Did you know Portland is the 10th most-haunted city in America? And there's a spot downtown to plug in your electric car? Even more interesting, did you know inmates at the Inverness Jail distill canned fruit to make a contraband alcohol—and they call it Pruno?
We didn't know any of that, either, until we spent countless hours—hours we will never reclaim—on almost every tour Portland has to offer. We thought we knew this city. Turns out, this place is a lot weirder than we ever imagined.
Now, thanks to our perseverance and amazing sense of adventure, you know exactly which tours to check out next time the parents are in town (or you need a three-hour-long alibi). And, you now know which tourists to laugh at when they zip past you, snapping pictures. (Hint: It's the suckers who paid almost $40 to spend three hours on a bus tour of downtown, not the ones blowing duck whistles on an amphibious vehicle in the river.)
There was exactly one reason why I wanted to go on the Willamette Jetboat: to go fast. Okay, there was another reason too: Miami Vice, where people ride in speedboats as often as they ride in Ferraris. Bewilderingly, there are no Ferrari tours of Portland—so speeding along the Willamette in a boat seemed like the next best thing.
And it is! Launching from OMSI, Willamette Jetboat Excursions offers two routes: a "Two-Hour Scenic Tour" that goes from Swan Island to the Willamette River Falls, and a "One-Hour Bridge Tour" that goes from OMSI to Swan Island. I did the two-hour version, 'cause I can't get enough of going fast in boats.
And, mostly, that's what happened—in the blue, low-slung boat carrying about 60 people, our chatty pilot/tour guide ferried us under bridges and past landmarks, peppering his almost-interesting historical factoids with increasingly lame jokes. Past Lake Oswego's riverfront mansions and all the way to the Falls—which, charmingly, sit nestled next to a reeking paper factory—I realized there was a lot more to the Willamette than I knew. (Free Willy was filmed in like, Oaks Park, or whatever.)
At times, the tour was unbearably slow—there must be some stupid laws about how fast one can go on certain parts of the river, because all too often, we crept at, like, five miles per hour through residential areas, with little to do other than leer into houses or gaze longingly at people on jet skis. But our pilot made up for those parts by laying off the goofy jokes and pouring on the speed, making the fast, surprisingly maneuverable boat jump over the waves, skid across the water's surface, and spin into doughnuts. Those parts were so, so awesome that I wholeheartedly recommend the jetboat tour to (A) anyone who likes to go fast in boats (which is everyone), and (B) anyone who likes to pretend that they're in a speedboat that's heading from Miami to Havana, with Phil Collins blasting on the stereo while they prepare to down some mojitos and shoot cocaine dealers in the face (which is also everyone). ERIK HENRIKSEN
Willamette Jetboat Excursions, 1945 SE Water, 231-1532, willamettejet.com, April-Oct, $20-30
A Pearl District Binge
There's probably no worse time to eat your way through the Pearl District than in the middle of a 100-degree heat wave—and I know, the organizers of Epicurean Excursion can't help that. But I must be honest—while desperately trying to remember this was worth $59 (and that I'd better enjoy it)—I was already sweating through my shirt, trousers, and shoes when we tramped into Elephant's Deli at 10 am to start with their orange and tomato soup.
By the time we arrived at the BridgePort Brewery I had to ask Albert, the keg master, for a few extra samples just to cool down. Fortunately, he took pity on me—however a fellow tour member, rabid-keen to discuss the juggling scene in Chicago (the city, not the musical) greatly tempered my newly acquired inebriation. Sadly, having already weirded out the rest of the group, I think this juggler mistook my incoherent, heat-drunk moans for an expression of interest, and he kept talking at me throughout our tour of the bread shop.
