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Friday, June 6, 2008 - Page updated at 12:52 PM

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Bring your date, your dog and your appetite to the historic Columbia Gorge Hotel

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The Columbia Gorge Hotel in Hood River, Ore.

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STEVE RINGMAN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

The Columbia Gorge Hotel in Hood River, Ore.

Columbia Gorge Hotel bellman David Chance stands at attention in the hotel lobby, waiting for guests to arrive for the 4 p.m. check-in.

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STEVE RINGMAN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Columbia Gorge Hotel bellman David Chance stands at attention in the hotel lobby, waiting for guests to arrive for the 4 p.m. check-in.

A waterfall runs over the side and down into the Columbia Gorge on the grounds of the Columbia Gorge Hotel. In the background: the new Columbia Cliff Villas condo/hotel.

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STEVE RINGMAN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

A waterfall runs over the side and down into the Columbia Gorge on the grounds of the Columbia Gorge Hotel. In the background: the new Columbia Cliff Villas condo/hotel.

 All of the 39 guest rooms at the Columbia Gorge Hotel include wireless Internet access, are nonsmoking and feature views of the Columbia River or the gardens.

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STEVE RINGMAN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

All of the 39 guest rooms at the Columbia Gorge Hotel include wireless Internet access, are nonsmoking and feature views of the Columbia River or the gardens.

The ever-changing gardens at Columbia Gorge Hotel garden feature more than 100 types of flowers, including roses, lilacs, daphne and peonies.

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STEVE RINGMAN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

The ever-changing gardens at Columbia Gorge Hotel garden feature more than 100 types of flowers, including roses, lilacs, daphne and peonies.

Enlarge this photo

 

If you go

Columbia Gorge Hotel

Getting there

From Interstate 5 southbound in Clark County, take Interstate 205 and cross the Columbia River into Oregon. Take Interstate 84 east toward The Dalles, then take Exit 62 to U.S. 30 toward Hood River. Turn left on Cascade Avenue and left onto WestCliff Drive and look for the Columbia Gorge Hotel sign.

Rates

The four-story, 39-room hotel includes five rooms with fireplaces. Nightly rates range from $199 to $249 for standard rooms and $329 to $369 for "suites" (two standard rooms connected), depending on day and room view. The hotel runs specials during the winter. Call to check for midweek specials.

More information

On the hotel: 800-345-1921 or columbiagorgehotel.com; on the area: 800-366-3530 or www.hoodriver.org.

Hotel history

In 1904, the Wah Gwin Gwin Hotel was built on the site where Columbia Gorge Hotel is now located. The name was from local Native American language, meaning "rushing water," in honor of the waterfall by the hotel.

In 1921, timber tycoon Simon Benson bought the property and demolished the modest wooden hotel and spent more than $500,000 to build the Columbia Gorge Hotel, billed as the "Waldorf of the West." Over the years many presidents, celebrities and actors, including Shirley Temple, visited or slept there. The hotel was converted into a retirement home from 1952 until 1977. In 1982, Boyd Graves purchased the historic hotel and restored the property.

Source: Columbia Gorge Hotel

Pros and cons from our stay

Pro: Beautiful garden with water fountains and bridges, with sweeping views of the Columbia River. Plenty of benches for guests to sit on and smell the flowers or enjoy the majestic waterfall. A great setting for romantic getaways or even family reunions. All rooms include views of the garden or river.

Con: Columbia Cliff Villas, a new condo-hotel development next to the Columbia Gorge Hotel, cuts into the historical aura of this small but stately property. The new project, scheduled to open in July, allows owners to rent out their units through the Columbia Gorge Hotel management.

Pro: Dogs are welcomed, and the front desk will even baby-sit your dogs if you want to grab a drink in the lounge or take a break.

Con: It can look like Pets Gone Wild, with careless owners who let their dogs loose. Some dogs have been seriously injured or even died after leaping over the back wall. We could hear a poodle bark for 20 minutes while we tried to nap in the afternoon.

