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A “Cooler” Trip Than I'd Imagined: Albany NY to Portland OR & BC by Train

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Jun 30th, 2013, 11:26 AM
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A “Cooler” Trip Than I'd Imagined: Albany NY to Portland OR & BC by Train

*How The Trip was Concocted*

For this year’s summer vacation, up until around March, I had been acting in an uncharacteristically uninspired, wishy-washy fashion and had not determined a plan of attack as to where or if I would travel. I don’t know if any of you ever feel like this, but due to the number of choices out there, I became paralyzed as to where to go. THEN, all of a sudden in the midst of my fickleness, one of my long-time friends with whom I socialized regularly moved for work from Montreal, where I live, to Vancouver BC. At first, since I like to open my eyes by visiting somewhere new, since I had been to Vancouver in 2005 and briefly in 2008, since a return visit had not been on my mind particularly etc…, I told him that I didn’t think I’d be visiting this year, to which he seemed resignedly disappointed.

Then, all of sudden thanks to this turn of events, a plan for my summer vacation dawned on me! I’d never been to Portland, OR before and could combine a visit to that city with a trip to Vancouver BC to see my friend. I’d also been craving a long-distance train ride and I’d never taken the Empire Builder train route that went from Chicago to Portland. Those of you who’ve seen my prior trip reports might be aware that the train is a form of travel I seek out. Portland , being a city some folks had mentioned as being progressive with a cycling culture, had long piqued my curiosity although I must admit had not been close to the top of my list of places to visit due to its distance and my perception of its similarity to other Pacific Northwest cities. Ultimately though, the thought of seeing the Pacific Northwest again with its mighty trees and dramatic landscapes convinced me that this was the trip I must do. My last trip to the Pacific Northwest was 5 years ago and I felt it had now been too long.

As it turned out, all the sleepers from Chicago to Portland were sold-out, so I ended up going with the Chicago to Seattle train, which I had taken when I’d visited Seattle and Victoria 5 years ago. While I was disappointed, it turned out for the best as I got to meet a Vietnamese friend for lunch in Seattle who I’d not seen since high school (24 years ago!) and we had a terrific visit, as I got to meet her 5-year-old twin girls and go to one of her favorite Vietnamese restaurants in Seattle.

*The trip*

June 15-- morning Greyhound bus from Montreal QC to Albany NY. Albany NY (4 hours to explore). Leave Albany 7 pm on Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited for Chicago.
June 16—Chicago IL (2.5 hours walking downtown). Leave Chicago 2:15 pm to Seattle on Amtrak’s Empire Builder.
June 18—Seattle (2.5 hours in Seattle with high school friend). Leave Seattle 2pm on Amtrak’s Cascades Train for Portland OR (arrival ~6pm).
June 18-21—Portland Oregon and vicinity
June 21—Amtrak from Portland to Vancouver BC.
June 21-25— Vancouver BC
June 25-29-- VIA Rail’s Canadian and Windsor/QC Corridor trains from Vancouver-Toronto-Montreal

*The bus/train rides &layovers in cities I’d been to before*

How I enjoyed my 4 hour return to Albany! The view of the handsome state Capitol and nearby hills by the reflecting pools in front of “the Egg” made for a nice place to sit and read a book. So quiet, so under-appreciated I thought as almost all I could hear was the wind gently breezing over the Empire State Plaza with only maybe a half-dozen other souls scattered over the entire large expanse with me. Lark Street still has a fun vibe, a good place to go for a coffee, surrounded by those charming narrow side streets with a early-13-colonies look to them. I discovered a pedestrian walkway which took me over to a path adjacent the Hudson River and enjoyed watching the families strolling, kids pushing themselves along on scooter or skateboard, couples sitting in the grass or on a dock admiring their waterway—a side of Albany I think many don’t see.

