British Columbia? No, Washington. Check in for a taste of Western history and more.
Poor Vancouver—Vancouver, Wash., that is. It lies in the shadow of Portland, its strapping neighbor to the south, and of Vancouver, B.C., its mountain-flanked namesake to the north. With 154,800 people, Vancouver is Washington's fourth-largest city, but is often dismissed as a mere bedroom community.
Those with a passion for history know better.
"America's Vancouver," as Mayor Royce Pollard calls his city to distinguish it from its Canadian counterpart, is home to a fort that was once the hub of a fur-trading empire that extended from Alaska to California. It has one of the oldest operating airfields in the United States, with an air museum right next door. The city also serves as the gateway to the northern side of the spectacular Columbia River Gorge, which extends 80 miles eastward.
For a glimpse of what life was like for the Northwest pioneers, head to Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, where time is locked in an era when beaver hats drove Western commerce. In 1825, the British-owned Hudson's Bay Company established the fort as a base for its regional operations. Under the command of the imperious Dr. John McLoughlin, the bustling outpost welcomed Indians, trappers, and American settlers. By 1860, the company had relocated its headquarters to Canada and the U.S. Army moved into the fort, only to see it burn to the ground in 1866.
TREE OF LIFE
At 179 years of age, the apple tree in Old Apple Tree Park may be the oldest one in the Northwest. The botanical wonder was purportedly grown with seeds carried over from London. (360) 619-1111, www.ci.vancouver.wa.us/parks-recreation .
Today a 15-foot-high palisade surrounds a handful of reconstructed buildings, where volunteer blacksmiths, carpenters, and bakers re-create pioneer life. Fort Vancouver is the centerpiece of a 366-acre national historic reserve that includes Officers Row, a lineup of stately Victorian and Edwardian homes. The Marshall House was once home to General George C. Marshall, commander of the Vancouver Barracks before his time as Army chief of staff in World War II, secretary of state, and author of the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild Europe. The Grant House, named for Union Army commander and later President Ulysses S. Grant, who was stationed in Vancouver before the Civil War, houses the elegant Restaurant at the Historic Preserve.
Down the street from the fort, the Pearson Air Museum consists of two hangars filled with vintage planes from the first half of the 20th century. Best sight: A Curtiss Pusher biplane that perfectly evokes the daredevil, engine-strapped-to-a-lawn-chair era of aviation. Neighboring Pearson Airfield, dating back to 1905, played a role in a number of aviation milestones, including the first transpolar flight from Moscow to the United States in 1937.
Not all of Vancouver looks to the past. A revitalized downtown is springing up around Esther Short Park, the state's oldest public square, recently the recipient of a $6.5 million makeover. Anchored by a gleaming new convention center, the park features a 69-foot-high bell tower, brick walkways, and bronze sculptures of salmon.
Take a walk around the bustling park perimeter and sample regional vintages at Vancouver Gift & Wine Cellar, indulge in a body wrap at Athena Day Spa, and savor a year-round bounty of local produce and handcrafts at the Vancouver Farmers Market.
Still in the mood to stretch your legs? Wander along the Waterfront Renaissance Trail, a four-mile-long pathway flanked by restaurants and upscale shops that stretches from downtown to the Columbia River. It's a great spot for a late afternoon stroll or an evening drink, especially during the two weeks before Christmas when dozens of watercraft, decked out in shimmering holiday lights, cruise down the river to the delight of shoreside spectators.
Photography courtesy city of Vancouver, Wash.
This article was first published in November 2005. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
Pick up AAA's Oregon & Washington map and TourBook. For additional information, contact the Southwest Washington Convention & Visitors Bureau: (360) 750-1553, (877) 600-0800, www.southwestwashington.com . Area code is 360 unless noted.
STEP BACK IN TIME
Pearson Air Museum 1115 E. Fifth St., 694-7026, www.fortvan.org/pages/pearson-air-museum . Vancouver National Historic Reserve The 366-acre complex is home to Fort Vancouver National Historic Site (696-7655, www.nps.gov/fova ) and the city's visitor center. 750 Anderson St., 992-1800, www.fortvan.org .
Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge Excellent bird-watching in a 5,150-acre area near the Columbia River. Don't miss the Cathlapotle Plank-house, a replica of a traditional Chinook structure. 887-4106, www.fws.gov/ridgefieldrefuges .
Athena Day Spa 410 W. Eighth St., 695-4800. Vancouver Farmers Market 505 Esther St., 737-8298, www.vancouverfarmersmarket.com . Vancouver Gift & Wine Cellar 418 W. Eighth St., 993-5006, www.vancouvercellar.com .
Top Shelf Hip new cocktail lounge. Try the sweet mocha martini—vanilla vodka, chocolate liqueur, and cream. 600 Main St., 699-7106.
The Heathman Lodge $119–$350. Log cabin–style urban retreat. 7801 NE Greenwood Dr., 254-3100, (888) 475-3100, www.heathmanlodge.com . Hilton Vancouver $89–$189. New seven-story downtown hotel. 301 W. Sixth St., 993-4500, (800) 445-8667, www.hilton.com . Red Lion cat the Quay $99–$239. Overlooks the Columbia River. 100 Columbia St., 694-8341, (800) 733-5466, www.redlion.com .
Christmas at the Fort December 10. Demonstrations show how pioneers celebrated the Yuletide season. 612 E. Reserve St., 696-7655, www.nps.gov/fova . A Lewis and Clark Fortnight Nov. 28–Dec. 11. A two-week commemoration of the explorers' epic journey includes a living history encampment, lectures, holiday tree lightings, and the Corps of Discovery II outdoor traveling exhibit. 1001 E. Fifth St., (888) 701-3434, www.lewisandclark.org .