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Portland abounds with stunning vistas

Serendipity happens, as long as you let it.

And Portland seems to be the kind of place that fosters serendipity.Take a wrong turn looking for Washington Park, and your error turns into an excursion, with stunning views and a drive-by tour of grand old homes.

Set out on a downtown stroll to see the sights, and you might decide it's too cold to pause to consult a map. Never mind - you'll stumble across the Old Church and the Portland Building on your own.

And maybe you won't buy a Turkish rug or a carved wooden door at Nostalgic Nomad, in the Nob Hill neighborhood. But music with good energy fills the shop, sending you to a record store across the street in search of the CD. The search becomes an adventure in itself.

Portland invites accidental discovery. With the help of friendly residents, this pleasant, open city seems to welcome visitors.

It's easy to get around, too. Wide downtown sidewalks encourage strolling, with benches every so often for breaks. And despite (or perhaps because of) the numbered avenues that seem to extend in every direction, it's easy to find your way when you're driving. The Willamette River, slicing through the city, provides instant orientation.

But it's no accident that this city of nearly half a million (1.2 million in the metro area) is manageable and pleasant. City leaders have concentrated their efforts in recent decades on making it that way. A riverside freeway was ripped out and replaced with a park, regional bus and light-rail systems created, downtown retail revitalized and middle-income housing built.

Portland is in northwest Oregon, at the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette rivers. It's in easy striking distance - 80 miles or so - of the Pacific Ocean; scenic areas such as the Columbia River Gorge and Mount Hood are even closer. A visitor can get a good feel for the city in a couple of days.

Start with a stroll by the Willamette to get your bearings. Tom McCall Waterfront Park is in the middle of things, on the downtown side of the river. Its two-mile length encompasses lawns, trees, fountains and promenades - and, of course, river views.

Bridges, some of them drawbridges, span the brisk current. Excursion boats offer sightseeing options in warmer months; toward the south end of the downtown area you'll find RiverPlace Marina, where yachts and cabin cruisers drop anchor near gift shops, restaurants and condominiums.

Mount Hood is omnipresent. In promotional brochures, telephoto lenses make it appear closer than it really is. Nevertheless, it's a very real presence throughout the city, cropping up unexpectedly as you round a turn or glowing magically after the city is swathed in evening shadow.

Keep strolling, back to the west, into the heart of Portland's downtown. These streets are made for walking: past the First Congregational Church, built of basalt in Venetian Gothic style in 1895, and the Old Church, an 1883 wooden Carpenter Gothic that would have been torn down without preservationists' intervention.

Continue on to the Portland Building, designed by architect Michael Graves and considered the first postmodern structure in the United States. It's fronted by the 36-foot figure of Portlandia, the second-largest hammered-bronze statue in the country (the Statue of Liberty is bigger). You'll also pass Pioneer Courthouse Square, a former parking lot, now a brick-paved gathering place that serves as a focal point of downtown revitalization.

Swing back north toward Chinatown and the Skidmore/Old Town area. An ornate, red and gold gate flanked by lion statues marks the entrance to Chinatown, appearing a bit out of place among the adult bookstores and other seedy surroundings. If it's getting toward evening or you're alone, consider passing by the gate instead of through it.

Keep walking back toward the river to the Skidmore section, where buildings dating to the late 1800s now house fashionable shops, galleries and restaurants. Near the Skidmore Fountain, the Portland Saturday Market - offering arts and crafts, food and street performances - operates on weekends from March through Christmas.

For additional sightseeing, you'll need to go a bit farther afield.

Washington Park ought to be high on your list. Its 332 acres overlooking the city were planned by the Olmsted brothers, of the family of landscape architects who created New York City's Central Park and San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. A clear day presents a fine view of Portland and Mount Hood.

The park is renowned for its International Rose Test Garden, which with its 41/2 acres of roses (7,000 bushes) is spectacular in season - late May through the end of September, with peak bloom in June. A grassy amphitheater and a Shakespearian garden adjoin the rose garden.

The park also embraces the Japanese gardens, whose seven acres of ponds, grasses, arched wooden bridges, clipped shrubs, winding paths and dripping boulders form a serene oasis. A carefully raked rock garden is enclosed to exclude the world - but not the pine cones and twigs that dot it, fallen from the trees above.

The Pittock Mansion, a 1914 chateau, commands a high, 46-acre site. From its terrace you can see Mount Hood, Mount St. Helens and Mount Rainier, as well as the ships, cranes and warehouses along the Willamette River, and you can glimpse the Columbia River in the distance.

Even if you don't care to tour the mansion's rooms - ranging in style from Turkish to Edwardian - you can take lunch or tea at the Gate Lodge.

Nob Hill is a trendy district along Northwest 23rd Avenue. Many of its Victorian and Georgian homes have been transformed into restaurants, galleries and shops. Chains such as Pottery Barn (and, of course, the ubiquitous Starbucks) mingle with one-of-a-kind operations, such as the aforementioned Nostalgic Nomad.


Additional Information

If you go

For information, call Portland Oregon Visitors Association, (800) 962-3700.

For winter reservations in the Portland area, call (888) 606-6363.