Get Outta Town: Eugene

Here in Portland, we live in a dreamy little green bubble, our days filled with taking long leisurely walks through lush urban parks, sipping pear brandy toddies in cozy gastropubs, shopping for the latest in organic fleece neckties, and spending all our money at the new restaurants that continue to propagate like Spanish Fly-soused old rabbits who live in a shoe.

But sometimes, even though we live in Utopia, it’s nice to get outta town, for many reasons. Travel opens our minds and teaches us new things about ourselves, like how we will react when we accidentally board a flight to Sacramento instead of Santa Fe, or an unattractive married Italian man cops an unwelcome feel, or a rabid wolverine challenges our sovereignty over Campsite 27. And there’s nothing like packing a weekend-sized suitcase to teach you about priorities (monogrammed champagne glasses NOT optional), and what exactly we consider “essential” in life (eight pairs of shoes and two kinds of hair conditioner, check).

I’ve been getting out of town more, exploring fun destinations within a butt-ache’s-distance of Portland (A butt-ache’s distance is how long you can sit in a Honda CR-V or on a plane before you develop an unpleasant butt-ache. Three to five hours, is my best scientific guesstimate.) and bringing back some travel tips for you, so that if you too decide to get outta town, you can eat, drink, shop, sightsee and sleep in rabid wolverine-free comfort.*

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GET OUTTA TOWN: EUGENE

Oh, I know what you are thinking. Eugene, an exciting getaway? (Insert snicker.) I’m ashamed to admit that I shared your reaction, but during my recent visit to Oregon’s “Emerald City,” I was proved very mistaken as I was wined, dined, and waffled into a Eugene-loving bliss.

Probably best known as the birthplace of the University of Oregon, Oregon Country Fair, and Nike, spunky funky Eugene also has a very palatable food and drink scene, plenty of outdoor recreation, unique shops, a flourishing arts community, and a brand-new boutique hotel that’s raising the hospitality bar. So basically, all the ingredients necessary to cook up a memorable weekend getaway.

Where to Stay
Eugene’s lodging options consist largely of ubiquitous chain hotels, a handful of cute B&B’s, a hostel or two, and possibly a U of O dorm room if you turn up the charm at karaoke. (Erm, sorry, scratch that last one.) But in early February, with the opening of the Inn at the 5th boutique hotel, the city took one giant leap forward for luxe-ophiles. I was lucky enough to get an invite to come down and investigate, and since I never look a hotel gift horse in the mouth, I hopped in the car.

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Curling around the bustling Fifth Street Public Market, just steps from the Amtrak station and downtown Eugene, this unique 70-room, 5-story hotel is rife with precise, intensively-researched, and endearingly thoughtful details that owner/developer Brian Obie insisted on after conducting meticulous polls to determine what travelers looked for in the perfect hotel–details like double sinks in each bathroom (an almost unanimous request by the women polled), glass-walled showers (a common mens’ request), and neatly-bundled bags of ice stacked in attractive coolers in each floor’s hallway, so you’ll never struggle with an unwieldy ice bucket again.

All rooms have a huge flat screen television, atmospheric gas fireplace, Aveda products and plush robes, and soundproofing so effective I couldn’t hear so much as a whisper of the street traffic outside my ground floor window during the entire stay. I had one of the inn’s spacious jacuzzi rooms–sliding panels separated my bedroom and bathroom from a sleek, serene tiled room with soothing wood walls, a giant soaking tub, and a settee perched by the window.

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One of the most delightful touches–each room comes with a built-in “butler pantry,” a discreet, milk-crate sized cubby just inside your hotel room door with a secure separate access panel in the hall, so that a staff member can deliver your room service without the horror of seeing you in all your AM glory—curlers, robe, morning breath and all.

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And come summer, the balconied rooms facing the  inner courtyard that adjoins LaVelle Vineyard‘s onsite tasting room will have small baskets that you can slip your wine and cheese order into, lower down, and then pull back up when your order has been filled. Yes, I know, I wanted to move in after hearing this, too.