Next, we went to Tea Zone, which was tea-ish, as expected. I don't care if people claim that tea is supposed to cool you down—it doesn't. Then we walked straight past the shady, tempting Low Brow Lounge on our way to Hot Lips Pizza—passing up an aperitif of cold beer and mini corn dogs in the process. Somehow, after Hot Lips and far too little Pinot Noir, I found myself cooling off in air-conditioned bliss at Via Delizia, eating gelato under a plastic olive tree—a bizarrely serene finale to an otherwise relentless experience.
All said, the tour tasted pretty good, but I couldn't help wondering if those wanting to taste what's truly the best of this city would be better off taking their 60 bucks to the farmers' market—maybe on a rainy (or at least slightly cooler) day. MATT DAVIS
Epicurean Excursion, 774-4522, portlandwalkingtours.com, Fri-Sat, 10 am, $59
A Three-Hour (Bus) Tour
This was not a great way to spend my Saturday morning. After two and a half hours trapped in a Gray Line Bus with 10 retirees and a driver/tour guide who reminded me of my corniest uncle, the Portland City Tour was stuck on W Burnside, unable to get to the Chinese Garden in Old Town, thanks to massive construction. I was going to die on this bus full of old people, I text messaged friends, in case they began to start caring what happened to me.
At least I can say I saw the International Rose Test Garden in Washington Park before I died. And I'd learned that Portlandia—the massive statue on the Portland Building, across the street from city hall—is the second largest hammered-copper statue, behind the Statue of Liberty. I'd also learned that tour guide bus drivers deal with the sight of Old Town's large homeless population by referring to them as "residentially challenged" people, and elderly tourists react to the sight of Voodoo Doughnut by wondering aloud if there's a Krispy Kreme in Portland. Also, tourists are apparently easily entertained: The guide treated us to jokes about "The Failblazers" as we passed the Rose Garden, Tonya "Ol' Knee Whacker" Harding, and how you can "always tell a dogwood by its bark." Yikes.
Thankfully, we finally escaped the Burnside bottleneck, and arrived at the Chinese Garden a half hour late (I lived!). The garden was gorgeous. But I was so happy the tour was over. AMY JENNIGES
Portland City Tour, 888-684-3322, portland.coachusa.us, May-Oct, daily, 9 am & 1 pm, $37.50
After a previous night on the town, my friend and I barreled out to the Leach Gardens on a Saturday morning for their only weekly tour. Our speeding was ultimately unnecessary, since we were the only tourgoers. Rushing to outer SE Portland only served to make us bright-eyed and positively dorky. My companion, in fact, pushed our grandfatherly guide to the edge of sanity with his limitless questions. Although enthusiasm isn't discouraged, bear in mind that all tours are volunteer-led.
As we toured the lush grounds, there were no real surprises: It kicks off with a bit of history about the park and its two botanist founders, and continues with a pleasant stroll through the woods.
With over 15 acres of foliage, you'll be up to your yucca in zinnias and lobelias. Did you know that the Oregon Grape is the state flower? And did you know that there exists an impostor Oregon Grape?
One unadvertised perk of the tour is access into the otherwise-restricted Leach family's oh-so-cute stone cabin alongside Johnson Creek. This li'l lodge—home to the botanist couple before the manor house was finished—sports petrified wood and the most exquisite stone floor this side of 122nd.
Run by Portland Parks and Recreation, the Leach Garden receives very little money from the city and charges no admission for visitors. So, unless you're renting the space for your bat mitzvah or wedding reception, don't be a jerk—leave a donation or buy some ferns in the gift shop.
The tour's length (roughly an hour) is perfect—not only because a wooded walk can get tiring after a while, but because the fresh air will make you hungry. Fortunately, 122nd boasts many burrito shacks. WILL GARDNER
Leach Botanical Garden, 6704 SE 122nd, 823-9503, March-Nov, Sat, 10 am, free
Shanks and Suicide Watch
Probably the least attractive method of attaining a tour of Portland's Inverness Jail is to become an inmate— something I'd advise you to avoid. But, if you have a good reason and can pass the background check, Inverness Jail will usually accommodate your desire to tour the facility. Personally, I think every citizen should care about how their tax dollars are spent, but usually the people who request the tours are students in criminal justice courses, members of law enforcement groups, or have some similar specific purpose for their visit.
