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An Oregon original

Courtesy Travel Portland

When I think of Oregon, I think of water. True, the Northwest is known for rainy weather and the beautiful Pacific Ocean. But the water I think of is in the fountains, the Simon Benson Fountains, to be exact.

Born in Norway, Simon Benson moved to Portland as a young man in 1880 to work in the timber industry. He prospered and became one of the city’s noted philanthropists. In 1912, to discourage his employees from drinking alcohol during the workday, Benson funded the installation of 20 bronze drinking fountains.

Today, locals and visitors can refresh themselves at no less than 40 of these “Benson Bubblers” sprinkled throughout the city — symbols of the sustainable heritage for which this region of the United States is so well known.

Sustainable thinking was in evidence throughout my trip to the Pacific Northwest sponsored by Travel Oregon, Travel Portland and the visitors associations of the Oregon Coast, Willamette Valley and Washington County. Our focus was the Greater Portland region, which offers the ideal combination of urban excitement and outdoor adventure, including bird- and whale-watching, hiking, cycling, snow sports and water sports such as kayaking and canoeing, windsurfing and kite-boarding.

“Groups are enchanted by how much diversity the Pacific Northwest has to offer,” said Lisa Itel, travel trade manager with Travel Oregon and one of the tour’s organizers and escorts. “It’s a place where you can learn a vintner’s philosophy while walking amongst her vines and where farmers arrive at local restaurants with boxes of produce picked fresh for the chef that morning.

“No matter where you go in Oregon, there’s always an interesting experience waiting for groups to explore, indulge and enjoy.”

Urban adventures
Our tour was hosted by Nomad Adventures, a group tour operator that sells to preformed groups. Along for the excursion were some of Nomad’s top-producing Bank Travel club customers.

We nomads got up each morning at Portland’s swanky no-nonsense Hotel 50, looked out over the Willamette River and the Tom McCall Waterfront Park and let the adventure unfold.

Portland is home to a vibrant arts community, top performing-arts venues, more than 40 craft breweries, Powell’s City of Books and a coveted local music scene. Boasting 300 miles of bike lanes and trails, plus light rail and streetcar lines, the Rose City is still designed for walking, and Portland Walking Tours helps groups get the most out of their on-foot sightseeing.

Locals say you haven’t experienced Portland culture until you’ve been to McMenamins, a chain of more than 60 microbreweries, restaurants, music venues, historic hotels and theater pubs, most of them in the Portland metropolitan area. A trip to one of these unique and artistic establishments founded by preservationist brothers Mike and Brian McMenamin is a must for groups visiting the Northwest.

Although it was tempting to stay in this magical urban landscape for days, glimpses of Mount Hood reminded us that within short drives of Portland are amazing natural wonders: mountains, rivers, the coastline and wine country.

Oregon’s Wine Country
Oregon boasts more than 850 vineyards, the largest concentration in the Willamette Valley region, which stretches from Forest Grove to Cottage Grove. The rich soil of the Willamette Valley combined with wet, cool winters and warm, dry summers makes conditions ideal to grow cool-climate grapes like pinots. Some of the most sustainable vineyards and wineries await just a few minutes outside Portland in Washington County.

Our first stop, Alloro Vineyard in Sherwood’s Chehalem Mountains, conjured impressions of Tuscany as we drove into the 78-acre artisanal estate. We walked the vineyards and learned the mysteries of Laurelwood soil — Alloro is Italian for Laurel — with the winemaker, who then took us into the underground cellar to explain how that limited-production wine is crafted to be enjoyed with food.

Joining us for the day was Heather Anderson, tourism sales manager at the Washington County Visitor’s Association. “When groups travel to one of our wineries in the Northern Willamette Valley, the expectation of visiting a stuffy tasting room leaves them in the first five minutes,” Anderson said. “You are meeting the people who live and breathe the wine you taste, urban artisan farmers who take pride in what they do and love to share their story.”

Another of the customized experiences available for groups is an outdoor catered lunch around fire-pit tables like the one we enjoyed at Ardiri Winery and Vineyards in Cornelius. Grapes there hail from the same vines found in Dijon, France, which supplied the Roman legions of Julius Caesar.

The Montinore Estate in the foothills of the Coast Range outside Forest Grove is yet a third amazing winery where groups can relax, learn and taste. The vineyard team at this 230-acre estate, which includes a great gift shop, practices wine-growing according to the philosophy of biodynamic farming.

And as if three world-class wineries were not enough for one day, we arrived next at another Forest Grove establishment, SakeOne, the leading producer of “Ginjo” (premium) grade sake in the United States. With strong ties to its Japanese roots, this working production house for four premium sakes under the Momokawa label puts on a tour for groups that rivals Disney or Hollywood.

Also in Forest Grove is McMenamin’s Grand Lodge, where our group ogled the quirky 1920s European-style guest rooms, restaurants, bars and fantastic artwork, and concluded the visit with several animated rounds of Frisbee golf on the wide green lawn. A recommended dinner spot ideal for groups is the town’s Main Bistro.

“Being situated right in between downtown Portland and the Oregon Coast, mixing the urban growth of high-tech businesses with serene natural and agricultural settings, our region makes for an impressive and enchanted getaway for groups,” Anderson said.