HOOD RIVER —
Winter is a slow time of year in the Columbia River Gorge. Fruit orchards are not yet in blossom; waters haven't warmed sufficiently for river sports.
Some residents of Hood River and The Dalles may tote their skis or snowboards uphill to Mount Hood Meadows resort, but many more simply bide their time, enjoying the region's beers and wines as they wait for spring sunlight to once again kiss the apple and pear trees, and sparkle off the crests of breaking waves.
In the meantime, visitors may still enjoy the dramatic views for which the Gorge is so well known. Multnomah Falls and dozens of other waterfalls, especially west of Cascade Locks; vantage points such as Rowena Crest, between Mosier and The Dalles; and the ceaseless flow of one of America's great rivers will inspire awe at any time of year. Most museums and historic attractions are open year-round, albeit with abbreviated winter hours.
The main streets of Hood River and The Dalles are well known to regular visitors. Shops, restaurants and hotels on main streets and at Interstate 84 exits attract business like a magnet draws metal. But there's much more to both of these Oregon communities, and to the 22-mile drive between.
On my own recent mid-winter swing through the towns on the Oregon side of the Gorge, I found an opportunity to look beyond the obvious, to gaze into back streets and basements, to drive into neighborhoods that are not as often seen by casual tourists. And I found a number of places worth the extra exploration.
Central The Dalles
Perhaps no community in Oregon brings so many key chapters of regional history together as The Dalles.
From the Lewis and Clark expedition and Oregon Trail immigration through late 19th-century urban development and mid-20th-century hydroelectric development, this city of 12,000 people displays its heritage in a majestic riverside setting.
Nearly 70 historic commercial buildings, more than two dozen of them dating from the 1800s, are preserved within The Dalles National Historic District. In its pioneer heyday, the town had its share of hotels, banks, mercantile stores and theaters — as well as saloons and brothels, the last of which closed as recently as the 1950s.
Among them is the Baldwin Saloon, built in 1876 at East First and Court streets. It's a full block off the main drag beside the railroad tracks, but its red-brick exterior is not hard to spot. The Baldwin was a working saddlery for decades before new owners stripped and refurbished the old building and turned it into a restaurant in 1991.
Now a popular stop for lunch and dinner, the Baldwin serves a steak-and-seafood menu every day but Sunday. Behind its 18-inch-thick stone walls, the restaurant displays a fine-art collection of landscape art by Joseph Englehart (1867-1915) and several nude portraits by noted California painters.
Not far around the corner is Oregon's oldest bookstore. Klindt's Books was established in 1870 by Frisian immigrant Inwer Nickelsen, who moved his shop across the street to its current location after an 1891 fire. It has had only three owners in 143 years. (Nickelsen sold in 1927 to the Weigelt family, which transferred title in 1981 to Linda Klindt and her late husband, Philip Klindt.)
Today the store continues to exhibit new books and classic used editions in its original 19th-century bookshelves, with stationery and greeting cards.
In an 1865 Victorian home, hidden away in a residential neighborhood adjacent to downtown, is the ANZAC Tea Parlour. Although she was born and raised in Hermiston, owner Bev Eagy spent her young adulthood in Sydney, Australia, and this small cafe — open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays to Saturdays — pays tribute to that time of her life.
The Parlour serves more than three dozen teas in quaint tea sets with handmade lace doilies. Lunches may include fresh Devonshire cream scones, chicken-almond tea sandwiches or even traditional Australian meat pies. But Eagy's specialty is ANZAC cookies, rolled oat-and-coconut pastries that honor the famed World War I Australia and New Zealand Army Corps.
Nearby in the Trevitt's Additional Historic District is one of The Dalles' most charming bed-and-breakfast inns. The Windrider Inn B&B, a 1921 Dutch Colonial-style home on the National Register of Historic Places, was converted to a four-room guest house in 1987 by an avid local board sailor named Chuck Langley. It continues to cater to river-sports lovers with its low rates and sailboard storage.
