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At Play on Oregon's Coast

Pioneer heritage, ocean and river vistas, seafood by the boatload--and rain

August 11, 2002|JERRY V. HAINES

ASTORIA, Ore. — One of the first travel writers to see the area said, "Ocian in view! O! the joy."

Within a few weeks, however, he was complaining about the rain: "O! how disagreeable is our Situation dureing this dreadfull weather."

Of course, in 1805 William Clark (with his partner, Meriwether Lewis) didn't have the advantages available to modern travel writers in Astoria: no excellent seafood restaurants, no comfy B&Bs and, apparently, no spell-checker.

But Clark's observations remain valid: There is great joy (and awe and fear) at seeing the Pacific Ocean where it confronts the Columbia River, and the weather is still miserable. But that "dreadfull" rain puts Astoria in the company of Ireland's Dingle Peninsula, the north coast of Kauai and the island of St. Lucia in the Lesser Antilles--places where rain is regarded as "liquid sunshine," where the locals respond to the inevitable visitor complaints with, "Of course it rains a lot. How else could it stay so green and beautiful?"

My wife, Janice, and I visited Astoria during a long Memorial Day weekend at the suggestion of our son, Paul, who lives in Portland, Ore., and whose instincts for nifty, thrifty travel destinations we have come to respect.

How could we not like a place with history, scenery and smoked salmon cheeks? With him we made the two-hour drive west from Portland on U.S. 26 through the forests of Clatsop and Washington counties to Astoria, population 9,813, in the extreme northwest corner of the state.

Through unfortunate procrastination on my part (it hadn't occurred to me that Astoria hotels and B&Bs might be booked full on a holiday weekend) we stayed in Seaside, 15 miles south of Astoria on U.S. 101. Thus we commuted 20 minutes each way between our comfortable but characterless chain hotel and Astoria, through villages and woods, past "Elk Crossing" signs and over the scenic, if confusingly named, "Old Youngs Bay Bridge." Sometimes the weather would change two or three times during this short trip.

Weather like that tends to keep people inside, raising the level of the art of conversation. At least that's my theory on why so many of our favorite moments in Astoria were spent listening to its citizens.

At the Columbian Cafe on Marine Drive, for example, as important as eating Uriah Hulsey's deft vegetarian and seafood creations is hearing him humorously catalog the world's shortcomings. The cafe's Nixon bathroom, with its collection of unflattering photos and banner newspaper headlines, is sort of an anti-shrine to the Watergate scandal and Nixon's resignation. Uriah whips up a dandy breakfast too. We loved the apple crepes and the "Broad Street": blue cheese home fries with eggs.

At a restaurant called Someplace Else, owner Lauren Arena likes to come out of the kitchen and talk with her clientele about any one of the many countries she's visited. Although her basic menu emphasizes Italy, her daily specials and travel interests are worldwide. Thus, under suspended Balinese boat kites, we listened to Italian opera, ate Greek spanakopita followed by a dessert of Thai black rice and bananas, and talked with her about Indonesian Komodo dragons while her vacation videos of Malaysia played on a TV at the side of the room.

But the winner of the Wet Afternoon Award is the Shallon Winery, where 77-year-old winemaker Paul van der Veldt talks about dirigibles (his passion), discourses on Astoria history and debunks what he considers the affectations of the wine industry. And he pours samples of his specialty--dessert wines in unexpected flavors. Well, elderberry we might have expected, but I was unprepared for mango, lemon meringue and chocolate orange.

Unconventional as they sound, they all are delicious, particularly the chocolate orange, which Van der Veldt creates with six kinds of chocolate from four countries. It's a bonbon in a bottle. When he gets behind in his work, which is often, he pulls visitors into the back room and continues his lecture while he affixes labels to his bottles, applies their foil tops and gives them a last polishing.

The skies were merely overcast when we began our Astoria sightseeing. On Coxcomb Hill, the highest point in town (elevation 600 feet), is the Astoria Column, a 125-foot tower affording visitors a grand, orienting view of the area. The viewpoint is itself fun to view. The exterior of the column, dedicated in 1926 and paid for by the Great Northern Railroad, is decorated in a technique called "sgraffito," which involves applying, then scraping away, several layers of paint. Italian artist Attilio Pusterla created a sepia-toned illustrated history of Astoria that begins at the bottom with American mariner Robert Gray's 1792 discovery of the mouth of the Columbia, spirals up through Lewis and Clark's explorations and the story of namesake John Jacob Astor, and ends at the top with the arrival in Astoria of the railroad.

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