Southern Oregon Trail: Where Culinary,
Cultural, Country Adventures Meet
By Kathy Chin Leong
Verdant mountains of the Rogue Valley are the perfect backdrop for Nancy Groth and Michael Swaine’s restaurant and seven-acre organic farm bursting with sunflowers, melons of every ilk, edible flowers, medicinal and culinary herbs, scarlet tomatoes so ripe and luscious they look ready to pop. Here in Grants Pass, southern Oregon, the owners of SummerJo’s Restaurant lead customers through the pergola-lined garden to admire the harvested ingredients used for their organic dishes.
Summer Jo’s, reminds Swaine, takes advantage of Oregon’s predisposition towards rich, fertile soil and its resulting bounty. It doesn’t get any fresher than using ingridients from their own 100-plus varieties of crops for apple fennel slaw or winter squash ragout.
Fine dining establishments such as the quaint, white clapboard Summer Jo’s are a testament to the burgeoning reputation of southern Oregon as a Pacific Northwestern culinary capital. It is so popular that even food diva Rachael Ray has come to the area twice to film an episode for her show, $40 a Day. Top that off with visits to the three key winegrowing regions, food tours, outdoor adventures, and plays from the world renown Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, families with kids of all ages will have their itineraries filled with glorious excursions from morning to midnight.
The most celebrated city in the region is Ashland, thanks to notable fame from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The site for Southern Oregon University, the city is comprised of college students and a mix of retirees among its population. Ashland is also home to a hopping historic downtown filled with boutiques and art galleries, hip restaurants and eclectic eateries.
Downtown Ashland is also fun for kids. Filled with bookstores, eateries of all sorts, a park with play structures, stores with trinkets and toys, Ashland offers lots of room for kids to explore and run around.
Mom, (provided that Dad agrees to babysit), can visit the Blue Giraffe day spa to indulge in a treatment or two. The nicely appointed 5,000-square-foot service spa, right downtown, has two levels and provides a full complement of services such as: pedicures, manicures, facials, and massages.
A bevy of lodging, from quiet garden inns to historic hotels, is available and affordable compared to prices in the Bay Area.
Lithia Inn, located on the outskirts of downtown Ashland, offers guests the ambiance of a garden setting, a koi pond, bubbling water fountains scattered throughout, mineral baths in every room, hot morning breakfast, and an on-site spa called Waterstone, which offers quality massage and facial services in a tranquil setting. No televisions or phones in the rooms allow for true relaxation. You may want to bring older kids here, for people come to find solace. Rates start at $129.
Meanwhile, a stay at the historic Ashland Springs Hotel with room packages starting at $109, gives theater goers rapid access to any of the plays. Based downtown, the 1925 elegant inn features an on-site restaurant, and cashes in on its old-world antiquity with a safari theme with palms, safari hats, mammoth ceiling fans, botanical prints with pressed flowers, and a gracious patio garden brimming with colorful plants and a fountain.
Also in town is the Plaza Suites & Inn, a modern hotel walking distance to shops, restaurants, and conveniently located to the popular Blue Giraffe day spa. The modern stage motif with Shakepeare posters in the lobby, trendy bedding in jewleltone colors, diamond print carpeting, reminds guests of Elizabethan jesters and courtiers. In addition to a generous continental breakfast with make-your-own waffles, the Plaza, an independently owned property, offers cookies and peanut butter sandwiches with milk from 10 p.m. to midnight during the OSF for the after-theater audience. It also provides lodgers a pillow menu, so guests can select from non-allergenic, buckwheat, body pillows, and goosedown fillings. We found starting rates as low as $75 on Expedia.com. What a deal!
Further north in Grants Pass, The Lodge at Riverside, with rates starting at $125, provides a cabin-like feel with a delicious continental breakfast with a wide spread of fruit, yogurt, muffins, bagels, fresh-baked cinnamon rolls, teas, coffees, and juices. The Lodge, with 32 elegant wood-and-wicker furnished rooms, is located across the street from the popular Hellgate speed boat excursion. And when the kids get squirrely, you can take them to the outdoor pool on site.
Over in Medford, north of Ashland, we found an ideal kid-friendly hotel called the Rogue Regency Inn, located right off the main freeway, I-5. When we met our other friends for a four-day visit, all six kids made a beeline to the indoor pool. The hotel features a small continental breakfast to get people going for the day and has a generous lobby for sitting and gathering. Microwave and refrigerators in the rooms was a bonus, and free wireless Internet was a great way to look up restaurants and menus via our laptops. Rates start at $95 for two queen beds.
WHAT TO EAT
To venture to Southern Oregon is to pay homage to the new Northwest culinary experience with an overarching emphasis on local fruits, vegetables, and seafood and farm-to-table freshness. Visitors can indulge in an array of cuisine choices from organic wraps, to French and Mediterranean fare, to need-a-pile-of-napkins barbeque ribs.
The high-end Amuse Restaurant is an award-winning French establishment with has carved out its niche on the food map as "The Place" to visit while in Ashland. To-die-for desserts include the homemade warm beignets with crème anglaise and heirloom berry jam and the decadent bittersweet chocolate truffle cake with coffee ice cream.
