Why This Oregon Town Could Be the Next Napa

Ashland Oregon where to eat drink stay travel guide.

Writing about my hometown might offer a skewed perspective: the places I recommend are brighter in my mind because they were the settings for teenage first dates and declarations of independence. But in recent years, the town where I grew up has exceeded my own nostalgic expectations with inventive cuisine and even better almond croissants. Ashland, Oregon is wine country, but better: vineyards provide diversity without overwhelm, and the burgeoning cannabis industry grows some of the best in the world. The natural surroundings are ideal for adventure, or just marveling out the window.

I’m not alone in my newfound appreciation: the Rogue River area of Southern Oregon was named one of the New York Times’s 52 Places to Travel in 2018. The university has built more dorms, and the Shakespeare Festival uplifted new voices (its director, Bill Rauch, will come to New York as artistic director for the World Trade Center’s Perelman Center in 2019). Ashland High grads still gather at the same grungy pizza bar—long may it live—but now, as the night goes on, I can find a considered cocktail.

Here, an insider’s guide to the most charming town in Oregon.

Where to Get Coffee

After growing up in nearby Medford, Jamie North didn’t think she’d come back to this part of the world. But the third-generation restaurant owner improved Ashland’s coffee scene exponentially when she established Mix, a coffee shop and bakery, in 2006. Serving Stumptown coffee and an array of golden croissants (plus many-flavored macarons, fluffy morning buns, and more), Mix is a downtown staple for a pre-river rafting cappuccino or a post-theatre ice cream cone. In May, North opened Remix, a new location uptown highlighting a more savory menu—pressed sandwiches, hummus—from head baker Lily Hudson. With a creamery eventually set to open next door, North’s brand of fresh, feel-good food will soon be stocked across town. “I feel like I’ve gone from being a chef to more of a community builder.”

Stumptown coffee and macarons at Mix Bakeshop
Photo: Courtesy of Mix Bakeshop / @mixashland

Another newly expanded roastery is Case Coffee. Founders Tim and Kati Case settled in a location near Southern Oregon University in 2006, and opened a second café in the heart of downtown this January. Housed in the former location of beloved institution Puck’s Donuts, Case pays tribute to the former 40-year tenant with a full range of fried dough, from classic crullers to organic, vegan varieties.  For a quieter coffee in a more secluded spot, visit Noble, a roastery and café with high ceilings and multiple pourover options for budding connoisseurs.

Case Coffee Roasters downtown
Photo: Courtesy of Case Coffee Roasters / @case_coffee_roasters

Where to Eat

Hither’s founders got their start in New York City—Corrie Robinson-Reimer at Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group, and Wesley Reimer at the International Culinary Center—then went on to work with Melissa Perello in Portland. Their honed culinary tastes are evident at their downtown breakfast and lunch spot, which serves up a menu of various eggs and greens along with coffee from a rotating “resident roaster.” Sample natural wines (then get a bottle to go) during their new dinner service on Fridays and Saturdays.

Photo: David L. Reamer / Courtesy of Hither

Mäs, a dining experience that began as a pop-up in the basement of Mix, opened its own space downtown in mid-April. Co-owners Josh Dorcak and Luke VanCampen serve an ever-changing tasting menu (guests choose between a six or ten-course meal). One spring dinner included unusual ingredients like stinging nettle leaf and maple bud, as well as familiar foods in new forms, like a jellied vinegar and thinly sliced, frozen rutabaga topped with salmon roe. Dorcak says he wants to define his own version of “Southern Oregon cuisine,” using as many locally grown ingredients as possible. He does most of the sourcing himself. “I do this huge loop through our valley and hit the farmer’s market and go on the back roads to where all the farms are; get things, go back to Ashland…and that’s when the menu starts.” Raw goat cheese comes from nearby Emigrant Lake, while white truffle is “randomly found” on the banks of the Umpqua River. To get a taste of a meal’s visuals, follow the Mäs Instagram, a mouthwatering exhibition of thoughtful, sculptural dishes (the chefs show off their experiments and processes in the Stories).

Shelled peas with a soup made from sugar snap peas, infused with bonito flakes and topped with radishes at Mäs
Photo: Lindsey Bolling / Courtesy of Mäs

For a more laid-back time, get a burrito at Ruby’s, have a beer amongst vats at Standing Stone, or go for a bowl—with mandatory Colestine Naan—at Sauce. A reliable breakfast can be found at Morning Glory, which serves great omelets and pecan waffles in a bright space (the wait can get long, so come ready to linger in the garden, or go earlier in the morning). If you’re in town on a Tuesday, stop by the local farmer’s market, where cinnamon sugar donuts are fried in front of your eyes, and tamales are perfectly tender.