The train from Albany to Chicago had some lovely river and lakeviews, passing adjacent the Mohawk River, Lake Erie for surprisingly long stretches and a bit adjacent Lake Michigan just before Chicago. While I had been on this train before, I’d never been on it westbound and never along the Albany-Buffalo stretch. While I’ve not seen it listed as one of North America’s most scenic train rides, it certainly is no slouch as far as beauty is concerned in some parts.

The train was late arriving in Chicago, leaving me 2.5 hours in this city I’d not seen since 2008. I walked straight from Union Station to Lake Michigan and back. I enjoy the contrast of Chicago with east coast cities. Downtown Chicago denizens, regardless of race, seem to have a more clean-cut, all-American look about them, that differs from the more gritty east. Chicago to my eyes has such as clean new-ness and polish about it, that even things that are probably not so new, such as the “El” train tracks, have an air of youth about them somehow. Perhaps it’s just the people and sights I’ve chanced upon, but I’ve also perceived an upbeat optimism and innovation to the city.

The last time I took the Empire Builder train from Chicago to Seattle, I was bussed from Chicago to Minneapolis due to floods in Wisconsin. This time however, rather than getting a boring old highway, I was pleasantly surprised by some of the beautiful views of the tall hills rising like islands out of the Mississippi River next to the tracks as we passed through the state of Wisconsin. It reminded me in some ways of the spectacular coastal mountain islands of British Columbia in look but on a smaller scale. I must say, I really wasn’t expecting the Wisconsin portion of the ride to be quite this scenically beautiful. Even downtown Milwaukee looked more interesting than I’d imagined it, with some busy-looking charming restaurant terraces floating along a waterfront.

Glacier National Park in Montana, with its snow-capped mountains, icy green-blue rushing rivers and streams; the Cascade Mountains in Washington with the unfathomably tall firs, spruce and pine; the close-by views of the Puget Sound with the Olympic Mountains in the background as you make the final sally toward Seattle: all three conspire to make the journey from western Montana onward a near-constant “wow” fest in admiration of the dramatic scenery. I was reminded of myself on my first trip to the Pacific Northwest in 2005 upon talking to one of my fellow passengers who had never been further west than Louisiana who told me her eyes were glued to the window. Even though I’d done the trip before, as an easterner, I find my eyes too drawn to the scenery in admiration and sometimes disbelief.

**My thoughts on Portland, Oregon coming up**
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Jun 30th, 2013, 12:26 PM
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Great report. I have done bits of this trip but really enjoy your report. It takes a confident person to admit to admiring Albany! The Chicago-Twin Cities portion was a very pleasant surprise to me, too.

I hope you can write a bit about your logistics -- what you packed, wore, how you managed it when you were doing explorations between trains, what you ate, how you passed the time in the Empty Quarter. I am also not quite clear on whether you had sleeper accommodations.

Thanks.
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Jun 30th, 2013, 02:35 PM
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I am really enjoying this trip report. Thanks for sharing.
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Jun 30th, 2013, 02:40 PM
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Thanks for the kind words about Chicago!! I rather fancy that city better than NYC myself! (but I'm from down-state Illinois so perhaps I am biased...)
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Jun 30th, 2013, 02:44 PM
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No one does a better trip report, Daniel. I am enjoying it immensely.
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Jul 1st, 2013, 10:04 AM
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*Portland, Oregon, a must see?*

Of the cities in the Pacific Northwest (Vancouver, Seattle, Victoria, some might even include San Francisco in this category), Portland seems to me to get the least prospective visitor attention of the group (possibly inaccurately?). In a certain sense, I get “why”. Unlike Portland, the others combine city with snow-capped mountain viewing and/or spectacular views of large bodies of water. Seattle’s on the Puget Sound, Vancouver’s on the Georgia Strait, Victoria’s on the Juan de Fuca Strait, San Francisco’s transit system takes you to the Pacific Ocean itself, while Portland is on the Willamette River only and while I am to understand that Mount Hood is visible sometimes, I never saw it. Also, sketched-out individuals, folks that have unfortunately fallen through the cracks due to what I imagine to be heavy-duty drugs, seemed sadly peppered throughout Portland, it seemed to me more than in other cities I’ve visited.

