Laurie and I just returned from 10 days on the road, taking a nice vacation where we both mostly unplugged. This trip was originally going to be a visit to Yellowstone, but between the 100th anniversary crowds and the fires, we’re both happy we decided to put that off in favor of going some place a bit less crowded and hectic.
Where did we end up? A little bit of familiar, a little bit of new: we spent some time in Newport, Oregon and Astoria, a couple of favorites, and then wound our way up the Washington coast and spent some time embedded on the coast in Olympic National Park, which is an area I’ve long wanted to explore.
These areas are two day drives from Silicon Valley: we typically drive to the Medford area day one, which is 6-7 hours driving, and then for day 2, it’s off to the destination — 5ish hours to Newport.
Newport’s one of those cities on our “if we ever leave Silicon Valley for good” towns. It’s small enough to feel like a town and not a city, but it’s definitely not a suburb (like most of Silicon Valley is), but it’s big enough to have services and things like restaurants (and a Starbucks, or a Dutch Bros.). It’s also got nice beaches, great views, and that Yaquina lighthouse and nature area.
We tried a new motel in Newport, the Agate Beach Motel. It’s an old 1940’s era bungalow style motel with about eight units. The current owners have done a nice job bringing the rooms up to modern standards and making them very comfortable and livable; it’s a perfect spot for the kind of person who hates modern generic hotel buildings. It felt very much like a bed and breakfast type room, without the breakfast, and the kind of place you could settle into and enjoy being in.
It sits on the cliff overlooking agate beach and the water just south of the road leading up to Yaquina, and each room has a porch with chairs to sit in and enjoy the view. In our case, we arrived to fog, which seemed centered on the lighthouse and intent on staying there forever (but such is life on the Oregon and Washington coasts: you get weather), so our views were — limited. But we didn’t really care.
This isn’t the least expensive place to grab a room, but it’s a lot less than you’d pay at most resorts, and very comfortable. We’ve already decided it’s our standard place there when we’re traveling together (when I’m going solo, I tend to go simple and cheap, mostly interested in a place for bags with a bed).
Newport was only a one night stay; we ate lunch at Izzy’s while waiting for our room to be available, because it was close and the motel folks told us it didn’t suck: it’s a buffet place, and I tend to set a low expectation for those, but it was actually rather good with a nice variety and quality of food, well-prepared. For dinner, we wandered off to Oscar’s Mexican Food, a taqueria-style place where we could grab take out and head back to the room. I was again pleasantly surprised, as it was a huge portion and pretty tasty. One way to avoid generic American-Mexican fare is to see if the place carries more ethnic options: Lengua (tongue) or Birria (goat); if it does, you have some hope the food will be more mexican and less Taco Bell (it’s still not a guarantee to be good, but it’s a good sign). This place isn’t anything fancy, but it’s definitely one I’ll eat at in future visits.
With rain and mist joining us from Coos Bay (where we emerged onto the coast) until the end of our quick stay there, we didn’t explore much. That and 12 hours of driving in two days made a bit of sitting and relaxing seem like a nice thing. Fortunately, we were in a good room for that. But time marches forward, and the next morning, it was time to head north again. Of course, about a mile north of the Yaquina lighthouse we broke out of the fog again, but we never actually saw it this trip: it stayed shrouded the entire visit.
A quick digression on hotel rooms.
When I’m on the road and staying in hotels (well, mostly motels), I tend to lump them into three broad categories:
Places to sleep: All I care about is clean, comfortable and not in a scary location where I worry about my car in the lot or my person in the lobby. In general, these are one night stays as I’m headed from here to there, and I go on price, within a set of known brands.
Places to stop: These are places where I’m checking in for a couple of days, but the room is there for the bags and the bed. Often these are the same as the previous category, but I’ll prioritize rooms with a bit more room or that I know tend to be more comfortable and I might pay a bit more for them to get it because I’m spending a bit more time in the room.
Places to stay: There are some places where the room and the facility are the destination, not the place to sleep. The Agate Beach Motel is a good example; I’d be quite happy settling into that place for a week if I wanted to explore the central Oregon coast, or spend time on the porch writing and watching the fog eat the lighthouse. Staying at the Agate Beach Motel cost about $50/night more than at a less expensive room like the local Best Western, but the quality of the room, the view and the comfort and amenities (fireplace, full kitchen, separate bedroom with a door) makes it worth it — if you’re going to spend some time there. And I’m willing to put a couple of nights in at a place like a Motel 6 along the way if it makes it easier to justify staying at a place like this later.
I definitely have brand preferences, as most of us do. My first choice when it makes sense these days is Best Western; their newer hotels are more in the “generic corporate” style, but a lot of them are older and traditional looking places with some individual style and personality, which I like. If that doesn’t work for me, I’ll generally look at one of the Marriott brands, and then one of the Choice brands. For this trip, our stops “on the road” in both directions were Best Westerns, the one in Medford, which I like, and on the way back, we tried Inn at the Rogue (about 20 miles north of Medford) which was okay, but failed the neighbor noise challenge, so I’ll stick with Medford on future trips. The Medford hotel is a great example of a good stopping hotel: centrally located, has a Black Bear Diner on site, near shopping (like a Fred Meier) so you can pick up supplies or that forgotten tube of toothpaste, comfortable and quiet, and ground floor rooms have parking for the car right at the door. My idea of almost perfect.