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Where To Eat

If you’re staying at the Inn, when it comes time to eat, there are two routes—stick around the hotel, which has acclaimed Marché restaurant, a charming European-style market complete with wine, gelato, and plenty of chocolate, a winery tasting room, an upscale indoor international food court, and a fountain-cooled courtyard perfect for winding down with a bottle of rosé…

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Or, head out into town and let your stomach do some exploring. I have difficulty making hard choices, so I did both.

First, I headed out into town. At Off The Waffle, a tiny, funky black booth-stuffed café crammed into an unobtrusive strip mall, I tackled the Goat in Headlights—a perfectly chewy, yeasty Liege waffle spread with chévre and topped with sunnyside-up eggs, fresh basil, smoked paprika, freshly-ground coriander, and a drizzle of olive oil.

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While you’re in the neighborhood, pop across the street to Capella Market for a growler of local kombucha or a jar of goats milk caramel, then head a half mile or so east to Sundance Wine Cellars, a well-stocked wine shop with an in-store wine bar that hosts both special tastings and right-now tastings (my favorite kind). If you think you might have been an apothecarist in a former life, pop around the corner to Sundance Natural Foods—a hippie haven with more mysterious substance-filled jars than Hogwarts—I marveled at the locally-made Love Potion #9 herbal elixir, wild yam root, and organic pot barley, but equally entertaining was the staff banter.

It’s worth seeking out the unassuming stretch of sleepy Van Buren street in the Whiteaker neighborhood, home to Ninkasi Brewing Company, a handsome walled compound with a wide stone patio, fire pit and rotating food carts like Cousin Jack’s Pasty Company. Inside the small, stylish tasting room, take a seat at the undulating bar and order a pint…or get the choose-your-own sampler, a commitmentphobe’s neatly-labeled dream.

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A few doors down is hip Izakaya Meiji, a rustic east-west saloon that turns out Asian-influenced small plates like shiitake skewers with miso butter, boquerones & avocado box sushi, and “sumo wrestler hotpots,” alongside eclectic cocktails like the refreshing The Road Less Traveled, made with bourbon, Junmai saké, and cucumber.

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After an excellent happy hour in Whiteaker, I headed back to the Inn at the 5th for the evening. After a leisurely turn around the Fifth Street Public Market, poking around Swahili‘s vibrant collection of African arts and crafts and New Twist‘s alluring jewelry cases, and stocking up on chocolate and pretty Parisian-esque baubles at charming Marché Provisions market, I went back to my room, put on some mindless television (the best kind), and luxuriated in the glow of the gas fireplace and the massive jacuzzi soaking tub in my private little spa room. Believe me, it was hard to leave, but I’d been invited to dine at Marché restaurant, and I was hardly about to miss that.

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As I sunk into a cushy booth across from the open kitchen, a glass of Nicolas Feuillatte champagne appeared, seemingly out of thin air, as I surveyed the menu, where spring was clearly king—the tasting menu that followed was a beautiful blur of asparagus, radishes, and spring greens.

Dinner began with an ethereal herbed crepe wrapped around slender stalks of asparagus in a mustard cream sauce, followed by a spring radish salad with shaved fennel in a preserved lemon vinaigrette, and then a hearty piece of halibut seared golden and set on a pedestal of spring vegetables and potato pavé. And for dessert–the kitchen and I are clearly kindred spirits, because a sampling of the dessert menu emerged, a circle of petite sweets like chocolate gauteau with chartreuse ice cream, banana bread pudding in a pool of star anise caramel, and scoops of the house toasted coconut ice cream and blood orange sorbet.

All courses were lovingly paired with sommelier Phillip Patti’s excellent wine choices–a 2009 Domaine Costal Chablis here, a Château Guiraud white Bordeaux there, and with dessert, a decadent duo of Rare Wine Company’s sultry New York Malmsey Special Reserve Madeira and the gently honeyed Domaine des Forges Couteaux du Layon.

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At this point, I rolled the 50-or-so feet back to my room to curl up by the fire and read, but my more adventurous alter ego went off in spirit to have a tangerine cream tartlet dessert encore at Belly, indulge in a classic G&T at the Oregon Electric Station, and engage in a bit of flirting and a sexy cocktail at Red Agave cantina, Clyde Common’s superhottie bar manager Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s old stomping grounds—all three are within a few blocks of the hotel.

