Oregon Wine Press: Hood River travel

At least once a year, Tom Tucker finds himself squiring his daughter to a swim meet in Hood River, and gladly dives into the city’s many charms. And no, Tucker isn’t a windsurfer.

“The specialty stores in Hood River are a great draw,” says Tucker, a partner in The Pulse Group of Sisters, which does market research and strategy. “They’re full of unusual things.”

He loves to pop in to the Gorge Fly Shop, for offbeat additions to his fishing quiver. His wife, he says, has spent hundreds of dollars on clothes at Melika, a maker and retailer of swimwear and active wear for women. And his daughter loves the youthful vibe at Doug’s Sports.

He ticks off other favorites: Redfeather Mercantile, for western home furnishings, and Gorge Dog, for treats that only his dachshund and Rhodesian ridgeback could appreciate.

Upscale shopping in the “windsurfing capital of the world”? Who’da thunk it? But so it goes in “the Hood,” where locals say “it’s all good.”

Visitors driving an hour east of Portland on I-84 find a city full of surprises – great shopping, art galleries, a burgeoning wine industry and stellar brewpubs, a concentration of quality restaurants rare for a city of 6,710 (Portland State University, 2007), and recreational access to everything from skiing to fly fishing to whitewater rafting and biking (did we mention that it’s popular for windsurfing? Oh, thought so.).

Allyson and Jim Pate were so pleasantly surprised on a casual visit seven years ago that they, like many people, packed up and moved.

“We were down at Brian’s Pourhouse, we had some real estate brochures, we’re eating lunch, chatting with this nice young man,” Allyson recalls. “It’s Brian, and he tells us we really should go for it, and the next thing you know, we’re putting money down and moving to Hood River.”

These days, Allyson Pate spends much of her time running the Lakecliff Bed & Breakfast (541-386-7000), while her husband travels for his work in commercial property management.

“Guests are always dazzled by the beauty,” Allyson Pate says. “They’ve heard about Hood River. It’s created a little buzz, particularly among the sporting folks.”

It’s a city, clearly, in love with itself. On a recent March Saturday, downtown visitors could watch electric cars racing through city streets, or the Samba Hood Rio percussion band celebrating Double Mountain Brewing’s second anniversary. In May, the city welcomes the Mt. Hood Cycling Classic. The Gorge Games, after a couple-year hiatus, returns this July 17-20. On the First Friday of months from May through October, the downtown attracts hundreds to an open-air evening social featuring local artists and musicians. Also in October, hundreds gather to quaff dozens of Northwest microbrews during the city’s Hops Fest.

“One of things that’s amazing to me,” says Allyson Pate, “is that everyone is so passionate about being here, and they brought all this talent to the area, and there’s so much imagination and enthusiasm.”

A host of small technology companies now share space, and revenues, with the more visible side of the Hood River community. Visitors don’t see those industries so much as they do, say, the industry that relies heavily on cork stoppers.

From a handful of wineries at the start of the decade, the Gorge has exploded onto the Northwest wine map. This year, the Columbia Gorge Wine Growers Association will list more than two-dozen wineries on its tour map.

“I like the family angle behind every winery,” says Autumn Woods, marketing coordinator for the Association. “It’s a community of families. They treat each other that way. It’s not corporate. It’s a different feeling to tasting wine and visiting wineries here than in the Willamette Valley.”

Modest (sometimes funky) tasting rooms prevail, along with quality wine. Longtime visitors have been impressed by the grape’s escape from garage-band obscurity.

“We love wine, and that’s one of the things that attracted us to the Gorge,” says Jo Anne Holt of Bellevue, Wash. “We like to visit local wineries. Syncline Cellars is probably our favorite.”

For her, great wine goes with great dining. “We think it’s fun that there’s a good Japanese restaurant (Sushi Okalani, 109 1st St.), the brew pubs, and we like Nora’s Fish House (110 5th St.).”

(In the interests of full disclosure, the writer is a part owner of Nora’s Fish House.)

Home to Full Sail Brewing, Hood River also hosts several smaller brew pubs. And four wineries – The Pines (202 State St.), Quenett (111 Oak St.), Springhouse Cellars (13 Railroad Ave.), and Naked (2nd and Cascade) — have (or will have) tasting rooms downtown by the time summer 2008 arrives in earnest.

Holt calls herself a “tag-along Mom,” because her sons and husband Alan were the ones dragging her south as they first chased the Gorge’s stiff westerly winds back in the late 1980s. “But I fell in love with the area,” she says.

She and her husband later bought a vacation home across the Columbia in Washington, and visit at least once a month.

She likes the variety of small, independent retailers. In particular, she goes for art jewelry, and for that she likes Twiggs, Made in the Gorge and the Columbia Center for the Arts.

Many of the downtown’s independent retailers occupy some of more than 20 Hood River structures listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Away from the city core, residents and visitors find a mix of familiar national retailers and distinctly local landmarks. Principal among the longtime beacons for visitors is the Columbia Gorge Hotel, perched west of town near where the waters of Phelps Creek plunge toward the Columbia at Wah Gwin Gwin Falls.

Poke around the side streets and periphery of Hood River, and visitors can ferret out other surprises, among them tasty Italian food at Abruzzo Italian Grill (1810 Cascade Ave.) and a host of places that kick out good, inexpensive and authentic Mexican food — as you would hope, in a county where 26% of residents are Hispanic.

Seamus Egan and his wife, Linda Healy, visit frequently from Portland, sometimes to golf, sometimes to bike the back roads, sometimes to get an “al pastor” (spicy pork) burrito at El Rinconcito Taqueria, locally known as “the trailer” (1833 Cascade Ave.).

“It’s just good Mexican food,” Egan says.

And, as Jo Anne Holt says, if you tire of all that “city” life, you’re only five minutes from the orchards, and a half hour from Mt. Hood.

Voila!