When a couple from England recently asked what to do around Portland and where to find sunshine, my husband and I pointed them directly to Hood River Valley via the Columbia River Gorge. Highway views of the gorge are enough to warrant the trip, but the valley that waits at the end of the drive is what awakens a dormant sense of home every time I visit.
A unique blend of quintessential small-town America and extreme sports haven, Hood River speaks to the multifaceted nature within me.
During our first overnight visit to Hood River Valley a few months ago, my husband and I began by meandering along the town’s main street. We started with coffee at the chic Doppio Coffee and Lounge, then made our way to Apple Green and Mari Bliss boutiques where I dreamed of ways to fill our home with country charm.
Before deciding on where to eat lunch that day, we scoped out all our dining options, knowing we’d return to Hood River for multiple meals during our stay. From among our top choices, Three Rivers Grill got the vote for lunch. The restaurant’s view of the main street and the Columbia River had long enticed us, though not yet enough to pay dinner prices. Lunch was the perfect compromise, with lamb shwarma and fish and chips meeting all our expectations.
Our best meal by far though was at Stonehedge Gardens where the highlight was a flaming bread pudding. A layer of crème brûlee atop thick pieces of baguette, this dessert became a memorable event as a dash of cinnamon ignited miniature fireworks at our table. The bourbon caramel sauce topping brought us back for a repeat two nights later.
If it had been summer or fall, my husband and I would have driven the fruit loop out of town, winding throughout the valley to pick blueberries at Nelson’s Farm or apples at Kiyokawa Orchards. Shortly after setting out, we would have stopped at The Gorge White House to enjoy lilies, sunflowers, or dahlias depending on the season, as well as wine and coffee merlot chocolate sauce samplings. Further down the road, we would have pulled in to Apple Valley Country Store to taste the spread of jams and savor a pumpkin pie milkshake.
Another personal favorite in July and August is Hood River Lavender Farm. Here the hum of bees and the scent of row upon row of purple buds evoke a posture of peace. Lavender shortbread, tea, spice blends, lotions, and handpicked bundles make delightful mementos and gifts.
As it was, we were celebrating Valentine’s Day and my winter birthday, so we headed toward the snow-covered mountain that graces views from nearly every other stopping point.
We stayed two nights at Mount Hood Bed and Breakfast, where a rustic barn and restored pioneer home lent extra charm to the newly remodeled guest house we had all to ourselves. Our second night there, the sky afforded ideal conditions for a moonlight snowshoeing adventure. So we set out beneath a star-studded sky and crescent moon that shone above the few clouds circling the horizon.
I’d envisioned a romantic evening with a crystal clear image of Mount Hood and a backdrop of twinkling stars reflected in Trillium Lake. Not until we pulled into an empty parking lot did I realize the eerie nature of venturing out on an unknown trail at eleven o’clock at night.
By the time we’d trekked to the lake, I was so anxious about what possibly lurked in the dark that I no longer wanted to stay. I determined to enjoy the view for at least five minutes and then turned back to head toward safety. The more realistic side of romance emerged when my husband invited me to trust him to watch for animals, thereby freeing me to more fully enjoy the return hike.
The next day, my husband continued to woo me by happily resting an aching knee while encouraging me to continue skiing. He’d hurt his knee on a men’s skiing trip the week before but didn’t want me to miss out on the powdery Lady Slipper and Kinnikinick runs we’d just discovered at Meadows Ski Resort. Given the warm, sunny conditions and my once-a-year opportunity to ski, I welcomed the suggestion. We both chuckled each time I passed by him jokingly sprawled on the hillside with his knee buried in snow.
At the foot of the slopes, we ate at Alpenstube Lodge, where the long-anticipated lava flow brownie failed to live up to its reputation. Contrary to what I expected after reading Portland Monthly’s review of the dessert, it was no competition for Timberline Lodge’s skillet cookie.
We completed our stay in Hood River Valley with a progressive dinner of sorts, beginning with an artisanal cheese plate at Boda’s Kitchen. The light woods and whitewashed walls of the delicatessen created the feel of a farmhouse kitchen, a fitting backdrop for the wide array of local goods sold there.
An underwhelming dinner at Sixth Street Bistro followed, with chipotle-honey glazed crispy chicken that was too spicy for flavors to come through. Despite its name, the chicken was hardly crispy (not fried as I’d anticipated) and unexpectedly served as a sandwich.
The night ended with another flaming bread pudding at Stonehedge Gardens, where the owner and waitress greeted us with enthusiasm. We hope to go back to Stonehedge this summer for what seems to be Hood River’s best kept secret – an al fresco concert and buffet under decorative lights strung throughout the beautiful grounds.
I’d love to return to the valley to experience Mount Hood Railroad’s wine or murder mystery train ride as well. In truth, I secretly dream of boarding the Polar Express line. The beloved children’s story of a train ride to the North Pole sounds like it would come alive with Christmas carols, waiters serving hot cocoa, and a visit from Santa Clause and his elves.
I intend to wait for children before embarking on the Polar Express, but Hood River Valley all the while holds the wonder of such delights becoming reality. It is a place where dark soil gives way to tender blossoms, where moonlight casts a warm glow on newly fallen snow, and where train rides engender belief in more than all the beauty that passes quickly by the window.
* KV Pottery Studio sells unique handmade pottery that makes it well worth a visit. After two years of eyeing their ceramic garlic mincers, my husband finally bought me a Tuscan-inspired one last Christmas.
** For those who love the many microbrew beers offered throughout the Portland area, don’t miss the views and IPAs at Full Sail Pub. I hear Double Mountain Brewery & Taproom serves great pizza as well.