PORT ANGELES, Wash. — Filtered sunlight winks at the motorized army of tourists as it rolls along U.S. 101. Armed with maps, cameras and picnic baskets, the weekend warriors wend their way between sea and mountain.
Like thousands before them, they come to escape a world of color TVs, microwave ovens and fast-pitch pleasures. Here on the Olympic Peninsula, nature sets a slow and peaceful pace.
Bred in violence but imbued with tranquillity, the peninsula is a big thumb of land that juts into the sea from Washington's grasp. Mostly primeval wilderness, it draws its lifeblood from the Pacific and primps itself with the waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Hood Canal.
Forming the backbone of the peninsula, the Olympic Mountains rise as jagged towers of granite. Born of continental crustal contact, their growth reveals 70 million years of upthrust and erosion. In stony silence they look out over U-shaped valleys formed by glaciers, alpine meadows bursting with wildflowers, mountain woods teeming with wildlife and temperate rain forests dripping with sustenance.
Despite its remoteness and untamed setting, the Olympic Loop Highway makes touring the peninsula relatively easy. Consisting mainly of U.S. 101, the loop skirts the peninsula's length and breadth. Starting six miles northwest of Olympia, 101 darts north before meeting the great bend in the Hood Canal. There, the adventure begins.
From Potlatch to Quilcene, the highway channels between blue waters and lush forests. Tiny seaside villages, born of the canal and boasting names such as Hoodsport, Lilliwaup, Eldon and Brinnon, line the shore. Everything seems connected to the water.
Piers reach out from beach houses, leading residents, like age-old turtles, back to their genesis. In front of restaurants, signs advertise oysters, clams, crab, shrimp and salmon. Marinas are as common as gas stations. Each bobs with boats of every description, from dory to sloop.
Tranquil during the week, the towns bustle with tourists on weekends. Trafficking from one end of the canal to the other, most travelers seem bent on shedding their worries like worn clothes. Many find their peace at a resort that sits on the canal's elbow.
A few miles east of where Washington 106 meets the loop, Alderbrook Inn Resort--phone (206) 898-2200--reflects the simple life of its pastoral surroundings. With the canal for a front yard, the resort looks beyond the waters to the snowcapped peaks of the Olympics.
Community of Cottages
Although most of the accommodations are motel-like, Alderbrook also features a community of cottages that imitates the life of owning a summer home on a private lake.
Twenty cabins sporting moss-covered red-tile roofs group around a sandy volleyball court and a lawn flecked with red picnic tables. Broken-in comfort describes their interiors, which are divided into two bedrooms, a living room with a fireplace, a kitchen and a porch.
Of course, there are the fixes for those who become fidgety in the long embraces of Mother Nature. Besides volleyball and a children's playground, amenities include a 55-foot indoor swimming pool, a twin therapy pool, two saunas, an 18-hole PGA golf course, four tennis courts, a 1,200-foot pier and a good restaurant.
It is the canal that mostly draws visitors to this part of the peninsula, but the wilderness also lures some to venture beyond the main highway. Several roads, merely gray lines on the map, lead into the wild. They travel to parks such as Lake Cushman and Dosewallips and to the Mt. Walker Lookout, whose turnoff is just north of Brinnon, past Dodie's Trading Post.
From the viewpoint, nearly all of Puget Sound, framed within two mountain ranges, unfolds in a mural of glistening waters and rolling hills.
Famous for Oysters
At Quilcene, famous for its oysters and commercial oyster farms, the highway turns its back on Hood Canal and looks toward Port Angeles, the peninsula's largest town and the gateway to both Victoria in British Columbia and Olympic National Park. Detours along the way lead to both historic Port Townsend and Dungeness Spit, the longest natural sand promontory in the United States.
Port Townsend is a town of cafes and family restaurants, gift shops and craft stores, motels and bed and breakfasts. But its reputation endures on a bluff above downtown, where turn-of-the-century Victorian homes look through their bay windows across Admiralty Inlet to the wooded hillsides of Whidbey Island and beyond to the white slopes of the Cascade Mountains.
Among locals the area is also famous for the Ajax Cafe, which is several miles south in the town of Hadlock. This funky little place serves large helpings of seafood with liberal side orders of local color.
Dungeness Spit is one of those places you go to get in touch with your feelings. There, among the sun-bleached driftwood and tide flats, the shore birds and sea creatures, people sit in the sun while the surf pounds the shore and the wind fills their lungs with life.