Driving Oregon's Pacific Coast
Published: October 2011
By Peter Jon Lindberg
On the Oregon coast, puffins outnumber people, stunning views keep coming at you, and the beach goes on forever
Here's the scene: You're reclining in a hot tub on a deck overlooking the Pacific, surf smashing below, sunset on the water, fireplace glowing inside, bottle of Oregon wine beside you. Maybe there's a whale spouting in the distance, for that fully loaded effect.
Sound contrived? A bit silly? Too much like a poster at your dentist's office ?Perhaps, but few things are as enjoyable as watching a Pacific sunset from a hot tub while surf smashes and wine chills and—yes! true!—whales breach and the Oregon coast unfolds before you. Who could argue with that?
There are a lot of outdoor hot tubs in this part of the world, and a lot of brilliant sunsets. It's a great big coast, with plenty of places to hide, and endless stretches of sandy beach. But—here's the kicker—there are no people on these beaches. Really. Here and there you'll spot a few kids, a kite or two. Yet for the most part the beaches are empty.
I suppose the temperature has something to do with it. The average high in August—that's August, as in August—is about 68 degrees. Not exactly sunbathing weather. But the sun does shine, despite what you might think. I was baffled by the lack of crowds. I grew up on the chilly beaches of Maine, where, dammit, you swam until your toes couldn't move, and you fought your way through a jumble of towels to line up at the snack bar. In Oregon I spent entire afternoons walking along the sand, rarely spotting another soul.
I wasn't complaining.
Last summer I took a week to drive Oregon's shore from its northern end to the tiny town of Waldport, roughly midway down. My 140-mile trip was refreshingly simple: I stuck almost entirely to Highway 101, which clings to the ocean for most of the journey, and occasionally ventured off onto the smaller roads that wind through thick forests, up mountain passes, and along seaside cliffs. You can drive the route in a day—a very dizzy day—but I took my time, stopping along the way at several inns and resorts, each of which offers a distinct vantage on the coast and its communities.
Some of the towns are cute and kitschy—you've got your ice cream parlors, your taffy "shoppes." Some are salty and sea-doggish, some are quiet and pristine, some are being turned into shopping malls. But it isn't so much the towns that you come for. The coast itself is what will linger in your mind: Douglas firs of awesome height towering behind a golden beach; puffins cacophonously crowding the rocks offshore; gray whales surfacing a hundred yards out; seals and sea lions basking in the sun, just out the window from your breakfast table.
My first stop was a relatively upscale resort town about 90 minutes from Portland. Cannon Beach's reputation as "the Carmel of Oregon" is a bit unfair—though it's more polished than most coastal villages here, it isn't nearly as self-conscious as Carmel. Strict zoning has given the main street a touristy look, with its kite shops and hydrangea bushes and hand-carved signs, but walk half a mile in any direction and you'll find modest houses, even a trailer park. And though prices here are higher than elsewhere along the coast, I did see an ad for a two-bedroom seaside cottage renting, in the off-season, for $550 a month. Not in Carmel, you don't.
The five-year-old Stephanie Inn is perhaps the best of Cannon Beach's many hotels and resorts. With 46 rooms, it's not really an inn, though there are some decidedly cozy touches: the warm molasses cookies waiting at reception, the lobby's wood beams and river-rock fireplace, the teddy bear on your bed. If all this is a tad cloying, it's also marvelously comfortable—my first-floor room had a fireplace, a Jacuzzi, and a terrace 20 yards from the beach.
Through binoculars in the inn's living room, I spied on the puffins on Haystack Rock, the 235-foot monolith rising from the surf down the beach. A light rain was letting up; I lingered inside before the fire until the afternoon wine tasting, when a dozen guests turned up to sip Willamette Valley Merlots and watch surfers brave the crashing waves.
