The route offers glorious views of the Pacific around nearly every bend, dozens of state parks with broad, sandy beaches and rugged headlands.
Highway 101 runs 363 miles through Oregon, from Astoria on the south bank of the Columbia River to the California border, just beyond Brookings, mostly hugging the coast except for occasional swings inland. You could drive it in a day, but that would be missing the point. The route offers glorious views of the Pacific around nearly every bend, dozens of state parks with broad, sandy beaches and rugged headlands, and small towns with a sprinkling of galleries and curiosity shops and waterfront diners that serve wonderful fresh-caught seafood.
The Pacific Ocean that carved the coast controls the climate. It does rain here. From December through February, it rains and rains. Landmarks such as Cape Foulweather and Dismal Nitch earned their names. Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery, in the winter of 1805-06, spent 106 days at Fort Clatsop near what is now Astoria, and Captain Clark recorded that rain fell on all but 12. But come late spring, the rain tapers off, and by summertime, the skies dry up. On glorious, sunny days, you can stroll along broad stretches of warm sand as the tide ebbs and the ground fog lifts, while offshore, powerful breakers crash against enormous sea stacks and engulf lesser rocks in spectacular slow-motion sprays. Or you can perch on a high promontory with 50 miles of white-edged coastline spread below and views 30 miles out to sea.
Astoria, about a two-hour drive from Portland, was established as a fur-trading outpost by John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Co. in 1811, and spruced itself up to celebrate its 200th anniversary. The city of 10,000 overlooks the Columbia River from a steep hillside dotted with colorful Victorian-style houses. At the foot of the hill, the revitalized 1920s-era downtown stretches along weathered piers, once the foundation for vast seafood canning operations. The canneries are long gone; giant Bumble Bee was the last to leave, and its sprawling structures at Pier 39 have been converted to galleries, professional offices, various nautically themed enterprises and a fine brewpub.
The bygone canneries were the inspiration for the stylish Cannery Pier Hotel, which sits on pilings over the river where the Union Fishermen’s Cooperative Packing Co. once stood. Designed to resemble the original cannery, the hotel’s waterfront rooms face the busy shipping channel and the four-mile-long Astoria-Megler Bridge that connects Washington and Oregon. Our fourth-floor corner suite (avoid standard rooms) offered a stunning view of the Columbia and the massive iron bridge. The river was directly below our small balcony. To the east, beyond the bridge, a half-dozen large freighters lay at anchor, awaiting orders or a berth at upriver ports. In the distance across the water, the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse blinked intermittently through a bank of fog that shrouded the Washington shore.
Our suite, though not opulent, certainly provided all the comforts: a king bed, built-in dresser, effective bedside lighting and smallish closet; the tiled bath held a whirlpool tub and separate shower; and a sitting room with a wood floor contained a table for two and a gas fireplace. The suite’s chief attraction was the dramatic view from large windows in every room. Despite the proximity to waterway and highway, we heard only seabirds and once or twice the quiet thrum of a passing ship. We awoke in the dim light to see the freighter Jia Li Hai heading out to sea. (The front desk offers a printout of the Daily Ship Report.)
The hotel has no restaurant. An ample (if unimaginative) breakfast buffet is served in a comfortable lobby. The amiable staff not only make dining recommendations, but will provide transportation in one of several vintage luxury cars.
Glamorous, the Cannery Pier Hotel is not. But we loved its location and liked the way its unpretentious feel and honest design honor Astoria’s colorful, hardworking past.
CANNERY PIER HOTEL 84 One-Bedroom Suite, from $375. No. 10 Basin Street. Tel. (503) 325-4996.
The Stephanie Inn, a longtime Harper favorite 25 miles south on Highway 101 at Cannon Beach, is as different from the Cannery Pier Hotel as trendy Cannon Beach is different from Astoria, and many may find the inn’s casually elegant lodgings and gracious service a better fit. Here, you can enjoy spectacular Pacific beach views from your oceanfront room, and in an afternoon, drive 35-40 minutes up the coast to sample Astoria’s attractions as well.
On our recent incognito visit, we booked the spacious Oceanfront “Janice Kay” Room on the second floor, overlooking nearly nine miles of broad, sandy beach and the looming shape of Haystack Rock, a quarter-mile offshore. The suite was large enough not to be overwhelmed by a mammoth four-poster bed, an armoire that swallowed up our luggage, a writing desk and chair, two period-style upholstered chairs and a round, glass-topped table. The tiled bath held a two-person Jacuzzi, a separate shower and a single vanity.
