HOOD RIVER, Ore. – Windsurfers who landed here during the 1980s never predicted penthouse condos, $180 jeans and dueling espresso shops on the main drag.
These days this town of 6,700 lures both day-tripping Portlanders and international travelers, developing a reputation as one of the Pacific Northwest’s most upscale destinations.
Attractions include Columbia River views; pears and wine cultivated a few miles from the bistros that serve them; skiing, hiking, biking, kayaking – and, yes, windsurfing.
Brian Schurton barks instructions from the beach:
“Overhand grip on the left! All your fingers, please!”
He nods in approval as his students, buddies from Seattle, coast across the Columbia.
“The minute you calm down, it gets easier,” says Schurton, who owns Brian’s Windsurfing.
The star windsurfer blew into Hood River in 1990, when it was just a hamlet in a fertile valley known for its world-class fruit and fierce winds. It reminded Schurton of small towns in his native Jamaica.
Looking up from the river, he could count lights from only 14 homes on the hillside. People genuinely wanted to help when he needed directions. And there was no such thing as a traffic jam.
A windsurfing boom was under way. Surf shops opened downtown, and mom-and-pop cafes got extra business during the summer. But the city clung to its laid-back vibe.
Many newcomers started careers and families here. Schurton, for one, began giving lessons and now lives in Hood River nearly full time.
It’s still a great windsurfing destination and friendly place, Schurton says. But these days, surfers share the town with a bigger, and fancier, crowd.
“Windsurfing has taken a back seat,” he says.
Strolling down Oak Street, it’s easy to see what he means.
Rooms at the renovated Hood River Hotel sport wood floors and river views. Young people surf the Internet and listen to ’80s tunes at Ground Espresso Bar. Restaurants offer organic greens and free-range meat, and the town’s fourth wine-tasting room will open soon.
There’s live music and gelato. Yoga students scurry across the street, and laughter spills from cafe windows.
This transformation took place mostly in the last five years.
Hood River brought in record-high lodging taxes in 2007, a Chamber of Commerce study shows, up 45 percent since 2000. The Mount Hood region drew a large proportion of visitors in their mid-20s through mid-30s – and an unusually high percentage with college degrees.
Travelers come for outdoor recreation, from skiing to biking, chamber director Mary Closson says. They tour farms on the 35-mile Fruit Loop. They flock to the summer Gorge Games, re-established this year, and fall Hops Fest.
And these days, Hood River guests drink, shop and hang out in the chic downtown.
Closson knows. Several months ago, she and a friend were craving coffee as they drove home to Portland from the eastern part of the state. Hood River, they decided, was their only hope.
As they nibbled brownies and sipped lattes with the evening crowd at Doppio Espresso and Gelato, she thought to herself: “This is it.”
A few weeks later, Closson heard the chamber needed a director.
Starting in late May, Hood River native Jennifer Thomas says, “The town fills up with all these people who don’t know which way to drive. There are different faces and different license plates.
“You look in the cafe and go, ‘Oh, my gosh, who are all these people?’ ”
Not that Thomas minds. She returned to Hood River a year and a half ago after more than a decade in Portland and New York. The 31-year-old says she was drawn to her hometown for its laid-back vibe and increasingly urban culture.
But to make ends meet, Thomas piecemeals a career: She designs clothing for her own label, works for a small advertising company, pulls several shifts a month at a downtown boutique and helps at a friend’s cafe.
Oh, and she raises a 7-year-old daughter.
The median home sales price inside city limits climbed to $352,000 this year – more expensive than Portland.
Councilman Laurent Picard has fought proposals for a casino and a Super Wal-Mart.
“I’ve seen how some resort towns grow, like Vail or Park City, Utah. They lose their small-town quality,” Picard says. “I started to feel a sense of ownership of this town, a sense of place.”
Hood River’s past and present meet at Pheasant Valley Orchards and Winery, where Scott and Gail Hagee blend agriculture and tourism. The couple bought their 40 acres three decades ago to grow pears and apples.
“We love the place so much, we’ll do anything to stay here,” Scott Hagee says, gazing at Mount Hood.
First they went organic. Then they opened their own packing house and, before long, planted grapes to test the prospects for wine.
In the past decade, the Hagees converted their home to a bed-and-breakfast and opened a winery and tasting room.
Now, half of Pheasant Valley’s revenue comes from tourism. The last two pages of the winery guest book include visitors from Texas, Virginia, Illinois, Montana and Hawaii.
Japanese and German travelers have rented rooms, and an elderly Scottish man attending a wedding once played bagpipes in the morning fog. Guests love to hear about the farm while Scott makes coffee and Gail fixes breakfast.
This spring, a European travel show filmed Pheasant Valley as part of a feature about Hood River. When Gail mentioned that she’d love to pave the road, a producer was taken aback.
Hood River’s rustic feel is part of the charm, the producer insisted.
“Don’t change anything,” she advised.
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