BINGEN, Wash. — The Society Hotel, in name and feel, doesn’t exactly fit in with its surroundings, located in a mill town of about 720 people on the Washington-Oregon border. Yet it’s the perfect spot for out-of-towners when exploring Portland’s outdoor playground: Mt. Hood and the Columbia Gorge area just an hour west of the city in Oregon, and Mt. Adams and the White Salmon River area on the Washington side (the Columbia River marks the boundary between the two states here).
The hotel opened six months ago in a quiet neighborhood one block from the main street (known as the Lewis and Clark Highway). It blends historic preservation, community outreach, a variety of accommodations, and a metro hipster vibe.
We discovered this cool hotel on my husband’s work trip to the area and our kids instantly felt at home. The property served as a schoolhouse from 1938 until the late 1970s and was then abandoned for a decade. It sprung back to life in 1988 as a windsurfer’s hostel, offering cheap accommodations to those coming to ply the Columbia River’s notoriously choppy and windswept waters.
In 2017, Matt Siegel, co-owner of The Society Hotel in Portland, purchased the property with four other people and turned it into the cozy and nostalgic hotel it is today, a place where original slate blackboards and salvaged clocks still decorate the walls, an old classroom and library now serve as bunkhouses for guests, and the old gymnasium hosts private and community events each month. And — for that “Portlandia” spin — a place where a beehive-shaped structure that’s built into the ground serves as a gathering spot for yoga, meditation, and sound-healing ceremonies. Because why not?
We poked our heads into that building, called The Sanctuary, and my kids enjoyed testing out their vocals — the space has deeply resonating acoustics — and marveling at the cupola above, which lets in natural light. The Sanctuary just started hosting events in October.
The property’s main building (once the schoolhouse) has 10 standard rooms — with names such as Home Economics, English, French, and Music — located in a hallway that’s lined with 16 tall lockers. Four of the rooms have a bathroom with sink, while the rest share unisex bathrooms. Each of the small and simple guestrooms has a custom-designed bed with space for storage underneath, custom-made soap from a Portland company, and plenty of hooks.
If you’ve ever stayed in a hostel, as we have, you will appreciate the hotel’s well-thought-out and impeccably clean bunk rooms. Two large rooms, once a classroom and school library, have eight beautifully engineered triple bunks with wide ladders that make accessing each level a breeze. Each bunk includes a lockable storage area in the headboard, handy shelves, and clean linens (no need to bring your own sleep sheet or bag). Anyone staying in a dorm can store his or her backpack and other luggage in big locked cubicles and hang out in the large common space and kitchenette area.
Step out back where the old ballfields used to be located and you’ll find a circular structure with 20 modern “cabins.” Each one looks more like a tiny one- or two-bedroom apartment with a small bathroom, a dining area with a kitchenette, and a patio with its own picnic table and free-standing hammock. Our two-bedroom cabin was small — we wouldn’t want to be stuck here on a rainy day — but offered a good place for our crew to relax in between outdoor adventures.
The property’s highlight, however, was the breezy bathhouse located in a central courtyard by the cabins. Here, visitors can soak in an outdoor saltwater pool, a hot tub, and a plunge pool, or relax in the sauna or massage rooms. Our kids, 8 and 10, spent ages here, impressing other visitors as they continually slipped out of the 103-degree hot tub to dunk in the body-tingling 55-degree plunge pool.
“You’re so brave!” several women repeatedly told them.
The property emphasizes these communal spaces, hoping visitors will hang out at the bathhouse or around one of the outdoor gas firepits, flop on oversized chairs and couches in the hotel’s main lounge (a good place to enjoy a wine or latte from the onsite Library Café and Bar), play cornhole in the shade of locust trees, or gather at The Sanctuary.
We live within driving distance of the hotel, but you don’t need a rental car to get here if you’re coming from Portland: Hop on the Amtrak train (located four blocks from the hotel’s sister property) and enjoy the 90-minute, $14 ride to Bingen. You’ll probably wish you had a car or bike once here, though (Turo, a car-sharing program, will start up in Hood River soon).
Bingen is a short drive from epic whitewater rafting and kayaking on the White Salmon River, and historic spots such as Bonneville Lock and Dam, and Lewis and Clark points of interest (head to the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center in The Dalles for more on that). It’s also right across from the town of Hood River — connected to it by a $2 bridge over the Columbia River — which offers easy access to Mt. Hood (45 minutes away) for hiking and skiing, Post Canyon for mountain biking, some of the nation’s best windsurfing on the Columbia River, and “waterfall alley,” a 30-mile stretch between here and Portland that has nearly 100 stunning waterfalls. Hood River also has cool breweries and waterfront restaurants, kids’ playgrounds, one-of-a-kind ice cream shops and toy stores, and a laid-back vibe.
After a day of exploration, though, we liked heading back across the narrow bridge to Bingen to relax in our hammock, dunk in the hot tub and plunge pool, and read books in the library lounge where we met people from all over the world.
210 N. Cedar St, Bingen. 509-774-4437. www.thesocietyhotel.com/bingen. Guestrooms: $65-$110; dorm bed: $30-$55, depending on the season.
Kari Bodnarchuk can be reached at email@example.com.