For me, though, Astoria's most beloved—and useful—monument is its bridge. Lacy green, stylishly upswept, it carries visitors across the Columbia to the peninsula, where the first, southernmost town is Chinook. Named for the Native Americantribe, the settlement was so prosperous that in the freewheeling fish-trapping days of the 1880's it was said to have more gold per capita than anywhere else on the West Coast. Nowadays Chinook is known for having Washington's oldest salmon hatchery (well worth touring) and the Sanctuary, a first-rate restaurant run by Joanne Friberg Leech, whose grandparents and father immigrated from Sweden. Housed in an old white clapboard church, the restaurant serves Northwestern products with a Scandinavian twist: "Scandi-sushi" (made with lefse, a flatbread, instead of nori) and krumkake (crumbcake with whipped cream and lingonberries).
Next comes Ilwaco, once a bustling marina, now, with the decline of fishing, a town in transition. While it is still possible to go charter fishing from Ilwaco, the town is more interested these days in emphasizing its sleepy beauty and richly storied past. Home to the Heritage Museum, a trove of regionalhistory, and a fast-growing Saturday farmers' and crafts market, "It's like Nantucket or the Hamptons thirty years ago," says Bruce Peterson, a photographer, "on the verge of coming into its own." This is thanks in part to people such as Peterson, who, with his wife, Wendi, has started up a photography gallery that wouldn't be out of place in Portland. And it's thanks to brothers Jeff Marcus and Paul Coile, who in May opened the lively Pauly's Bistro. Marcus, who says the goal is "simply to have fun," has a whimsically organized menu ("Things with Which You May Start," "Things in Bowls," "Things on Plates") that manages to embrace both fish tacos and roasted pork tenderloin, all in a cheerful room with a sparkling marina view.
Hidden in a tranquil cove just west of Ilwaco is the three-room China Beach Retreat. It takes its name from the dormitories that stood on the site at the turn of the last century and were used by Chinese workers who labored in Ilwaco's canneries. The Craftsman-style house turned hotel is from the peninsula's best-known hoteliers, David Campiche and Laurie Anderson, whose Shelburne Inn, in neighboring Seaview, is the last surviving Victorian hotel of the half dozen that stood in my great-grandparents' day. Filled with antique dressers, patchwork quilts, and stacks of board games in the lobby, the Shelburne has an air of congeniality that makes you feel as though the owners are personally kindling the hearth even in summer, when there's no need for a fire.
The Shelburne is the cynosure of Seaview, a village that has no obvious center. The inn's location, on the main road, is one reason, but mostly it's because the hotel houses the Shoalwater, a top restaurant in the area. For more than 20 years Tony and Ann Kischner have been serving meals in the original 1896 fir-paneled dining room. Lynne Pelletier, the chef who works with Ann, combines classic saucing techniques—vin blanc and beurre blanc for example—with local berries, mushrooms, and herbs and matches the results with regional seafood. "Anything that grows here goes with anything else that grows here," Ann believes. "The approach goes back to the Chinook—though our sauces are probably a touch fancier."
Also in Seaview, and also excellent, is the 42nd St. Café, run by Blaine and Cheri Walker, who used to cook at the Shoalwater. For Cheri, peninsula cuisine is "partly about the quality of the food—wild salmon as sweet as candy, oysters crisp and minerally and like no other—and largely about learning how to stay out of its way." As soon as you sit down, corn relish, jars of marionberry conserve, and homemade bread appear on the table. Cheri's cedar-planked salmon and her eight-hour pot roast are unparalleled.
Seaview has one of the most appealing points of access to the beach, the approach road capped with a wooden arch. But before heading down to the water I like to take a tour of the Victorian cottages that bracket it for about 10 blocks to the north and south. Platted in the 1880's by Jonathan Stout, these lazy lanes still contain some of the peninsula's most enchanting board-and-batten, shingled, or gingerbread cottages. Some have been in the same family since they were built. Several are named, and winningly: hand-lettered signs read BAT CAVE and CRANK'S ROOST and CARE-AWAY and NO SEE SEA. The best, the black-and-yellow-turreted Schulderman-Collie house (1888) is under restoration but will soon emerge as the queen bee of Seaview it once was.
