Willamette Valley by Train
With bicycles in tow, a couple spends three days exploring a trio of wine-country towns totally car free.
For seven years my girlfriend lived in Salem. In all that time, she never really explored wine country, even though she was smack in the middle of the Willamette Valley. Similarly, in her two decades of living in the United States, she’s never taken a journey by train. When she was a little girl growing up in Paraguay, she and her family took trains often — from their home in Asunción, the capital city, far out into the country. That’s why, as we were planning a romantic weekend away, we figured we’d visit a place she’d not properly explored with a mode of transit that, to her, was just a childhood memory.
So we booked a three-day trip on the Amtrak Cascades line, which would take us from Portland to Eugene to Albany to Salem and back home again. Plus, Amtrak lets you check your bike, too. Why not get a different perspective on traveling the valley by taking the entire trip car free? We packed a deck of cards to pass time during the ride south, and then we hopped on our bikes to catch the train at Portland’s Union Station. Our plan? Well, we didn’t really have one. We rolled into town after town, asking the locals what to do — then we did it. You can do the same, or learn from our adventures jumping trains.
Day One: Eugene
We arrived in Eugene early in the day and cycled to the Hilton, which, because of its central location, is an ideal place for a couple train-riding bikers to spend the night. From there, your options for exploring Oregon’s third-largest city are many. First things first, you can book a charter to tour the wineries in the valley’s southern region. We joined forces with Cork & Barrel Wine Tours. For $100 per person, they shepherd you around the South Willamette Valley, a quieter stretch of wine country that’s home to less-trafficked but award-winning wineries and tasting rooms. A few favorite stops included King Estate Winery, Sarver Winery and Silvan Ridge, but the husband-and-wife team can cater the tour to each group.
Back in town, we headed to Eugene’s famed and walkable Whiteaker neighborhood, an easy 1-mile ride from our hotel. The neighborhood has long been home to Eugene’s artists and activists — and you can tell. It’s filled with colorfully and imaginatively painted hostels and co-ops. Their residents might seem reclusive — virtually every window is blotted out with bookshelves or tapestries — but those communal homes are also mini performance spaces for public puppet shows, and some boast signs asking you to please feed the chickens. So we fed the chickens.
At this point, a day of riding by train, bike and wine bus had us hungry — and, yes, thirsty again. And the Whiteaker area has plenty of spots for sipping and snacking. The legendary craft brewery Ninkasi Brewing Company has a taproom here. There is also a collection of craft breweries and urban wineries within walking distance. The dining scene impresses too: Grit serves four-course dinners that change weekly. Vegetarians and vegans flock to Pizza Research Institute.
But we ended up at one of the city’s other culinary hot spots for dinner: Marché, which is a quick bike ride from the Whiteaker neighborhood. Stephanie Pearl Kimmel’s restaurant is a dazzler, with an emphasis on seasonality. And if you’re a cocktail nerd like me, it’s also the place where the Godfather of Portland cocktails, Jeffrey Morgenthaler, got his start. In fact, Morgenthaler is on record as crediting Pearl Kimmel as the person who first really encouraged him to emphasize technique and method.
After dinner we headed back to the hotel to take in a show at Eugene’s cultural hub, the Hult Center for the Performing Arts. It’s exactly 100 steps from the Hilton, and it hosts performances as diverse as the Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Festival (March 10), operatic-ballet mash-ups of Sondheim and Bernstein’s “West Side Story” (March 10), and lectures by public radio personas like This American Life’s Ira Glass (April 22). After the show let out, we walked over to Doc’s Pad Restaurant & Sports Lounge, an unpretentious sports bar right across the street from the Hult.
Day Two: Albany
More adventurous cyclists might consider taking Amtrak one-way and return to Portland on the Willamette Valley Scenic Bikeway. We, however, weren’t quite that adventurous — at least not on this trip. We boarded the train in Eugene at 9 a.m. sharp, and within 40 minutes, we were already in Albany, known for its historic architecture. The charming town seems small, but it’s unexpectedly Oregon’s 11th largest city, with a population of 50,000-plus. We had a destination in mind; the evening before, after all of Eugene’s bike shops had closed, my front inner tube and tire blew out (for dramatic effect, there was even a spark). We’d heard good words about a bike shop in Albany, so we planned to head there first thing.
We walked our bikes from the train station through an old neighborhood — one we nicknamed “the Church District” on account of all the street-corner churches — to Bike N Hike. Within moments of our arrival, the shop’s employees had me road ready. We asked them where there was a good spot to eat, and they suggested Loafer’s Station, a cafe/restaurant/bar right around the corner. We decided to cruise around the city as we waited out the 30 minutes for the bar to open. It was drizzly, and by the time those doors opened, beer and clam chowder sounded like it’d hit the spot. (It did.)
