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Roaming Oregon Trails : On a quest for low-key towns, low -priced motels and honest food on a drive down the majestic coast

June 27, 1993|MICHAEL PARRISH | TIMES STAFF WROTER: Parrish is a staff writer for The Times' Business section. and

BROOKINGS, Ore. — On a ramble down the Oregon coast last summer, my wife and I discovered that decades of tourist development have brought kite stores to every town, more myrtlewood factories than should be legal, standard antique emporiums and plenty of swank dining.

But despite all this civic improvement, we still had no trouble spotting picnic tables near the water where whales cruised offshore, museums and old lighthouses, fragrant chowder joints, crab boilers, local beers and homey motels with ocean views and fireplaces. Even today, the best-laid commercial plans have yet to overpower the beauty of the state's small beach cities.

Indeed, the Oregon coast still offers one of the great stretches of country for us of the car-and-motel set, something like a West Coast version of Maine. Accommodations are reasonable--in some cases heartwarmingly cheap. And Oregon's coast boasts some of the world's most magnificent scenery, with dramatic cliffs rising from the beach to the forest, coves and caves and secret beaches that are literally deserted, particularly during weekdays.

I hadn't made an unstructured trip along this part of U.S. 101 for more than 25 years, since the days when calm Oregon farmers and housewives routinely stopped to give a lift to long-haired hitchhiking college students like myself.

My wife and I had only one hard destination--a low-key family reunion at Lincoln City, part-way down the coast--and plenty of time to get there. So we decided to traipse the entire western length of the state.

When we have a few extra days, we'd always rather meander the back roads in a car than fly. Last August, we saddled up our '79 Cadillac and headed north from Los Angeles, up the spine of California. No plans, no reservations, no required reading.

We drove up through eastern Oregon, cruising steadily past Crater Lake, past Bend, through Hood River Valley, down Columbia Gorge--all pleasant enough in their own right, but lacking the acrid scent of the sea. We were headed to Oregon's northernmost coastal town, Astoria, where the gray Columbia River meets the Pacific.

Astoria is still slightly off the tourist path and a lovable berg of old-fashioned downtown department stores and restored Victorians that climb a hillside from the river's edge.

Astorians believe that their generally drizzly, blue-green landscape resembles Finland. Waves of Scandinavians settled here beginning in the late 19th Century, many of them as mink ranchers. James Tilander's Finnish-born grandfather, however, opened a bakery.

At 6 a.m. every day except Sunday, fresh chocolate-bar doughnuts, pastries stuffed with local berries and other savory goods slide into the display racks at Home Baking Co., just as they have since 1915 at this traditional Finnish bakery on Marine Drive, Astoria's main drag.

We lined up with the locals to buy what my wife said was the best lemon Danish she's ever eaten. I savaged a couple of chocolate-bar doughnuts, fresh as the breeze from the Pacific. But there were also subtler dining pleasures available.

One distinction of Finnish baking is its use of cardamom, an Indian spice that looks like a pepper seed but tastes like strong cinnamon. Tilander and his wife, Kathy, grind their own for traditional cakes, pies and their specialty, Finnish cinnamon toast.

"If I don't watch it, I'll eat a whole loaf," said Kathy Tilander over the phone when I called later to ask about Christmas gifts (they will ship the toast). Kathy may be a quarter Danish, but she's more Southern California mall rat, born and raised in the city of Orange. A dozen years ago she came to Astoria to visit her sisters, met the baker, and stayed.

For reasons I'd rather not analyze, when we reached middle age it became an unbreakable travel rule to never pass a museum by. And one reason we came here was to see the fine Columbia River Maritime Museum, just a harpoon cast down Marine Drive, where Astorians have preserved their pasts as fur-traders, salmon-canners and sailors.

Displays of beautifully salvaged boats, navigational instruments, pilot houses and other practical naval machinery tell the region's history. The morning we dropped by, a Russian seaman and artist, temporarily in port, was showing his stolid portraits and sea scenes in a small gallery behind the museum bookstore.

Astoria would have been a comfortable harbor for a few days; many of the town's 500 elegant old Victorians have been turned into bed and breakfasts. But we had reservations in Lincoln City that night, so we headed south.

South past tiny Gearhart, where motor vehicles are still allowed to roam the town's northern beach, an experience we declined. What Oregon jury would convict an environmentalist for shooting a couple of Californians plowing up the sand in their El Dorado?

South past Seaside, Oregon's oldest resort town, with its 8,000- foot elevated promenade along the sand that dates from the 1920s.

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