The tour I was on, conducted by Executive Lieutenant James Turney, was fascinating for the entire two hours(!). At 1,014 beds (almost always full), Inverness runs like a small city. Because it is a jail, and not a prison, it is basically a holding tank for inmates, with less of a concern for rehabilitation programs—although they do offer counseling, classes in everything from anger management to career advancement, and they have dorms designated for people with psychological issues, including suicide watch.
One of the highlights of the tour is the board on which they post the contraband that has been confiscated from the prisoners. On my visit, there was a crack pipe, some crappy-looking hand-rolled cigarettes (the jail went non-smoking about 15 years ago), a couple of primitive shanks, and some pictures of what is probably one of the most disgusting substances ever created for purposes of ingestion: Pruno. Pruno is jailhouse booze, made from fermented fruit (I'm picturing the canned kind), and squirreled away in empty cleaning supply containers. It looks horrible, it's technicolored and chunky, and according to Turney, it smells something fierce; he's never had the nerve to taste it. I don't blame him. Just looking at a photo of it up close tickled my gag reflex. MARJORIE SKINNER
Inverness Jail, 11540 NE Inverness, 988-5060, free, 18+
Gracious purveyors of ghostlore Eric and Haley Holmes were anxious to show me the best of the city's paranormal on their new Haunted Tour of Portland. Eric drives the haunted tour's shuttle while Haley provides the commentary. Creepily enough, we were visited by a South Park Blocks' poltergeist before the bus could even leave the station—he was dressed in tatters with malt-liquor-colored ectoplasm dripping from his jowls.
Roaring up W Burnside, we were stopped dead in our tracks by a ghoul in a bright orange vest. The Exorcist soundtrack played as we sat in the frigid shade of construction traffic. We were finally granted passage to the Pittock Mansion driveway. As dusk approached, I saw a lady with raven-black hair dressed in white pushing a baby carriage along the mansion's porch. A ghost of a lover wronged? Err, more like a Beaverton soccer mom in a white Nike tracksuit. I was still scared. The mansion was closed for the day, so I pressed my nose to the glass to see inside and saw a reflection of my own nose hairs... a Black Forest of my own fears.
Our journey down the hill took us on a number of spooky drive-bys as we cruised past Mama Mia Trattoria, Old Town, and the Heathman Hotel, but by far the scariest thing I saw was that the Church of Scientology on SW Salmon was... HIRING!
Before I knew it, we were at Cathedral Park in North Portland, with the St. Johns Bridge towering overhead. Haley told us about the grisly murders that had occurred in the shadowy underbelly of the park. A cruise by N Mississippi's historic John Palmer House confirmed my longstanding suspicion of the existence of zombies, as a young couple with cups of coffee in their hands traipsed by all slow and dead-eyed. These zombies were everywhere... even at the White Eagle down the hill. I longed for my sawed-off shotgun. And perhaps a hefty shovel. COURTNEY FERGUSON
Portland Haunted Tour, 545-6090, portlandhauntedtour.com, Fri-Sat, 8 pm, $30
A few weeks after criss-crossing the downtown grid with a flock of older women wearing matching walking ensembles, and Portland Walking Tours leader (and founder) David Schargel, I strolled the same area with a visiting in-law and felt like the smartest kid on earth. I told her about the future of mass transit in Portland, the city's secret weather vane, why the Park Blocks are so long, and I even pointed out where you can plug in your electric car for free. I might have seemed like a total tool, but my in-law couldn't get enough Portland factoids (or maybe she was just being nice). So thanks, Portland Walking Tours, for giving me something to talk about with my wife's second cousin as we traversed downtown.