*Yet* while I’m hesitant to use the word must-see for anywhere, I feel that *Portland is as much of a must-see* as the other NW destinations. Why? The vagrancy issue did not prevent me from coming to the conclusion that the Portland neighbourhoods I saw seemed to me in many ways to be models of urban living. From both the Alphabet District where I stayed as well as the nearby Pearl District, one could walk from an oasis of greenery with charming homes to one’s downtown job and have access to a wide array of interesting independent restaurants, bars and breweries; I even saw a bourbon bar with a patio, which I don’t think I’ve seen in other cities. Despite the advertisements for “the People’s Republic of Portland” undoubtedly poking fun at the “left”-leaning nature of the west coast city, Portland is far from communism. Capitalism and entrepreneurial spirit seem incredibly robust, what with the proliferation of independent, innovative and uniquely Portland food carts as well as unique pub-like establishments. The city has a vibe that I can only describe as kind of “Bohemian hipster”, plenty of tattoos and piercings and funky hairstyles, which I’m sure would make it a fun place to be for progressive twenty- and thirty-somethings. However, it’s for none of these reasons that I think Portland is as equally a must-see as its West Coast sisters, but rather due to what I consider to be its ace-in-the-hole…its proximity to the spectacular Columbia River Gorge.

*Portland International Guesthouse*

I stayed at the Portland International Guesthouse, near 22nd St. and Flanders in the leafy Alphabet District, a handsome wooden home that reminded me of the style one sees in Capitol Hill in Seattle. The guesthouse is a homey, welcoming, well-maintained base within easy walking distance of a Trader Joe’s as well as a number of coffee, dining and alcohol-drinking locales. At approximately $70/night, I’d recommend it for a highly independent, budget-conscious traveller. Guests that require constant catering may wish to choose another establishment as it’s a pretty hands-off affair where there’s no one manning a desk, although apparently the proprietors are available by phone. I saw them only twice during my stay and they were impeccably cheerful & helpful at those times. The shopping in the Pearl District is maybe 10 minutes away and downtown attractions are about a 20 minute walk; the #77 bus will also whisk you downtown if so desired. I often took the NS Streetcar from downtown toward my hotel for the fun of it even though the tram dropped me off a few blocks away from my guesthouse at 21st and Northrup. One nice thing about staying in the Alphabet District is that the streets are arranged alphabetically north-south and numerically east-west, so you always know where you are and how far you have to walk.

*Downtown Portland*

After exploring the “hipster” vibrant immediate vicinity of my guesthouse the first night with its architectural charm and greenery, I woke up the second day with intention of checking out the downtown and waterfront for the a.m.. I started each day with a pick-me-up café Americano with raisin bran muffin at what became my morning Portland routine at World Cup Coffee& Tea on 18th and Glisan. Since I’d asked a friendly staff member some questions about how one pays for the streetcar, I’d given myself away as an out-of-towner visiting Portland for the first time and consequently was asked each day what their visiting Montrealer had done the day before, which I found a wonderfully human way to begin each morning and generally representative of the by-and-large friendly welcome Portland residents gave me.

Walking about 20 minutes downtown, my first stop was the Tom McCall Waterfront Park along the Willamette River; while not the prettiest waterfront I’ve ever seen as it’s rather industrial in look, I appreciated the sight of the many bridges crossing the river, offering what I think of as an iconic Portland vista. Along the way, I enjoyed seeing the density of food carts Portland is known for, which indeed carry uncharacteristic non-hot-dog food-cart-fare, such as the Czech option Tabór with its schnitzelwich, highly recommended Thai, etc… The crowd of folks watching a game of bocce ball in the green North Park Blocks; the chess game occurring with giant pieces and a chessboard painted on the concrete in a downtown square; a farmer’s market in the leafy South Park Blocks where I got a terrific tamale from a food cart: all these seemed to me to be examples of Portlanders working together to create a good quality of life for their fellow citizens.

