Weather ruin your vacation plans? Take a car-free Portland staycation instead


Plans change. If you want to travel, especially using transit, and also want to have fun and stay somewhat relaxed, it’s best to go in with the understanding that you might need to pivot to a very different destination.

Anyone traveling out of Portland, or probably anywhere in the entire country, around Christmas, learned some hard lessons about flexibility. I was one of those people – our planned vacation was canceled when the flight was canceled three hours before takeoff, with no option to re-book for days and seven-hour wait times to speak with customer service. Luckily, we were just supposed to be going on a fun vacation and didn’t get stuck at an airport. Many, many people had it much worse.

So, we pivoted (thanks really to my husband who had this idea, since I was not really feeling the “fun” of flexibility two hours into being on hold instead of on an airplane) and spent two nights in the Pearl at a hotel with a pool.

Then, the next week, I found out my parents couldn’t come with me on my next transit mini vacation with a toddler, which generally wouldn’t be a problem, but this one was a bit ambitious: Take city buses to Timberline Lodge in the winter. This requires three different buses, one of which operates on a mountain in the winter. Delays and outright cancelations for weather are always possible, and if that happened and I was stuck, with no other adults, on a mountain with limited cell service and one cold three-year-old … I wasn’t ready to risk it.

Read more: Take a cozy, car-free family mini-vacation to Cannon Beach

I will do that trip when I have more adults or the weather is better, but, for now, once again I pivoted.

Our Pearl District staycation was so nice, I thought, let’s do it again, this time using only transit. And, I decided to stay in a different hotel, so I could compare the two options for readers who only want to make the best choice.

people at park

Nona and Lizzy at The Fields Park.Lizzy Acker/The Oregonian

The reasons to take a vacation in your own city are limitless – you get a chance to try things you haven’t tried, get out of the house, not do dishes, see your city from a new perspective. If you have a little kid, it’s great practice for a bigger trip. And if your city is Portland, well, guess what, you live in a world-class tourist destination.

If you live in Oregon or Washington and want a fun vacation, Portland is a great and easy place to visit. Take Amtrak or a bus and the journey will be part of the fun.

We chose to stay in the Pearl because there’s so much to do and eat there and it is home to multiple hotels. Our hotel requirements were basically: has a pool.

So, where should you stay?

During our first staycation, we stayed at the Hampton Inn in the Pearl. Hampton Inn is now owned by Hilton and this hotel was centrally located with a great pool for kids. The pool was actually amazing – a gradual walk-in entry, a little slide, a whale to sit on, some water features. Absolute heaven for a three-year-old but far too cold for me (I still went in like five times since, you know, three-year-old). On a large reader board above the pool, the temperature read “74 degrees,” which I took to mean the pool was 74 degrees. Too cold.

Our room at the Hampton Inn was spacious and the shower was amazing. The hotel in general was clean and bright, and the staff were welcoming. The breakfast was free and exactly what you’d expect – make your own waffles, some potatoes under a heat lamp, etc.

child runs with wand

Nona enjoys the feather wand and the Marriott.Lizzy Acker/The Oregonian

For our second trip, we stayed at the Marriott Residence Inn in the Pearl. The Marriott is a little further out, location-wise and the pool is much smaller and less exciting, but also a reasonable temperature. Nona, the three-year-old in question, actually preferred the pool at the Marriott, because it was warm and there was a stack of fun noodles on the deck.

Our room wasn’t quite as big, but it did feature an actual fridge, a stovetop, real silverware, plates and glassware.

The Marriott felt older and darker – Nona kept calling the hall to our room “haunted” – and for some reason no one vacuumed the visibly dirty landing by the elevator on our floor the whole time we were there. But the staff were very friendly, the breakfast was better and, again, the pool wasn’t bone-chilling.

Both have rooms starting at about $160 a night (but it will be more when taxes and stuff get added).

If I were to do it again, I would probably go back to the Hampton Inn and beg them to warm the pool up just a little bit.

Wherever you stay, the Pearl is a perfect jumping off point, especially for food.

On our first day, I picked Nona up from school early and then we took the bus, along with my dad, down to Jojo’s new brick-and-mortar.

food on a table

Cheeseburgers and jojos at Jojo.Lizzy Acker/The Oregonian

A great perk of a staycation is that people can dip in and out. My parents had lunch with us and when my husband was done with work, he joined us for dinner and a night at the hotel.

Jojo is not health food but it was a crowd-pleaser. We shared jojos loaded with American cheese and carmelized onions and also had delicious cheeseburgers. In what may have been a highlight of the entire trip, a waitress gave Nona a swizzle topped with purple tinsel, which turned into a “feather wand” and extra entertainment for the whole trip.

(The location of the feather wand is currently, tragically, unknown.)

Read more: Jojo the restaurant’s secret sauce? Building around what made the cart great

After lunch, Nona and I walked the long way to the hotel, stopping at the playground at The Fields Park to swing in the hammock and climb around a bit.

kid on a hammock

Nona on a hammock at The Fields Park.Lizzy Acker/The Oregonian

My original plan was to go to PlayDate PDX, which Nona had loved during our earlier trip. This is a pick that is 100% for the kids, so don’t expect to like it unless you are a child. If you are a child, expect to love it. Another place you can easily walk to in the Pearl is Powell’s (full disclosure: I worked for Powell’s about 10 years ago), which has an epic kids’ section and multiple employees who will happily help you find kids books about plumbing or any other topic your particular kid might be obsessed with. But we were too full of cheeseburger and wanted to go to the hotel.

