Road Trip 2013: Oregon and Washington

We’re back from a week’s vacation in Oregon. It’s the first time Laurie and I have been able to get up into Oregon together since 2006, so we were both really looking forward to it, and Oregon didn’t disappoint.

We love the central and northern coast of Oregon, so that’s where we spent most of our time. I’m not going to write a detailed road trip piece because, well, this was vacation — but I did want to catch some highlights.

Saturday we wrangled the cat and the bird into cages (easier said than done) and then off to the kennel for boarding (also easier said than done). Then we came home, packed the car, and got out of town. Because we knew we’d be starting somewhat late I kept the first day’s drive a bit short, and we ended up in Fortuna, just south of Eureka. If we were putting in a full day of driving I’d have pushed on to Brookings or  Golds Beach. Why Fortuna? Hotel rooms were about half the price of Eureka proper. Since all we wanted was a comfortable bed and a decent meal, why spend the money?

My default stop when on the road on a driving trip is the Best Western Chain. While I’ve run into the occasional dog, they do a good job of policing their affiliates and they tend to be moderately priced and generally available on road trips. In Fortuna it was the Country Inn, and it didn’t disappoint. Quiet and comfortable.  We spent little time on research for food, but quickly found there was a brewpub in the area. As it turned out, a couple of blocks from the hotel. This started what was a not-actually-planned routine of hitting up brewpubs for meals where we found one, which up in the Northwest, is trivially easy.

The Eel River Brewpub in Fortuna was the best brewpub of the trip, by far. Nice facility, nice staff. The beers (I had an amber, laurie had a something) and food were both top notch. A great start to the trip.

Next morning, up early, and off on the really, really long drive (the joys and challenges of driving trips to come in a piece later). Fortuna to Lincoln City, up the coast on 101. That’s a solid 8 hours of driving, but it gets us to where we want to go. The good news is that you’re on the coast, and it’s a beautiful drive with gorgeous views. the bad news is 101 isn’t exactly a speed to the destination road. It’s slower and windier with lots of rural character (read: goes through cities at 35MPH).  If we’d taken the 5 up and cut across to the shore, we could do that trip in 10 hours. Going up the coast makes if closer to 14. One of those tradeoffs you choose. Me? I don’t mind the drive (but in reality I always give southern oregon coast a bit of a brushoff, and it really deserves a few days of my time as well instead of a drive through). I really wanted to be out on the coast, too, and not doing the redding/medford tango. Driving vacations you want to be about the journey and the destination. But it’s definitely a tradeoff.

Coos Bay Oregon Harbor

Along the way we stopped for lunch on the water in Coos Bay, where we found a little hole in the wall floating restaurant doing fish and chips and variants, including local clams. Laurie had the fish and clams, I got the salmon and chips and both were superb.

We had a bit of fun walking the water and taking a break, then onward to Lincoln City.

Lincoln City gives you a nice ability to explore from south of Newport up to Nestucca Bay NWR. I had a few places I wanted to check out for photography, especially Yaquina Head. Our first day was primarily spent in getting to Lincoln City and exploring our way up. Fog along the shore was our constant companion, which limited photography.

The stop was the Landmark Inn, another Best Western in the southern part of town. Another solid and comfortable place, chosen in part because it was less expensive than other options; Lincoln City was less expensive than Newport, where we’ve typically stayed in the past.

The meal of note was another brewpub — McMenamin’s Lighthouse brewpub. We hit it at a time when the summer brews were going empty and the fall brews weren’t quite tapped, so the selection was a bit limited (and not taking notes, I can’t tell you what either of us had, other than tasty). Beer quality wasn’t as good as Eel River but was quite good. Food quality was decent but nothing special.

Newport is one of the town’s on my list of ten places I might move when I’m ready to leave Silicon Valley. I like the character and location, and it has a nice feel to it. Lincoln City has more of the regional shopping and infrastructure and the outlet mall, and feels a bit more — commercial — to me. And as far as I can tell, giant wind machines.

As it turned out, we spent most of our time south of Lincoln City exploring for photo opportunities, but mostly failing because we were chased up and down the coast by a pack of juvenile delinquent fog clouds. Some places we tried (Boiler bay) were hazy and ultimately I tossed all my images. Others like Devil’s Punchbowl I found some compositions that worked; of course, we visited the punchbowl at low tide, which means we could take pictures of people walking in it. These things happen when you don’t plan ahead…. We had nice views of migrating grey whales at Devil’s Punchbowl, but photographically, they’re about as interesting as shooting pictures of someone pushing around an oil drum and firing off an air compressor randomly. No breaches, just sedate breathing… So no pictures of grey blobs in the water…

(as an aside, none of the trip was primarily about creating photos, so we didn’t plan significantly or try to time ourselves to locations for any specific situation. We showed up, and if images were there to take, we took them. In some cases I found things that worked. In other cases, I put down the camera and played “dammit, I’m on vacation, I don’t plan on working for the camera”. The lack of photography was a feature, not a bug).

