Under the blue sky that shelters our little bend in the Willamette, sits the RiverPlace Esplanade that overlooks the Hawthorn bridge and the RiverPlace Marina. The RiverPlace Esplanade is just now hitting its stride, and already offers some of the city’s most elegant dining, casual café hangouts, wine bars and ice cream shops.
The RiverPlace is also the starting point for a unique evening kayak tour on the Willamette River with the Portland Kayak Company– an outing that seamlessly weaves together some of Portland’s best parts–the city views and historic beauty of the bridges is blended with the natural world that Portland adores. This three hour trip around Ross Island gives even long-time Portlanders a new respect for the river that made our city what it is. This is surely a recipe for a perfect evening on Portland’s stretch of riverfront.
Begin your evening with an early dinner at locally owned Thirst Wine Bar & Bistro. The selection of wines includes mostly Northwest varieties and the menu is designed to be "wine-friendly". Smaller portions meant for sharing allow wine drinkers to compare how a variety of foods change flavors with different wine. Enjoy entrees like Slow Roasted Quail, stuffed with herbs and served with house made sausage, polenta, local vegetables in a red wine reduction or try Wild Columbia Sturgeon. If you happen to be doing your outing on a Thursday, they have complimentary wine tastings between 5-8pm. The glass fronted restaurant and sidewalk dining area makes for a perfect place to start a river experience.
Or try one of Portland’s newest and fanciest options, Lucier, just a stone’s throw up the Esplanade. The modern European menu features items like hand-harvested sea scallops and troll-caught turbot. The super modern steel and glass building is a visual treat on its own, and inside, Olympia artist Brian Rubino’s glass graces the elegant decor. The incredibly attentive (and all strikingly beautiful) staff will treat you like a star as they make certain that every single detail of your experience is to your liking. Reservations are recommended.
After dinner head to the south side of the RiverPlace Esplanade and to the ramp that leads down to the marina for the 6pm kayak tour. From the top of the dock ramp you’ll see a bright splash of kayak color-bright green, yellow, and red-among the gleaming white million-dollar yachts. Head down the ramp, where you’ll meet your guides, and have the opportunity to leave behind anything that you don’t want to drop in the water.
After the group is assembled, the expert guides at the Portland Kayak Company will give a quick lesson how to read "paddle sign language" and to practice having "salsa hips" that will keep you upright in the wake of bigger boats. They also teach you how maneuver your boat and which muscles to use to save yourself from getting sore. These experienced guides cater to every level of experience, from zero to superstar, and they are aware and attentive to everyone’s needs.
Then, it’s into the water and Portland is transformed. After a little time getting used to your boat in the protected marina, you’ll head out into river. The Willamette is an active working river, and while the Ross Island barges have called it a day by the six-o’clock tour, you are bound to see much bigger and faster boats traveling up and down stream. The guides keep the group together during the crossings and are always aware of where everyone is, so that even the least experienced are comfortably taken care of.
You’ll first pass under Portland’s newest bridge, the Marquam built in 1966. Be sure to look back and take in the awesome city panorama. Next, the arches of Ross Island Bridge, built in 1926. To the right is the South Waterfront, where you’ll see Lucier, and the matching buildings with their futuristic lines, all backed by the Portland’s tree covered west hills. To the left is Ross Island, where you’ll paddle along the shore, on the lookout for the great blue herons, osprey and eagles that nest in the trees.
The river is wide here, and as you head toward the Sellwood bridge, you’ll start to spot triangular sailboats, decorating the water. A bit further along is a community of floating houses, their decks verdant with container gardens. Don’t worry if you hear screaming-it’s coming from the roller coasters at Oaks Park, the amusement park just behind the floating homes. The guides will point out the pillars with orange rings that mark the unbelievable water level reached in the floods of 1996.
The guides then turn the group back and enter the Oaks Bottom Lagoon, where the trip suddenly changes from cityscapes, to nature preserve. The guides point out active eagle and osprey nests, and it’s very likely that you’ll see and hear the feedings or maybe even be treated to a viewing of fledgling flights. The wildlife on the banks of the island is protected, and you know that you are visiting the home of the heron rookery, eagles and osprey as you paddle silently along. The golden light angles in and illuminates the tree covered banks. It is an awesome sight, especially when you consider how close you are to the bustle of the city.
The guides will flick on the small lights located on each boat before you cross the river again and head for the marina. The sunset behind the city and with lights illuminating, create a whole new view. Only three hours later, you’re in the exact same place you began, but the marina is transformed by your new relationship with the river.
Arriving at the dock, you will promise yourself that this is a perfect day you will repeat in the near future. You may even be inspired to head down to the Portland Kayak Shop a few miles to the south and buy your own kayak and gear, or at least sign up for a few classes.
A perfect way to unwind from your night on the water is at the Marina Fish House, Portland’s only floating restaurant. The happy hour menu starts at 9pm offering both food and drink specials. Or maybe you’ll just want to stop at the Little River Café for an ice cream cone, and have a seat on one of the benches that line the Esplanade, to extend your sojourn with the river that made this city what it is today.
What & Where:
Portland Kayak Company (6320 SW Macadam Ave; 503-459-4050)
Lucier Restaurant (1900 SW River Dr; 503-222-7300)
Thirst Wine Bar and Bistro (0315 SW Montgomery St; 503-295-2747)
Marina Fish House (425 SW Montgomery St; 503-227-3474)
Little River Café (0315 Southwest Montgomery St; 503-227- 2327)