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Originally published July 9, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 9, 2009 at 12:20 PM

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Grab the kids and hop on Amtrak for a stress-free getaway to Portland

Taking the Amtrak to Portland is a great weekend getaway for Puget Sound families.

Seattle Times NW Ticket editor

Tips from Mom

Get a table on the train. Because of the intimacy suggested by those seats facing tables in each train car, conductors want to fill those booths with people traveling together — and families fit that bill. When you queue up at the train station for a seat assignment, they'll probably ask if you want a table; be sure to ask for one if they don't.

Embassy Suites too expensive? Not at all. There are well-rated, less-expensive places to stay within walking distance or a short bus ride of Portland's Union Station (Courtyard by Marriott City Center, The Mark Spencer Hotel), but suites are a good fit for families. A single suite sleeps four comfortably (parents in the bedroom, kids on a double foldout in the living room; both rooms come with TVs), and if you have a crib-sleeping baby, the hotel can bring a crib to the suite for you.

"We wanted a suite because we have a baby," said Cheryl Geels, a Kirkland mom also in Portland for the weekend with her husband and kids, 6, 3 and 6 months. The older kids splashed in the Embassy Suites pool while Geels held the baby and added, "We don't travel often. It's hard to get away from Seattle — but this is easy."

Plus, extras like the full buffet and made-to-order-omelet breakfast and the complimentary evening cocktail should be factored in as savings.

OMSI or the Oregon Zoo? A truly high-energy family may opt to attack both of Portland's major family attractions in a two-day trip, but we weren't up to the task. You want to be able to linger in both, which means packing them both into a single day (which could kill you) or doing one Saturday and the other Sunday — which, as both days will also be travel days, would play out as a train-eat-zoo Saturday and an OMSI-eat-train Sunday — leaving time for little else.

Think twice about OMSI extras. With a planetarium, an IMAX theater and a backyard submarine, OMSI is packed with cool things to see beyond the regular exhibitions. Be sure to think about your kids' ages, attention spans and your wallet before you splurge on the deluxe entry ($21 for the museum, IMAX and the sub or planetarium, versus $9-$11 for the basics).

— Raina Wagner

If You Go

Portland family weekend

Getting there

On Amtrak Cascades, southbound trains depart Seattle from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Trains depart northward from Portland between 8:30 a.m. and 6:15 p.m. Prices range from $28 to $47 per adult each way, with discount coupons and deals for children available. More information: www.amtrak.com

Getting around town

Nearly everything we visited was in downtown Portland's Fareless Square, the free-ride zone, which stretches to the west bank of the Willamette River, north to Union Station, and west and south to the path of Interstate 405 (OMSI and the Oregon Zoo are the main attractions outside of the free circle). We tried all modes of transit, finding the Portland Streetcar the cleanest and most fun, and MAX Light Rail the most frequent. TriMet buses, while more difficult to negotiate, had friendly, helpful drivers who went out of their way to point us to the closest stops.

Where we stayed

Embassy Suites Hotel Portland Downtown: This historic building — the former Multnomah Hotel — had a lush remodel in the 1990s, and with a pool and complimentary breakfast, it's a family-friendly option starting at $179 per night, and close to Union Station. 319 S.W. Pine St.; 503-279-9000 or www.embassyportland.com.

More information

For detailed information on visiting Portland, along with lodging deals through the Portland Perks program, see www.travelportland.com or call 800-962-3700.

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PORTLAND — If the question is, can a family with young kids take the Amtrak Cascades train from Seattle to Portland and manage a fun-filled, activity-packed weekend sans car, permit me to answer with another question:

Why would you drive?

With my husband, B.J., up for the challenge, and our kids, Bella, 9, and Jackson, 7, up for doing what they're told, our foursome boarded the early morning train at King Street Station.

We soon discovered that if you're weekend-vacationing without a car, Portland has got to be among the most accessible cities on the West Coast — and the Cascades train gives you the chance to look at a beautiful expanse of it along the way.

Getting there

Amtrak may sometimes have a bum rap across the country, but the Cascades run has got it going on: fast and clean, with friendly, outgoing service from tickets-please to mind-your-step-as-you-deboard. We found ourselves crossing the Columbia River before we'd even tired of card games.

