PORTLAND, Ore. —Tired of reading about traveling on the cheap? Me, too, when "cheap" translates into a budget motel and an early-bird dinner special.
I'd rather rest my head at a four-star hotel, dine on dishes created by award-winning chefs and let someone else do the driving ... all without paying a fortune, of course.
If this sounds like your kind of weekend escape, read on. A stylish getaway to the Rose City has never been more affordable. Four-star Portland on a two-star budget was my mission. Here's the plan:
• Leave the driving ... to Amtrak
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Avoid $25-$30 nightly hotel parking rates and hassles with directions and traffic.
How: Take Amtrak. It's not a private limo, but it's comfortable and hassle free. Sit back and enjoy the views over a bowl of Snoqualmie Falls oatmeal as the train skirts the shore of Puget Sound between Seattle and Portland.
What to expect: Amtrak's first Cascades train leaves Seattle at 7:30 a.m. and arrives around 11 a.m. It's an easy walk to downtown or a short ride on a bus or MAX light rail, both of which call at Portland's Union Station.
Tip: Amtrak fares start at $29 each way. You and a friend can go for half-price between now and May 21 if you picked up one of the 10,000 free companion-fare coupons that PCC Natural Markets handed out last year. Single travelers can get a 25 percent fare discount with a coupon from the Chinook Book sold at PCC, Whole Foods and other outlets. (See www.amtrakcascades.com)
• Sleeping in style
What's a stylish weekend without a classy hotel? Why settle for less when you can sleep in the AAA Four-Diamond Benson (www.bensonhotel.com) or another luxury hotel for not much more than a night in a Days Inn?
How: Make a bid on Priceline (www.priceline.com). Narrow your choices to four-star hotels downtown. Priceline lets you choose the area and class of hotel you want, but doesn't reveal the name until after your bid is accepted and your credit card is charged.
After bidding $60 several times before Christmas and being rejected, I repeated the bid in early January, and snagged two nights for late last month in a standard double room at the Benson ($72 nightly with taxes and fees). The hotel's Internet rate for the same nights was $139.
What to expect: Built in 1913 by Oregon philanthropist Simon Benson, the Benson is an old-world hotel with a new-world feel. Updated rooms come with touches expected in a first-class hotel — early check-in, terry robes, free newspapers and Caffe Appassionato coffee and Tazo tea.
The lobby feels like an elegant living room with its Italian marble floors, Austrian crystal chandeliers and walnut paneling from Russia. I loved sitting by the big gas fireplace listening to soft jazz and sipping morning coffee dispensed from a silver urn.
Best part: The hotel is just a few blocks from Powell's City of Books and the Pearl District, Portland's hip former warehouse blocks filled with art galleries, cafes and restaurants.
Tip: Consult www.biddingfortravel.com for advice from other travelers on how much to bid on Priceline and what hotels you can expect to get. Recent bidders report snagging other downtown four-star hotels (e.g., The Lucia, Monaco, Vintage Plaza) for $50-$70 per night.
• Urban drinks and gourmet eats
Enjoy drinks and dinner for two at some of Portland's swankiest spots for $30 or less.
How: Take in a happy hour, and not just between 4 and 6 p.m. Consult www.urbandrinks.com for all the options. It's possible to find happy hours that last all day, start very early, or happen twice a day, once in the afternoon and again in the late evening.
What to expect: Elegant atmosphere, surprisingly high-quality and healthful food. Here are three of my favorites, all within walking distance of downtown hotels:
• The Heathman Hotel's Marble Bar (www.heathmanportland.com). Happy hour starts at 2 p.m. and goes until closing daily at this downtown Portland landmark.
Chef Philippe Boulot sets out a bistro spread of small plates in the $1.50-$6.50 range, all ample enough for two to share. Among the most satisfying were five plump pumpkin ravioli ($3.95) paired with sauteed greens. Add one of the two daily $5 drink specials or a local microbrew, and two can enjoy a late lunch here for $15 each, including tip.
• The TeaZone (www.teazone.com) in the Pearl District. Loose-leaf teas including hand-tied flower teas from China and herbal medicinal teas draw a following of locals who drift into the retro-style Camellia Lounge for the $3-$5 happy hour, 4-7 p.m. daily and all day Sunday.