Shortly after we’d checked in, a spring squall swept inland from the Pacific. Rain beat against the windows, and the wind rattled two wicker chairs on our small private balcony, where a gull huddled on the railing. As twilight fell, we lowered the lights, turned on the gas fireplace and watched the storm pass.
We had dinner reservations for 6 p.m., but we’d eaten a late lunch at the delightful Bridgewater Bistro in Astoria. When we asked at check-in for a later table, we were offered a candlelight dinner in our room — a happy option, since the dining room does not have an ocean view, while our room offered the grand view, privacy and the fireplace.
Shops and galleries line the main street of Cannon Beach. But the not-to-be-missed attraction, besides the wonderful beach itself, is Ecola State Park, a short drive that winds north of town through Sitka spruce and tops out on Tillamook Head with ocean views that Captain Clark called “the grandest and most pleasing prospects which my eyes ever surveyed.”
THE STEPHANIE INN 91 Oceanfront Suite, from $550. 2740 South Pacific. Tel. (503) 436-2221.
Like many small towns along the route, Depoe Bay, 100 miles south of Cannon Beach, has seen a shift away from traditional fishing and timber economies. Charter boats still sail from its snug harbor, but this once-gritty town now also has its share of galleries, good restaurants and a new whale-watching center.
A mile south of town, the Whale Cove Inn looks over a lovely cove that’s rimmed by weathered cliffs and a slim crescent of driftwood-strewn sand; breakers cascade over a rock shelf that guards the mouth of the bay.
The imposing stone-and-steel structure is perfectly aligned to capture the scene, and with floor-to-ceiling glass facing the sea and the cove, the view is magnificent. Gleaming steel doors lead into the reception area and the two-story lobby, with oceanview windows across the front and a dramatic water wall at one end. Attractive interiors are left deliberately spare, and the modern Asian-style art and furnishings don’t compete with the view.
In our roomy third-floor corner suite, the spacious bedroom held a king bed, dark wood tables and dresser, brushed-steel lamps and a flat-screen TV. The room opened onto a huge living room and a wall of windows facing the cove. A small dining table fit along one wall, and next to it, granite-topped cabinets held a wet bar and a Keurig single-cup coffeemaker. A freestanding gas fireplace anchored the opposite corner. Light poured into the room from the windows, two skylights, and the glass doors that led to a 10-by-20-foot tiled balcony. The granite-tiled bath held two vanities and a huge walk-in shower with rainfall showerhead and jetted wall sprays — no tub, but in a corner of the private balcony, with unobstructed views of the sea, a Jacuzzi is connected to a seemingly endless supply of hot water.
The inn provides a sumptuous breakfast buffet of fruit, juices, homemade pastries, quiches, frittatas and more. But the real star of the property is the superb on-site Restaurant Beck, managed by its owner-chef, Justin Wills. Wills’ imaginative and ever-changing menu is by itself worth a visit to Whale Cove, and with glorious views from every table in the small dining room, the experience is unforgettable. As we feasted on a five-course tasting menu (seven and nine courses are offered, too), paired with a fine selection of wines, the setting sun emerged from a fog bank at the far edge of the sea and bathed the cove and the surf in an unearthly light.
WHALE COVE INN 91 Signature Suite, from $395. 2345 S. Highway 101. Tel. (541) 765-4300.
From Depoe Bay, you could explore much of Oregon’s central coast. Within an hour-and-a-half drive are three attractive lighthouses, the world-class Oregon Coast Aquarium, spectacular Cape Perpetua with perhaps the best view on the coast, and the charming towns of Newport, Yachats and Florence. That leaves the southern third of the route, which has its own unique features, including the massive Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, wonderful Shore Acres and Cape Arago state parks, three superb golf courses at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, our favorite lighthouse at Cape Blanco, and miles of spectacular Pacific Coast highway where the sea is rarely out of sight.
Those attractions are within reach of another Harper favorite, Tu Tu' Tun Lodge, on the north bank of the Rogue River seven miles inland from the town of Gold Beach, which is about 200 miles south of Depoe Bay. Although it’s a fishing lodge, not a beach resort, it is the finest place to stay in southern Oregon, known for its unsurpassed hospitality, comfortable lodgings and excellent dining room — which, as we’d been advised when we made our reservation, was closed for the season during our recent visit. To avoid driving back into town, we made do (as one does on road trips) with chowder and accompaniments we’d purchased in Gold Beach, and the full kitchen in our Chinook Suite had everything we needed to enjoy a simple meal, supplemented by a bottle of good wine from the lodge’s well-stocked cellars.
TU TU' TUN LODGE 90 Chinook Suite, $420; King with Fireplace and Outdoor Soaking Tub, from $355. 96550 North Bank Rogue. Tel. (541) 247-6664.