A little farther west is Nichols Art Glass. It wasn't easy to spot on the drive-by, but having been inside, I won't soon forget this 2,700-square-foot room. Blown-glass forms of salmon and flowers, as well as various abstract forms, occupied the flashy gallery inside the street entrance. In the rear, two artists created their own forms in a working studio. On another visit, I hope to meet the owner, former restaurateur Andy Nichols, who built his own equipment and taught himself the art of glass blowing.
The Dalles' east side
The tallest structure in The Dalles is the old Sunshine Biscuit Mill at the east end of downtown. Located at the foot of Brewery Grade, it was originally built as a steam-powered flour mill in the late 19th century. After a 1911 fire, it was rebuilt using new hydroelectric technology from the White River Dam in Tygh Valley.
Today, more than a century later, the 125-foot-tall building still houses the equipment that was built into it. In fact, new owners have developed a design that incorporates the unique and historical mechanical shaft-and-belt drive system, powered by electric motors said to have been designed by Thomas Edison himself.
Today, the building is known as the Historic Sunshine Mill Artisan Plaza. On its ground floor is a boutique winery and retail space. Live music is performed here several nights a week, and there is a short menu of small plates to accompany wine tastings. Long-range plans are for offices and condominiums on the upper floors. But visitors can still explore the original inner workings of the wheat mill on a self-guided tour.
Another historic structure, and one several blocks “out of the way," is the Riverenza Cafe and Gathering Hall. Eight blocks uphill from the Sunshine Mill, this century-old stone church, once home to a Church of Christ congregation, was purchased in 2004 by Greg and Molly Ott, who moved into the basement and turned the former sanctuary into a space for weddings and other events.
For casual weekday visitors who may not have a wedding in the works, there's still ample reason to visit Riverenza: A stone courtyard has been converted to an espresso bar, open until 4 p.m., where Stumptown Coffee is served with pastries and bagel sandwiches.
Further east — across U.S. Highway 197, which connects The Dalles with Bend — is my favorite restoration project in The Dalles. Three years ago, new owners converted the hillside Celilo Inn from a tacky 1950s motel into a beautiful boutique property with a view overlooking the Bonne-ville Dam. It even offers complimentary wine tastings each afternoon.
Often overlooked by Gorge visitors is tiny Dufur, 13 miles south of The Dalles on Highway 197. The farming town of 600 is especially proud of its Dufur Living History Museum, which each August hosts the Dufur Threshing Bee — perhaps the only threshing event in the United States to use horse-drawn machinery.
Just down the street is the Historic Balch Hotel, built of bricks in 1907. It was purchased in 2006 by Jeff and Samantha Irwin, who continued an ongoing restoration and opened the old hotel on its 100th birthday as a 19-room bed-and-breakfast inn. With no TVs, radios or telephones, it's truly a getaway, although it does have wireless Internet.
Another tiny community is Mosier, population about 450. It's worth a brief detour off Interstate 84 between The Dalles and Hood River, as much for its quaint historic buildings as for its location at the west end of the historic highway that climbs to Rowena Crest and the Tom McCall Preserve.
Cyclists, in particular, love the Rowena Crest hill climb. And at the end of their workout, as often as not, they find a stool or a table at the Thirsty Woman Pub. There are actually two pubs here — the rustic, European-style “Little Pub" and the spacious “Bigger Pub," where full meals are served at large antique tables. Owners Manda and J.R. Frakes promise “great beer, good food and amazing people."
Hood River's main drag
About five miles west of Mosier, Interstate 84 races past Hood River. Famed worldwide for its windsurfing and kiteboarding, the town of 7,500 offers lots of distractions even when the weather isn't optimal for water sports.
A half-dozen blocks of shops and cafes along Oak Street, the principal thoroughfare, make it an easy place to spend several hours browsing. Most establishments could be described as cozy, their wares packed into limited floor space.
