People-watching at the Ace Hotel in Portland, Oregon, comes with an extra spoonful of intrigue. On any given day a mix of arty hipsters, louche musicians and bookish guests can be seen reclining languidly on a square sectional in the hotel's bustling foyer. As a group they're stylishly inconspicuous, pecking away on laptops or sipping Stumptown lattes. But on this particular afternoon, the Ace lobby crackles with an unusually flamboyant energy. The hotel is hosting Content, an alternative fashion event for Portland's avant-garde designers, and the mood has shifted noticeably from improvised living room to giddy performance space. Each designer has been assigned a suite on the second floor to display their edgy wares, and the scenesters are streaming in. On show are artisans who work exclusively with feathers, denim, leather or brass. I spy such loopy sights as a wiry man dressed as Pagliacci, a couple banging wildly on African drums, and a marionette show with puppets modelling clothes. In Portland, do-it-yourself culture rules.
Portland, long celebrated for its captivating natural beauty, has in recent years emerged as a republic of cool. Stretched across the banks of the Willamette River is a city of urban pleasures - with inventive restaurants, convivial bars, quirky stores, vibrant neighbourhoods and progressive residents. Portland is cloud-dimmed for most of the year but comes to life in the summer months. But even when it rains in the Pacific Northwest, the exquisitely lush region of North America bounded by the Pacific Ocean and the Rocky Mountains which includes Seattle and Vancouver, it translates as a light drizzle and is hardly a deterrent to enjoying the local sights. Leave your brolly at home: Portland is more of a hat and hoodie town. For a city of just on half a million people, it has earned a reputation as a modern-day utopia. Liberal types flock here from all over to pursue the carefree lifestyle that New York and San Francisco no longer offer.
"Portland is a city where young people go to retire," sings one of the characters on Portlandia, the zany television show that lampoons the city's bohemian charms. "And all the hot girls wear glasses."
Certainly there is a youthquake underway in this place rimmed by dramatic mountains and at least one active volcano. People flit here for affordable digs, endless bars, and the opportunity to art-direct their own lifestyle. Portland is synonymous with outré haircuts, plaid shirts, vanguard art, micro-brewed beers, indie rock and bicycle lanes - more commuters pedal to work here than in any other American city.
Some liken it more to a European capital with a tranquil vibe, a high quality of life and a surplus of friendly, creative people. As we navigate the city in the photographer's bright orange 1973 Volkswagen Squareback, so many strangers smile, wave or stop to chat. "That your car?" asks a Hells Angels lookalike at Heart Coffee Roasters, one of the many estimable cafés in this bean-obsessed town. I nod gingerly, thinking I'm about to be slugged for denting his Harley, then he and his pal erupt in friendly giggles at our vintage ride. On another occasion, as we tour the streets of the Pearl District, a jolly chap at a pedestrian crossing leans down to kiss the bonnet of the wagon.
With its stellar restaurants, groovy stores and nimble urban redevelopment, the Pearl District is emblematic of the new Portland, and an excellent first stop. In fact, the once-gritty industrial warehouse quarter is now regarded as the jewel of the city. On the first Thursday of every month - by coincidence the day I arrive in Portland - downtown art galleries fling open their doors for their latest showings. At Bullseye Gallery, I drop in on an exhibition by Australian artist Kate Baker, who imprints thick sheets of colourful glass with moody portraits. It's also in the Pearl where the famous Powell's City of Books is located, a bibliophile's mecca with a staggering collection of more than a million titles.
Zipping around Portland by car is a breeze and highly recommended. The city also boasts an efficient light rail system and frequent buses. Motoring across the sleek bridges that connect east and west (eight in the downtown section alone), we stop to admire some of the buzziest precincts. There's the leafy residential and retail enclave of Nob Hill, the appealing stores and cafés of Mississippi Avenue, and the tempting vintage showrooms of the Hawthorne District. Here I chance upon a crazy '70s wall sculpture made from tree bark and brass leaves. Naturally, I buy it.
Unlike most states in America, Oregon is a sales-tax-free zone, so the price you see on the tag is the definitive one. Ingenious stores abound, from established brands such as Pendleton, which has been weaving Native American-inspired blankets for 100 years, to cutting-edge newbies such as Hand-Eye Supply, which stocks everything you need to set up your own atelier including drafting tools, safety goggles and overalls. As the designers showing at Content confirm, almost everyone has a side project in Portland, and they're bursting at the seams to share it. On Portlandia the tendency is satirised by a twee couple who attach cut-outs of birds to everything ("Put a bird on it!"). But the homegrown design scene is a lot more inventive. Take Carly Mick and Susanna Hohmann. By day they are industrial designers. By night they toil on their own fashion line. Their first capsule collection features utilitarian wrap dresses that have been dyed with indigo. "We were just really excited to make some stuff," says Hohmann. More evidence of Portland's can-do spirit: two of the recent winners of Project Runway hailed from here.
Oregon's most populous city is a fascinating clash of old and new, art and commerce, rawness and refinement. Case in point: I've never seen so many repurposed trailers and buses, reborn as boutiques, salons and food carts. "Portland is polished and rough around the edges at the same time," says Kate Buska from Provenance Hotels, which manages two smart properties in the city: Hotel de Luxe and Hotel Lucia. Most hotels are clustered in Portland's compact downtown core, and many of the city's diversions are within walking distance. I check into the Lucia, which is filled with compelling black-and-white photographs by David Hume Kennerly, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer and Portland native. In my room I size up the menu options. I can choose between six pillows, seven iPods loaded with music, and a long list of spiritual books. I'm inspired by the elegant Oriental design of the Lan Su Chinese Garden, a Ming Dynasty-style garden we surveyed earlier in the day, so I order up the Tao Te Ching. The classic Chinese text, written in about the 6th century BC, includes musings such as "He who knows he has enough is rich" and "Those who flatter themselves achieve nothing".
