The Best Coast

Incredible! Wild! Spectacular! Rugged! Bucolic!

Just five of the words that came to us as we drove up from San Diego to Seattle. Wordsmith Laurel said bucolic. As many of you know, I’m originally from Seattle, and I have two daughters and grandchildren up there. So we fly up every year to see them. This year, with all the buzz about road trips, we decided to rent a car and drive up, then fly back.

Why the 5?

Friends have asked us why we didn’t drive up the more scenic highways 101 and 1. First of all, the area around Big Sur is undriveable right now, thanks to a massive slide. But mainly, we chose the sights we wanted to see: San Luis Refuge. Sierra Nevada Brewery. Crater Lake. Eugene. Portland. Mt. Rainier. String them together, and the 5 only made sense. I have to mention that I guess I’ve become a Californian. No one in Seattle says, “The 5.” They call it “I-5.” But with so many highways in Southern California, we’ve learned to call them “the 110,” “the 91,”   or “the 5.”

We left on Friday, June 30th at 5:30 in the morning and beat a lot of the awful rush hour traffic in Los Angeles. We only had one slowdown all the way to the Grapevine north of LA. By about 1:30, we reached Merced. Like most towns in California, it has several new craft breweries. We decided on the 17th St. Public House. Merced was in the high 90s, and the AC inside the place was a welcome relief. We asked to see the menu, and the beertender apologized, explaining that they only serve beer, but we were welcome to buy food elsewhere and bring it in. We followed her advice and walked down the street to Donut King, which had three menus on the wall: Donuts, Subway-style sandwiches and French-influenced Vietnamese bahn mi. We brought a foot-long bahn mi and a bag of chips back to the public house and ordered two pints of one of their India pale ales. The IPA was quite good and refreshing, and the bahn mi was excellent.

San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, a few miles back south of Merced, is the main reason we made this side trip. This refuge is one of the most important wildlife preserves in all of California, for animals as well as birds. Talking to the game warden at the visitor center, we learned that thousands of Sandhill Cranes fly south from Alaska to winter here every year. A few years ago, we saw a small flock of the cranes in Fairbanks, but seeing these kinds of numbers would be a real thrill, so we’ve decided to head back up next February.

Swainson’s Hawk

In the meantime, we drove out into the preserve, where there are several self-guided auto tours to take. One tour travels five miles around an enclosure for endangered tule elk, and we got a good look at a herd of about 30 right near the dirt road. The next morning, we headed east to a trail where the ranger said we might see some good birds. Sure enough, a fair number of birds, including a beautiful Blue Grosbeak and unexpected Swainson’s Hawks.

If you’re really into birds, here’s a link to the full list of what we saw on the trip: Birds sighted on our trip to Seattle

We spent the night in Los Banos, a few miles south of San Luis, and stopped in at Paraiso Brewery, a friendly place that is brewing some very good beer. While we were there, they poured us a taste of a brew in progress. It had cucumber and chile flavors in it, but it was still flat in the barrel and yet to be carbonated. Nevertheless, both of us liked what was happening with it. For dinner, we discovered great Bar-B-Q, as Hot City BBQ & Bistro spells it. A major smoker sits next to the entrance, and you can often find Steve Weaver, the owner, who calls himself Boss Hog, sitting out there. This is BBQ to write home about, and after our first long day on the road, we went to bed happy.

A tip to those of you with big appetites: Wool Growers Restaurant has two branches, Los Banos and Bakersfield. We’ve eaten before at the Bakersfield place. It’s run by a Basque family, and everything is served family-style and in large portions. You won’t go away hungry.

In defense of the Central and San Joaquin Valleys, I need to point out that all of the miles through these areas are not necessarily a boring drive. At times, it’s inspiring because of all the produce California provides the country. In fact, the state grows more than 90% of the country’s almonds, artichokes, dates, figs, kiwi fruit, olives, clingstone peaches, pistachios, pomegranates, walnuts, garlic, plums, broccoli, nectarines, canned tomatoes, celery, apricots, wine grapes, strawberries, and cauliflower. Laurel had selected an album of iconic country singer Merle Haggard’s, and it fit perfectly with our drive through this rich countryside. While I’m at it, I should remind you that whenever you’re traveling on a secondary highway, don’t forget to stop along the way at local produce stands. Their produce is very fresh, and sometimes you find tasty things that you haven’t tried before.