That's not a problem for the imposing Gallery 301, however.
Lodging in a historic bank building, its Grecian columns rising high above Hood River's main street, this combination art gallery, wine and tapas bar displays an intriguing variety of creations — canvas, metal, fabric — including co-owner Claudia Lane's own collection of 1960s' psychedelic concert posters. Yet I always get a sense that potential patrons are intimidated by the building's size. They shouldn't be.
Across Oak Street, at the rear of a courtyard behind another wine shop, Zella Shoes and Treasures has a great selection of women's footwear and handbags. It's not obvious to casual foot traffic, but seems to have no problem attracting business.
I'm sure the same philosophy is true for women's shoes as it is for Knot Another Hat, located on the second floor of an office-and-retail building a few blocks east. “You don't need foot traffic when you are a yarn shop," owner Sarah Keller told me. “They sniff you out." Knitting enthusiasts love the wide choice of colors and fabrics sold here with a view toward the Columbia.
Side streets extending north of Oak enclose several notable hideaway restaurants. There's the North Oak Brasserie (now under renovation) on Third Street, Nora's Table on Fifth, and a block further, the Sixth Street Bistro. As well, Feliza Greenwald's outstanding Knead Bakery caters a steady clientele just south of Nora's.
The Double Mountain Brewery & Taproom, at the foot of Fourth Street by Columbia Avenue, is a destination well-known to Oregon beer lovers, even if its cobalt-blue building takes a little extra effort to find. And the Stella Fino winery tasting room, in a basement unit on Second Street, is worth searching out for its Italian-style varietals from Walla Walla vineyards.
Continue downhill and east from here, past the seasonal Mount Hood Railroad depot, to find Springhouse Cellar. Ensconced in a converted 1920s cannery, Springhouse is more than a winery — it's a major event venue, where live music several nights a week, especially Tuesdays, inspires a party atmosphere.
On Cascade Avenue, almost opposite the train depot, the discreet Waucoma Club is a classy and classic bar and grill that seems to belong in the speakeasy era. Opposite is Artifacts, a store whose tag line — “Good Books and Bad Art" — could not be more appropriate. It does, indeed offer a fine selection of used books and some very amateurish canvases.
Away from the core
Outside of downtown Hood River, several venues are worthy of special note.
Among them is my favorite Gorge restaurant, Stonehedge Gardens. Mike and Shawna Caldwell — Mike is a Hood River native, a former winery cellar master and a published author — bought a large estate in a private woodland at the western edge of Hood River in 2000. Today it is a continental-style, fine-dining restaurant where garden weddings are booked throughout the summer. Look for a small sign pointing up a gravel road, into the trees, off East Cascade Avenue.
I was delighted to stumble upon Marley's Corner Pub on my last trip through Hood River. It's on 13th Street in the neighborhood known as The Heights. This tiny pocket pub, which can expand outdoors with a few more seats in summer, specializes in serving Cornish pasties of beef, chicken and vegetable. It's the sort of place where I could become a regular.
Destined to become a major attraction in Hood River — but for now, a hidden discovery — is Pfriem Family Brewers. It's a brand-new brew pub in a brand-new office-and-warehouse complex beside Hood River Waterfront Park, the top local venue for water sports. Board sailors no longer have to climb the hill to downtown to relax with a frothy brew.
I find good motel value at the Vagabond Lodge. Owned by the same family since it opened in 1954, this accommodation has five blufftop acres overlooking the river near the much-more-famous Columbia Gorge Hotel. Yet rates begin at just $55 a night.
For upscale bed-and-breakfast lovers, the Sakura Ridge B&B offers a taste of farm life in the heart of a 72-acre cherry orchard just outside of town. It's a beautiful spot, and not easy to find. Make a reservation — rates start at $185 a night — and call for directions.
Like much of the best of the Gorge, it's off the beaten path.