With a raucous squawk, the great blue heron launches itself skyward as two sea kayakers paddle silently past the banks of the Willamette River. As they watch the bird fly off down the river, their gaze takes in not only the steel-and-glass skyscrapers of downtown Portland but a riverside forest of cottonwood trees, a historic paddle-wheeler, and even a submarine.
"Paddling here is a unique urban experience," says Mike McKoane, co-owner of Portland River Company, a kayak rental and tour company downtown. "There aren't too many cities of this size in the world where you can see a fisherman fighting a salmon, bald eagles on their nest, and a heron rookery, then come back to the city skyline."
Even if you don't feel like wedging yourself into a kayak, there are plenty of other ways to appreciate the Willamette River on its course through the heart of Oregon's largest city. You can take a boat tour, stroll the riverfront walkways through vital wildlife habitat, or shop for crafts along the water. You can even eat at a floating restaurant.
The 1 1/2-mile Eastbank Esplanade, which opened last year, has made the biggest splash on the waterfront, but at the south end of Gov. Tom McCall Waterfront Park, there's also now a public perennial garden. It's even possible to get a rose-petal scrub or an ayurvedic massage at the luxurious new Avalon Hotel & Spa, on the water in the John's Landing area south of downtown.