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Oregon: A perfect road trip on ‘The People’s Coast’

In the first of a two-part series I’ll discover why coastal Oregon makes for a perfect road-trip, which I began and ended in Portland, the City of Roses

The Oregon coast, aptly named the “People’s Coast” because the vast majority of its coastline is public, is considered one of the best road trips in the Pacific Northwest with more than 100 beaches, 18 state parks, 11 lighthouses and countless, dramatic viewpoints along its 585 km. route. In the first of a two-part series I’ll discover why coastal Oregon makes for a perfect road-trip, which I began and ended in Portland, the City of Roses.

The heart of the Oregon coast is the central coastline, where the two-lane Pacific Coast Scenic Byway (U.S. Highway 101) brings you past rugged shorelines, sandy beaches and quaint towns steeped in nautical history.

After driving just under three hours from Portland I arrived in time to watch the sunset at Agate Beach State Recreation Site. This beautiful state park, popular with surfers and razor clammers, is at the northernmost point of Newport - one of the most visited beach towns on Oregon’s coast, attracting vacationers since the mid-1800s.

Newport is an ideal base for not only outdoor enthusiasts and eco-adventure tourists (hiking, fishing and whale watching tours are popular here) but foodies too. The town even trademarked the title “The Dungeness Crab Capital of the World,” since record number of crabs are harvested off its shores.

During my two days here I mingled with locals and visitors, who travelled from throughout the Northwest and beyond, for the annual Newport Seafood & Wine Festival. Now in its 47th year this four-day event, every February, showcases locally harvested seafood and the finest wine from the region.

If you love chowder, you’ll want to buy a “chowder tasting kit” in order to try all of the festival’s chowder competition entries. Dungeness crab cocktails, oyster shooters, sushi, grilled shrimp, lobster bisque and crab melt were a few of the myriad, seafood options available during the festival.

A year-round seafood destination is Newport’s Historic Bayfront, home to Oregon’s largest commercial fishing fleet, supplying fresh seafood to the many nearby restaurants and cafes.

Drawn by the sounds of sea lions barking I opt for Clearwater Restaurant, overlooking what has now become known as the “Sea Lion Docks” on Port Dock One.

Originally the marine-grade, polyethylene docks were brought in by the city for recreational boaters in the 1990s but the sea lions quickly claimed them as their own.

For 11 months of the year the docks in Yaquina Bay are a favourite haul-out site for groups of male California sea lions. (In July the sea lions migrate to the Channel Islands in California to mate with female sea lions who reside there year-round).

This prime sea lion viewing spot, accessible for free, is now one of the top tourist attractions of Newport.

Local Randy Sanders who along with his wife Paige owns and operates a unique bed and breakfast, a riverboat called the Newport Belle, tells me if I enjoy seeing sea lions be sure to stop at the Sea Lion Caves, about half an hour south of Newport, near the small city of Florence.

“The drive between Newport and Florence is the most beautiful stretch of the coastline, in my opinion, and it’s worth visiting Sea Lion Caves, which has been around forever,” he says.

The Sea Lion Caves, a natural sea grotto where hundreds of Steller sea lions come to rest, was discovered in 1880 by a local seaman. Captain Bill Cox purchased the property from the state, making it one of the few coastal Oregon properties in private hands.

In the past visitors would hike down a steep cliff to reach it but today, for a fee of $18 US, you can take an elevator 64 metres (208 feet) down to sea level to view as many as 200 sea lions, who are usually there during the fall and winter. In spring and summer, during mating and pupping time, they move to the rock ledges in front of the cave.

After my visit to the Sea Lion Caves, I return to Newport and drive north for three hours to the final destination of my three-day coastal road trip - Oregon’s oldest city Astoria, on the Columbia River, just a few miles from the Pacific Ocean.

Half way there, I stop at Tillamook, for a quick meal (not seafood, for a change) at the city’s most popular tourist attraction the Tillamook Creamery. After eating a double cheddar grilled cheese sandwich I did the self-guided factory tour and took home a few free cheese samples. There’s also a store and an ice cream counter if you are still craving dairy.

After arriving in Astoria, founded in 1811, I head to its charming downtown, chockablock with historic buildings. History buffs won’t want to miss some of the city’s top tourist attractions, all within a short drive from one another, like the Columbia Maritime Museum, the Astoria Column which is a historical monument depicting the discovery of the Columbia River, and the Flavel House Museum, which tells the story of a family who lived in Astoria in the late 1800s.

Where to eat:

The Clearwater Restaurant in Newport is a fun spot to not only dine on fresh seafood but to watch sea lions jostle for prime positions on the docks below. I ordered crab dip with tortilla chips, seared jumbo scallops and green pea risotto. While the seafood was good it didn’t compare to my favourite dish of the evening - a salted caramel bourbon bread pudding.

Local Ocean Seafoods is truly a dock-to-table experience, since Newport’s fishing fleet is directly across the street. I enjoyed the affordable lunch special of rockfish & chips. The tempura-like fish wasn’t greasy and came with a drink and a side of coleslaw for $15. I also couldn’t resist the clam chowder, which turned out to be the best I had in Oregon.

The Sylvia Beach Hotel, in a great location overlooking Newport’s Nye Beach, is a unique hotel dating back to 1912. While many visitors enjoy its author themed rooms they are small, especially the bathrooms. Its restaurant, called Table of Contents, serves a four-course dinner, once a month, where the chef takes inspiration from a specific author and guests sit together to enjoy the meal. The night I visited the author was Alice Walker, best known for writing The Color Purple, with diners having the choice of a buttermilk fried chicken breast, rockfish stew or a cornbread casserole as an entree.

In Astoria be sure to visit Josephson’s Smokehouse, where you can buy smoked seafoods, canned seafood and salmon jerky as well enjoy a quick seafood lunch (their chowder was also outstanding.) This storefront business, first opened in 1920, has been operated by the same family for five generations.

Where to stay:

The Newport Belle is a 30-metre (20 feet) paddlewheel boat permanently moored in the South Beach Marina, which is a short driving distance to some of Newport’s most popular beaches and within walking distance to the Oregon Coast Aquarium, which was home to Keiko, the orca, from the movie Free Willy. It’s also walkable to the annual Newport Seafood and Wine Festival. The boat has five comfortable, nautically themed staterooms and a beautiful main salon to gather for breakfast (non-guests are welcome for breakfast too, with a reservation).

Newport’s Hallmark Resort is an ideal oceanfront getaway, where every room has ocean views, an outdoor space, and an electric fireplace. This pet-friendly hotel, with direct beach access, also has an oceanfront restaurant, and a saltwater indoor pool. There’s also another Hallmark Resort in Cannon Beach, in the northwest corner of Oregon.

In Astoria an affordable option is the Lloyd Hotel, located along the waterfront on the edge of the city, close to the Riverwalk. For a luxury stay, the best option is the Cannery Pier Hotel & Spa. The 46-room boutique hotel is located 182 metres into the Columbia River on a pier, that used to house a fish packing plant, so guests have a front row seat to all that is happening outside their window on the Columbia River

Kim Pemberton was hosted by Travel Oregon, which did not review or approve this story. Follow her on Instagram at kimstravelogue.

Next week, in part two of the series, she explores Portland and its vintage vibe.