The Stephanie Inn is not secluded—motels and residences sit close on either side—but it affords a sense of privacy nonetheless. The driftwood-strewn public beach might as well be private. Non-guests passed by now and then, several riding those strange, pedal-driven, bucket-seat tricycles that ingeniously combine cardiovascular activity with lying down. Others were flying elaborate kites, or building elaborate sandcastles, or walking dogs. (Someone should rent dogs on this beach, it struck me, as I watched a sea-gull-chasing beagle try to achieve flight.) A few people—Canadians, I guess—were actually wearing bikinis, feigning warmth with poignant desperation.
You can have a prix fixe dinner at the inn, but I wanted to explore, so I asked for the best seafood in town. The inn's staff steered me to the Wayfarer Restaurant, down the road at their sister resort, the Surfsand. My meal was disappointing, but the view was not: a stunning sunset lasted all the way through dessert, a pie of fresh marionberries as big as golf balls and bursting with tartness.
Dinner aside, I loved Cannon Beach, and I wasn't put off by the commercial feel, as some friends in Portland had predicted. I'd expected a snootier sort of scene, and was relieved to find a perfect mix of jalopies and Saabs. Unlike the better-known stretches of the California shore, to which its landscapes are most often compared, coastal Oregon has not yet been overwhelmed by rich urbanites, with their Donna Karan outlets, their Ayurvedic spas. Those types are here, of course, but they keep mainly to themselves. Meanwhile, you're left to feel like a pioneer, in seaside villages that—for the moment—have just the right number of houses, most of which are just the right size.
Admittedly, I have an out-of-towner's perspective. Natives say they're worried about the changes: Shoulda seen it twenty years ago. That it has managed to stay even this serene is remarkable, a testament to sensible growth and a strong history of conservation.
Case in point: Oswald West State Park, a spectacular swath of rain forest flush against the shore south of Cannon Beach. For an entire day, a friend and I wandered the trails here, amid lush ferns, towering firs, Sitka spruce, fuzzy moss—out to the sunbaked edge of Cape Falcon, 600 feet above the Pacific, where salmonberry and salal shrubs nearly swallow the path. Under the forest canopy a cool mist hung over the trail. I stopped to rest on a toppled fir tree, overgrown with huge mushrooms. A five-inch banana slug—Oregon's mascot, some say—slithered into view. The moist, humus-scented air fogged my glasses. This is the seacoast?
The town of Manzanita has 785 residents and two espresso shops. You can also get a great latte at the grocery. Guidebooks told me Manzanita was a tourist magnet; nestled beside Oswald West State Park and one of the coast's most beautiful beaches, it surely ought to be. It isn't; at least not in the traditional sense. Manzanita is still a small cottage colony with one main street. And the espresso is not overpriced (yet).
I checked into the Inn at Manzanita, recommended by Seattle friends. It's not on the beach, but a block away, near the two best restaurants, Jarboe's and the Blue Sky Café. From your room in the cedar-and-pine main building, you can glimpse the ocean through the pines. Not that you'll spend a lot of time in the room—there are seven miles of beach to explore.
And all those great Northwest ingredients to sample. At the Blue Sky Café I had corn-and-green-chili chowder topped with cilantro pesto, and terrific grilled ahi served with Vietnamese-style cabbage, spicy soy-roasted peanuts, and coconut rice. The staffers were the sort who sing along to Pearl Jam in the kitchen, then recommend a great Columbia Valley Chardonnay. This was what I came for, I thought, as I finished with peach-pecan crisp under cinnamon ice cream.
Manzanita shuts down early, and the only life after 10 is likely to be found at the beach, where flickers of bonfires recede into the distance. It's cold out here after dark—temperatures can drop to 40 degrees. The flip side is that you sleep wonderfully—under blankets—as the wind whistles through the spruce trees.
nehalem bay to tillamook
The following morning was shrouded in fog and smelled of the sea. I drove 10 minutes to the village of Wheeler, which sits on an estuary of Nehalem Bay. A tiny railroad depot marks the center of town. Across the street I rented a kayak, and as I paddled among reeds, two eagles soared above the pines to my right, and several herons clustered on the mudflats. Later I mentioned the birds to the owner of the kayak company. She wasn't surprised. "Yup, we see eagles. There's a big herd of elk, too. Every night they come out of the woods over there and swim across the estuary to sleep on the mudflats. But the woods are being cleared for houses and condos soon, so . . ."
