There's a lot to be said about vacationing among the vines. But when every road leads to a winery, your days can start looking a little predictable: swirl, sip, swish, rinse and repeat.
That’s why those who crave a little variety with their vino head for the central and south Willamette Valley. The region stretches about 65 miles from Salem, Oregon, south to Eugene, offering everything from big college towns with thriving food-and-drink scenes to quaint hamlets steeped in history. Plus, the area gives incredible access to some of the best recreational spots in the state.
If you love water, plan your trip for summer so you can rent a kayak in Corvallis and paddle the Willamette River to a brewpub. Or indulge in the many waterfalls, swimming holes or hot springs in the Willamette National Forest, just east of the region. In winter, the forest’s ski slopes and sno-parks offer plenty of powder play without the crowds. In fall, leaf peepers follow the country roads just outside the main cities to bask in the blazing colors on lazy drives peppered with old covered bridges, or expend some energy on secluded hikes. In spring, head an hour west to the coast, where you can spot whales migrating, or rent an ATV and have a blast on the dunes.
Whatever the season, any wine tasting in the area should start at the acclaimed Willamette Valley Vineyards, just outside of Salem. But first, work up an appetite with a hike among the 10 waterfalls at Silver Falls State Park, just 30 minutes east, because Willamette Valley Vineyards is one of the few area wineries with a full restaurant on-site for exceptional wine pairing opportunities.
The adorable town of Albany, just 25 miles south of Salem, features 700 historic homes and buildings that offer a living history of the state’s infancy, from pioneer days through the 1920s. And don’t miss the Historic Carousel and Museum near Monteith Riverpark (the park itself has a riverside beach and hosts summer concerts). The carousel is a wonder of both artistry and community building that’s been more than 10 years in the making, as each animal in the functioning merry-go-round is handmade by resident volunteers.
A bit farther south in the neighboring towns of Corvallis and Philomath, the wine tasting continues at a collection of laid-back, family-run spots offering Pinots with a view, including Springhill Cellars, Spindrift Cellars and Cardwell Hill Cellars. If you’re craving something different, Harris Bridge Vineyard makes vermouth, aperitifs, dessert wines and brandy, all just steps from the picturesque Mary’s River and the covered Harris Bridge. Or stop into 2 Towns Ciderhouse for a pint of hard cider. For lunch or dinner, Gathering Together Farm is as farm-to-table as it gets. If you’re lucky, you’ve booked a room at the cozy, old-fashioned Hanson Country Inn.
Terwilliger (Cougar) Hot Springs in the Willamette National Forest. Photo by Melanie Griffin/Eugenecascadescoast.org
About 50 miles south of Corvallis, the Eugene area is similarly known for its boutique family wineries focused on Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, and with lovely grounds perfect for picnicking. Brigadoon, Antiquum Farm (by appointment only), Pfeiffer, Walnut Ridge Vineyard and Five Fourteen Vineyards wineries are all within minutes of each other. Or keep heading south for wine-tasting spots with food and music, such as Sarver (sarverwinery.com), Silvan Ridge and King Estate, the last of which features an upscale full-service restaurant overlooking the vines.
After a day in the country, Eugene will seem like a bustling big city. Home to the University of Oregon, the town has a great bar, restaurant and nightlife scene (no surprise). Fitness buffs stay at Even Hotel, where every room has exercise equipment; food lovers stay at the luxe Inn at the 5th, where you can be right in the middle of the action. From there, you have lots of options: Check out the food hall at the adjacent 5th Street Market, settle in for dinner at venerable Marché, head to the nearby hipster Whiteaker neighborhood for IPAs at famed Ninkasi Brewing Company and blistered pizzas at The Wheel Apizza Pub, or head a few blocks into downtown for cocktails and inventive bites like seven-layer avocado toast or duck confit rolls at Party Downtown. You can even hop over the river to Springfield to check out the Simpsons mural on the Emerald Art Center building and tuck into fare at the new old-school steak house George & Violet’s.
Luxe accommodations at Inn at the 5th. Photo courtesy of Inn at the 5th
But whatever you do, don’t leave Eugene without brunching on fresh, vibrant, gorgeously creative dishes served from Lion & Owl’s shiny Airstream trailer. The savory cheese macarons and foie gras “pop tarts” are just a few of the many payoffs for skipping the crowds to the north and taking your wine country road trip to this part of the state.
Getting there: Salem is a nearly five-hour drive from Seattle.