By David Armstrong
The landmark Meier & Frank Building opened in downtown Portland, Oregon in 1909. Down the decades, it housed a radio station, a pharmacy, a pet store and the namesake Meier & Frank department store; one of the employees, Clark Gable, later found fame as a Hollywood movie star.
That was then. Now, the lower floors of the 15-level glazed terra cotta building host another department store – Macy’s. These days, the venerable structure also boasts a stylish contemporary hotel on its upper levels: The Nines (as in dressed to the nines), a three-year-old, four-star property that is part of Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide Inc.’s Luxury Collection stable.
The Nines is located kitty-corner from Pioneer Courthouse Square. Taxis go to and from Portland International Airport, but the cheapest transport is the frequent, clean, safe, efficient light-rail system, MAX.
Airport to hotel takes about 40 minutes and costs $2 to $2.50 one-way, depending on the time of day. Arriving guests walk from the square across Southwest 6th Avenue, where The Nines has an attractive reception area, and take an elevator to the main lobby on the 8th floor for check-in.
Staffers at The Nines are full of chat and helpful tips about the city and the hotel. The hotel’s central design feature is an enormous central atrium that admits natural light through a skylight. Manikins from the old Meier & Frank department store are positioned in the lobby as witty art objects.
You can get coffee (Stumptown is a leading local brand), tea or drinks in the lobby. Screened-off and also in the lobby is the restaurant Urban Farmer. I had a savory brioche French toast and coffee breakfast there – much more than I could eat – for $14 when I stayed at The Nines in June.
The Nines also has a rooftop restaurant and bar, Departure, with sweeping views over downtown Portland, the Willamette River and the river bridges from the 15th floor.
It’s a happening place that embraces the trend for small-plates. The food is Pacific Rim, prepared with Northwest regional ingredients. Departure is a good choice if you like cocktails, or just want to drink-in the view.
Additionally, the Nines has a fitness center and a business center, both on the 7th floor. The business center is available 24/7 with a guest-room key, though it is pricey, with fees for out-of-town faxing and a $5.95 charge for 15 minutes of Internet access on the two PCs. One nice feature: You can use a PC and printer to print out an airline boarding pass for free.
I found the guest bathrooms a little small, with the shower inconveniently installed over the bathtub. Bathroom amenities feature BeeKind low-allergy personal care products.
Importantly, the bed was comfortable and my Deluxe room (nightly charge from $225) was spacious, with nine-foot ceilings. The interior design, heavy on pillows and fabrics and with a velvet couch vividly color-schemed to match the bed, is a blend of modern and traditional – think Louis XV with Wi-Fi.
Outside the hotel, one of America’s greenest and most bicycle-friendly cities awaits. One block from the Nines are a Nordstrom and a Starbucks, on Pioneer Courthouse Square.
Right in the square – an attractive urban space softened with terraced brick – is the city’s tourist information center. If you’re heading back to the airport on MAX light rail, you pick up the train at the square. Take the Red line heading east and look for “Airport” as the destination.
Portland is loaded with appealing food carts and cool little cafes and coffee-refueling stops; one of the best of the latter is called Spella Caffe, at Southwest 5th and Alder and open from 8:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. It’s a good place for a coffee and a pastry if you don’t fancy a full breakfast. Portland is like Seattle and San Francisco when it comes to good coffee; ordinary swill just won’t do.
One mild cautionary note: The central city has a number of street characters hanging out; it didn’t feel menacing, though I was alert after dark and recommend that other visitors be the same.
The Nines is but a 10-minute stroll from Portland’s most interesting commercial neighborhood: the Pearl District, which includes the sprawling Powell’s City of Books, at the corner of Southwest 10th and West Burnside. Powell’s is worth a look even if you’re not buying books that day; it stays open till 11:00 p.m. most nights and includes a cafe with light meals and snacks.
Just a jot from Powell’s, in the lobby of the Living Room Cinemas, a hip multiplex with independent and foreign-language movies, is an appealing bar/cafe.
I had only one night in this lovely city, and I didn’t care to ingest a full dinner. So I ate a sandwich in the Pearl District’s enormous and appetizing Whole Foods store, which has a lot of wholesome, tasty prepared foods.
Travelers who like shopping and browsing will be in their element in the Pearl District. The neighborhood of renovated vintage red brick buildings, speckled with modern architectural statements, is loaded with funky, one-of-a-kind clothing shops, specialty stores of all kinds, furniture design showrooms, kitchenware places, and many, many bars, cafes and hideaway hotels
After exploring Portland, winding down at the Nines is a fine way to wrap up a visit to Oregon’s largest city. Options include having a cocktail at the Urban Farmer bar, a glass of sake at the Departure rooftop bar, or just kicking off your shoes and relaxing in your room.
The Nines Hotel is located at 525 Southwest Morrison, Portland, Oregon 97204. For reservations, call 888.627.7208 toll-free or visit www.thenines.com.
David Armstrong is a San Francisco Bay Area journalist specializing in features, news and reviews about travel destinations, airports, airlines, hotels and resorts. He is the former tourism, aviation and international trade reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and covered tourism, movies, media and theater for the Hearst-owned San Francisco Examiner. He is the author of five books and numerous travel articles for TheStreet.com, Travel + Leisure, Global Traveler, Napa Sonoma Magazine, The Globe and Mail (Toronto), Toronto Star, Chicago Sun-Times, Aviation.com and many others. He blogs at http://davidarmstrongontravel.blogspot.com.