"I think it's just fun relaxing," said Gayle Lieberman, of Olympia, who boarded the train with her husband, Steve, and another traveling couple for a day trip to Portland. "This way none of us has to drive."

"From Olympia you can't beat this," she added, indicating the view out the window where the Puget Sound coast flew by at about 50 mph. "It's just a great trip."

Portland is about 3 ½ hours by train from Seattle. Once you alight at Portland's Union Station, you'll find yourself at the northeastern end of downtown, in the old area called the River District, akin to Seattle's Pioneer Square. An under-a-mile walk (or cab or bus ride) will bring you through Chinatown and the Old Town shops and into downtown proper.

Being there

The Portland Saturday Market: We started our weekend as many a Portlander might — at the Saturday Market. Near the Burnside Bridge, this street fair to end all street fairs happens with alarming frequency — every Saturday and Sunday for 10 months out of the year. It features hundreds of vendors, from the official (artists in the stalls) to the unofficial (buskers on every corner) to the indispensable (can you say giant pretzel?).

This spring the artisan market moved from its longtime site at the west end of the Burnside Bridge to a neighboring location in the newly renovated Waterfront Park and neighboring Ankeny Park; the Saturday Market is now centered at Southwest Ankeny Street and Naito Parkway. On Aug. 22, the market will celebrate the move (more information, www.portlandsaturdaymarket.com).

Oregon Museum of Science & Industry (OMSI): Our weekend in the Rose City coincided with the final days at OMSI for the traveling da Vinci Exhibition, and on-and-off rain made being outdoors a wet experience.

So needless to say, OMSI was packed, with a 30-minute line just to give them your admission money. Once patrons make it in the front door, though, the spacious museum handles crowds well, since there are so many places to put all the people.

We stuck with the basic admission ($9 kids, $11 for adults), which includes the physics, chemistry and life-sciences laboratories, cavernous hands-on jungles full of kid-pleasing delights like rocket-building stations, hair-raising static-electricity displays and a model bridge-construction site. Physics and engineering concepts descend on the kids without the youngsters even realizing they're learning anything.

"They do a great job of bringing physics to a kid level," said Michael Lee, a Portland resident who regularly visits OMSI with his 6-year-old son Rupert. He should know; Lee's an actual physicist.

"We come here a lot."

OMSI is on the east side of the Willamette, at 1945 S.E. Water Ave., accessible over the Hawthorne Bridge walking or via bicycle, and on the TriMet via the OMSI shuttle or several bus routes, including 10, 14 and 33 (more information, 503-797-4000 or www.omsi.edu).

Powell's City of Books: Any trip to Portland must include a stop at the Rose City's famous bookseller, the largest independent bookstore in the country. But you can't have a million books without being somewhat overwhelming — to kids and adults.

My advice: Stick to the Rose Room (where you'll find kids' books) and just one other color (fiction is in the Gold Room), and make a final stop in the Coffee Room before you head out.

Powell's flagship store is in the Pearl District at 1005 W. Burnside, accessible by foot, bus (several routes) or Portland Streetcar, which like other Portland transit, is free within Fareless Square (yep, Powell's is in the Fareless Square; more information, 503-228-4651 or www.powells.com).

Waterfront Park: The park along the Willamette River draws foot, bike and stroller traffic better even than Seattle's Green Lake, and it's no wonder: With wide paths, a half-dozen places to cross the many-bridged Willamette, and lookout areas with downtown and Rose Garden vistas, it's hard to imagine that this park was once just another place for cars. Nearly every weekend of the summer showcases a different festival here.

We found bicycles the best way to explore the park, with easy-peasy service and guidance from the crew at Waterfront Bicycles (10 S.W. Ash St., No. 100; 503-227-1719 or www.waterfrontbikes.net). An hour's bike rental for our family came to $30 (and for our first-grader, that was plenty long enough), but you can make it longer and with different equipment (such as kid trailers or bike extensions for those with babies and preschoolers) depending on your needs.

One idea would be to combine your waterfront ride with your trip to OMSI, which is just over a mile away from Waterfront Bikes. The bike-rental crew will provide locks, helmets, bike maps and good advice (one priceless nugget: Cross the Willamette at the bike- and foot-friendy Morrison Bridge).

Raina Wagner: 206-464-8147 or rwagner@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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