The day I took the Walking Tour with Schargel, I was the lone local in the gang of 15 or so (I heard there's usually a few more Portlanders on board). Schargel is truly amazing at this tour-guide stuff: His brain's an infinite repository of Portland history and trivia, he's funny as hell and made the old ladies blush once or twice, and knows exactly when his followers want him to move along to spicier topics.
The tour is basically Portland 101 with an emphasis on what makes the city unique and functional: The MAX, Street Roots, the world's smallest park, the Boston vs. Portland coin flip, etc. I learned a ton of new (borderline useless) info, but the most fun part was falling in love with the city again through the eyes of these visitors who couldn't wrap their heads around Fareless Square and the lack of sales tax. Bottom line: You are probably not the target audience for this tour. But if the opportunity ever arises for you to walk the streets of downtown with David Schargel, you'd have a pretty good time, and you'd definitely be able to impress your wife's second cousin the next time she's in town. CHAS BOWIE
Best of Portland Tour, 774-4522, portlandwalkingtours.com, daily, 10 am, $15
As a boy, I had serious basement envy. Whereas all my friends' houses had one, my house was basement-less. As an adult, I still appreciate dim, moist, eerie holes to explore and/or hide out in. Thus, I was excited when I learned about the Shanghai Tunnel Tour. Just imagine my severe disenchantment (putting it lightly) when I learned the tour was a bottomless pit of boredom.
I've always imagined that the underground path snakes throughout Old Town toward the river. I was ultimately disappointed to find that the tour—despite stretching more than an hour—never goes beyond the block below Hobo's Restaurant.
The history of Shanghai-ing—where young, drunken men were whisked away from bars via tunnels, and forced to work at sea—is undoubtedly fascinating, but I suggest you leave it for either bedtime nonfiction reading or the new, rival "Underground Portland" tour recently initiated by the Portland Walking Tours group. Unlike the Shanghai Tunnel tours, this one is mostly above ground ("underground" refers to the seamier side of our fair city), though it does conclude underneath Old Town. WILL GARDNER
Shanghai Tunnel Tours, below Hobo's Restaurant, 120 NW 3rd, 622-4798, shanghaitunnels.info, by appointment only, $12
Portland Underground Tour, 774-4522, portlandwalkingtours.com, daily, 2 pm, $15
Quack on the River
I've been staring at that old bastard for months now. Sometimes I think it's taunting me. "Listen, you live right on my banks and you never come in me. I am the Willamette fucking River. You love rivers. Come to me." It's the old allure of sea and boats and all-things nautical, and growing up as a kid with parents in the commercial fishing business, I have it bad. But until now, the closest I'd been to the Willamette was one cold day last winter when I climbed a fence and sat down along the banks to toss in rocks and drink wine.
Then I took the Portland Duck Tour, an amphibious land-and-water ride through the streets of Portland, down a boat ramp, into the river, then back to town again. The 40-foot "duck boat" is an aluminum, foam-hulled Hydra Terra (none of these old WWII DUKW troop transports that a lot of tours use.) It picks you up (and 45 fellow passengers) at the Convention Center, rolls through downtown, drives into the Willamette, then motors up to St. Johns, with a cut through North Portland. You can take a "puddle jumper" tour (which is an hour plus change), or you can do what I did and get the big fucker—two-and-a-half hours of wind and sun and in-depth Willamette-watching. The tour is narrated by a guide, who gives a solid local history spiel, and the boat is captained by a Coast Guard-certified pilot. It's a very clean, squared away, legit deal; good for families, but just as interesting to anyone who wants to just sit low in the river, smell all the river smells, see all the river birds, and cruise around a while. Plus, everyone receives a Portland Duck Tour "Quacker"—a duck-shaped noisemaker you wear around your neck. And you'd have to be "quackers" not to take one! QUACK!!! ADAM GNADE
Portland Ducks, 877-GO-BY-DUCK, portlandducks.com, 2.5 hour tour: Fri-Sun, 1:30 pm, $25; 75-minute tour: Fri-Sat, 11:30 am, $20