Sierra Nevada Brewery

We drove north to Chico and the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company for lunch. Opened in 1979, Sierra Nevada is now a major beer destination in Northern California. They’ve grown into a large facility with tours, a taproom and a restaurant. We saw families in cars from all over the map. After a tasty lunch and brew, we left Chico and headed up to Redding, where we spent the night. It was over 100 degrees, but our room was a very nice, air-conditioned Super 8 on Churn Creek Road. Nearby Final Draft Brewing had plenty of excellent beers and, believe it or not, peanut butter chicken bites, which were crunchy and tasty. It put us in mind of chicken satay, and, now that we’re home, we’re going to see if we can recreate them on our grill.

On Sunday morning, we visited the Sundial Bridge, a large pedestrian bridge that crosses the Sacramento River. Turtle Bay Exploration Park is right next to it, and there are lots of activities, trails, and a museum. We’ll experience more of it sometime in the future, but today we have to drive to Crater Lake, take a look at it, then drive to Eugene for the night.

Into Oregon

Crater Lake

A small aside: A few years ago, we went to Yosemite over 4th of July weekend. We decided to drive in to the visitors’ center to get current information and a map. We sat in line in our car for over three hours, and by the time we reached the center, it had closed. We had to turn around and drive out of the park to our motel, then come back the next day—early! One would think, lesson learned. But no, we’re at it again, sitting in our car and idling up the mountain for two hours to see the stunning lake. It was worth it. Laurel was amazed at how blue the deepest lake in the country is. But never again will we travel to a big deal national park on any holiday.

The drive back down the mountain and north to Eugene was a long stretch of forested country, made better by the fact that there was almost no traffic. After checking into our motel, we took a look at Laurel’s Android for local brewpubs and found one less than half a mile away. We decided to walk there and reached Falling Sky Brewery after Google Maps took us on a silly route that became a full mile instead of half. The brews were very good, and the menu includes an excellent lamb burger. The secluded courtyard made it all even better, and the walk back was only a half mile, as originally advertised.

Hendricks Park

I had checked on local parks and other options for a little morning birding, and we chose Hendricks Park, with its famous rhododendron glen, only seven minutes from the motel. The park was green and lovely, and there were some late rhodies and azaleas still blooming. As far as the birds go, most of them were absent, but we thoroughly enjoyed the walk through these lovely gardens.

It’s a fairly short drive from Eugene to Portland, so we’d decided to check on some of the vineyards in the Willamette Valley on the way north, but we stopped for lunch in Salem first. When we arrived at the industrial park, a rainbow flag led us to Southside Speakeasy. Inside, the large room was empty, but our host, Russell (R.D.) Dean, appeared almost magically and greeted us warmly. As more customers arrived, we saw that the staff enthusiastically welcomed everyone, and most nights there’s live music and a large dance floor. Happily, the beer and liquor is legal now, as is gay marriage.

View from the winery

After lunch, we drove back south a few miles to the Willamette Valley Vineyards. The tasting room is high on a hill, with a terrific view of the vineyards below. Both of us love Pinot Noir, especially with salmon, and the Willamette Valley has a superior climate for that grape. We bought one of their Pinot Noirs and also a Pinot Gris, which is crisp and dry.

Halfway to Portland, in the northwest corner of the valley, is Purple Hands Winery in Dundee. They produce only Pinot Noirs, one from their own vineyard, and several from neighbors’ grapes. We tasted five and wanted to buy them all, but settled for just one, from the Stoller Vineyard in Dundee Hills. Jordan Ernst will probably serve you, and he knows a lot about this difficult but wonderful grape.

Just two doors north of Purple Hands is Deception Brewing Co. We stopped there for a flight of their beers, and they gave us some good advice for Portland, so, after arriving at our downtown motel, we looked up Breakside Brewery.

Breakside brew list

Breakside has three locations. We chose one that was across the Willamette River from us. (Portland is a city of many bridges, some of which connect to still other bridges.) We drove across and found this brewery, which was a total zoo overflowing with families and singles, all seemingly enjoying themselves. But it felt like too much to us, so we drove back to what’s known as the Alphabet neighborhood, which is also much closer to our Travelodge. This Breakside was definitely busy, on the large deck and inside, as well, but it looked doable. We went inside and amazingly got a table right across from the bar and its giant menu of beers. We split a pulled pork sandwich that hit the spot, along with two West Coast style IPAs, Breakside and Wanderlust, which we liked so much that we bought a bottle of each.

