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Driving Oregon's Pacific Coast

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.

cannon beach

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.

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