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Visitors enjoy the sun outside of Pittock Mansion. High in the West Hills above Northwest Portland, the historic turn-of-the-century Pittock Mansion offers picture-perfect views of the city and its surroundings, as well as a revealing glimpse of Portland’s past.Justin Katigbak, Travel Portland/Travel Portland

Gravity is proving to be a masterful guide to Portland. Whenever my wife, Angela, and I exert ourselves – by hiking to gardens in Washington Park, for instance, or cycling to a hilltop mansion – our subsequent descents always seem to end with more than a few urban delights: thirst-crushing craft beer at Function taproom, preposterous pastries from Voodoo Doughnut, cocktails on the panoramic patio at Departure and on it goes.

Not once would we touch a steering wheel during our five-day tour of the Pacific Northwest’s two largest cities. We start by boarding one of North America’s fastest ferries and speeding from Victoria to Seattle. With train tickets in hand for the Amtrak Cascades’ Seattle-Portland run, we toast our relaxed car-free itinerary on the poopdeck of the Victoria Clipper as the 6,960-horsepower catamaran crosses the sun-dappled Salish Sea.

The next morning, we set out for Seattle’s Pike Place Market. This is where tourists do touristy things: Watch fishmongers toss the catch of the day around, pose for selfies in front of the original Starbucks and sit astride the 250-kilogram “Rachel the Piggy Bank” bronze statue. For my part, I break new ground by breakfasting on a half-quart of supremely fresh raspberries and then a big bowl of clam chowder at Athenian Seafood, one of 13 chowder options in the 116-year-old complex.

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Guests enjoy the International Rose Test Garden in bloom. Portland’s International Rose Test Garden is the oldest official continuously operated public rose test garden in the United States, featuring more than 10,000 roses.Travel Portland/Travel Portland

We can’t help but compare Pike Place to Toronto’s St. Lawrence Market, proving once again that comparing and contrasting are essential aspects of any journey. The CN Tower, for instance, is almost exactly three times as tall as the 184-metre Space Needle, yet the Seattle spire’s futurist design and grassy sculpture-strewn setting provide a more holistic and relaxing experience. The ferries to the Toronto Islands are throwback gems, to be sure, but none can match the speed and sleekness of Seattle’s King County Water Taxi. Steps from the 278-passenger ferry’s West Seattle dock, we savour the view on the downtown-facing patio of Salty’s restaurant while pairing a baker’s dozen of “three-buck-a-shuck” local oysters with a sauvignon blanc from Washington’s Yakima Valley.

One Seattle experience defies comparison. Steps from the Space Needle, the Chihuly Garden and Glass exhibition hall is home to the world’s most extensive collection of works by Dale Chihuly, the Washington-born artist who has led the rise of avant-garde glass as a fine art form. Displaying hundreds of works ranging from the room-filling Mille Fiori seascape to small watercraft bursting with lithe tentacles and planet-like spheres, eight indoor galleries set the stage for one of Chihuly’s largest suspended sculptures – a 30-metre-long riot of floral reds, oranges, yellows and ambers – hanging in the cathedral-ceilinged Glasshouse, a 40-foot tall, 4,500-square-foot glass and steel structure. Necks craning, we proceed into an outdoor garden that mimics local flora with towers, shards and tangled masses of technicolour glass.

The comparisons and contrasts that affect us most on this trip, however, have less to do with the trappings of travel. Walking to Seattle’s King Street rail hub, we take a break in leafy Occidental Square for afternoon servings of coffee and gelato. The lively space is bordered by other sippers and snackers, and dotted with public ping-pong tables and oversized board games.

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Downtown Portland's Hotel Rose provides guests with complimentary bicycles.Adam Bisby/The Globe and Mail

We had already spotted several of the homeless encampments that are common in big North American cities, but the scene in Occidental Square is different. Beyond the patios’ perimeters, and seemingly oblivious to the buskers and chess players around them, are at least a dozen individuals in various states of coherence. Reading about the opioid crisis is one thing, but witnessing it first-hand in such a conspicuous and incongruous context is both unsettling and thought-provoking. Without the sanctuary and egress provided by a car, our eyes, hearts and minds are left wide open.

Later, we watch the golden hour fade into twilight during our train journey to Portland and make use of Amtrak’s free WiFi to read about similar problems at our next stop, Portland.

The next morning, we cycle west out of Portland’s riverine core. Soon, we reach a Washington Park trailhead and lock up our bikes before hiking uphill to the International Rose Test Garden. The subtle fragrances of the blooms, which span around 650 varieties and cover a swath of hillside the size of five football fields, blend beautifully with natural air conditioning powered by the Pacific Ocean. In the nearby Portland Japanese Garden, we roam five spellbinding sections, which range from a waterfall-lined grove to a rectangular yard that uses sand and stone as focal points for serene contemplation.

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Dale Chihuly's “Glass Forest” in Seattle's Chihuly Garden and Glass exhibition.Angela Bisby/The Globe and Mail

We return to the 185-hectare park the next day, but bring our bikes on the city’s public transit this time. From a hillside light-rail hub we pedal toward Pittock Mansion, a Renaissance-style residence-turned-museum built in 1914 for newspaper publisher Henry Pittock and his family. Catching our breath on the 46-room estate’s backyard lookout, we admire the magnificent view of distant Mount Hood. The new US$600-million Ritz Carlton hotel and condo tower points up at the volcanic peak, rekindling a discussion of the socio-economic paradoxes encountered on our trip.

Cycling down the steep and serpentine streetscape separating the mansion from Portland’s valley-cradled grid, I relish the 360-degree views, dazzling afternoon sunlight and cooling breezes that would have been diminished by a rental car’s windshield. Brakes squealing, I half-expect my smartphone’s digital assistant to say something like: “In 50 centimetres turn left, then right … then give up and let gravity take over.”

If you go

Victoria Clipper: Late-afternoon and early evening departures from Victoria arrive in Seattle just under three hours later, and start at around US$110. 1-800-888-2535;

Amtrak Cascades: Multiple daily 3.5-hour trips from Seattle to Portland start at around US$30.

Where to stay

Hotel Crocodile in Seattle: Set above its namesake live music venue, this collection of 17 quirky rooms (starting at US$209 a night) includes a stylish bar area and lounge.

Hotel Rose in Portland: Part of the gregarious Staypineapple chain, this comfortable downtown option is steps from the river and provides guests with complimentary banana-yellow bikes, helmets and locks. Rates start at around US$110 a night.

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