A Fourth to Remember

Powells-City of Books

Next day, on the Fourth of July, we spent the entire morning at Powell’s Books, the world’s largest independent bookstore. It was a morning of discovery for Laurel, since she had never been to Portland, let alone Powell’s before. They call themselves City of Books for good reason. New or used, chances are you’ll find it there.

Blinded a little from reading so many covers and flyleaves, we walked up Salmon Street to The Picnic House, which I had found on Yelp and seemed a good choice. Believe me, it was more than good. Picnic doesn’t really conjure up the classy place we found ourselves in, designed by someone with a flair for creative solutions, including several growing walls covered with plants and other areas with antique printing plates. The cuisine was equally good. Try the wild mushroom soup. And the service was outstanding. Right next door is Barlow Artisanal Bar, owned by the same owners. It wasn’t yet open, but we took a peek, and they’ve done the same thing over there in art deco that they did with natural ingredients at The Picnic House.

Haystack Rock

Taking a hard left off the 5, we headed due west to Cannon Beach on the northern Oregon coast. Full of charm, from cottages to restaurants, the beach at Cannon Beach is dominated by giant Haystack Rock, along the lines of California’s Morro Rock at Morro Bay. Beautiful and sunny but windy, we had to take our binocs out to the rock to see what was flying.

Parentheses: Like many birders, we keep what we call a life list, which is a list of all the species of birds we’ve seen, along with the date and location first seen. When we left San Diego, our list stood at 499, and we were extra excited to see what our number 500 would be.

Female Harlequin Duck, courtesy IllinoisRaptorCenter.org

Well, we found out at Cannon Beach. Bobbing around in the rocks below the big rock were a couple of female Harlequin Ducks. We had never seen one before, so that was number 500. As I said, it was beautiful and sunny, but the north wind was blowing hard, a very cold wind. As we continued to search, my hands got so cold that I couldn’t hold my binoculars steady. My eyes were watering, and the wind blew our tripod over. We finally gave up and decided to drive back down the next morning.

Bridge over the Columbia River

We drove the forty minutes to Astoria, where we had reservations at the Columbia Inn for the evening. I had also made reservations for dinner at Bridgewater Bistro, which has a major view of the mammoth bridge that crosses the Columbia River at its mouth. The restaurant was getting excellent reviews, and, since it was July 4th, we figured we should reserve a table. It turned out to be a wise decision, since the back end of the place was reserved for a wedding party. The bride and groom were still in their wedding clothes, and everyone was making speeches and toasting the happy couple. It made us feel good, since our own eighth anniversary was coming up during the month. We toasted each other with artisanal Martinis. In addition to the very fine food, the service was terrific. Our server, Sharon, lured us into a dessert which we didn’t regret.

Back at our room at dusk, we crossed the street to a viewpoint deck that jutted out into the river. There were about twenty people already there, and in ten or fifteen minutes, the fireworks from upriver began. The neighbor cities of Astoria and Warrenton did themselves proud. When it was over, we walked back across the street to our room. What a nice, easy way to see some terrific Fourth of July fireworks!

On the morning of July 5th, the sun was shining, and the wind was calm in Cannon Beach. We went back out to the rock and saw several Tufted Puffins flying to a grassy area at the top, where they have dug burrows. Number 501! Driving back north, we stopped at Lewis & Clark National Park, site of Fort Clatsop where Lewis and Clark’s party spent the winter as the guests of local Indians who saved their lives. It’s a delightful park with trails that follow in the steps of the explorers and exhibits and demonstrations illustrating everything from the making of tallow to firing and loading a flintlock rifle. We continued up to Astoria and crossed the long bridge that spanned the Columbia between Oregon and Washington, then drove to Long Beach, the home of Willapa Bay oysters. We had a creamy dozen on the half shell and the best clam chowder we’d had in years at Castaway’s Seafood Grill. The new manager/chef Stephen is also a attentive server, and we had some interesting chats about all kinds of seafood.

