The great secret of the Oregon and Washington coast is that in the summer, they’re quite sunny. Portland and Seattle receive little to no rain for months. Indeed, the region around Portland became so dry this past summer that wildfires broke out, damaging treasured landscapes along the picturesque Columbia River Gorge. During our road trip, we had planned on hiking in that very area, but our stay coincided with the worst of the fires.
Fortunately, Portland itself provides a wealth of diversions. Powell’s Books’ travel and rare-book sections alone occupied me for hours. We toured art galleries in the surrounding Pearl District, and across the river, stylish urban wineries beckoned. The city’s gardens, too, are world-class, providing tranquil escapes minutes from downtown. In particular, the International Rose Test Garden, a fragrant terraced hillside bursting with color, is superb.
On the face of it, Portland has gentrified dramatically, its property values soaring and a multitude of upscale restaurants and shops opening in recent years. Concern that this change might make the city boring or bourgeois has resulted in a campaign to “Keep Portland Weird.” But the campaigners can take heart. Locals have not flagged in their efforts to maintain the city’s quirky individuality, as a brief walk almost anywhere in town will illustrate.
Portland is a welcoming city as well, but service tends to be more friendly than effective. Alas, travelers accustomed to international standards will likely find its luxury hotels disappointing. The best of the bunch is the stylish Sentinel, with 100 rooms divided between two historic buildings: the terra-cotta-clad 1909 Seward Hotel and the monumental neoclassical former Elks Lodge. When we arrived, a hotel staffer held the door as we rolled our bags inside, making no offer to take them off our hands. At check-in, the receptionist explained that should we require any advice about the city or assistance with restaurant reservations, the front desk staff members were also concierges. I’m not sure Les Clefs d’Or would agree. But matters brightened when one of them upgraded us from an Executive King to a Bridgetown Parlor Suite King, one of the top room categories in the hotel.
A long skylight ran the length of the sixth-floor hallway leading to our suite, helping illuminate our living room, the only window of which faced the hall. Designed by local store Boys Fort, the décor felt masculine, with a dark-gray art deco-style carpet and steel-gray walls. The velvet sofa was also gray, as was the round metal coffee table, but a sleek wood desk, framed botanical specimens and several accent lamps kept the room from feeling too cold or dark. The large bedroom had a similar color scheme, enlivened by an accent wall covered in a grayish-gold floral print. To the left of the gas fireplace hung a carved-wood head of a buck, complete with bright-blue antlers. The king-size bed had a riveted leather headboard and a green-and-gray flannel blanket and was flanked by rustic wood nightstands. The one window could open, and it overlooked the forested hills west of downtown.
I appreciated touches such as the Tivoli radio, the living room’s small wet bar and the separate shower and jetted tub in the bath. But the single vintage-style pedestal sink had no counter space, and the shelving nearby was almost entirely occupied by towels. I also didn’t care for the worn, slightly yellowed bathrobes or the frayed accent pillow atop the bed. Having access to a small, unstaffed lounge, The Room at the End of the Hall, was nice enough, but it did not invite lingering, with its too-large television and unimpressive drink and snack selection.
The public spaces all impressed, however, notably the grand marble-floored lobby, with striking green wingback chairs and Ionic pilasters leading up to an ornately coffered, gilded ceiling. The moody and stylish art deco Jackknife bar drew a lively crowd, and in the other wing, Jake’s Grill presented massive sepia-toned Western-themed murals, cozy booths with curtains and an art deco glass dome. The Sentinel has its flaws, but I wouldn’t object to a return visit.
I would be less inclined to come back to the 150-room Heathman Hotel, where, according to its website, “the art of service is alive and well.” Alive, perhaps, but dangerously close to losing consciousness. The purpose of the incongruous Beefeater standing guard at the entrance appeared to be entirely decorative, as neither he nor his colleague offered to help us with our luggage, in spite of the stairs between the door and the front desk. I was pleased to learn that though we had arrived at about 12:30 p.m., our suite was ready. Unfortunately, the promised welcome cocktails were not (they don’t arrive until 4). One woman manned the three desks in the lobby, and she interrupted our check-in to take a call from another guest. Here, too, the front desk staff double as “concierges.” She gave us a map of Portland, without orienting us, and sent us, unaccompanied, up to our Renaissance Suite.
More of an open-plan junior suite, our accommodations had a quirky contemporary décor, exemplified by the sunburst emerging from the top of the bed’s headboard. Furnishings were mostly tan, beige and black. I liked that we had two baths, though both, inexplicably, had shower-tub combinations with curtains. The marble counters and C.O. Bigelow toiletries were appealing. However, the carpet by our front door was torn, and I didn’t care for the lack of turndown service or the $27.67-per-day “facilities fee,” which pays for Wi-Fi access (and includes tax).
The library proved surprisingly sterile, but not so the ornate Tea Court Lounge, a grand space with soaring ceilings, wood-paneled walls and a crystal chandelier. Russian-style high tea is served there on Saturdays, but otherwise, it is unstaffed. Why The Heathman would leave its finest space fallow six days a week is beyond my comprehension. I quite liked the restaurant, Headwaters, a striking contemporary space, where James Beard Award-winning chef Vitaly Paley serves a fine seafood-focused menu, including a refreshing melon gazpacho with feta and sweet local shrimp, and Oregon albacore tuna with radishes and tomatoes in a rich prosciutto cream sauce.
The restaurant was also the bright spot of The Nines, a 331-room property on the upper floors of a former department store. Futuristic Departure Restaurant serves Asian-inspired shared plates, and I especially liked the kampachi sashimi served on taro chips with yuzu and black garlic, and the crispy striped bass with green mango and chile-lime sauce.
A member of Starwood’s Luxury Collection, The Nines has certain amenities that its competitors in Portland don’t, including actual concierges and a proper club lounge, with staff. The hotel’s immense atrium, home to a comfortable lounge and the Urban Farmer restaurant, is impressive, as is some of the up-to-the-minute contemporary art decorating the hotel.
In almost all other respects, The Nines proved a disaster. Our room wasn’t ready until 40 minutes after check-in time, and no one escorted us to it. The dramatic color scheme of turquoise, black and lustrous beige was eye-catching, but the room’s two windows faced an unremarkable street, and one was blocked by a permanent swag of drapery. Thick dust covered electrical cords and outlets. Dust also covered the crystals of the sconces in the white-marble bath, where I discovered residue from a previous guest on the makeup mirror as well as a mildewed shower curtain hanging over the tub.
The club lounge was little better. The complimentary sparkling wine from Washington was fine, but I was less pleased with the picked-over buffet and the water dispenser handle repaired with duct tape. At checkout, a front desk staffer looked duly distressed to hear about our stay, and she removed $77 from our bill. Most generous.
In many ways, Portland is a joy to visit, with an exciting food scene, magnificent gardens, several fine urban wineries and numerous appealing independent boutiques and galleries. But the city's generally relaxed temperament has its disadvantages. Those willing to trade international standards of service for spontaneity and quirky, idiosyncratic charm will have the most fun in Portland.