The restaurant at Winchester Inn, Restaurant & Wine Bar, Ashland, rises to the top of the list of white-tablecloth establishments. Owned by Laurie and Michael Gibbs, the menu boasts such exemplary dishes as mini beef wellingtons and blue cheese souffle with Oregon apples. Local residents and repeat customers attest to the restaurants popularity. The restaurant has also opened a wine bar, an instant hit among visitors and its sommelier hosts creative events showcasing the local vitners. The inn also runs its own wine tours featuring a progressive meal where customers get a food or appetizer course at each winery along the tour stop.
In Medford, to give diners a sample of Oregon’s newly-recognized viticultural prowess, Summer Jo’s Restaurant has opened a tasting room featuring local and international wines. Wine Spectator Magazine dubbed Summer Jo’s as one of the best best restaurants in the world for lovers of the fermented grape.
Over in historic Jacksonville, the best barbeque to be had is at Back Porch Bar-b-cue, which boasts enormous portions. Even the $8 appetizer barbeque sampler consisting of pork loin, beef tenderloin, and pork ribs is served on a dinner platter and too large to eat for one person. The owner collects antiques and riddles the walls and entryways with cowboy boots, cowboy children’s books, antique saddles and camp gear, denim jeans and red bandanas as window coverings. Even the outside of the restaurant looks like a saloon from the TV show Gunsmoke.
Yummies indicative to the region include: locally-grown blackberries, raspberries and strawberries, which are small and extremely sweet; the many flavors of juicy Oregonian pears; blue cheeses from the Rogue Creamery, Central Point; organic chocolate samples from Lillie Belle Chocolates, Central Point, and organic chocolate bars from Dogoba Chocolate, Ashland. Organic ice cream from Ashland’s Zoey’s Café is an ideal dessert, particularly the pear ice cream incorporating large chunks of the state’s sweetest pears.
The well-crafted $5 tour of the Harry & David gourmet food company gives visitors a glimpse of the empire which ships millions of sweet and savory treats annually from its Medford headquarters.
Within the last couple of years, wine from southern Oregon has staked its claim to fame with notable mentions in Wine Spectator Magazine. The three regions, Applegate, Rogue, and Umpqua valleys, yield earthy blends that make for crisp pino noirs and daring cabernets. Wine tours also bring folks on limo rides to the regions. Maps are also available for winetasters to go on their own.
WHERE TO PLAY
Hard and soft adventures are part of the lure of this rugged area, popularized by boating, white water rafting, and canoeing expeditions. With the Rogue River boardering Grants Pass, visitors often opt for the the Hellgate Excursion, the most popular tourist attraction in the town with various length of rides featuring a spate of meal options.
Each of the jetboats seat approximately 60 guests and zips down the Rogue River, splashing and spinning at various turns. Participants do not have to wear lifevests as the boats never get out of control, and the guides make this event an educational one, explaining the habitats of the bald eagles, ospreys, and blue herons along the way. The excursion owns its own restaurant exclusive to Hellgate guests. One of the most popular is the $48 sunset ride with an all-you-can-eat chicken and rib dinner.
National treasures in the region include Crater Lake, the state’s only national park with a lake mouth that’s six miles wide, and the Oregon Caves National Monument, home to well, lots of caves. Both sites feature nearby lodging and hiking opportunities.
Great food, hiking, exploring, and plenty of culture and pleasant weather year-round make for a Southern Oregon memory less than two tanks of gas and six hours away from the Bay Area.
Ashland Springs hotel
212 East Main St.
The Lodge at Riverside
955 SE 7th Street
Lithia Springs Resort, Waterstone Mineral Springs Spa
2165 W Jackson Rd.
Plaza Inn & Suites at Ashland Creek
98 Central Ave.
Rogue Regency Inn
2300 Biddle Rd.
Dogoba Chocolates for organic dark chocolate bars
1105 Benson Way
Harry and David Tours to see food and packaging line of gourmet delights
Harry and David’s Country Village
Center Drive/Stewart Ave.
Lillie Belle Farms for handmade chocolates
1345 Daisy Creek Rd.
Rogue Creamery for handmade cheese
311 N. Front St.
Southern Oregon Winery Association for maps and recommendations
Waterstone Mineral Springs Spa
2165 W Jackson Rd.
Blue Giraffe Day Spa
51 Water Street
Winchester Inn, Restaurant and Wine Bar for seafood, salads, and meat
35 S. Second St.
Amuse Restaurant for Pacific Northwest French fare
15 N. First St.
Zoey’s Café & All Natural Ice Cream for light breakfast, lunch, and organic ice cream
199 E. Main
Back Porch BBBQ for big quantities of bbq meats and sides
605 N. 5th
Summer Jo’s Farm, Garden, and Restaurant for great wine, theater, and food
2315 Upper River Rd. Looop
Hellgate Jetboat Excursions for jetboat trip on Rogue River
966 SW 6th St.
Rogue Wilderness for whitewater rafting, hiking, float trips,fishing
www.passport2ashland.com for city of Ashland
www.visitmedford.org for Medford Visitors and Convention Bureau
www.visitgrantspass.org to reach the Grants Pass Visitors Center