Between Cannon Beach and the town of Tillamook you find the Big Sur-like headlands and Pacific vistas you've seen in pictures. Then, near Tillamook, the road flattens and turns inland to reveal a new landscape: farmhouses, tractors, and pastures full of cows, suppliers of the crucial ingredient for Tillamook cheddar. An alternative route hugs the shore, but I was happy for the change—and especially happy to find, in time for lunch, a roadside farm stand to beat all roadside farm stands. Bear Creek Artichokes sits between a beautiful flower garden and acres of vegetable rows. I filled a box with boysenberries, peaches, golden-orange Rainier cherries (which look like small Fuji apples and taste even better), and sugar snap peas, and sat in the garden eating the best lunch I'd had on the coast.
lincoln city to depoe bay
Farther south, 101 becomes the four-lane commercial strip of Lincoln City, the place that everyone worries the whole coast will look like someday. Car dealers, motels, a Sambo's: if you're missing them, they're here, along with a decent selection of outlets (L. L. Bean, Coach, Polo). Oh, well. At least they're all in one place. In seven or eight miles it's over, and the road goes back to its twisting two-lane self, skirting the estuaries near Siletz Bay, passing some lovely cove beaches and good crab shacks.
Three miles south of Lincoln City is Salishan Lodge, the first destination resort to make a mark on the seacoast, back in 1965. It's a huge place (750 acres) with 205 rooms, which are almost always filled. The lodge sits on a hillside lined with hiking trails; across the highway (someone kindly installed a traffic light) are a golf course and yet another glorious beach. Salishan is a popular spot for family and business retreats; alas, its guest quarters have a rather charmless condo-rustic theme.
The lodge's formal dining room was closed for renovation the night I was there, so the concierge suggested Salishan's Ocean Harvest buffet: 12 types of sushi, six kinds of oysters, Dungeness crab, scallop-and-sea-bass seviche, smoked trout, mesquite-broiled salmon and swordfish, four varieties of caviar. . . . I'm not usually one for buffets, but I have to admit it was quite good—fresh and flavorful.
First thing the next day I drove south to Depoe Bay, a colorful maritime village that manages to feel half ersatz and half the real deal, equal parts blue-haired tourists and rugged Captain ¤uint types. You can sip a sea-breeze latte (spiked with coconut and banana) at the local café. Depoe Bay is also the whale-watching capital of the Northwest. California grays migrate through in winter and spring, but several pods hang around into the summer—you can see them most days in the harbor.
Depoe Bay's harbor, accessible only via an unbelievably narrow channel between the cliffs, is said to be the smallest in the world. Dilapidated shacks creak and sway on the wharves. Four companies offer whale-watching cruises from here; the drama begins when the captain negotiates the channel without smashing onto the rocks. I spent two hours on a smallish boat with a dozen other people, and the whales we saw outnumbered us. "They like to scratch their backs on the rocks offshore," the captain told us. Apparently Depoe Bay is famous among whales as the best back-scratching spot north of Baja.
I found a room at the Channel House, a modest 12-room inn with a fantastic location: on a bluff right over the bay, within eyeshot of the whales (binoculars are provided). All rooms have ocean views, and 10 have those terraces with hot tubs.
South of Beverly Beach State Park, I came upon an awesome armada of rainbow kites and wind socks hovering above the dunes beside the highway. No one was tending them; they just floated, twirling brilliant patterns. All along the road drivers pulled over and leaped out to photograph these strange silent craft, like some Day-Glo take on Roswell.
