky enough to sit on a grassy hill and catch the nature show, complete with the threat of a predator (a hawk circles the swifts around the perimeter), an attack on the innocents (suddenly, the hawk strikes and carries off an unlucky treat), and the swifts’ retaliation (a handful of brave fliers band together and attack the hawk, driving it away, if only temporarily).

High Points: Shanghai Tunnels/Ground Kontrol

Imagine this: One minute, you’re in the bar’s bathroom after a few too many whiskeys, and the next minute, a hidden trapdoor opens under your feet and you’ve fallen into the Shanghai Tunnels. Also called the Portland Underground, these tunnels that run under the city played host to many drunken revelers who were forcibly imprisoned as sailors. Our tour guide, a lifelong history buff and underground-tunnel enthusiast, explained that in the late 1800s, many crooked sea captains collected their crews in this way. The guided-tour skeptic in me was pleasantly surprised when the experience was the perfect balance of spooky and informative, and the claustrophobe in me was relieved that it allowed for plenty of breathing room.

After delving into the 1800s, we tackled some not-so-ancient history at Ground Kontrol, a classic arcade with over 60 video games and 27 pinball machines from the ’80s and ’90s. Highlights included Mortal Kombat II, Area 51, and Ninja Turtles games, and Dr. Who and The Shadow pinball machines. Hit the venue on Free-Play Night like we did, and for a $5 door charge you can shatter records and save the world for as long as you want without dropping a single quarter.

High Points: Salt & Straw/Sauvie Island

Ice cream for breakfast? Why yes, I don’t mind if I do! Especially when it’s as deliciously decadent and innovative as the concoctions at Salt & Straw. Each inspired flavor combination was better than the last: Aquabeet (Portland’s own Krogstad Aquavit spirits and red beets), honey lavender (smells like Bath & Body Works and tastes like heaven), pear and blue cheese (don’t knock it ’til you try it), and my hands-down winner, chevre goat-cheese ice cream with local marionberry-habanero jam.

To take a (short) break from stuffing ourselves, we drove to picturesque Sauvie Island, a river island just 10 minutes outside of Portland. Driving along a narrow country road, we spotted sheep and cows and a community of houseboats before pulling into Kruger’s Farm Market for fresh produce and homemade dressings, sauces, and jams (and the resident chickens strutting around out back). Just down the road, we found a U-Pick farm and picked more ripe apples and dark prunes than we could ever eat. All in a day’s work!

Low Points: Mid-September in Portland was much hotter than we expected. Next time, I’ll pack some shorts.

Savings Strategy: Go small, local, and secondhand. We spent minimal cash to eat, drink, and shop in Portland because we stuck to food trucks and vintage shops instead of fancy restaurants and chain retail stores.

If You Go: Run into the first grocery store you see and buy a bottle of Portland’s Secret Aardvark hot sauce. Just do it. Trust me.

(Photos: Chase Clark via Flickr)

Have a question for Julianne about her trip to Portland? Planning a trip yourself and need advice? Want to share your own Portland experiences? Leave a comment below!

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