Island and Native American Culture Collide Beautifully in an Unlikely Port Town on the Columbia

Travel to Hawaii without boarding a plane.

When you picture a Hawaiian vacation, Kalama, Wash., is just about the last place that should come to mind. The town, located about 40 miles north of Portland, is probably best known for its port on the Columbia River—if one considers that noteworthy. You'd expect a landscape marked by grain elevators and barge traffic, not palm trees and catamaran tours.

Yet nestled among the metal scrappers, sawmills and sprawling manufacturing facilities just off Interstate 5 is a slice of the tropics inside the McMenamins Kalama Harbor Lodge (215 N Hendrickson Drive, Kalama, Wash., 360-673-6970,

While the red-roofed resort with three stories of wraparound porches is glaringly out of place amid its grittier neighbors, both in appearance and function, the McMenamin brothers are experts at building the unexpected. After all, who looks at a decaying school or crumbling church and has the instinct to turn it into a boozy playground?

The signature McMenamins aesthetic threads throughout the lodge, including murals both psychedelic and spooky. The pubs are adorned with enough eccentric lighting that it looks as if somebody raided every antique store's supply of fixtures within a 100-mile radius, and old concert posters serve as reminders of bygone days when it was safe to congregate.

But this property boasts its own personality, thanks to its confluence of Hawaiian and Native American cultures. The 30,000-square-foot building is actually modeled after Maui's historic Pioneer Inn. Built in 1901, it was the island's first lodging of any kind and has a storied background: Legend has it a horse was once thrown out of the saloon for bad behavior.

Our local version isn't quite as old—the site opened in 2018—but was designed with history in mind, acting as an archive of the region as much as a hotel, with several tributes to the city's namesake. John Kalama was born in Hawaii and came to the Northwest in the late 1830s, lured by work in the fur trade, and later married the daughter of a Nisqually chief. Their oldest son and a granddaughter would go on to secure claims to their tribal lands.

The Kalamas and their descendants aren't the only ones honored in the lodge's hickory-hued halls. Take your pint and roam the corridors to catch up on the area's past and become acquainted with the characters who helped shape it. Paintings tell stories, like the time Teddy Roosevelt came to town and predicted the yet-to-be-established port's future success, while black-and-white photos chronicle the region's trades: fishing, shipping and logging. Even the guest rooms salute figures with deep ties to Kalama, from brewer Mellie Pullman to Sasquatch to John Moses, a beloved local who was so impressive on the basketball court, the small team he formed with his brothers was asked to join the Harlem Globetrotters on tour. Each bamboo headboard was hand illustrated to flesh out their tales.

After your Kalama tutorial, it will be hard to settle on just one seat for your next round. Like most McMenamins properties, this one is a maze of drinking dens, with a few secret rooms sprinkled throughout for good measure, so take some time to explore them all.

If you want to imagine you've ascended one of the nearby grain elevators, opt for the top-floor Cloud Bar, which also offers the best view of the port's cluster of white-and-turquoise totems (although the 140-foot, world's tallest pole made from a single tree now lies horizontally due to rot). If you miss Trader Vic's vibes in the Pearl, you can get your tiki fix in the lodge's pub. Though no one is allowed to sit at the bar fashioned out of salvaged telegraph poles due to physical distancing measures, you can still admire the handsome bamboo structure from a nearby booth.

But the best seat in the house has to be the ground-floor back lanai, which feels as if you're floating on the Columbia as freighters and barges slip by. It might not really be Hawaii, but it sure beats a five-and-a-half-hour flight during a pandemic.

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