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