At the Oregon Electric Station in Eugene, Ore., you can eat inside an historic railroad dining car.
If you’re planning on driving to Eugene over the holidays (and why not?), there are a couple of things you should know about the locals: (1) they pronounce it "you-GENE," not "YOU-gene," and (2) pretty much everybody gets around by bike.
And they do it Eugene-style, which means towing groceries and granola (Golden Temple, one of the nation’s largest producers of the crunchy stuff, is headquartered here) in an ingenious homemade trailer. One of the more inventive designs is an Igloo cooler on wheels, typically adorned with at least one thought-provoking bumper sticker, like "My Other Car Isn’t a Car Either."
Tucked into a lush, fir-blanketed valley between the Coastal Range and the Cascades, Oregon’s second-largest city is an urban oasis, with an ivy-clad university (featured in Animal House). It also has festive pedestrian malls, a quirky outdoor market, distinctive restaurants, numerous museums, a world-class concert hall, and none of the hassles of a truly big city like Portland, 120 miles due north. Instead of a rush hour, Eugene has a "rush 10 minutes," thanks in part to the local predilection for two wheels, a choice encouraged by the fact that in Eugene there are more bridges over the Willamette River for cyclists than there are for motorists.
When they’re not on their bicycles, Eugenians are skirting puddles on one of the city’s many running paths, such as Pre’s Trail, a 3.8-mile riverside loop in Alton Baker Park named after University of Oregon track legend Steve Prefontaine, a U.S. record-setting runner who tragically died, at age 24, in a car wreck a year before the 1976 Olympic Games. The story of how Eugene, the birthplace of jogging and Nike, became known as "Track Town U.S.A." is told in exhibits and on video monitors in the foyer of the Nike store. Located in the Fifth Street Public Market, a former feed mill, it offers the town’s best shopping and people-watching. There you can see the actual waffle iron that Bill Bowerman, famed U of O track coach and Nike cofounder, used to fashion the world’s first waffle outsole and, subsequently, the Moon Shoe, named for the crater-like imprint it left in the dust.
Beyond the Nike shrine, there are museums devoted to bicycles (the Center for Appropriate Transport, which rents its exhibits); experimental aircraft (the Oregon Air and Space Museum); science (the fun, hands-on Willamette Science and Technology Center, which also houses the state’s largest planetarium); and art (the University of Oregon Museum of Art, which maintains one of the nation’s most important collections of Asian art, including a 9-foot-tall jade pagoda from the Qing Dynasty). The University of Oregon Museum of Natural History, is also worth a visit, housing both the fossil collection of Thomas Condon, Oregon’s first geologist, and the oldest shoes in Eugene: a pair of 9,000-year-old sagebrush bark sandals found in a cave east of the Cascades.
Eugene also has bragging rights to a concert hall with what might be the best acoustics on the West Coast, the 2,500-seat Silva Hall at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts. The center is home to Eugene’s opera, symphony, ballet, and concert choir, as well as the annual Oregon Bach Festival, which attracts international musicians and composers each summer. This time of year you can watch The Nutcracker, hear the Messiah,or if you’d prefer to stretch your own vocal cords, join in a holiday sing-along.
For a different sort of Eugene culture, visit the Saturday Market, an open-air celebration of hippiedom that moves indoors at the end of November and becomes the Holiday Market. It’s an excellent source for all manner of stocking stuffers, including crystals, tie-dyed garments, and one-of-a-kind joke books handwritten by the Frog, who is easily recognizable by his amphibian- and space alien-themed clothing, not to mention his truly massive beard.
Ever since Ken Kesey, Oregon’s most colorful literary citizen, returned home from his extended cross-country acid trip nearly 30 years ago and parked his psychedelic bus on a farm just outside town, Eugene has attracted a never-ending stream of eccentrics, including Kesey’s former neighbor Ray Sewell. Sewell, a classically trained chef, relocated from San Francisco and wound up preparing his trademark cioppino (seafood stew) for such Kesey houseguests as Timothy Leary, Bob Dylan, and Jerry Garcia. You can sample this pièce de résistance yourself at Chez Ray’s North Beach, the 100-seat restaurant Sewell has just opened in a historic theater adjacent to Eugene’s bus depot. While you’re waiting for your food, Sewell may poke his head (and ZZ Top beard) in and regale you with stories from the 25 years he cooked on the road for the Grateful Dead. If that’s not enough nostalgia, there’s archival footage from Kesey’s road trips playing on wall-mounted video monitors. And if you’re really lucky, Kesey himself might entertain you on the restaurant’s stage. Warning: If you show up for dinner on a Friday, plan on wearing a silly hat made out of a grocery bag.
