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Willamette Valley Travel Guide

Weekend Getaway


Wandering the Willamette Valley
Oregon's Idyllic Destination for Wine and Food Lovers
By Sue Wickstrom


The Willamette Valley is one of the most beautiful destinations in Oregon
The beautiful Willamette Valley

Located less than an hour from Oregon's major metropolis, the Willamette Valley beckons foodies, wine lovers, and adventure seekers alike. It's nestled in between two mountain ranges: the low and ragged Coast Range stands to the west, shielding the valley from the moist ocean air, and the lofty peaks of the Cascade Range hovers to the east like ghostly sentries guarding against the high desert of Central Oregon. The 110-mile-long pocket between the ranges forms a pastoral patchwork of lush farmland and rolling hills, which stretch all the way from Portland to Eugene.

The Willamette Valley is world-renowned for its Pinot Noir vintages, but a myriad of boutique producers are increasingly branching out and exploring more unusual varietals, making wine tasting a major attraction and exploration.

There are more than 200 wineries in the area, as well as a plethora of boutique farms and ranches that supply fresh vegetables, cheeses and meats to local chefs — many of whom have become tourist attractions in their own right. Most wineries are open year-round for tasting, though there are some micro-wineries that are only open to the public on Memorial Day and Thanksgiving Day weekends.

The Willamette Valley is justifiably famous for its wine and food, but there's also much more to see and enjoy here. Notable landmarks range from natural wonders like waterfalls, forests and winding rivers to man-made attractions like enormous covered bridges or the mighty Spruce Goose airplane — the famous flying behemoth that was designed by the great Howard Hughes. Tourists and locals alike also flock year-round to the scores of fairs and festivals that celebrate such fascinating subjects as UFOs, turkeys, wine and the arts. There are boundless recreational activities to enjoy as well, such as bicycling, hiking, boating and golfing just to name a few. Add fresh air and warm weather to guarantee instant relaxation and rejuvenation. It's truly a magical place!

As idyllic as the Willamette Valley seems, there are still strip malls, traffic jams and annoying weather conditions to deal with. Besides the Memorial Day and Thanksgiving Day weekends, the best time to visit is in the temperate months of September and October, when the heat and crowds have abated and the winter rains are still pretty far off. Early fall is the optimum time to visit, but rest assured that the valley has plenty to offer any other time of the year. The annual Pinot Noir Festival, held in late July, makes for another wonderful getaway. Many visitors enjoy hot air ballooning, bicycling, hiking and golfing in the summer. The spring offers beautiful flowering fields of iris, daffodils and tulips. Winter is a fine time to hunt mushrooms, view waterfalls and covered bridges, or explore the many small historical towns sprinkled throughout the region.

The Youngberg Hill Vineyard and Inn in the Willamette Valley, Oregon
Youngberg Hill Vineyard and Inn

A great place to drop anchor for a three-day tour is McMinnville, a mid-sized town in the northern valley offering many accommodation options. McMenamin's Hotel Oregon, built in 1905, offers an affordable (if somewhat funky) setting that provides a glimpse into Oregon's past. The rooftop bar and eclectic art collection guarantee a memorable stay. Comfort Inn and Suites or the Red Lion Inn and Suites both offer more modern and conventional amenities including an indoor pool, high-speed Internet access and a fitness center.

There are also several bed-and-breakfasts in the area worth noting. A Tuscan Estate combines modern conveniences with old-world charm. This European-style inn, which is within walking distance of McMinnville's Historical District, has gorgeous grounds and a resident chef who will gladly give cooking lessons. However, those who want to immerse themselves completely in the Oregon wine experience can stay on an actual working vineyard. The Mattey House is an 1892 Queen Anne Victorian-style house that is located in a bucolic orchard and vineyard. Youngberg Hill Vineyard and Inn sits on a 50-acre estate that boasts expansive views of the valley. Guests can choose a hands-on experience here, perhaps even helping to blend the wine. The Willamette Valley has plenty more to offer; here is a 72-hour itinerary to help you enjoy the best of this bountiful region.

WILLAMETTE VALLEY ITINERARY: DAY 1

Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose at the Evergreen Aviation Museum in the Willamette Valley, Oregon is one of the largest aircraft ever built
Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose at the Evergreen Aviation Museum

Begin your tour of the valley by exploring McMinnville. Start at Hotel Oregon's art-filled pub for some homemade biscuits with gravy or a fluffy omelet. Stop by the McMinnville Downtown Association for a printed walking map that identifies the significance of the Historical District's Third Street buildings. Then spend the morning poking around McMinnville's many shops and galleries. If the season is right, the McMinnville Farmers' Market may be in full swing, offering a chance to witness the valley's harvest and rub shoulders with area chefs stocking up for their fine regional restaurants.

For lunch, head to the Golden Valley Brewery & Pub to enjoy a Craftsman beer and a burger made from beef raised on the family ranch. Then head out to the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum to gaze in wonder at Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose, a "flying boat" with a wingspan wider than a football field. The museum also offers a variety of aviation displays, a separate museum devoted to space, an IMAX theater, and of course a wine tasting room featuring Evergreen Vineyards' Spruce Goose Wine.

McMinnville Farmers' Market in the Willamette Valley is a great place to find fresh produce
McMinnville Farmers' Market

Dinner is waiting at one of McMinnville's excellent restaurants that celebrate the sustainable agriculture movement. The elegant and lively La Rambla prepares a vast array of Spanish tapas made from regional ingredients, or you can try their huge platter of paella. The Bistro Maison specializes in authentic French bistro fare such as steak au poivre or coq au vin. If the weather is fine, dine here in the beautifully landscaped garden. Thistle is the latest spot to get foodies salivating. Its small menu focuses (naturally) on what's freshest and local — but with creative twists (e.g. rabbit liver parfait with port gelée). The wine list here is exceptional, even if it is surrounded by stiff competition.

The Willamette Valley is rural with an "early-to-bed, early-to-rise" sensibility. Nightlife is nearly non-existent here, but there are a few spots with occasional live music, including the Hotel Oregon and Scotte's Imbibery, a friendly, sometimes rowdy bar on the north side of town off Highway 99 that features rock bands.

Continue to Day 2

MORE WILLAMETTE VALLEY INFORMATION

Sokol Blosser Winery

* Willamette Valley image courtesy of the Willamette Valley Visitors Association. Youngberg Hill © Frank Barnett Photography.

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(Updated: 11/09/12 JLD)

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