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Portland: A perfect day trip destination

South Waterfront Park
South Waterfront Park runs 1,000 feel along the bank of the Willamette River and provides direct public access to the river thorughout the year. Steve Terrill / Corbis
/ Source: The Associated Press

Some cities are hard for the casual visitor to handle. Traffic, confusing maps, far-flung attractions, and too many chain stores can make the tourist's quest for a hassle-free yet authentic connection to the local vibe all but impossible.

Portland is not one of those places. It's a day-tripper's paradise. The city's funky, laid-back personality is easy to sample on the street and in quirky local stores. Its restaurants do justice to Oregon's bountiful produce and the seafood of the Pacific. Metered street parking is plentiful compared to many big cities. Rainy weather much of the year helps keep Portland's gardens beautiful, but the sun is often out in the peak summer visiting season.

A whirlwind six-hour visit to Portland with my family started at the flagship store for Powell's City of Books, which claims to be the world's largest independent new and used book store, with six retail locations and more than 4 million books among them. It's a dangerous place to visit if you're flying home, because you're sure to exceed your luggage limit with all the books you'll buy. The store's unfathomable layout, with color-coded rooms on multiple levels ("The Purple Room: Where past meets present") made no sense to me, but getting lost in the stacks of the Rose Room, the Pearl Room and the Gold Room was part of the fun.

I walked out with a half-dozen books, including "Breakfast at Tiffany's," which I'd always meant to read, and a haunting novel of Communist-era Czechoslovakia called "Giraffe" that I never would have noticed had it not been so fetchingly displayed on a shelf at eye-level. I passed on "Baby-Gami," which shows you how to wrap your baby in various types of swaddling, but I did buy some cool postcards and "I'm all that's left of a bizarre childhood" magnets for me and my sister. Then it was off to find carbs and coffee.

Voodoo Doughnut is about as far as you can get from Dunkin' Donuts or Krispy Kreme and still be in a doughnut shop. It's open 24 hours a day and revels in its weirdness. The store's slogan is "The magic is in the hole," and a friend who is a local urged me not to ask what it means, so I didn't.

Beyond the shop's pink door you'll find a giant brown doughnut-shaped blob on the wall; other decorations include candles, a skull, a tribal mask and a handwritten "Support your local doughnut!" poster.

The doughnuts are enormous and downright wacky, including vegan doughnuts, doughnuts designed to resemble erotic body parts, and doughnuts with names like "Dirt" (covered with vanilla glaze and Oreo cookies). I took the boring route and got a yummy apple fritter.

Next stop: the Portland Classical Chinese Garden, a tranquil jewel located in Portland's Chinatown. Here you'll find goldfish swimming in a pond, brightly colored peonies, serene mosaic paths with lush greenery, and authentically built pavilions with hand-carved decor.

Also on the itinerary was Washington Park, to see Portland's famous International Rose Test Garden. The garden was established during World War I when roses were shipped over from Europe to safeguard them from wartime destruction. They have thrived to create one of the country's most luscious showcases for the flower, with large and deeply hued blossoms.

The garden's four glorious acres are filled with perfumed air and waves of orange, pink, purple, red, yellow and creamy white flowers. It is located on a terraced hill overlooking the city skyline, but the weather does not always afford a clear view.

Up the hill from the roses but still in Washington Park, you'll find the Japanese Garden. No roses here; just a green, peaceful setting with a bridge, water, walkways and stonework. If you're traveling with kids, be sure to visit Washington Park's Oregon Zoo, home to bears, elephants, tigers and many other creatures.

It was time for a late lunch. Destination: Jake's Famous Crawfish, where a friend had told me the cedar-baked salmon was not to be missed. Alas, it was not on the lunch menu! When I told the waiter I'd come all the way from New York to try it, inquiries were made in the kitchen and my wish was fulfilled.

The salmon was just one fantastic part of an unforgettable feast, which I shared with my husband and two children. (The kids abandoned their usual picky attitudes once they realized how good the food was.) Between appetizers and entrees, our meal included, in addition to the salmon, pasta, a sandwich, crawfish, calimari, crab cakes with spicy dipping sauce, mashed potatoes and julienne vegetables.

For dessert, a mountainous chocolate truffle cake with whipped cream, ice cream and a cherry appeared like a dream on an enormous plate. We asked for four forks and dug in. The bill, at $65, seemed like a bargain, considering this was one of the best meals we'd ever had on vacation.

It was a wonderful end to a perfect day in Portland. There were so many things to do here — more gardens, museums, historic districts, markets and tours — that it seemed a shame to leave. But we had other places to go, and our unfinished itinerary was merely an invitation to come back.