The wind on the Oregon coast is insane, almost scary. At Beverly Beach I'd watched as a kid lost hold of his dragon kite, and I helped him chase it along the dunes until it disappeared into the sun. A good ways down the road I spotted the runaway kite. It followed me for a while, like the Red Balloon, and finally plunged to the ground.
"Storm watching" is a popular activity on the coast. Warm equatorial air collides with Arctic streams here, and the resulting dramas draw excited visitors from far inland, like rubberneckers at a car wreck. Waves can rise 40 feet. In winter, especially, tourists flock to the seashore when a fierce storm is expected, and innkeepers say they often fill up.
The weather was kind during my visit, though it got chillier and chillier as I progressed. By the time I reached Waldport, an afternoon beach walk felt like a hike in the tundra. I couldn't see the water ahead as I pressed into the wind, clambering over driftwood. I pushed on until, in the rising fog only 50 yards in front of me, I saw a herd of seals resting on a sandbar, oblivious of my presence.
After the understated hotels and private houses I'd seen along the coast, the Cliff House bed-and-breakfast in Waldport is something of a shock. Perched on a cliff above the beach, it's a big, blue 1930's gabled cottage surrounded by pastel flowers, bright trellises, a gazebo, and marble statues. Each of the four rooms is—how to say it?—unique. Mine had a Hopi dreamcatcher with blue feathers on the wall, along with maritime oil paintings, a gold-trimmed sombrero, and a bookcase filled with volumes by Colette. Whimsical doesn't begin to cut it. But the view is fabulous. And there's an outdoor hot tub and sauna, plus massages in the gazebo.
Innkeeper Gabrielle Duvall greeted me wearing a purple caftan and giant Swifty Lazar glasses. She has an energetic, vaguely Zsa Zsa demeanor, and I mean that in the nicest way. She has been running Cliff House since '86 and knows a great deal about the area, which she'll gladly impart to you. Gabrielle showed me around the house, trailing her caftan, pointing out details: the decanter of port beside my bed ("for your pleasure"), the VCR ("for your pleasure"), the clock radio ("for your pleasure"). You don't often find people like Gabrielle these days.
She gave me a 10-hour itinerary, and I drove into Newport, the biggest town on the northern coast. Your kids may know it as the home of the whale in Free Willy, a.k.a. Keiko, who came here from Mexico two years back and—so they say—will eventually be set loose. Until then, he prepares himself for freedom at the immensely popular Oregon Coast Aquarium, which is well worth a visit even if Keiko bolts. The town of Newport merits a stroll, especially Bay Boulevard, where fish-processing plants and tourist shops face each other down. You can snack on crab cocktails and smoked-salmon-on-a-stick from shacks along the harbor. Rogue Ales is on the opposite side of the harbor, in a warehouse. There's a tasting room and pub upstairs, where I sampled some strange-but-true concoctions, such as mint beer, which was shipped only to Japan, and some great ones, like the rich and hoppy buckwheat ale.
Back at the Cliff House, I found Gabrielle cataloguing the coast's many charms for two bright-eyed new arrivals as she showed them how to work the hot tub controls. She loved these cool nights, I heard her say, because they gave her a reason to wear her velvet cape.
In the morning I joined the other guests at Gabrielle's breakfast table for terrific French toast garnished with nasturtiums. We were all out-of-staters, and all surprised by the quiet of the region, given its beauty. Much of the tranquillity can be attributed to Oregon laws, which have turned all beaches into public land. But the quiet goes beyond the coastline itself. Apart from Lincoln City and Newport and a few other overdeveloped patches, the towns themselves—and the farmlands and forests beyond them—seem refreshingly peaceful, even though the threat of growth clearly exists. There was a collective sigh at the thought, at the possibility that this delicate balance might be lost.
The entire coast is 360 miles long; the northern half is more developed and popular with weekenders from Portland. Highway 101 runs the length of it, and cliffside twists and scenic turnoffs make for slow going. Fine by everyone, it seems: the pace is a big part of what they're here for. Although I encountered few crowds last August, hotels will tell you to book well in advance for summer stays.
