Neil Sowerby steps on the road trip gas to reach a heavenly haven

ROAD trips are about straying off the beaten strip. Feeling the magic. So when giant redwoods beckoned and wild surf smashed right up against the rambling coast road we fell under their spell. Still relishing the memory of a leisurely breakfast. While all the time the immensity of our 500 mile leap from Mendocino, California to Bend, Oregon took a negligent backseat.

By the time the task ahead registered dusk was beckoning, our detours had taken us another 80 miles off track and to cap it all the GPS was failing to charge in our hire car. Decision time, maps out, tank re-filled and we abandoned plans to take the cross-country route past Crater Lake; it would be too dark anyway to appreciate its awesome beauty. 

Wild fires further north along the Mackenzie River Valley made that a no-go zone, too, so we headed way out east to hit the Bend-bound Highway 97, a poorly lit 100 mile, two lane nightmare of dodgy cambers and hurtling trucks. 

The major reason to visit Bend, though, is its outdoor opportunities across a challenging terrain. It’s the perfect base for fly fishermen, rock climbers, hikers and mountain bikers

Once we even thought of giving up and finding a cheap motel in Klamath County – home to overwintering bald eagles (plus a community of crystal meth users, according to the local paper). We thankfully resisted, taught a lesson about how vast the Pacific Coast region is (Oregon alone is bigger than the United Kingdom with a fraction of the population).

171130 Fireside
Sheer bliss in the Fireside bar after an arduous journey

Miraculously the GPS came to feeble life on the outskirts of Bend, enough to guide us to our destination, the Old St Francis School. It was nearing 11pm, so we weren’t expecting miracles, even from this former Catholic bastion. But one happened the moment we staggered in, making our excuses. “No worries at all, we are used to late arrivals. The Fireside Bar’s open until 2am with lots of our in-house brewed beer and a hot food menu.”

We took immediate advantage of this cosy retreat (mine’s a Terminator Stout and sweet potato fries), which bestowed a glow on Bend that never left it. We’d expected this outdoor pursuits epicentre just to be a laidback starter for the Portland main, but from this first moment it was a delight in its own right. (Read what we got up to in Portland in Landing on Jupiter.)

171130 Mc Menamins 171130 Nuns 171130 Mural 171130 Vintage Photo 171130 Mc Menamin Pub

It helped to have such a quirky lodging, which follows the ‘restore with charm’ template of all 15 establishments run by the McMenamin brothers across Oregon and Washington State. It’s a unique combination of a brewery, pub and several bars, a movie theatre and amazing, Byzantine tiled soaking pool with 60 comfortable rooms spread across the complex. Our room in the ‘Art House’ was named after Principal Sister Barbara Hand, part of the homage – including old photos and commissioned artwork – to the parish priests and nuns who ran it as a school from the Great Depression until 2000.

Whether they would approve of the current town’s plethora of breweries, cider houses and  distilleries I’m not sure. We did. It’s a Greater Portland in miniature, home to 23 breweries at the last count (check out

171130 Crux 171130 Crux Flight Sunset From Crux

The most famous brewery is Deschutes, big enough now to have an offshoot in Portland, but I’m not a fan. If you visit one Bend brewery, make it the Crux Fermentation Project. OK, it’s a trek out to this former transmission plant under the freeway, but 20 taps pouring innovative craft beer, a fire pit, live music, street food and a glorious sunset watch make it so worthwhile. En route check out the Newport Road Market, an indoor treasure trove of organic, locally sourced food with, naturally a great craft beer and hard cider range. A sweeter Bend speciality is Sparrow Bakery’s Ocean Roll, a cinnamon, vanilla and sugar-heavy pastry. 

171130 River 171130 Bend Brewing

The centre of Bend is surprisingly compact. Pick of the craft bars is the Bend Brewing Company tap on NW Brooks Street, whose beer garden overlooks one of the town’s loveliest spots – the Mirror Pond. This urban lake, created by damming the River Deschutes, is lined with walkable willowed parks and desirable houses. In the past it has hosted river pageants, but these days it’s under threat from plans to return the waterways to their natural state. 

171130 River Bend 171130 Hippy Bend 171130 Cool Car 171130 Old Mill District Bend

You can understand the focus. The Deschutes, whose loop gives the former logging town its name, swarmed with kayakers, paddleboarders and tubers as we followed it upstream to the Old Mill District. This is a conversion of an old sawmills site into a shopping, leisure, food and drink and hotel destination, still a work inn progress.

The major reason to visit Bend, though, is its outdoor opportunities across a challenging terrain. It’s the perfect base for fly fishermen, rock climbers, hikers and mountain bikers (check out the legendary single track Phil’s Trail, handily close to town).

A more relaxed appreciation of the natural habitat can be found at the High Desert Museum, three miles south of town, an imaginative blend of native culture and natural history exhibitions.

From anywhere in Bend you can see the three 10,000 ft volcanic peaks that give their name to the Three Sisters Wilderness area, 280,00 acres of old growth forest and glacial torrents. We skirted it on the route out north towards Portland, taking in Sisters, a former stagecoach stop on the logging route, today an upscale dudeish village with plenty happening for visitors.

So a less frazzling departure than arrival. It was daytime and the scenic roads down the mountain were a joy to drive. 

171130 Three Sisters 171130 Sisters

Fact file


Neil Sowerby stayed at McMenamins – Old St Francis School, 700 NW Bond Street, Bend, OR 97703. Rooms from $165.

At the end of our West Coast road trip we flew back to from Seattle to Manchester via London Heathrow with British Airways

Neil Sowerby’s car hire for his US West Coast road trip was booked through Affordable Car Hire

For essential tourist information go to Visit Bend. For further afield in the state go to Visit Oregon

To plan your American trip of a lifetime go to Visit USA.

Manchester Airport parking:

Neil Sowerby left his car parked through T3 Meet and Greet. Here are all the options:

VIP Valet – drop and collect your car right next to the terminal and get fast tracked through security. Your car is parked on site.

Meet and Greet – drop your car off with staff next to the terminal and collect on your return. Your car is parked on site.

Multi-storey car park at T1, 2 and 3 – ultra-convenient multi-storey car parking right next to the terminal. Park and walk under cover to reach the terminal.

Long stay car park at T1, 2 and 3 – ground surface car park offering free, regular 24 hour bus transfers direct to the terminal.

Shuttle Park – secure parking at great rates for cost-conscious travellers. Free, regular 24 hour bus transfers direct to the terminal.

JetParks –  low-cost parking option run by Manchester Airport, fully manned 24/7, parking from £2.99 per day. Visit this link.