I'm reminded of these humble sentiments the following day when I meet Gabriel Rucker, one of the city's foremost chefs and the 2011 recipient of the James Beard Foundation's Rising Star Chef of the Year award, an honour reserved for chefs aged 30 or younger. Despite all the plaudits, Rucker remains self-effacing, earthy and modest, though he has an amusing, rascal-like disposition. At his rollicking restaurant Le Pigeon, the tattooed wunderkind (a flock of seven ink pigeons flies up his right arm) serves imaginative French-American fare from an open kitchen. While Rucker recently opened a second restaurant, Little Bird, which excels in French-inflected food, he has little intention of cultivating an empire like some of his Los Angeles and New York counterparts.
"Two restaurants is enough for me," says the new father. "I have other ideas but they would only be fun if I had the time to do them." At Le Pigeon, the menu changes regularly but recent standouts include risotto with crisp salami, aged Gouda and rabbit, and an apple-cider gnocchi with pheasant and parsnip cream. You've heard of the po'boy, the seafood roll from New Orleans. Rucker's take is a "rich boy", a fried oyster with foie gras and sea urchin roe dressing. Clever guy.
Portland was founded in 1851 as a rugged logging and shipping town and still cleaves to that distinctly pioneering spirit. Emboldened by inexpensive rents and enthused by the bounty of Oregon, Portlanders are taking the lead in the school of farm-to-table dining. Truth be told, it's hard not to eat local here, so evangelical are the city's chefs about the riches of their fecund farmlands. "It's about creating food for the pleasure of the table and about showcasing the produce of Oregon," says owner-chef Jason French. At his delightful restaurant Ned Ludd, named for the man who inspired the Luddites, French has a distinctly lo-fi approach to cooking. He uses a brick oven and a two-burner hotplate to turn out sublime dishes such as roast trout with spinach, bay prawns, fennel and radish, and a salad of chickpeas, carrots, mint, yoghurt and almonds. French cures and smokes his own meats, grows some of his vegetables, and pickles all kinds of tidbits. He also works closely with a slew of local farmers, and is having a market bike built so he can cease relying on his truck. "I don't use middlemen," he says. "I want to know the people producing the product. I like having a connection."
Connecting to nature is easy in Portland. The city has a long legacy of protecting green space, and when you visit you're enveloped in foliage. Just west of the city is the sprawling Washington Park, which houses the Portland Japanese Garden and the International Rose Test Garden. North of that idyllic setting is Forest Park, a sylvan wonderland of trails where natives go running or hiking with their dogs. Companies such as Pedal Bike Tours and Portland Bicycle Tours are immensely helpful if you like a little guidance with your tooling around, but you can just as easily plot your own path. You could even combine the athletic with the sybaritic by signing up for a bike tour of Portland's best cafés or a pedi-cab tour of its breweries. Everyone stops at Cascade Brewing Barrel House, an ageing room where beer is seasoned with ingredients including lavender, cherries and chamomile blossoms. My vote goes to the zinging apricot version of their sour beers. And if you really have a taste for brewski, you could try one of the city's well-known movie brewpubs, which fuse theatre seating and beer on tap, and illustrate why Portland is sometimes referred to as Beervana.
Those who prefer the sounds of discordant guitars with their micro-distilled beverages will be thrilled by Portland's vibrant music scene. The Doug Fir Lounge is the primo venue for alternative bands, while members of notable acts such as The Decemberists, Modest Mouse and The Shins all call P-Town home. Refreshingly, there are no velvet ropes, door bitches or VIP bottle services to contend with here. Everyone is made welcome. One night I attend a party for James Mercer, gifted lead singer of The Shins, at a low-key neighbourhood tavern called Victory Bar. A DJ plays old-school funk records which has everyone in the room dancing ecstatically. The city's youthful spirit is truly infectious.
Another thing I notice is how relaxed Portlanders are. No one's trying hard to be cool. No one talks about their therapy sessions. Portland is a famously eco-conscious place but it's equally ego-conscious. Perhaps the only curious note about the city is that it's home to a bunch of all-nude entertainment venues. The state's supreme court decided that full nudity in strip clubs came under free-speech safeguards and as a result there are clubs for every taste: Casa Diablo is a vegan strip joint where you can order faux-chicken cacciatore as you ogle a show.
I prefer to dine silicone-free so I head to Olympic Provisions, Oregon's first USDA-certified meat-curing restaurant, for one of my final meals. "Portlanders will spend their last few dollars on organic delicacies," says co-owner Michelle Cairo, and it's not hard to see why. Cairo's brother Elias expertly prepares a dozen different salami styles, including the Spanish-inspired chorizo Rioja and Greek-style loukaniko. Like many Portland restaurants, Olympic began life as a stall at the farmers' markets, and so I decide to go back to the source. One bright Saturday morning we venture to the city's flagship markets held at Portland State University. It's a world-class array of treats from hazelnut-finished pork to raw cheesecake and seasonal vegetables. Once again I'm taken by the chirpy air of the residents beaming from ear to ear. Are they all on magic mushrooms I wonder? Sizing up the wild-picked mushrooms at the Springwater Farm stall I note chanterelle, nameko and maitake. No hallucinogens. Clearly, the locals are just high on Portland.