Beervana? First Impressions of Portland via Amtrak Cascades

Portland has long been considered to have more microbreweries per-capita than anywhere else on the planet. While I have no basis to question this, I have a sneaky feeling, now that I have been there, that if you exclude the gazillion McMenamins pubs (that do not brew on-premise), then Washington’s Emerald City must now be a very close rival to Oregon’s Rose City for the title of Beervana.

But first the back-story: Portland is a fantastic Fueled by Beer destination from Seattle. So much so that while most folks were frantically doing their last minute “Buy Now With 1-Click” at Amazon.com, fighting Christmas crowds at the Malls, etc., your intrepid blogger, his long-suffering spouse, and the kiddies made the trip via Amtrak Cascades (check out the video).

Amtrak Cascades is unique among American trains; the nearest you can get to a European passenger rail experience. Cascades trains use custom-built European Talgo ’tilting’ train-sets designed for 125 mph operation between Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, and Eugene. The trains are jointly owned by Washington State and Amtrak, with additional funding kicked in by Oregon and British Columbia.

Unfortunately, due to hopelessly outdated US passenger rail infrastructure, which often gives priority to freight traffic, and limits maximum speeds to 79 mph, the 186 miles between Seattle’s King Street and Portland’s Union Station take 210 minutes. An average speed of only 53 mph.

Compared to my other inter-city train experience in recent years this is pretty sad. Our Eurostar ride in 2009 covered 306 miles between London St Pancras and Paris Gare du Nord in 135 minutes. That’s an average speed of 136 mph (maximum speed 186 mph).

But the bottom line for trips between Seattle and Portland is that you can’t drive from downtown to downtown any quicker than Cascades can get you there. And the relaxing train ride certainly gets you there in better shape than 3 1/2 hours spent dueling with cars and trucks on I-5.

Riding Amtrak Cascades versus driving is several orders of magnitude more comfortable. At the station you don’t have TSA airport BS to deal with – just show up 30-60 minutes before departure. The reclining leather seats, even in coach class, are more roomy and have more leg room than the roomiest airplane seats. Plus you are free to get up and move around, visit the bistro and dining cars, etc., whenever you want.

Some tips gained from our experience: first you have to have a reservation. Go online to Amtrak to purchase your seats and be sure to print out your booking confirmation to take with you to the station.

On arrival don’t waste your time standing in line at the ticket counter – use Amtrak’s self-service Quik-Trak machine to scan the bar code on your booking confirmation, then print your tickets (including return tickets if you want).

Tickets are like cash – don’t lose them – and don’t separate the ticket stubs. Also, be sure to sign your tickets – seriously – you need to do this. If not you’ll be made to do it at the next step. Once you have tickets in hand find a seat in the waiting area and relax.

Eventually, just before the train is ready to board, one member of your party should get in the line that forms at the boarding gate. This is where you exchange your paper tickets for a boarding card with your seat assignments – unfortuantely you can’t get seats assigned ahead of time (this struck me as the one really lame aspect of the Amtrak experience). At this point if your ticket isn’t signed you’ll incur a condescending lecture from the conductor while he/she makes you sign while holding up the line (I speak here from personal experience).

As for the seats, try to get a westerly view (right side southbound, left side going north). For much of the journey the east side of the train runs close to embankments and various other obstructions such that you can’t see as much. Also, you may want to consider avoiding seats 29-36. These are the two groups of four seats at the end of each car that face each other with a table in between (photo gallery).

They sound nice but be aware you’ll be right next to the sliding door leading out to the vestibule that houses the restroom. Sitting here, the constant swish-swoosh of the door opening and closing gets old really fast. And when the door does open, if someone left the restroom without closing the door (the majority of culprits were female for some unknown reason), you’ll get to enjoy the increasingly rank odor that emanates from the ‘little room’ as the journey progresses.

We had seats 31/32/35/36 in both directions but even with the issues just mentioned it really didn’t spoil our enjoyment of the trip too much. As long as the train departs on time, and stays on schedule, this is absolutely the only way to go between Seattle and Portland. We look forward to riding Amtrak Cascades again.

So now we have arrived at Union Station in the heart of downtown Portland. This is where TriMet, one of the best transit systems in America, operates. Inside the downtown core all rail trips are free: MAX light rail; Portland Streetcar; just hop on and hop off. The nearest MAX station is just one block away.

We quickly grew to like downtown Portland a lot. It’s really easy to get around on foot, covering longer distances using MAX or the Streetcar.

Compared to Seattle, Portland’s city blocks are smaller, its streets narrower, while sidewalks are wider, all of which makes downtown Portland very compact and eminently walkable. It is also very clean, and from the Willamette River over to I-405, almost completely flat – unlike Seattle. In many ways Portland reminded us of some of the neighborhoods we encountered in San Francisco and, particularly in the Pearl District, a lot like Seattle’s Belltown – again minus the hills.

During our brief 4 day visit we managed to cover pretty much all of the downtown districts enclosed by the Willamette River and I-405. First on the list was Voodoo Doughnuts – we had to see what all the fuss is about. We found two great breakfast spots: Mother’s Bistro and Bijou Cafe.

And as the title of this post implies, ultimately we were out to test Portland’s claim to Beervana. We managed to sample the brews at four brewpubs: Deschutes; Bridgeport; Rock Bottom; and Rogue.

Since this post has gone on long enough I will post separately for each place we visited.

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3 comments

  1. Thanks for this post, Paul. We NEED to go to Portland SOON and planned to during the holidays but we all took turns getting the flu and now the break is over, darn it anyway. But just as soon as we are well and find a block of time we’ll have to take a train to visit the Portland relatives. Thanks for the reminder!

  2. Spot on with this write-up, I seriously believe this website needs far more attention.
    I’ll probably be returning to read through more, thanks for the advice!

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