Spring in the valley means the weather can change in a minute — from a pleasant drizzle to a straight-on downpour to the sun peeking through clouds. With the rain picking up pace, we decided to look for a dry place to spend the afternoon. And we found a winner, too: The Albany Antique Mall is a 20,000-square-foot menagerie of antiques and collectibles that dates back before my grandfather’s birth. Want to buy Edison cylinders, Superman comic books, antique tools or World War II-era women’s clothes? Then this is the place. The mall even has an ancient moonshine still, a player piano and a horse-drawn carriage — if you have the cash and the means of moving them. Lugging a player piano back to Portland via bike and train seemed too much of a challenge for this trip.
After wandering around the mall for a good hour, we checked into our hotel, the out-of-the-way but bike-friendly Best Western Plus Prairie Inn. We then headed to Vault 244 for dinner. Vault specializes, as many Pacific Northwest restaurants do, in seasonal fare, steaks and seafood. But Vault isn’t another cookie-cutter steakhouse; they do everything right. I asked the server if they have big rocks for their cocktails. (I’m picky.) “Of course,” she said with a friendly look that translates to: “You mean there are bars that don’t have big rocks?” I asked her if the bartender muddles fruit into the old-fashioned. “Of course not,” she said in much the same way. I was relieved. I knew I was in the right place. I ordered an old-fashioned and the top sirloin. I never order steak, but I’m glad I did. I was drawn, rightfully, to the cut’s Manchego gratin side, which, frankly, is worth the trip to Albany alone.
Day Three: Salem
Station to station, the trip from Albany to the state’s capital city lasted exactly 30 minutes, and we pedaled a mile to the Grand Hotel, which is located right in the center of town. It’s a classy affair; not classy in that Romanov kind of over-opulence (although the lobby’s a stunner), but classy in a way that’s all about making sure you’re well taken care of and have everything you need.
We parked our bikes to amble around downtown. The wide one-ways are lined with venues, shops, restaurants and bars, so we knew we wouldn’t have to go far to entertain ourselves. To fuel up, we headed to the Taproot Lounge & Café, a crowd-funded cafe and music venue. The interior ambience is bohemian and chill, populated with a colony of jade plants and booths that are immaculately hand-painted. We stuck to brunch stalwarts — an egg sandwich and huevos rancheros.
A little-known fact about Salem is that it has a top-notch park system. After wandering around downtown, we pedaled over to Bush’s Pasture Park, a 90-acre park located among the city’s tonier southeastern neighborhoods. If you want to blend in with the locals, this is the place. Everyone uses this fine greenspace. There are paved paths throughout for bikers and walkers, but it also has a gravel running path ringing its perimeter. You’ll find a slope for soapbox derby-ers, a rose garden, people playing football, people chasing Frisbees, seniors taking power walks and pet owners walking their pups. But within minutes you’ll realize that the squirrels run the show. They’re everywhere. It’s their park; they just let people play in it.
After a day exploring Salem’s parks — and three days of biking — we figured we’d earned some screen time. As fate would have it, there was terrific theater, the Salem Cinema, located only a mile from our hotel. It solely screens independent and foreign releases.
After the credits rolled, our options for a dinner and nightcap were many: Cristo’s, an unfussy but solid pizza joint, is located across the street from the cinema. So is Barrel & Keg, a beer and wine taphouse where you can snack on food prepared at on-site food carts. Right downtown is another favorite spot among locals, Archive Coffee & Bar, which stirs up some of the city’s finest drinks.
But we took a cue from state legislators and headed back to the Grand Hotel. It’s home to Bentley’s Grill, the sleek restaurant favored by local and state officials when they’re power lunching with visiting dignitaries. Visiting dignitaries we were not, but it was a classy spot to rest our legs for our final night in the valley. The next day, the train would whisk us back to Portland in less than an hour, but this was a night for savoring — the melty Bentley burger, the bottles of Willamette Valley pinot and absolutely no need for a designated driver.
(Photos from top: Portland’s Union Station photo by Design Pics Inc / Alamy Stock Photo; bike by Violeta Rubiani; courtesy of Ninkasi Brewing Company; chickens by Violeta Rubiani; courtesy of Marché; courtesy of the Albany Antique Mall; Vault 244 by Violeta Rubiani; Deepwood Estate by Ron Cooper; courtesy of Bentley’s Grill)
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