My main downtown stop was the Portland Museum of Art, which I’d recommend for their collection of Native American artwork. Having been to the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, the Burke Museum in Seattle and the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver on prior visits, I’m pleased with myself that I’ve moved from total ignorance of Pacific Northwest peoples to a point that, at this my fourth museum on the topic, I can now instantly recognize the distinctive use of shape, colour and material of the Kwakwaka'wakw and to some degree Tlingit peoples even before reading the labels. Additionally, I enjoyed seeing the basalt carvings of the Native American peoples that lived along the Columbia River which were recently discovered from archeological sites; these are exclusively found at the Portland Art Museum I believe. The style of carving is fascinatingly quite different to that of the aforementioned tribes.

After my morning downtown and after a brief nap, I walked from my guesthouse to Washington Park with its International Rose Test Garden and Japanese Gardens in about 20 minutes. The International Rose Test Garden had an incredible variety of roses, some of which were deliciously fragrant, some multicoloured, some climbing along archways or gathered at the top of a pole like a tree; one variety was even purple! At times the roses were as far as the eye could see, in beautiful arrays of colour. While the Japanese Garden ($9.50) was well-planned with stone walkways, ponds with colourful large koi fish, trickling mini-waterfalls and raked rock gardens in a delightful setting of tall spruce, fir and pine, to me the International Rose Test Garden was my favourite Washington Park attraction and not only due its exorbitant price of FREE! The rose garden is such a gift for Portlanders which I hope they don't take for granted.

*Coming Up: Columbia River Gorge. I Don’t Drive. How Did I Get There?*
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Jul 1st, 2013, 01:12 PM
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I vote Astoria if you are interested in History. Carmel of Oregon describes it perfectly.
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Jul 1st, 2013, 01:15 PM
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Whoops, wrong thread
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Jul 1st, 2013, 02:51 PM
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*Columbia River Gorge*

I generally avoid Gray Line Tours as I prefer independent travel, but I decided I would use them anyway my second day in Portland since two Fodorites told me the Gorge was “not-to-be-missed” and I couldn’t piece together another way to get there. Unfortunately, due to uncharacteristic lack of preparation on my part and surprising ignorance of the tour at the Portland Tourist Information Center, I only determined the night before (after the Gray Line Offices were closed) that there was *ONE* four-and-a-quarter hour Columbia River Gorge Tour daily by Gray Line, leaving at 8:45am. So, I decided to wing it, get up early and just show up at the Box Office and hope tickets were still available. Luckily for me, not only was a $49 ticket available but there were only five people on our tour likely due to the drizzly, unpropitious weather: one Japanese couple, a friendly/chatty Hawaiian mother, her early teenage son and myself. As a result, we got a very personalized tour and got to see an extra waterfall on the Columbia River Gorge highway due to the small number of passengers; it even almost seemed like we were a family toward the end of the tour.

Now that I’ve been I find it amazing that I had only heard of the Columbia River Gorge when I had asked a question on Fodor’s two months ago! Whether it was the view from Vista House of the tall fjord-like bluffs surrounding the wide and mighty Columbia River or whether it were the views of Latourell Falls (pronounce: “lateral falls”) and Multnomah Falls as you were refreshed with a fine mist from the spray of the several-hundred-feet tall waterfalls as you admired the steep mossy, rocky cliffs in a dramatic setting of fern and tall-conifer-filled temperate rain forest, in my mind the Columbia River Gorge must be up there as one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen in my life. The Gray Line bus driver/tour guide was fantastic, regaling the passengers with a keen knowledge of local geology and history as we passed a variety of spots along the old Columbia River Gorge Highway. Since we were only five passengers and did not lose time unloading/loading, he even included a stop at his favourite Columbia River Gorge viewpoint, Shepherd’s Dell, a smaller waterfall, but an interesting one geometrically as it fell in a narrow ribbon and then blossomed into a wider ribbon as it hit a rock shelf.