Our next stop was Astoria, another of the Oregon Coast towns we love. It’s probably at the top of my “where to find me if I leave Silicon Valley” places these days, along with Morro Bay. We popped in for two days, so we had a bit of time to relax and explore — and eat. There are some rather nice food places here, and our first dinner was at Wet Dog Cafe & Brewery, with good beer and solid food; the second night we went a bit out of town to Doogers, a local chain that does fish as well as more general fare — I particularly like the Salmon and Chips there. The cruise ships were in town so the place was fairly busy and that’s why we ate away from the city the 2nd night; otherwise, I probably would have headed over to Baked Alaska, a nice, more upscale place. We actually sat down for breakfast here, at the Pig N’ Pancake, a coastal chain that does breakfast well (if you’re along I-5, consider Elmer’s instead).
We mostly drove around and explored the area, going up into Long Beach and Fort Desolation, and down into the Fort Stevens area. Other than that, the one essential stop in Astoria for us is a visit to Cellar on 10th, Astoria’s wine shop. These folks know pacific northwest wines and wineries very well, and when we’re in town, we like to stop buy and have them suggest some bottles for us to take home with us. This trip netted 13 bottles, all but one Northwest-based (the one exception: a nice Italian Barolo). I’ll talk about this haul later, but if you’re curious about Northwest Wine and in the area, this is a great place to get both good wines at a good value (our average price per bottle was $35) as well as an education. We’ve discovered a number of smaller wineries this way we’d never know about any other way.
Kalaloch Lodge, Olympic National Park
After a couple of nights in Astoria, we headed north again into Olympic National Park, where we’d reserved a cabin at rustic Kalaloch Lodge, on the coast about 20 miles south of Forks. We’ve wanted to explore Olympic National Park for a while, because despite my family having a cabin near Port Ludlow for years that we used to visit every summer, we tended to either head for Victoria or simply hang out and go nowhere, and so we never really took advantage of that place to explore the park itself.
So this trip was a bit of making up for missing it the first time. We scheduled three nights there in one of the cabins.
If you’ve never stayed at a National Park lodge, it’s an interesting experience. it’s not cheap: we paid $244 a night for the cabin. You’re in the middle of nowhere (which is good), but that means you’re either bringing in food to cook (the cabins have kitchen areas) or eating at the lodge restaurant. We did a bit of both, breakfast and dinner at the lodge and lunch out of the cooler — said cooler well stocked by a quick stop at the Blue Heron in Tillamook.
Kalaloch Lodge reminded me a lot of the place I stayed in Grand Tetons on my 2014 trip, Flagg Ranch. It’s rustic, there are no phones or TVs, cell phone service is iffy at best, but you have a nice cabin to stay in, good food, and a great view and access to the beach. It’s the kind of place I think of when I talk about places to stay: you’re perfectly comfortable and happy sitting in the cabin and relaxing, or outside the cabin watching the view. Our cabin was one row in from the cliff, but if you rent one of the cliff-views you have nice window views outside. We had to go outside and head over to the Gazebo for the best views.
Again we used this as a base to explore: we drove all the way out to Neah Bay on the Makah Reservation, which is about as far north and west as you can get in the continental U.S., and then on day 2 drove out to Port Angeles and up onto Hurricane Ridge, which is about a mile up with fascinating views.
Day 3 was going to be off to Hoh Rain Forest, but this being the Northwest, a front moved in with a fair bit of rain and wind, and so we decided it was a great day to sit in the cabin and enjoy sitting. I must admit, my knees appreciated a down day, too.
The one downside of Kalaloch Lodge: it’s managed by Delaware North, the company currently in the trademark fight with the National Park Service that’s forced them to rename all of the facilities in Yosemite National Park. My strong preference was to not spend money at any of their facilities, and I thought about it before reserving here, but there really isn’t a good plan B for this location; Forks is 20ish miles away, and it’s a town that would be improved by the addition of a Best Western. Port Angeles is the best alternative, but the place I’d generally stay (the Red Lion on the harbor) was as expensive as Kalaloch for those dates and would have made Hurricane Ridge more convenient but the rest of the planned stops a lot less so. And, well, while I enjoy Port Angeles, there’s something really nice about going to a place like Kalaloch, and it held up it’s part of the deal. So even though I dislike supporting DNC as a company for their handling of them losing the Yosemite concession contract, staying at Kalaloch Lodge made sense. And I liked the facility enough that I expect I’ll go back for another visit some day.
Kalaloch has about 35 cabins; ours had two beds and could easily handle four and not so easily handle about 6 people, plus it has a few rooms upstairs in the lodge, and one outbuilding with about 12 rooms very much like some of the buildings at Yosemite Lodge at the Falls. We saw a number of multi-generational families using the cabins, something very familiar if you’ve been to Yosemite or one of the other parks.
Places like Kalaloch (or Flagg Ranch) put you right in the middle of where you want to be, and create an experience that ties you into the park in a small facility with a great staff where you can unplug an immerse yourself into the area. If you’re looking to unwind and unplug, these facilities can be good ones to consider — if you can get in — and at the less crowded parks like Olympic you can really feel like you’re getting away from it all for a bit; the quality of experience is similar to, say, Yosemite Lodge, but in Yosemite, you obviously aren’t away from the crowds (to get some sense of that, stay at Wawona if you can…)
Back to Reality
And so after three nights at Kalaloch, it was time to head back to reality, which meant a 7 hour drive back to Rogue River, and another 7 hour drive home. The trip was eight nights, six on the coast and two in transit, and covered around 2,500 miles driven. We came home with the remains of the cooler cheeses from Tillamook, a case of really nice wine, and some great memories from interesting locales. We barely scratched the surface of Olympic National Park, but it’s now a park I want to explore more thoroughly in future visits.
And some good, really valuable downtime, which gives you a chance to exhale, relax, slow down and unplug for a while. For me, it let me think about resetting some of my priorities, catch up on some reading, and put some energy into thinking about the next few months.
And then shut all that down, and just enjoy watching the sun go down off the coast of Northern Washington (when it wasn’t obscured by the clouds…)