What can I say about Long Beach, the town that shares its name with the peninsula, except that not much has changed since my childhood. It's a town with a carousel, saltwater taffy merchants, and amusements for the kids—every seaside area has one like it. On a rainy day, it can come in handy; otherwise, it's probably a good idea to limit a visit to the Cottage Bakery (for a danish or a deli sandwich) and Campiche Studios, a gallery that sells watercolors of peninsula scenes by local artists and hand-tinted photographs made by its owner, Nancy Campiche.
Twelve miles north of Long Beach lies Ocean Park, which was promoted in the late-19th century as a gathering place for religious visitors. "Families may be safe from all contaminating influences," one early organizer promised. Today the quiet village is home to Catherine O'Toole's well-edited bookshop, new and used, and Jack's Country Store, whose oak showcases and shelves with track ladders date to 1885. A few minutes east along Bay Avenue, Eric Wiegardt, another of the peninsula's gifted watercolorists (he, John Campiche, and Charles Mulvey, who died last year, make up the core group), sells his work in a house that has been in his family since 1897. Wiegardt, who grew up in the oyster business, has painted in France, Portugal, and the Southwest, but the peninsula, he says, "still excites and moves me most of all." Hanging in his gallery are watercolors of crab floats and oyster racks, fishermen standing on the jetty, and Astoria street scenes. "The peninsula is an artist's paradise—those beaches and old buildings and boats," he says. "We have all of the subject matter Winslow Homer found on the East Coast. But because it's the Northwest, people don't seem to recognize it yet. They will, in time."
It's impossible to speak about the peninsula's north end without mentioning oysters—or at least their shells, which appear just about everywhere in tall, snowy mounds. In Nahcotta, which faces Willapa Bay, commercial oystermen work alongside independents like Larry Warnberg and Sandy Bradley, who raise their oysters without pesticides and with minimal handling. Their oysters appear on the tables at the nearby Ark, whose chef-owners, Jimella Lucas (she cooks) and Nanci Main (she bakes), were championed by James Beard early in their career. Since they started the Ark in 1981 the two women have published four acclaimed cookbooks and have set the standard for local cuisine. They were the first chefs on the peninsula to blacken salmon and update bouillabaisse (they call it potlatch and give it an Asian inflection). The dining room is a little too dolled up, with year-round holiday lights and geegaws, but it has an unmatched view of Willapa Bay, which is peace incarnate.
Four miles north of Nahcotta is incomparable Oysterville, the point of origin and place of rest of my friend Willard Espy. Wede, as he was nicknamed, grew up in the village and attended a one-room schoolhouse (it still stands) before going off to New York to make a career as a writer. His memoir, Oysterville: Roads to Grandpa's Village, tells the story of how the town, which was co-founded by his grandfather in 1854, flourished for a generation before the oysters died out. By the time Wede was born, in 1910, the village was in woeful, to him also rather wondrous, decay. (The oysters were brought back, from Japanese seeds, in the 1930's, though the town never again thrived as before.)
But Oysterville's decay comes with an epilogue. This is, after all, the West, a place of new beginnings and reinventions. Wede eventually moved away, into the wider world. His sister Dale moved from the wider world back to Oysterville. In 1976 she and her husband, Bill Little, helped get the town onto the National Register of Historic Places, and they restored buildings such as the church and the schoolhouse. The next year Wede published his memoir, and people followed the book to this special, sleepy hamlet by the bay, which today has a census that Sydney Stevens (Dale's daughter and Wede's niece) likes to break down into "fourteen full-time residents, forty-two part-time residents—and two ghosts."
And there you have it: a once-gutsy, busy, racy, raucous town (in the 1860's it had seven saloons—but no bank), on one of the most blessed and beautiful bays imaginable, falls on hard times and is forgotten. Then it gets a face-lift and eventually becomes so prized that a handful of newcomers decide to give something back: in 1998 they start up a literary foundation and name it for Espy, the hometown boy made good. They invite writers to come stay in its cottages for a month or two at a time, so that as they work they can listen to the tide in the bay and the birds in the grasses, to all of nature that vibrates here with such resplendence. Oysterville, like the entire peninsula, is memorable in every season, but summer, I know it well, is truly the best.
MICHAEL FRANK is a contributing writer to the Los Angeles Times Book Review and Architectural Digest.