Such was the case last month when my fiancé, Drew, and I spent a long weekend in the City of Roses drifting between gardens, including the newest: the Classical Chinese Garden, an urban retreat that opened in September.
Although Portland is known more for its International Rose Test Garden and beautiful Japanese Garden overlooking downtown, it was the Classical Chinese Garden where we spent the most time, following serpentine pathways of patterned river stones through a series of courtyards, over a bridged pond, past a waterfall and into tiled pavilions and gazebos that seemed to float on the water.
The garden is the largest outside China built in the same style as the renowned gardens of Suzhou, Portland's sister city, founded in 514 BC along the Yangtze River Delta just west of Shanghai. Although the Portland garden covers the entire block bound by Everett and Flanders streets and 2nd and 3rd avenues near Chinatown, it's surprisingly intimate. Commissioned by the city, it took seven years and $12.5 million to plan and build.
Nine pavilions are bedecked with paper lanterns, poetic couplets written in ancient calligraphy, enormous panels with other verse, and ornate imported carvings on golden ginkgo wood and cypress sanded until smooth as silk.
Classical Chinese gardens emphasize the natural harmony of plants, water, rock and architecture. Walking through Portland's version, I was struck by contrasting colors, textures and sounds: the delicate burgundy of an Asian maple next to the broad, deep green of a banana tree; the amazing quiet inside the garden walls despite the bustling commercial district outside.
Visitors can soak in the view of the pond and the ever-changing collection of rare plants from a large wooden deck, or contemplate their beauty from the teahouse while sipping a cup of golden lily oolong and nibbling a moon cake, a little pastry filled with sweetened bean paste.
Hourly tours explain the significance of the garden's details, many of which are easy to miss, such as the stone fish dragons on a pavilion roof or the precise placement of the windows, each framing a view that's perfect in composition and different in perspective.
Every feature has been picked and placed for its symbolic as well as artistic importance. Swaying bamboo, full of flexibility and grace, represents the ability of an open mind to bend -- to understand the ideas and opinions of others. It sits next to groupings of "shoot rocks," or eroded, pole-shaped stones shipped from caverns in eastern China.
Wild ginger, camellias and winter hazel -- all common to Suzhou -- are also part of the palette. The only departure from traditional plantings is a magnificent pink dogwood, an addition by one of the garden's Chinese designers who saw this very tree blooming in a Portland yard.
Staff from Suzhou's garden bureau, who oversaw construction, say the grounds aren't perfect. The roof tiles here are bolted, not stacked, an earthquake precaution. The pond water is too clear, allowing visitors to see the bottom rather than their own reflections. But I was amazed by the design's precision and beauty.
To carry on the Asian theme, Chinatown and its trinket shops and Mandarin restaurants await visitors a few blocks away. For an interesting contrast, though, we decided to visit the city's Japanese Garden next.
While the Chinese Garden is highly stylized, almost painterly, the Japanese Garden, opened in 1967, is a study of Portland's natural beauty. It's like a wispy willow, not a carefully trimmed bonsai.
The Japanese Garden is tucked in the West Hills neighborhood with one of the best views of the city. Beyond a welcoming wisteria arbor, stone paths wind downhill into 5 1/2 acres of Washington Park. A zigzagging bridge crosses a bed of iris to a pond with 50 koi and a waterfall nestled into the hillside. Other paths lead to carefully raked Buddhist meditation gardens, a teahouse and the "dry landscape garden," with evergreens and bright azaleas contrasting with stark white sand.
Next to the Japanese Garden is the International Rose Test Garden, the oldest in the U.S. and home to more than 8,000 plantings. Portland didn't get its nickname from this place -- 200 miles of rose-bordered streets already existed when it was built in 1917 -- but the garden went a long way toward enhancing the city's reputation.
Unfortunately, we visited before bushes were in bloom. The real show is next month during the Rose Festival, which celebrates with parades, fireworks, the Rose Queen coronation, music and flower shows.
Between garden visits we decided to switch gears. Portland's charming old architecture and vast collection of coffeehouses and bookshops provide a nice backdrop for visitors like us looking to unwind and unplug, at least for a few days. We found that the light rain made cappuccino from a native coffeehouse seem more satisfying and the food at a few comfortable (if not cutting-edge) restaurants seem almost sublime.
At the recommendation of friends, Drew and I also checked out Widmer Brothers Brewing Co., located in an industrial area across the Willamette River from downtown.
For anyone interested in the craft of beer making, tours are offered Friday and Saturday afternoons. Most folks, though, are content with a sampler of brews, from the light, lemony hefeweizen to the Hop Jack ale and dopplebock in Widmer's Gast-haus, which serves typical pub fare (including a dynamite meatloaf sandwich) plus enormous platters of German food.