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Weekend Escape

Strolling Portland and Loving It to the MAX

No need for a car with new light rail from the airport to downtown


PORTLAND, Ore. — When the doors of the MAX light-rail train whooshed closed, my husband and I settled contentedly into our seats. Steps from baggage claim at Portland International Airport, we had bought two tickets from a machine ($3.10 total), strolled to a train and skipped the whole nonsense of renting a car, waiting for a bus or catching a costly cab.

We were bound for downtown Portland, one of my favorite places. I love its vibrant streets, its restaurants, its stores. Last fall, Portland became the first city on the West Coast to extend a light-rail system to its airport; the ride into downtown on the new MAX Red Line is only about 35 minutes. So when a weekend opened up on our calendar, we figured, why not head to the Northwest, footloose and car free?

The MAX, or Metropolitan Area Express, with its clean cars and wide aisles for luggage, proved a great way into the city. Though it made several stops, the train allowed us to rubberneck without careening off the road. As the MAX crossed the Willamette River, the Portland skyline glowed under a bright sun, and joggers and bikers below us filled waterfront paths.

I started getting excited at the familiar scene. My parents live 10 miles outside Portland, and our favorite activity when we stay with them is to drive into downtown and play. We bounded off the train by the Pioneer Place Shopping Center on Morrison Street and headed to our hotel, the 5th Avenue Suites, two short blocks away.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 15, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 8 inches; 307 words Type of Material: Correction
Portland park--The Weekend Escape feature on Portland, Ore., in today's Travel section incorrectly describes the route of the Oregon Zoo's railway. It runs through Washington Park.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 22, 2002 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 5 Features Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Oregon Zoo train--The Sept. 15 Weekend Escape ("Strolling Portland and Loving It to the MAX") misidentified the park through which the Oregon Zoo's railway runs. Washington Park is the correct name.

Portland's planners long ago figured that to make their city appealing--one to walk through and be experienced--they would shorten the blocks. So while many city blocks around the country are at least 400 feet long, Portland's are half that, making for a wonderfully walkable city.

Shops, galleries and restaurants fill downtown, and street corners are especially attractive spots because they lure people from more than one direction. And if lively retail weren't enough, Portland added other small but fun diversions to its streets, such as drinking fountains that burble endlessly.

Then there's "Portland's Living Room," also known as Pioneer Courthouse Square, a sunken brick plaza where skateboarders, musicians, chess players and coffee sippers hang out at all hours.

Russ and I dropped off our bags at the hotel and walked about eight of those short blocks to another Portland hangout, the Saturday Market in the Skidmore area of Old Town. The MAX runs right by the market (Skidmore Fountain stop), which bills itself as the nation's largest continually operating open-air market. Parents pushed strollers, teens lingered and tourists like us wandered among the crafts, studying jewelry made with Mt. St. Helens ash and other novelties.

Despite its reputation, Portland actually gets less rain than such cities as Atlanta and Houston. When the sun is out--as it was our whole weekend--so is everyone.

We wandered to the small park fronting the Willamette River and eyed the new 1 1/2-mile Esplanade on the east bank across the way. Part of the riverside path floats in the water. Portland's active set can complete a three-mile loop by crossing a couple of the city's historic bridges. We had hoped to be this active, but it was hot.

So back to the hotel we went to cool off and get ready for dinner. The 5th Avenue was pleasant, our large suite ($119 plus tax per night) welcoming. The bedroom had a view of snowcapped Mt. Hood, and the living room was large enough that we could host my parents, who drove in to join us.

We walked a few blocks to what has become our favorite restaurant, Jake's Grill, a smaller version of Jake's Famous Crawfish, an 1892 Portland landmark a few blocks away. Dark wood gives the Grill a clubby atmosphere, but big windows looking onto the street bring light. The bar is lively and the wait staff attentive. We did the Northwest fish thing--grilled salmon salad, stuffed trout--with a berry cobbler for dessert.

Sunday we walked a few blocks to Mother's Bistro & Bar for brunch. The restaurant is in an old, high-ceilinged building decorated inside with framed prints of mothers. The atmosphere was suitably Portland funky, and we briefly thought about coming back for dinner, where the menu tends toward comfort foods such as pot roast, meatloaf and macaroni and cheese.

Well fortified, we walked back to a MAX stop and bought tickets for a ride to the Oregon Zoo. This time I didn't read the machine quite right and ended up shelling out a buck or two extra for "all zones" tickets.

MAX has two lines: the five-mile Red Line to the airport and the 33-mile Blue Line between Hillsboro and Gresham, both looping through downtown. Fares are based on zones; the farther you go, the more it costs. The core of downtown, though, is "Fareless Square," where riders pay nothing to hop on and off MAX between the Oregon Convention Center to the east and 10th Avenue to the west.

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