Inns and Hotels
Stephanie Inn 2740 S. Pacific, Cannon Beach; 800/633-3466 or 503/436-2221, fax 503/436-9711; doubles $149-$399, including breakfast; no children under 12. The upper floors are more private, but nothing beats walking to the beach from your patio.
Inn at Manzanita 67 Laneda Ave., Manzanita; 503/368-6754; doubles $100-$145; no children under 16. Request an ocean-view room in the main inn. The two suites have kitchens.
Salishan Lodge 7760 Hwy. 101 N., Gleneden Beach; 888/725-4742 or 541/764-2371; doubles $210-$290. Golfers, big groups, and families, this is your place.
Channel House 35 Ellingson St., Depoe Bay; 800/447-2140 or 541/765-2140, fax 541/765-2191; doubles $150-$225, including breakfast; no children under 12. Suite 5, with kitchen and terrace over the water, is best.
Cliff House 1450 Adahi Rd., Yaquina John Point, Waldport; 541/563-2506, fax 541/563-4393; doubles $120-$245, including breakfast; no children under 12. An intimate B&B, not for minimalists, but great for view-seekers.
Also Keep in Mind Sylvia Beach Hotel 267 N.W. Cliff St., Newport; 541/265-5428; doubles $69-$152, including breakfast. Attention bibliophiles: each of the 20 rooms in this landmark house is decorated in honor of an author. The Poe room has a pendulum above the bed.
Heceta Head Light Station Bed & Breakfast 92072 Hwy. 101 S., Yachats; 541/547-3696; doubles $115-$145, including big breakfast. Next to the brightest lighthouse on the coast (pack an eye mask) is an 1894 keeper's house, now a smart, simple three-room inn with period furniture.
Café de la Mer 1287 S. Hemlock St., Cannon Beach; 503/436-1179; dinner for two $40. A chic seafood spot in a blue house.
Bistro 263 N. Hemlock St., Cannon Beach; 503/436-2661; dinner for two $50. Fresh fish served in a cottage with a pretty courtyard.
Blue Sky Café 154 Laneda Ave., Manzanita; 503/368-5712; dinner for two $50. Healthy and creative pan-Pacific cuisine, with preparations accented by ginger, cilantro, salsas, and such.
Jarboe's in Manzanita 137 Laneda Ave., Manzanita; 503/368-5113; dinner for two $35. Closed during my visit, but said to be one of the coast's standouts.
Bay House 5911 S.W. Hwy. 101, Lincoln City; 541/996-3222; dinner for two $60. A sophisticated menu (I recommend the salmon carpaccio) and stunning views.
Canyon Way Restaurant & Bookstore 1216 S.W. Canyon Way, Newport; 541/265-8319; dinner for two $40. Walk through the bookstore to a surprisingly formal dining room, serving prawns Provençale, Yaquina Bay oysters, crab cakes, and good Oregon wines.
Oregon Handbook by Stuart Warren and Ted Long Ishikawa (Moon Travel Handbooks)—Comprehensive, readable guide, with 120 pages devoted to the coast.
An Oregon Message by William Stafford (Harper & Row)—Contemplative poems by the state's former poet laureate and National Book Award winner.
Searoad: Chronicles of Klatsand by Ursula K. Le Guin (HarperCollins)—The renowned science fiction writer and Oregonian summons the coast in this collection of interconnected stories. Worth tracking down.
On the Web
Oregon Coast—You Have Caught the Wave! (www.oregoncoast.com)—Covers the whole 360-mile stretch, with a focus on parks, forests, and other natural areas. Also has a useful calendar of events and links to additional Oregon pages.
A whale-watching or deep-sea fishing trip offered by one of the charter outfits in Depoe Bay. The halibut from these waters can dwarf a five-year-old.