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PORTLAND POLISHES ITS MANY ASSETS

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If it didn't rain so much in this city, so many people would move here that no one would want to live here anymore.

Under those mists, showers and torrents, Portland has it all: the cultural excitement of a major river port set in the middle of nature's wonderland, with mountains, forests, rivers and ocean within easy reach.At Portland, the valley of the rains' two rivers converge - the Willamette and the Columbia, along which you can row, sail or wind-surf. Skiing is an hour away, the ocean two hours to the west.

In the central base of the city itself, you'll find an agreeable mix of a thriving downtown, charming neighborhoods, an extraordinary park system, an exciting arts district, NBA basketball, minor-league baseball.

If you are driving, park your car downtown at any of the Smart Parks, where you can get free parking validated from a wide range of stores.

If you can't find dozens of things to do in Portland, you have a major talent for inertia.

Portland has ballet, symphony, opera and several resident theater groups. The lovely mountain town of Ashland, with its popular Shakespeare Festival, is a day's drive south. Portland's major art museum, recently renovated, is booking big international shows.

The Northwest rains breed writers and readers, who can sit behind windows and let days of books melt into nights of magazines. The city sponsors reading series, science lectures and writers' conferences.

Portland's most famous bookstore is Powell's on West Burnside, a square block stuffed with books and a reading cafe.

How big is Powell's? It comes with a map. The store has separate sections for space and time, a Sherlock Holmes reference shelf, a subsection of humor just for parodies, and an entire shelf on Australian art.

While downtown, you can stroll along the Willamette River, under a series of bridges, getting a great look at the cityscape. There are stores, cafes, parks, music and festivals along the river route.

Years ago, the waterfront had slipped into tenements, but the area has been reclaimed in handsome fashion.

Not far away on Yamhill Street is Pioneer Courthouse Square, with its fountains and gathering places. Nike Town - half-store, half-phenomenon - is nearby on Sixth Avenue.

Downtown has an arts district, a shopping area that outdraws the malls and Chinatown. The downtown Saturday market, which features food and collectibles, also runs on Sunday, when it's still called the Saturday market.

The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, known by locals as OMSI, has moved to larger facilities on the eastern side of the Willamette.

On your way into OMSI, check out the water sculpture on the roof of the power-company building across the street. If nothing seems to happen, don't give up, The surprise may take several minutes.

OMSI also contains a planetarium and an IMAX theater that shows nature films.

Much of the fun in Portland takes place outdoors, despite of, or in, the rain.

The city has scores of fountains and parks. The Japanese Gardens are spectacular; so are the Rose Gardens, and there's a formal Chinese Gardens in the works.

The city has the second largest (to the Rose Bowl Parade) grand floral parade during the Rose Festival in June, with Chinese dragon-boat races on the Willamette.

You can enjoy music outdoors at Mount Hood's jazz festival or the blues fest on the Portland waterfront.

The northwestern part of town is so regentrified - with its excess of coffeehouses, boutiques and cafes - that it could have been plucked whole from San Francisco.

The Moreland neighborhood around Bybee and Milwaukie is now dotted with trendy cafes, with the distances between them drawing closer each year.

We dined in the Moreland at Fiddleheads, which specializes in the emerging Northwest cuisine: fish, particularly salmon; wild greens; nuts and berries, often roasted in wood-fired ovens.

Then we strolled down Milwaukie to Papa Haydn's, where chocolate lovers go for artfully confected desserts. These extravaganzas run $5 a plate, but they're big enough to take half home.

Marsee Baking on Bybee is beating out the Starbucks across the street as the place to hang out. No wonder. Marsee's creative sandwiches, soups, bagels and pastries are great, and it makes the best bialys in the West.

Portland has great variety in ethnic restaurants, including Salvadoran, Brazilian, German, Lebanese, Egyptian, Czech, Jamaican, Korean, Romanian, Indian, Persian, Vietnamese, Ethiopian and Moroccan.

If you're thinking of a big outdoor day, get started in grand style at the Columbia Gorge Hotel in the town of Hood River to the east of Portland. The hotel's restaurant serves a magnificent seven-course breakfast, a traditional Oregonian way to a start a day of hiking or skiing on Mount Hood or Mount Adams, or fishing in ocean, bay or stream.

But you don't have to leave Portland to get lost in nature. The in-city hiking is as good as many wilderness areas, particularly Powell Buttes and Forest Park.

We hiked up Powell Buttes with its meadows covered with blueberry bushes, Queen Anne's lace, violet thistles and yellow daisies. From the hills you can see across the Columbia into Washington and west across the Willamette.

Unlike Arizona, where a weatherman could file ahead and take the summer off, Oregonians play weather roulette with their vacations, and so will you.

The best times to visit the Portland area: August through October. That's when you're most likely to beat the rain odds.