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Driving Oregon's Pacific Coast

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.

waldport

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.

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