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photo by Nealaphoto by Nealaphoto by Neala Hood River, Oregon
It probably wasn't the Garden of Eden, but it might make a good runner-up.

Temperate climate, Fruit Loop, wineries and breweries, restaurants, stunning scenery and its most unique feature - ski in the morning and wind surf in the afternoon. In recognition of its exceptional and fragile beauty the whole area has been designated as part of the nation's first National Scenic Area. And Hood River itself is a charming town just funky enough to keep it fun.

If we sound like we loved the Hood River region it's because we did.

Fruit Loop
Hood River Valley, nestled between majestic snow-covered Mt. Hood and the Columbia River, is an agricultural paradise (or if you talk to the pear growers it's a pear-adise). With a growing season almost six months long of cool nights and warm days, and the inadvertent legacy of Mr. Hood's volcanic years to provide rich, fertile soil, Hood River has an ideal micro-climate. And it doesn't hurt that the scenery is magnificent.

Originally an apple-growing area, a few disastrous killer-freezes convinced growers to shift some of their land from apples to pears. Today it's one of Oregon's largest pear growing regions. But you can still find varieties of apples you didn't know even existed, plus cherries, berries, and baked goods.

The Fruit Loop is actually a trail winding through 35 plus miles of rolling hills and fruit farms. And no matter where you go, there's always snow-covered Mt. Hood in the background turning everything into a picture-postcard.

Follow the map (or as much of it as you like) to visit wooly alpacas, vineyards, and fruit farms of all kinds and flavors (mostly family owned and operated). Harvest season begins in June and July for berries, cherries and apricots, peaks in August and September with the peaches, corn, apples, and pears, and continues into October for chestnuts.

Some of the highlights include McCurdy Farms which not only grows pears and apples (plus other fruit) but is also the site where Clear Creek Distillery's famous pear-in-a-bottle pear brandy is grown.Hood4.jpg - 31501 Bytes In fact, you can see the orchard with the tiny pears actually growing inside the bottles. By the way, it takes 30 pounds of pears to make each bottle of pear brandy.

Kiyokawa Family Orchards and Fruit Stand has fields designed for pick-your-own produce. You can also take a self-guided tour of the farm. There are also vineyards on the Loop - Cathedral Ridge Winery and Hood River Vineyards. Both have free wine tasting. We've tried the Hood River Gerwurtztraminer (lighter and fruitier than its Alsacian counterpart) and their Marionberry wine - yummy.

For a change of pace there's also the Alpacas of Double Dutch Farms. Alpacas are known for their fleece - strong and warm. The area has a strong environmental culture and there are also organic farms - Columbia Gorge Organic Fruit, and Mt. Hood Organic Farms & Garden Cottages.

Special group tours can be arranged. There's even a car-free path for runners, hikers, and road-bikers. For more information on Fruit Loop visit www.hoodriverfruitloop.com.

If you don't have time to do the Loop, visit Hood River on Saturdays from May to October for the Saturday Market.

Snow Ski and Wind Surf
At over 11,000 feet, Mt Hood is a 12-month a year ski area. Even in summer the upper trails are open. Of course, the skiing isn't quite what it is in winter when over 400 inches of snowfall keep the runs in powdery perfection. But what skier could resist the lure of July on the slopes? The major ski areas are Cooper Spur which has a charming inn and restaurant, Mt. Hood Meadows Ski Resort , Mt. Hood Skibowl and Timberline Ski Area.

Hood5.jpg - 17530 BytesAfter a exhilarating morning skiing, the intrepid traveler can head down to the Columbia River for an afternoon of exciting windsurfing. Add a sail to a surfboard and stir in some wind...and you've invented a new form of surfing, powered by the wind rather than waves of water. This is probably the only area in the country where you can combine these two totally different yet water-based activities. Oh yes, and now you can decide to kiteboard after you've windsurfed. Kiteboarding? Well, attach yourself to a kite and to a board, and hold on tightly. The Columbia River Gorge forms a natural wind tunnel with different wind strengths and water conditions. There's almost always a good wind somewhere along the Columbia River. In fact it's a world-class water sport area (okay, it's true, you can't ocean surf, but you can most other things including rafting and kayaking).

Hood River
hood6.jpg - 78921 Bytes The town of Hood River, once characterized as a "fruit town" with packing, canning and storage warehouses, has been reborn as a tourist destination. Yet the town doesn't look or feel high-volume. Instead it seems homey and comfortable. On our recent visit we discovered a wonderful microbrewery called Full Sail Brewing Company where you can tour the brewery, enjoy the free tastings, chat with the owner-staff (it's an employee owned operation), eat a burger either inside or outside on the terrace overlooking the Columbia River. You can also visit Big Horse Brew Pub for a drink and a meal, and Mike's Ice Cream for this fresh-made and delicious frozen confection. Try the banana and chocolate lover's chocolate. There's also a wine bar and shop called the Wine Bar which offers 40 wines on tap (and Internet access for those of us who can't bear to be without our cyberconnection).

There's a growing art community there too --Columbia Gorge Art Gallery, and Made in the Gorge, an artists' cooperative. Even carousel art is represented in the International Museum of Carousel Art.

Down by the river there's also Hood River Railway which provides a scenic ride via updated historic trains (cushiony reupholstered for comfort) to Parkdale. As I got my ticket the booth agent gave me a smile and a handful of play money. I looked at her quizzically. "It's in case you get robbed," she replied. "Hmmm," I thought. But soon after the train left the station, I heard the sounds of a commotion. Yes, there was a train robbery happening, but slowly so that each car could participate in the fun. The "robbers" joked with the passengers, relieving them of the play money (no doubt to be recycled for the next trip) although I'm sure several children held out, keeping theirs as souvenirs. At the station in Parkdale there was a BBQ buffet and singing by the robbers, now looking more like respectable cowboys than thieving varmints. There's also brunch and dinner trips in specially equipped dining cars.

Parkdale itself is tiny. But there's a microbrewery, Elliot Glacier Public House, and a few artists and shops to visit.

Accommodations and Restaurants
We stayed in the Columbia Gorge Hotel , a lovely and gracious inn. The breakfasts (included in the cost of a room but otherwise quite pricey) could easily satisfy a lumberjack. Starting with a huge tray of fruits and berries, moving to baked apples and fritters. Then, oatmeal, eggs, your entrée (yes, all the other dishes were appetizers). Of course, if that wasn't enough, there's biscuits and honey, pancakes and coffee. The grounds are beautifully landscaped and can give any gardener a few ideas to do at home. Plus it has an outdoor patio overlooking the Columbia River.

Of course, there's also B&Bs, the restored Hood River Hotel listed in the National Register of Historic Places and located in the center of town, and rustic lodges along the Columbia River.

There's many places to eat throughout the area. Stonehedge Gardens is a turn-of-the-century house surrounded by woods and gardens. The setting is lovely, both indoors and out. And the appetizers we tried were innovative and delicious. For those with a love of Cajun, Creole, and bayou BBQ there's The Big Easy New Orleans Fish House & Barbeque in an old Victorian home.

Other Activities in the area
After skiing and water sports, hiking is probably the best reason to visit the area. Start with Oregon's Historic Columbia River Highway I-84. The road shadows the river with lovely views just about everywhere you look. But if you get off at exits 17 or 35 you'll find hiking, wildflowers and waterfalls. Check out Columbia River Gorge, National Scenic Area for more information. The Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler offers excursion and dinner cruises on the Columbia River.