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.