Now we headed back across the bridge and east on Highway 101 to re-enter Washington at Longview. Coming down the long hill to the city, the view is dramatic, with several pulp mills and stacks and stacks of logs. We turned north onto Highway 5, then east toward the largest volcanic mountain in the lower 48 states, Mt. Rainier. Paradise Inn is a classic lodge at 5,400 feet on the 14,411-foot mountain, and we had a room reserved. The weather was warm and sunny, and we had some spectacular views of the mighty mountain as we drove up, but we arrived fairly late, about 7:30 in the evening. At the reception desk, it turned out that an error had been made, and they had no room for us. (Later I discovered that I had mistakenly booked an inn at Paradise, CA.)

A Sweet Discovery

Dejected and worried about finding any room nearby, we went back down the mountain to the nearest tiny community of Ashford. If there were no rooms there, we would have to drive nearly an hour more to the outskirts of Tacoma. We passed two places with No Vacancy signs, then saw a neon sign in the window of Base Camp Bungalows which said OPEN. When we knocked, the owner came to the door, looked at the sign and said, “Oh, I forgot to turn that off.”

She could see the disappointment on our faces and asked, “How many nights do you need?”

“Only tonight.”

“Well, I have one bungalow left, just for tonight. Would you like to see it?”

We followed her back on a brick walkway between several cottages and mini-gardens. Back around the corner, she stopped and opened the door, “This is “Songbird.” Come on in.”

Inside was the prettiest little cottage you could imagine. Straight out of classic Disney. Polished wooden floor, which I later learned was ash. Everything detailed out, down to fresh-ground dark coffee and a real coffee pot. The view through the multi-paned window was filled with green, plus a little shrine that had two bird feeders on it.

View from Songbird

“Here’s a little bird seed that you can put out in the morning while you drink your coffee,” she said, handing Laurel a jar. “Then sit and see what comes.”

The manager’s name is Wendy, and it was great fun to spend some time the next morning talking to her about what she and her boyfriend have done to the place. It’s a perfect jewel, and the next time we decide to drive up to the mountain, we’ll stop here for sure.

It’s now Thursday morning, and we’re due in Seattle today, but the road trip isn’t quite over yet. We bypassed Seattle and drove up past Bellevue and Redmond, what’s known as the Eastside in Puget Sound country. We drove to Woodinville, a few miles north of the tip of Lake Washington, which borders the east side of Seattle for 22 miles. We had an excellent lunch on the patio of the Barking Frog. (We heard no barks and saw nary a tadpole). Then we drove to one of the nearby tasting rooms. Woodinville has had tasting rooms for large wineries and breweries like Chateau Ste. Michelle and Redhook for more than twenty years. The grapes and most of the bottling happens in Eastern Washington, but major marketing goes on here.

But today we discovered that the place is filled with tasting rooms. We arrived at our destination, Airfield Estates, which grows its grapes in the Yakima Valley east of the Cascade Mountains. To our surprise, it was in an upscale strip mall with another dozen or so wineries. The brochure for the area lists 60 wineries represented right here. We got three bottles at Airfield and three more at nearby Goose Ridge, whose vineyard is in the Columbia Valley, nearly to Idaho and north of the Columbia River. We drove back to Seattle and spent three pleasant and summery days with friends and family.

Taylor Shellfish

We can’t forget to tell you about Taylor Shellfish. I wrote about them after last year’s visit to Seattle. This year, we discovered that they have three branches in Seattle: Lower Queen Anne Hill, Pioneer Square and Capitol Hill. We spent one evening at their Melrose Oyster Bar on Capitol Hill and reaffirmed our belief that they have the best oysters you can get. Served in a stylish setting and with great service. Once you’re there, you’ll probably talk to Lance McCune, the general manager, who knows more about oysters than you could imagine.

Oh, one last note: If you’re flying home as we were, Alaska Airlines will allow a full case or half case of wine along with your luggage. No charge. Ask for details.

This trip has gotten me so into the idea of road trips that I’m re-reading Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, and this fall we’re planning a trip to the Southwest, including the Grand Canyon and Zion. I’ll tell you all about it when we get back.

Good travels,

Vic (and Laurel)

 

 

 

 

 

One Response to The Best Coast

  • Laurel Scott says:

    Great job, Vic! It brought back memories in Technicolor, and made me crave some good oysters and Pinot Noir. Looks great on the Android, too.

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