Yaquina Head, one of the places I’d targeted to spend some serious time doing photography, was fogged out the entire time I was near it. We’d run into some birders who’d visited it a couple of days before and they said it was foggy, windy and the birds were gone. Ultimately, we never went on site, because we could tell from a distance there wasn’t anything useful to do there because of the fog. Those things happen…

On and off we did some birding, and the interesting thing to me was that along the shorelines where I’d expect to see them I was seeing zero shorebirds; sandpipers and their friends were, as far as I can tell, completely gone. Herons, egrets, gulls — normal year-round birds — were around, but it became clear that the summer visitors had left and the winter visitors hadn’t arrived. It made for quiet birding the entire trip. Given the time of year, this makes sense, but the absolute lack of certain types of birds still surprised me.

Then off to the serious “vacation” part of the vacation. The next stop was Cannon Beach. Along the way, we stopped in Tillamook at the Blue Heron, which is a nice place to find some local/artisanal grub (we picked up some jams and fruit butters and some cheeses) and then the pilgrimage to the Tillamook factory where you can pick up, well, Tillamook stuff (and some of the larger more national brands of goodies). We ignored the raving crowds at the ice cream stand, grabbed some of the harder to find  cheese blocks (I really like really sharp cheddars, and theirs is tasty), and then got back out of there. We explored out into the Cape Kiwanda area as well, only to find more fog.

Another stop was Cape Meares. Cape Meares was the first lighthouse that wasn’t completely fogged out, only mostly. it was a good chance to experiment with the SX50 instead of the other cameras, so I grabbed mine. It’s a nice camera that is capable of good photos, but you realize quickly that it’s a $400 camera and not a professional rig. Still, I’m happy with the results even in fairly foggy conditions.

Cape Meares

Where the SX50 really shines, and why I carry it instead of just relying on the iPhone, is that it’s a superzoom and you can really crank up the magnification, which makes it a great casual birding camera. This isn’t a shot I could have made with an iPhone, not without one of those silly add-on lenses I refuse to carry around because they defeat the purpose of carrying a camera in your phone….

Hairy Woodpecker

And I spent some time trying to get a decent shot of the Cape Meares Lighthouse, and succeeded, if you ignore the face that someone left a freaking box fan in the lightbox for all to see.

Cape Meares Lighthouse

While at Cape Meares, Laurie and I ran into a group trip by Portland Audubon. They fought the fog for a while and argued among themselves that one of the little floating black blobs on the water was really a rhinoceros auklet and not a surf scoter. Such are the serious issues of the day among birders some times. The Portlanders went off in search of Wren-tits and ended up catching some golden-crowned kinglets. Laurie went that direction and saw the kinglets and did in fact find a wren-tit (skulking deep in the bushes), but we didn’t figure that out until we got home and looked through the pictures. I took a different path to the car, and I got — song sparrows. That sums up my birding this trip…

And then back on the road.

On the northern part of the coast of Oregon you have Cannon Beach, Seaside and Astoria. Astoria is a town I love, and is in the top 3-4 of the “when I leave Silicon Valley I might move here” towns although anywhere on the Oregon Coast I might want the ability to visit elsewhere for a couple of months of winter. While the setups aren’t exact, Astoria is a place where the cruise ships will dock, and it really has a feel of a place that works to attract the active Portland Weekender type. Seaside is very much a “stay for a weekend on the coast with the kids” middle class demographic, and Cannon Beach has the higher priced, more resortb&b-ish hotels.

If you follow my twitter, arriving in Cannon Beach was where “I am on vacation” kicked in hard, and the cameras went into the bag and stayed there for a while. It was a fairly easy decision to make; we were dogged by fog in a lot of locations, and the sunsets, while fun to sit on our balcony with a beverage and watch, were pretty blah for photography, with a complete lack of clouds and little interesting color. The perfect sunset to watch….it’s also important sometimes to remember you do need to go “off duty”, even from the fun things in your life. Some vacations should be something other than an excuse to work at your hobby harder.

I ended up booking us into the Surf & Sand Resort, on the beach and with nice views of Haystack rock, a bathroom the size of our bedroom with both a shower and a nice, large soaking tub. In other words, not a Best Western, either in price or amenities. We could sit on our patio with a great view of the beach and rock, and not even have to go to the beach unless we wanted to. If we did want to, the staff cabana boy would give us towels and set up our chairs and fetch us stuff, and every night they did a group bonfire on the beach you could sit in on — which went on outside our room, so we could tell it went on well into the evening (from the giggles and laughter we heard).  They also had room service, and we took full advantage of it, and it turned out to be some of the best meals we had on the trip.