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I wish I could tell you that, after a blissful night’s sleep, I woke up to a 6am alarm and went running in Alton Baker Park, but I didn’t. It was raining, and I am slothful. So, I actually awoke to the ring of the front desk informing me that my room service breakfast order was on its way up from Marché. Ordinarily, at hearing this news I’d jump up and frantically try to establish some semblance of presentability, but this time I didn’t have to—the butler’s pantry was my buffer. But because I was very curious about this little magic pantry, I crept up to the door and listened as they opened the hall hatch, slid the tray in, and left. When I opened my side, voila! Breakfast! Magic! Happiness!

breakfastbyfireI savored the Farm Breakfast—fennel sausage, poached eggs, and whole grain toast with berry preserves—by the fireplace, watching enormous raindrops noiselessly barrage the windows and idly contemplating things…things like where I would eat my second breakfast and lunch, and what exactly the hotel would do if I barricaded my door with chocolate bars and refused to ever leave.

I never found out, because curiosity overcame the glow of the fireplace, and I headed out for a walk around downtown Eugene, which involved sipping a green juice at New Odyssey juice bar, tasting basil olive oil at Olive Grand, browsing stylish Modern boutique, and sampling the spicy draught root beer at Steelhead Brewing Company. With a bit more time, you could also go in search of a cup of coffee at Wandering Goat Coffee Company, Eugene’s most prolific local roaster, take a walk on the University of Oregon campus, watch an indie flick at Bijou Art Cinemas, catch a concert at the historic McDonald Theater, or tickle your culture bone at the Hult Center–all within easy walking distance to the Inn.

Or, go wine tasting—just 20 minutes outside of town there are a handful of wineries tucked into the grassy folds of the southern Willamette Valley, and the Inn is happy to arrange your transportation there in their official van.

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I stopped at Silvan Ridge Winery to try their renowned semi-sparkling Early Muscat, then crossed the road to neighboring Sweet Cheeks Winery for a taste of the 2011 Rosy Cheeks rosé and some truly stunning views (bring a picnic and stay awhile). Continuing down Territorial Highway, I came to lofty King Estate Wineryand thought I’d somehow Portkey’d to the Loire Valley’s chateau country when I saw the stunning 110,000-foot winery perched atop a knoll overlooking the 1,033-acre estate, with its 470 acres of organic vineyards, fields of solar panels, and rows upon rows of blooming daffodils.

From the King Estate website

From the King Estate website

I lunched in the onsite restaurant, where chef Michael Landsberg prepares seasonal fare using locally sourced-ingredients and vegetables grown in the estate’s 30-acre organic garden. After a crisp salad peppered with spicy little organic garden radishes and tossed in an apple cider verjus vinaigrette, a cup of sunchoke and white bean soup, a basket of the divine homemade walnut sourdough and a comely Black Trumpet and asparagus risotto with roasted tomato oil, I toured the elaborate estate with the irrepressible Josh Massie, a King Estate “wine educator” whose enthusiasm and ability to recall fascinating facts and anecdotes about the winery’s history, production, and vintages was genuinely impressive.

After the tour, we sampled the entire wine tasting menu (and a few exceptional reserve pinot noirs) in the visitors’ lounge, and then I was sent on my way with an empty bag and strict instructions to stop on my way down the hill, cut as many daffodils as I could possibly ever want and take them with me. I can only imagine how stunning this locale will be in the summer, and fully intend to return and spend several hours lingering over a bottle of pinot gris and a Meyer lemon tart or two.

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Bag of freshly-plucked yolk-yellow daffodils in tow, I headed back towards I-5, my time in Eugene coming to an end. And I was experiencing a completely unexpected emotion—sorrow. If, before my trip, you’d told me I’d be sad to leave Eugene, I would have told you to lay off the 88%-cacao Endangered Species panther bars, because you were clearly getting too much theobromine to the brain. And yet, here I am, idly plotting my next trip…I blame the butler pantry.

*Not 100% guaranteed, but I keep my eye out, especially for Wolverines that look like Hugh Jackman.