HOOD RIVER, Ore. — Tourists may come for the famed windsurfing, but they stay at the Columbia Gorge Hotel for the romance.

Perched on a cliff overlooking the Columbia River, this boutique hotel built in 1921 hosts dozens of weddings on its lawns, features swing benches in its garden and serves guests complimentary champagne every day.And oh, those beds: grand wrought-iron, brass or four-poster frame beds and even an 18th-century bed frame made in France.

A hotel where Rudolph Valentino is rumored to have slept has countless stories of all the Romeos who have booked a room to propose or to impress dates.

Then there's the candle issue. Against hotel policy, couples continue to light candles in guest rooms, resulting in at least four candle accidents every year — from candles exploding wine glasses to pillows being used to put out a fire.

To which the hotel staff says: This place is already romantic. Enough with the candles already.

The rooms

The 39 guest rooms include seven with fireplaces (five electric fireplaces and two gas).

All rooms include wireless Internet access, are nonsmoking and feature views of the Columbia River or the gardens and a creek that runs through the property and leads to Wah-Gwin-Gwin Falls, tumbling 208 feet to the Columbia River.

A plantation door is at the entry of each guest room. In earlier years, these louvered doors facilitated natural "air conditioning." The famed Gorge wind would blow through open windows and circulate throughout the guest rooms and out the louvered doors, which remain now more for historical significance, since all rooms are air-conditioned.

Turndown service, between 4 and 6 p.m., includes a gourmet chocolate morsel — ours came with fresh raspberry and kiwi fruit, topped with a chocolate espresso bean — made by the hotel's pastry chef.

We stayed in a gas-fireplace room on the third floor, considered the hotel's best room. The room heated up within 10 minutes after we turned on the 60-minute timer on the fireplace. Unless you plan to sleep with all three windows open, it will feel like a sauna after 45 minutes.

The details

Two cushioned chairs bookended the fireplace, with a round coffee table in between, with four local wine magazines fanned out. Reading options could be more diverse. The worn blue carpet needed replacing or cleaning.

The intricately carved four-poster bed featured a queen-size Tempur-Pedic mattress. (The mattress molds to the shape of your body yet remains firm, the kind of quality beds usually found in a five-star resort or honeymoon suite.) Two framed prints hung on the wall, including a painting by French artist William-Adolphe Bouguereau. A flat-screen television with speakers perched atop an armoire. A keyboard and wireless mouse sat on a polished wood desk next to a window.

The walk-in closet included a sensor-motion light. The hotel information binder specified bathrobes are included, though we didn't find any robes hanging.

The minibar included two cans each of Pepsi and diet Pepsi, each for $1.50, and a $28 bottle of sparkling wine with a Columbia Gorge Hotel label. (The hotel had the wine made in California.) Two fancy containers of Voss bottled water were complimentary.

The bathrooms

A narrow entrance gave the appearance of a hallway leading to a large bathroom. The original inch-square tile on the floor remained in good shape, while the pedestal under the sink was a replica of the original design. Overall, the bathroom was unremarkable.

THE DETAILS

Toiletries by L'Occitane, with shampoo, shower gel, lotion and facial soap. Lots of thick, fluffy, white towels, including two that were beach-blanket size. The bathtub included handicap bars to help with balance. The wide showerhead provided good water pressure.

Common areas

Chandeliers and a giant flower bouquet anchored the lobby. The area felt crowded on a recent Sunday morning, with guests checking out and diners lining up for brunch.

That's as good an excuse as any to go outside and enjoy the garden and incredible views of the waterfall and river, the highlights of this hotel.

The garden features more than 100 types of flowers, including roses, lilacs, daphne and peonies. The garden changes frequently, as up to 18,000 annuals and bulbs are planted every year.

Several short trails loop around the hotel. In distance, the stroll is equivalent to a few city blocks, but it can take 20 minutes to loop around because you can't help but stop along the way. Stone and wooden benches surround the garden. Two bridges give views of the creek, and six bronze statues and water fountains offer diversions along the trails. Trail lights allow for romantic evening strolls.