The tour ended with a stop at Bonneville Dam, where we saw the salmon ladders as well as a fish hatchery juxtaposed with the conifer-filled steep banks rising majestically next to the Columbia River. Due to presence of the dam, the salmon ladders were built to give the salmon a way to return to their spawning ground; it was incredible to watch the salmon through a window in sometimes hordes valiantly and powerfully fighting their way up-current through the ladders while lampreys swayed and writhed in the current with their ghastly faces stuck like a plunger against the bottom of the glass window.

The fish hatchery was every bit as interesting, as not only could one feed the beautifully coloured rainbow trout who gobbled up the fishy-smelling food pellets in a frenzy, but one could see Herman the Sturgeon, a 70-year-old 10-foot-long specimen of that ancient fish. I thought Herman seemed to have a manatee-like sweetness and cuteness about him, with his sad (and indeed blind) Droopy the Dog eyes and slightly-downturned mouth, which indeed seemed to elicit much pathos from the onlookers. He seemed to enjoy the attention since when he got near the glass as he would linger in front of us, possibly feeling our vibrations. Few fish make me think of the word “hug”, and call me crazy, I felt Herman could have used a “hug”.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AWQg0cUVR0w

To Fodor’s members mms and bardo1, I give heartfelt thanks. Without your words of encouragement for me to break from my usual independent travel habits and take a tour to the Columbia River Gorge, I never would have discovered what I now consider to be amongst the most beautiful places on the North American continent. To the good citizens of Oregon, I thank you too, since I learned that in 1986 laws were passed that you largely support to designating the area along the Columbia River Gorge Highway as a Historical National Scenic Area, which will hopefully protect it for many years to come against development and environmental spoil.

*Coming up in the Canada forum: My third trip to Vancouver BC, where I see interesting parts of that city missed on prior visits.*
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Jul 2nd, 2013, 11:07 AM
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ackislander--I'm glad you're enjoying and thanks for reading. In answer to your questions: 1. I did have a sleeper (a roomette). 2. For the Chicago/Albany part, a pair of pants and T-shirt sufficed, while on the West Coast, sweater and occasionally even a fall jacket were needed. 3. I had a rolling medium-size suitcase and kept essentials in an easy-access backpack. Both came with me as I meandered Albany and while I visited my friend in Seattle; the suitcase luckily went into a luggage storage area in Chicago. 4. Amtrak fare had set options: the ones I remember were the herb-roasted chicken, an AAA signature steak, a vegetarian pasta dish with lentils, ribs, tilapia. Eggs served in a desired style for breakfast or omelette; hash browns/grits and/or bacon/sausage as a side. There was a lighter option (yogourt/granola?) as well and a heavier option (pancakes?), but I didn't go with those. I varied what I got from meal to meal, with the quality varying from good to OK. 5. To pass the time: I read books on my e-reader or did crossword puzzles. A fair amount of time was spent admiring scenery and chatting with passengers that I'd met in the dining car. There was a wine-and-cheese tasting one day in the dining car of the Empire Builder and park rangers regaled passengers in the panoramic viewing car with information about the history and geology of the region. Curiously, I've discovered I don't get bored travelling this way despite the length of the journey but find it instead mostly fun meeting new people from all different walks of life. I always learn a lot as I travel this way-- met a guy who works the oil rigs in North Dakota; his world seemed a totally different world from my own.

willowjane, cmcfong-- Glad you're enjoying and thanks again for reading!