Try the house chai spiked with Frangelico, or prep for the theater with a Streetcar Named Desire, an icy Champagne cocktail made with pomegranate liqueur and hibiscus juice. The $5 black bean burger served with potato salad is one of the most healthful meals I've found on a happy-hour menu.
• Portland City Grill (www.portlandcitygrill.com). It's all about the view at this classy night spot on the 30th floor of the U.S. Bancorp Tower. Settle into a couch by one of the big picture windows and look out over the Willamette River as you nibble on a white Cheddar burger ($5) or plate of rice-paper spring rolls ($3). Afternoon and late-night happy hours Monday-Saturday and from 4 to 11 p.m. Sundays.
Tip: Restaurant bills come with a nice surprise. Oregon has no sales tax, so the price you see on the menu is what you pay.
• Around the world with TriMet
Spin the globe and chances are your finger will land on a country whose culture you can sample within a few miles of wherever you are in Portland.
How: Buy a $4.75 all-day TriMet (www.trimet.org) pass good for unlimited rides on buses, MAX light rail and the Portland Streetcar. There's also an extensive "ride free" zone for the streetcar and light rail.
Sample itinerary: Start out in France with breakfast at the Everett Street Bistro (www.everettstreetbistro.com) in the Pearl District. Notice the pressed-tin ceiling as you dig into a wild mushroom scramble, sip Stumptown coffee and listen to Edith Piaf recordings. "A great place to take a date," says coffeeGirl, author of the Breakfast in Portland blog.
Drop in next door to Ten Thousand Villages (www.portland.tenthousandvillages.com) and shop tax-free for fair-trade handicrafts made by artisans in 38 countries. Then walk three blocks to Powell's (www.powells.com) and find the Red Room. Plan your next world adventure with a few titles plucked from shelves stocked with used travel books selling for half or less what they cost new.
Refuel across the street at Cacao (www.cacaodrinkchocolate.com) with a $2 ceramic cup of drinking chocolate infused with paprika, ginger and cayenne pepper. Then, take the bus to the Lan Su Chinese Garden and wander the serpentine mosaic pathways (www.portlandchinesegarden.org), or ride the streetcar to the Oregon Jewish Museum's (www.ojm.org) new Nob Hill location.
End your international tour with a bus trip across the Willamette to the Tao of Tea (www.taooftea.com) in the Belmont neighborhood. Order a pot of milky 500 Mile Chai ($5) and find out why the blend was a favorite among long-haul Indian truck drivers who stopped at tea stalls along highways for a late-night pick-me-up.
• High culture/low cost
Take advantage of free and discounted museum times, plays, free author readings and neighborhood art walks.
How: Check http://aroundthesunblog.com for weekly listings of free or low-cost cultural events. Sign up for e-mail alerts from the Portland Center for the Performing arts, which sends out news of last-minute discounts (www.pcpa.com).
• Go to the Portland Center Stage Theater's Web site (www.pcs.org) through the end of this month. Type HOTEL in the promo code box. You'll get a two-for-one price on its latest production, "The Receptionist," performed in the Gerding Theater, a renovated 1891 building that once housed the Oregon National Guard.
• Visit the Portland Art Museum on the fourth Friday of each month from 5-8 p.m. and admission is free. Kids younger than 18 get in free every day (www.portlandartmuseum.org).
• Take in a $3 movie at McMenamins Mission Theater (www.mcmenamins.com), originally built as a church and used as a labor hall. Wednesdays are "Burger, Beer & a Movie" night, for $10.50.
Tip: Can't make it to a performance? Show up for a free tour of the Gerding Theater on first and third Saturdays of the month at noon. Its transformation from armory annex to beer warehouse to playhouse wins praise for green architecture and design.
IF YOU GO
Consult Travel Portland's Web site (www.travelportland.com) for a one-stop guide to Portland.
If you're reluctant to make a bid for a hotel on Priceline, or if you're driving to Portland and want to avoid expensive parking rates, check out packages available through the Portland Perks program, with special rates on more than 35 hotels. Rates include overnight parking, a continental breakfast and coupons for two-for-one admissions to museums and cultural performances, plus dining and shopping discounts. Book online or call 800-962-3700.