Travel

Sip Wine and Get Weird in Oregon's UFO Capital

Italy meets Roswell in the Pacific Northwest.

Atticus Hotel
Atticus Hotel
Atticus Hotel

Tucked into the Willamette Valley about an hour southwest of Portland, McMinnville, Oregon, looks like a small town out of a rom-com. Framed by the Pacific to the east and Mount Jefferson and Mount Hood out west, you’ve got all the makings of a truly excellent Hallmark film here: Picturesque tree-lined streets filled with quirky shops and beautiful murals, a super walkable downtown district, and 34,000 friendly locals who offer smiles as easy as the ocean breeze that’ll caress you at every turn.

Underneath the small-town charms, though, is an unexpected worldliness. Sure, there are vineyards-but treat McMinnville as another charming rest stop on the Willamette Valley wine trail, and you’ll miss out on all the beauty (and the weirdness) that makes it great.

If you’re looking to do more than just sip varietals in this patch of Oregon, we guarantee you’ll leave McMinnville feeling buzzed-and it won’t just be the wine talking. Here’s what not to miss.

Mac Market
Mac Market
Mac Market

Eat your way around the world-all within a one-mile radius

Come for a taste of southern Italy at Pizza Capo, where you catch watch owners Kyle Munroe and Jeremy Whyte dish out authentic Neapolitan pizzas (like really authentic-they studied the art in Italy) in the open-air kitchen. Try their Margherita pizza, a local favorite, or their Clam Pizza, which gets extra oomph from bacon mascarpone and gremolata, and slather all of the above in their Calabrian chili oil-a complex, slightly salty, smoky oil that you’ll want to put on just about everything.

At Collab Kitchen inside Mac Market, you can take your palate on a journey all over the world-with ingredients grown a mere 10 miles away. Michelin-starred chef Kari Shaughnessy uses ingredients sourced from Evan Pull Farm to create a menu that changes daily to weekly; think koji-steamed black cod with roasted poblano broth, charred pepper curry with sourdough roti, and yogurt and harissa-braised lamb with house-smoked tahini yogurt.

We get it: Latin American cuisine probably isn’t what pops into your head when you think of Oregon. But a visit to Pura Vida Cocina will sneak the thought into your mind and keep it there. Since 2013, chef Ricardo Antúnez has been using influences from Costa Rica, El Salvador, Peru, and Mexico to create his own interpretation of Latin American classics. You can’t go wrong with the tender barbacoa and crispy pork belly tacos served with Costa Rican dirty rice and beans. The cocktails will get you feeling right-a few Pisco sours and the sounds of Bad Bunny and Ozuna playing in the background are sure to take you on a journey.

Durant at Red Ridge Farms
Durant at Red Ridge Farms
Durant at Red Ridge Farms

The vineyards pack more than just wine

There are heaps of Willamette Valley vineyards worth your attention, but if you only have a weekend to spare, there are two essential stops you’ll definitely want to make time for. First up is the Soter Vineyards. If you’re part of the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) Club, Soter will change your mind. Hit their airy tasting room to indulge in their chardonnays-plus pinot noir, sparkling rosé, and other varieties of organic, biodynamic wines-and soak in the gorgeous views of the valley’s rolling, vineyard-lined hills.

Much like Latin American food, thoughts of Oregon don’t exactly conjure up visions of olive trees-and once again, McMinnville will surprise you. Family-owned Durant Vineyards is home not just to rosés, pinots, and chardonnays, but to 17 acres of olive trees-the only groves in the entire Pacific Northwest. Cold-pressed within mere hours of harvesting, their super fresh, aromatic olive oil is truly a feat worth celebrating-which is why every November, Durant puts on the annual Olio Nuovo Festival, a monthlong party that boasts tastings, events, and more,

If you can, time your trip to coincide with the festivities. Regardless, soak in the views of Mt. Hood and Mt. Jefferson right outside Durant’s tasting room, or rent a private cabana on the 135-acre property for some quality time with nature and wine. And if you really fall in love with the place, book an overnight stay.

Dee Browning/Shutterstock
Dee Browning/Shutterstock
Dee Browning/Shutterstock

Hang out in the Roswell of the Pacific Northwest

Everybody knows what once went down in Roswell, New Mexico: A farmer discovered what he believed to be a crashed UFO. The government told everyone it was, in fact, a crashed UFO. Everybody subsequently lost their shit, and to this day, the entire stretch of highway surrounding the town (plus one wayward Mickey D’s) still relishes in the hype.

Now, we wouldn’t say this in front of our alien-obsessed friends, but it’s likely that “wrecked spaceship” was actually some sort of experimental government device. For a better, yet-disproven extraterrestrial story, turn instead to McMinnville.

Back in the 1950s, Paul and Evelyn Trent shot a series of famous photographs of flying saucers zipping around in the skies above their farmhouse, which sat just outside McMinnville. The photos were strikingly realistic-so much so that they were even published in Life and still appear in modern documentaries on extraterrestrials. Even more intriguing: they’ve never been proven fake. The Trents claimed their story was true, denying entirely that it was a publicity stunt-and considering Photoshop wasn’t an option at the time, we have no choice but to believe them.

Now, McMinnville celebrates the Trents’ close encounters by throwing the second-largest UFO Festival in the US each year. Expect to see a lot of people decked out in alien costumes running the cultural gamut from traditional little green men to Star Wars and Doctor Who characters, plus vendors and speakers including ufologists and abductees.

Where to stay in McMinnville

Fitted in rich neutrals, velvet, and leather, the stately Atticus Hotel strikes a difficult-to-hit sweet spot: elegance without pretentiousness. Don’t expect a cookie-cutter boutique hotel-this is a spot that reps McMinnville and Oregon to the core. Each room is uniquely designed with local artwork, books recommended by locals, and handmade soaps and bath goodies featuring very on-brand scents like Oregon fir, oak moss, and wildflower.

For a more budget (and pet!) friendly abode, hit up the McMenamins Hotel Oregon. Make your way up to the rooftop bar-which, for the record, you can visit with or without reservations-for stunning 360° views of the surrounding area. Whatever you pick, McMinnville doesn’t miss.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat.

Vonnie Williams is food and travel writer whose work has appeared in Eater, Food and Wine, Conde Nast Traveler, and more. You can find her on Instagram at @sincerelyvonnie.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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