Parts of the grounds remain open space so as not to distract from breathtaking views of the Columbia River and the waterfall. The waterfall is a popular place for family pictures.

THE DETAILS

The hotel gift shop, across from the front desk, feels more like a boutique, with dresses, hats and jewelry for sale. No exercise room, but there is a spa on the second floor. You can request massages and other spa services in your room.

A bellhop doubles as elevator operator, though most guests take stairs rather than wait for the elevator. Service was inconsistent during our visit. Sometimes a doorman would greet us and open the door, and other times he was not around.

The Valentino Lounge remains open for guests after the bar closes. You can slouch in the cushy leather couch by the gas fireplace. The fireplace is on 24 hours, unless it gets too hot during the summer.

Dining

Two options: Valentino Lounge, a bar with live music, and Simon's, a fine-dining restaurant. Valentino features a bar menu, from dim-sum plates to crab nachos, with prices ranging from $8 to $13. Look for "social hour," usually 4 to 5 p.m., when guests get free champagne, cheese and gourmet snacks.

Simon's features food from producers and farmers from around Hood River and Oregon. Entrees ranged between $29 and $38 on a recent Saturday, though the menu changes constantly since it's partly dependent on the freshest produce that week. We enjoyed two entrees: the pan-roasted Alaskan halibut with a griddle cake, bacon, Yukon potato and leeks with shrimp; and the Anderson Ranch lamb "chop n' shank" with truffle mashed potatoes. But with so many outstanding dining options around Hood River now, it's hard to justify these prices.

On Sundays, the chef has kept the restaurant's signature, five-course "World Famous Farm Breakfast." The meal regularly costs $38, though on a recent trip, the Mother's Day breakfast cost $45. It started with a passion-fruit-ginseng-and-berry smoothie and freshly baked pastries, followed by stone-ground white grits with Tillamook smoked cheddar and roasted mushrooms, followed by Dungeness crab cakes over spicy cabbage slaw or smoked salmon on a toasted bagel. That's not even the main course. Seven entree choices ranged from lemon soufflé pancakes to wood-roasted halibut. It's overwhelming, intentionally; this meal is supposed to be a grand spectacle.

Winners and losers? Smoked chicken and sweet potato with poached eggs, roasted peppers and chipotle Hollandaise was layered with flavors, one of the hotel's best and most sophisticated breakfast dishes. Don't bother with the breakfast pizza, with bacon and fried egg, more of a gimmick than an actual dish that makes sense.

THE DETAILS

The gray-green ceiling and dark blue-green carpet nicely frame the peach-hued dining room. A fresh-cut tulip or a teapot of lavender graced each table on our visit.

The dining room seats 150. Ask for a view of the river.

The waiter offered tap water, Voss water or sparkling water with garnish choices of lime, lemon, raspberry or crystallized ginger. Pastry chef Rainbow McIntyre makes an impressive array of sorbets, including passion fruit with a dash of champagne and herb sorbets such as lemon-grass mint and basil-passion fruit.

Activities

After you've explored the hotel grounds, the Hood River area features some of the best windsurfing and white-water kayaking in North America. The mountain biking and hiking are also excellent.

Those less active can visit the wineries or take an agri-tour on the area's famed "Fruit Loop" to sample pears, strawberry shortcake or other products of this farm region (www.hoodriverfruitloop.com).

THE DETAILS

The Historic Columbia River Highway Trail is a popular place to bike, hike, jog or stroll. It's part of the original road through the Columbia Gorge, a stretch now closed to motorized traffic and serving as a park and recreation area. "Short Trails of the Historic Columbia River Highway," featuring 10 hikes of various skill levels, can be picked up at the trailhead visitors center.

Most mountain biking, kayaking, kitesurfing and windsurfing shops operate out of downtown Hood River and offer lessons, tours, gear rental and advice.

Tan Vinh: 206-515-5656 or tvinh@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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