simpsonc510--Chicago & New York seem such different slices of America to me; I do find that both make for interesting strolling!
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Jul 2nd, 2013, 01:20 PM
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Thanks for letting us know how it all went. Sounds like you had a great time!
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Jul 2nd, 2013, 08:15 PM
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Looking forward to your report on the Canadian and a comparison of the ViaRail sleeper cars and the Amtrak Superliner roomette.
Over the past 11 years I have been on all of the trains you rode.
For your next LD trip west of Chicago, I suggest the California Zephyr at least as far as Sacramento. It is easy to get a Capitol Corridor train and bus from Sacramento to San Francisco.
I am still looking forward to my first overnight trip in a roomette. I'm a confirmed coach rider.
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Jul 3rd, 2013, 06:02 AM
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Thanks for the report. I'm a train fan and I did a similar trip last year, except I took the California Zephyr to San Francisco, the Cascades to Portland and Seattle, and then the ferry to Victoria before taking the Canadian. I'm looking forward to riding the Empire Builder on a future trip.

I thought the Canadian had the best food (would you believe perfectly cooked rack of lamb with a delicious sauce?) and the best roomette was probably the Lake Shore Limited (it's a Viewliner, not a Superliner), although the Canadian was close. But the best views were from the Zephyr.

It's very important to book early for Amtrak - even booking in December there were only two dates in April when I could get the cheapest sleeper rates. I got a special deal (I think it was 50% off) on ViaRail by booking in January and traveling before May.

I'm another convert to Chicago, which I preferred to New York. I was doing the trip to decide whether I wanted to move to Portland, but although I liked the city, if I were moving I'd chose Seattle. Can't fault the Columbia Gorge, though, and I also enjoyed a visit to the coast (but I was staying with someone with a car).

For my TR start here: http://mytimetotravel.wordpress.com/...shore-limited/
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Jul 3rd, 2013, 09:27 AM
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This is a great trip report, and I especially enjoyed the part about Portland.

My daughter will be starting college in a couple months with PDX being the closest airport, so I imagine during the next several years I'll be spending some time visiting the city and its surrounding area. We were in Portland for a couple of days this past March during a college visit trip, but we didn't have much time to explore other things in the city.

I'm tentatively planning a trip to visit during her spring break (well, that is if she still wants me to visit) and am going to put the Columbia River Gorge on the list as a place to see.
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Jul 3rd, 2013, 10:01 AM
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chepar--Lucky you!!! If you don't mind sharing, which college did she choose?
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Jul 3rd, 2013, 02:41 PM
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mms - my daughter chose Linfield in McMinnville. It wasn't her top choice, but I think she's becoming excited about attending. I'm just glad she was listening when I talked about the dangers of taking on large student debt (which her top choices would have required) - especially since she will need to go to graduate school if she sticks with her current interests (art history).

I'm glad her school is within close proximity of an interesting city and smack dab in the middle of wine country - during our March visit I brought a case of wine home with me and am looking forward to visiting more wineries in the future.
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Jul 3rd, 2013, 03:20 PM
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chepar--Linfield is a great school and I absolutely love Mac It is about 25 minutes from where I live, so I am down there a lot. All the kids I know that chose that school really like it, FWIW.
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Jul 3rd, 2013, 05:11 PM
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Link to Vancouver part of the trip if you're interested:

http://www.fodors.com/community/cana...-vancouver.cfm
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Jul 4th, 2013, 02:57 AM
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As an ex-Portland area resident (now living in Europe), I really enjoyed your report. We're hoping to go back for a visit sometime in the next few years.

When we lived in the area, our favorite way to see the Columbia River Gorge was through a vintage bi-plane ride. We did that three times, each time was fabulous. The pilot flies as low as legally allowed and you see things from a completely different perspective.

The tour company we used is no longer in business, but here is another operator: http://www.jimsbiplanerides.com/
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Jul 4th, 2013, 06:52 AM
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In McMinnville you should visit the Evergreen Aviation Museum and see the "Spruce Goose" http://www.evergreenmuseum.org/
There are wineries to visit in that area if you like.
For a great hike, walk up the paved/stepped trail at Multnomah Falls.
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