For a more subdued fine-dining experience, reserve a table at the Valley River Inn’s restaurant, Sweetwaters. Here you can watch rain dapple the Willamette River as you sample authentic Oregon cuisine (Willamette Valley-gathered organic greens and potato-crusted Pacific halibut with lemon thyme and beurre blanc) and choose from an extensive local wine list, including Hinman’s award-winning gewürztraminer and pinot gris. Locals would recommend a stay at the swank 257-room hotel, especially if you’re in town for Thanksgiving, when the Valley River Inn hosts Eugene’s largest holiday event, the Festival of Trees.
But if it’s intimate, old-fashioned charm you’re after, stay at the Campbell House, a beautifully restored 1892 Queen Anne voted one of the nation’s 25 best B&Bs by American Historic Inns. Among the 18 guest rooms in this luxury bed-and-breakfast, the larger ones feature four-poster beds, fireplaces, whirlpool tubs, and views of mist-shrouded Spencer’s Butte, an urban park where founding father Eugene Skinner staked his land claim and built a log cabin. In addition to a parlor breakfast of scones and Belgian waffles, the Campbell House offers an assortment of holiday-themed afternoon teas, including two storytelling teas for children; the series culminates with an interactive "Dickens Christmas Feast" hosted by a costumed actor. It’s becoming a popular Eugene holiday tradition, but don’t worry about finding a place to park in the tiny lot. The locals use the covered bike rack out by the main entrance.
This article was first published in November 1999. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
All phone numbers are area code 541 unless noted. Find your way around with AAA’s Oregon/WashingtonTourBook and Eugene CitiMap.Stop by the Convention & Visitors Association of Lane County, Oregon, 115 West 8th St., to pick up the Lane County Visitor Guide, which includes suggestions for day trips to the coast, mountains, local wineries, covered bridges, and the McKenzie River. Phone: 484-5307 or (800) 547-5445 or visit www.travellanecounty.org.
WHERE TO SLEEP:
The Campbell House, 252 Pearl St., 345-1119 or (800) 264-2519. Eighteen rooms with private bath, including a one-bedroom apartment with kitchenette. Winter rates from $79 to $229.
Tuscany Inn, 33461 Bloomberg Rd., 747-4586. Four rooms with shared bathrooms in a vintage farmhouse. Rates: $65, plus $10 per additional person.
Valley River Inn, 1000 Valley River Way, 687-0123 or (800) 543-8266, 257 rooms, plus a pool, sauna, Jacuzzi, and workout room. Rates from $150 to $195.
WHERE TO EAT:
Chez Ray’s North Beach, 30 W. 10th Ave., 344-1530.
Oregon Electric Station, 27 E. Fifth Ave., 485-4444. Located in three restored train cars, it serves excellent prime rib.
Sweetwaters, Valley River Inn, 1000 Valley River Way, 687-0123.
WHAT TO SEE AND DO:
Hult Center for the Performing Arts, 1 Eugene Center, 687-5000 (box office). Free guided tours are offered upon request.
Saturday Market, 8th and Oak St., 686-8885. Becomes the Holiday Market in mid-November and moves to the Lane County Fairgrounds.
Center for Appropriate Transport, 455 W. First Ave, 344-1197.
Nike, 248 Fifth Ave., 342-5155. Footwear museum open during store hours.
Oregon Air & Space Museum, 90377 Boeing Dr., 461-1101.
University of Oregon Museum of Art, one block east of Kincaid Street and 14th Avenue, 346-3027.
University of Oregon Museum of Natural History, 1680 E. 15th Avenue, 346-3024.
Willamette Science and Technology Center, 2300 Leo Harris Parkway, 682-7888.
Festival of Trees, Valley River Inn, November 24-28; 687-0123.
Festival of Lights, Orchard Point Park, December 10-25; 689-4926.
Dickens Christmas Feast, Campbell House, December 22; 343-1119.