Where to Wine and Weed
Ashland is surrounded by vineyards with a wide range of varietals on offer. The Southern Oregon Winery Association likens the region’s wine-growing climate to that of France’s Bordeaux, but wineries take inspiration from all around the world. Go to Red Lily Vineyards in the Applegate for a glass of Spanish Tempranillo sipped creekside, or taste Pinot Noir rosé with a view across the valley at Irvine & Roberts Vineyards. If you crave a mixed drink, try Alchemy or Brickroom, where, to a New Yorker, the $10 cocktails make for an everlasting happy hour.
Red Lily Vineyards
Photo: Jim Craven / Courtesy of Red Lily Vineyards

Since the legalization of recreational use, cannabis farms and dispensaries have recently come to outnumber wineries and vineyards in Southern Oregon—this area is situated next door to what’s known as the “emerald triangle,” or America’s marijuana mecca. Ashland hosts a crop of shops serving up locally grown goods. Sarah Strickler, director of community relations at Grown Rogue, recommends Madrone Cannabis Club, where budtenders will help you find the strain that suits your fancy. At Pharm to Table, in Talent, a bright, wood-lined space displays all kinds of green. (Any dispensary you stumble upon—marked by a bright green cross—is bound to offer a great bounty of options catering to any mood, plus knowledgeable service for novice customers, but many are still catching on to the interior design sensibilities of Portland or San Francisco.)

Where to Stay

Ashland Springs Hotel first opened in 1925, and for a while it was the tallest building between Portland and San Francisco. It’s still an Ashland landmark, located just blocks from the Shakespeare Festival’s Elizabethan theatre. A room on the top floor will give you the best man-made vantage point in the valley, and the restaurant below, Larks, satisfies at every meal.

An exterior view of Ashland Springs Hotel
Photo: Courtesy of Ashland Springs Hotel

The Peerless is another historic hotel—built in 1904—with six rooms and a delectable restaurant. Room decor is quirky, with vintage drapes and hand-painted murals. Suite 3 seems most idyllic, with its leopard print chair against rose wallpaper, and a bathroom featuring two side-by-side claw-foot tubs.

The Peerless Hotel
Photo: Cornelius Matteo / Courtesy of The Peerless Hotel

What to Do

When in Ashland, I make a beeline for Prize, the best boutique in town. Jennifer Streit is another shop owner who circled back to her hometown after living in cities like Barcelona and San Francisco. “I had Prize shops in both Berkeley and San Francisco, and Ashland is actually ‘third Prize,” Streit explains, “but I award it ‘Grande Prize’.” (The store has four times more space than its San Francisco iteration.) It houses a variety of “fancy goods and fine furnishings,” ranging from French marshmallows to vintage first edition James Bond books. A recent spree yielded a golden elephant piggie bank, an evil eye bracelet, an Ilia lipstick, and a “Love that Burns” Tatine candle. It’s easy to spend the better part of an hour perusing Prize for gifts both great and small. I recommend going twice, since you might miss the perfect card or pompom—distracted by vintage jewels and cashmere blankets—on the initial trip.

Maps of Paris for sale at Prize Shoppe
Photo: Courtesy of Prize Shoppe

Outdoor activities abound in this part of the country. In the winter, skiing and snowshoeing (find guidance at The Ashland Outdoor Store), and in the summer, hiking and rafting. Noah’s knowledgeable guides will take you on a day trip down the Rogue River or the Upper Klamath—where you’ll hit Class IV+ rapids—complete with homemade blackberry slushies at the end of the wild ride. For a more mellow dose of nature, pack a picnic to watch a Green Show performance during the summer, or walk along the trails in Lithia Park.

Crater Lake
Photo: Getty Images

If you’re up for more of a drive, Crater Lake National Park—home to the deepest lake in America—is about 90 minutes from Ashland. While the access roads are sometimes closed due to snow, the stunning blue view is breathtaking, and there’s no more refreshing swim in the summer.

How to Get to Ashland

Ashland is just past the California border; an easy (by West Coast standards) five-hour drive north from San Francisco or south from Portland; an ideal road trip stop if you’re journeying on I-5. The closest airport is Medford, a 30-minute drive away, so you’ll want a rental car unless you’re planning on staying in central downtown.

Source: vogue.com