Luckily, the Marriott let us check in early, so we headed straight to our room and played with the feather wand while our food settled and then got ready for a trip to the pool.

cinnamon roll in box

Raspberry pistachio cinnamon roll from Kinnamons.Lizzy Acker/The Oregonian

After our swim, we headed out again, this time to Kinnamons for an over-the-top cinnamon roll. Nona chose raspberry pistachio, which we boxed up to take back to the hotel, to eat while watching hotel TV, an always popular vacation activity.

We managed to spend some time watching clips from “Moana” and then “Sing 2″ (what did I just see?) and before we knew it, it was time to meet up with my husband and head to Allora for, well, more food. This is Portland, right? Eating is our thing!

Allora is a sweet and cozy Italian restaurant, just a few blocks from the Marriott. I made a reservation which seemed silly when you’re keeping toddler hours but then, the place started to fill up and I was glad I had.

The menu is full of classics and we ordered three, since there was no kid’s menu: spaghetti with clams, spaghetti carbonara and rigatoni in a red sauce with prosciutto. Nona mainly ate the bread, which left her dad and mom to happily eat the three tasty entrees without a problem.

dinner table

Chaos at dinner with a three-year-old at Allora.Lizzy Acker/The Oregonian

I was also thrilled with the tangy raspberry lemonade they made me when I asked for a nonalcholic cocktail. I didn’t want booze but I did want a sugared rim. 10/10, no notes.

We took the panna cotta to go and shared it watching more “Sing 2″ (again, what is this movie and why is Bono in it?).

The next day, we opted for two breakfasts. My husband and Nona started with the free breakfast, which was pretty standard and included a waffle station and some hot food, plus cereals and adorable little Nutella packages. An employee gave Nona crayons and a coloring book, upping the experience several levels.

Then, Nona and I set out again on our own, this time to Fuller’s Coffee House. Fuller’s is a classic diner, which serves totally decent classic diner food. But really you are going there for the vibes and the vibes are great. Classic rock was bumping at 7:30 a.m. and a friendly server walked around refilling coffee. The seating is small stools on long tables and it’s impossible not to make a lot of eye contact with strangers over your pancakes. Nona loved it.

child eats pancake

Nona eats a blueberry pancake at Fuller’s.Lizzy Acker/The Oregonian

After breakfast, we headed back to the hotel and finished “Sing 2″ (my review remains: “What is this movie?”).

Then, we checked out of the hotel and went on our next adventure: Taking the streetcar to OMSI.

Unlike PlayDate PDX, OMSI is fun for more than just children, though it’s also a nostalgia pick for me since as a kid growing up in Oregon, driving to the old OMSI in Washington Park was a huge treat.

kid in goggles doing science

A young scientist at work in the chemistry lab.Lizzy Acker/The Oregonian

OMSI now is a lot different than it was when I was little. There’s a whole “little kids” area with a water table and climbing structure. But Nona’s favorite part (mine too probably) is the chemistry lab, where you don a pair of goggles and do experiments. They change up what’s in there, so everything was different than when we went two weeks earlier.

We used ground up denture cleaner to inflate balloons and dropped nail polish on water and learned about energy and pencil lead, and then we headed back to the streetcar stop to head back to the west side of the river and Dough Zone for dumplings.

dinner table

Nona eats a soup dumpling.Lizzy Acker/The Oregonian

Dough Zone was a hit, especially the soup dumplings, which Nona monopolized. She also loved the bao and I managed to eat the whole bowl of noodles with onion soy sauce, even though I couldn’t possibly have been hungry anymore.

food on a table

Bao, pancakes and noodles at Dough Zone.Lizzy Acker/The Oregonian

Then I loaded Nona onto my back in the Ergo – I would have said carrying a three-year-old in an Ergo is nonsense, but recently I’ve found it to be a solid way to carry Nona from place to place when I want to actually get somewhere and the stroller is too much trouble.

It wasn’t raining, so we walked over Tilikum Crossing back to OMSI again. We wanted to do that denture cleaner experiment again, and I was determined to show Nona the planetarium.

After a show about the night sky and a few more experiments, Nona was back on my back, and we slowly started the journey home by foot and bus. On my back, Nona slept so hard I even stopped to get a brownie and tea at Providore and ate the whole thing without her ever knowing.

kid on mom's back, asleep

Nona asleep on the bus.Lizzy Acker/The Oregonian

It was a full Portland experience in a little over 24 hours, without a single moment of worrying about parking. I was pretty proud of the kid-friendly itinerary I created, punctuated with delicious food and the joy of riding the streetcar and city bus. But when I asked Nona what her favorite part of the trip was she said, “Watching the show.”

“‘Sing 2′?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she answered.

— Lizzy Acker

503-221-8052;; @lizzzyacker

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