This post continues my ongoing coverage of wine country travel.
Once known primarily as a hippie haven, Eugene, Ore. is quickly becoming a city where clean living, along with local food and drink, flourish. After a night spent in Dundee, in the Willamette Valley, we meandered south toward this town, which is the home of the University of Oregon and the original psychedelic Merry Prankster, Ken Kesey (there’s a statue in the author’s honor downtown).
The Inn on 5th, the city’s first boutique hotel, opened this spring, complete with luxury suites that have drawn guests such as Nike co-founder Phil Knight. We were among the first to stay at the hotel, which is adjacent to the Fifth Street Public Market.
With rates around $209 a night (found on most search engines), prices are at the high end for Eugene, where the upscale lodging scene has consisted of a Hilton and an independent resort, the Valley River Inn.
So is there a market for this kind of hotel in a town more known for patchouli than Prada? On a tour, the manager told us that the opening month had been busy. He’s hoping that it becomes a draw for executives visiting Nike, more affluent people drawn to the numerous U.S. Track & Field events held in Eugene, and alums interested in reunion and sports activities at the University of Oregon.
Among the hotel’s selling points: Most rooms have gas fireplaces. Gervais Lifestyle Spa fills the first floor. And for those who travel with an entourage, the Grand Terrace Spa Suite has a 10-person shower that can fit a relay team. I also liked the butler doors, where a bellman can leave breakfast or a midnight snack without interruption.
But in my opinion, one of the hotel’s selling points is that it’s adjacent to the Fifth Street Market, the brainchild of local developer Brian Obie. Obie, who served as Eugene’s mayor in the 1980s, built the market a decade earlier, hoping to create something akin to Pike Place Market in Seattle.
While the Eugene version doesn’t have the vibrancy or foot traffic of the market we have here in Seattle, it does have a high cuteness factor going for it. The businesses are locally owned, and range from a flower store to a needlepoint shop to a gallery that sells Swahili art.
Portland’s intensely independent food scene has filtered down the highway to Eugene, where chefs such as Brendan Mahaney of Belly, are showing up on the James Beard nominee list. The Fifth Street Public Market houses Marche restaurant, founded by Stephanie Pearl Kimmel. Open since 1998, the restaurant caused Kimmel to receive a James Beard nomination in 2008.
As befits Kimmel’s past as culinary director at King Estate Winery, Marche also had a great selection of Oregon wines as pairings. While I knew about the pinot noirs of the Willamette Valley (of which Eugene is in the southern end), I had no idea that Oregon wine country extended past Eugene. The Southern Oregon appellation close to the California border now has four mini-AVAs, including the Umpqua Valley, Red Hill Douglas County, the Rogue Valley, and the Applegate Valley. The region is warmer than the appellations in the north, and so the wines are bolder. Think cabs, merlots and tempranillos. Marche had quite a range of these wines, and it was fun to explore some new tastes.
The wine scene has begun to creep into Eugene, with tasting rooms springing up in locations around the city. We spent some time at LaVelle Vineyards, which has a tasting room in the market, in addition to its winery in Elmira. Several companies in Eugene sponsor driving tours out to the vineyards, and throughout June, the South Willamette Valley Wineries Association will be running Barrel Tasting bus tours, costing $60 for stops at four wineries, so you can avoid drinking while driving.
It will be interesting to see if, over time, Eugene becomes a destination in its own right among foodies, locavores and wine lovers who prefer more upscale restaurants and lodging – or if it will remain true to its hippie roots. I would have liked to have seen more of the latter; if we go back, we will plan to attend the Oregon Saturday Market, where artisans vie with farmers for space, with folk music in the background.