While based in Cannon Beach we explored north into Astoria and off into Washington. Fort Stevens on the south side of the river was fogged out, and Cape Disappointment was as well. Long Beach is a great beach to go walk on, and while it was grey, it wasn’t fogged. It was about this time I realized I’d tweaked a hip, so I sat and enjoyed the scenery from a bench and Laurie enjoyed it by walking through it. You know you’re middle aged when your standard packing includes an ice bag that lives in the room’s mini-fridge freezer along with the blue ice…

I like Astoria. It has a number of nice places to eat; we lunched at the Wet Dog Cafe, yet another brewpub and I had yet another round of rather nice fish and chips. Laurie tried their Strawberry Blond, which I thought quite tasty, but I admit to a minor addiction to ciders, and they had one (I believe it was Angry Orchard) that I loved. Then off to Cellar on 10th.

It may seem heresy living in California, but as much as we appreciate california wine, Laurie and I like northwest wines even more.  I also, much like my cider addiction, have a soft spot on my palate for ice wines and other desert wines. The thing is, good luck finding them. Even more good luck figuring out which of the small, obscure wineries you want to buy from. Not without help.

That’s where Cellar on 10th comes into play. They really know Northwest wines, and they work with a lot of the smaller wineries, and those wineries give them access to wines that normally aren’t sold except on the winery premises. They’ve turned us onto a lot of really, really nice wines over the years. So I love to stop by when I can get to Astoria, and ask them to box me up a care package of things they think are really nice that I wouldn’t know to buy. And they do, and we bring it home, and we enjoy it thoroughly. It’s a great way to discover interesting wines and to find new styles of wine to build an addiction around. They turned us onto Sineann, for instance, for which I’ll be eternally grateful.

We’re drinking a lot less wine than we used to and we’ve been drinking down the cellar so we aren’t buying much these days. But when we do drink, we want it to be quality and worth the effort. So we stopped by, asked them to fill us a box or so, and started talking options.

We left with a case plus three dessert bottles. I’ll save talking about these for later. Suffice it to say, I’m really looking forward to the next year or so of opening bottles. If you’re at all interested in expanding your wine palate and aren’t afraid to spend a few bucks, find yourself a good wine shop at a time when they aren’t really busy, and ask them to fill out a box to experiment with. If you can get to Astoria, have these folks do it. They’re really, really good at it, and they have access to stuff you’re not going to find many other places, including Portland. It doesn’t have to cost you a fortune, although it can if you want to spend it. Our average bottle price was about $40 this trip. Given what we brought home, I see that as a bargain.

Two nights in Cannon Beach, and then it was on the road again. the original plan was to hit Mt. St. Helens on the way out the gorge; my hip was still bothering me and I wanted to give it another day, so we drove straight out to Hood River. A smart move. The room that night was at the Best Western Hood River inn, chosen in part because it had a patio on the water, so we could just sit and watch stuff go by. I swear the place could have been a Red Lion in a previous life, but they told me it wasn’t, but it had to have been built by the same people who built the former Red Lions on Jantzen Island, for old-time Orycon attendees… Very nice hotel, a great choice. I’d been interested in exploring out in the gorge on previous trips, so this time, we from the Dalles to Cascade Locks. Interesting area, some nice small towns, but unless you’re a windsurfer type, not sure if there’s a lot out here for you to want to visit.

It was also the place where we had the least interesting meal of the trip, and a great example of the weakness of depending too hard on Yelp. the restaurant at the hotel, the Riverside, got really good ratings on Yelp and a couple of other places we checked (four star-ish), and the menu looked interesting. Rather than head out in search of a better place, we headed over (besides, we got a discount as hotel guests). And it was — decent hotel food. But only decent. My caesar salad was food service chopped romaine with a taste-free dressing of some sort (it might have been ranch at some point in its life, actually), and no croutons. I guess you can call that a caesar, sort of. And as a salad it was perfect fine. Just, well, uninspired. And the steak was Select, and not well trimmed.

There was nothing — wrong — with the meal at all, or the service. But the place clearly got a high rating for its patio seating in a location with limited options for food (unless you like crowded downtown brewpubs with limited parking). So I’m damning it with faint praise, because the meals weren’t bad, they were just… hotel generic. And the Yelp rating set a higher expectation for it. (my rating: 2.5 stars, with a great view).

So Hood River was some pretty views, a comfortable room. and a so-so steak. Worth a night, not more. And the next day, back on the road as the trip starts to wind down….

In the morning, back up the gorge towards Portland, and then up to the Volcano.

Two places on my short list for photo work: Multnomah falls (and to a lesser extent the other gorge waterfalls) and the Volcano. Since the trip to Mt. St. Helens is rather long (it’s about a hundred miles each way from the state border to Johnson Ridge), we limited our time in the gorge, but still, a long day. But worth it.

Multnomah Falls — if you look up “tourist trap” in the dictionary, you’ll find pictures of it. I don’t normally fall for tourist traps,  but there’s something different here. It’s a very pretty place with a very classic look and I love shooting the location. It was a good chance to haul out the Fuji X-E1 and see what it could do.

Multnomah Falls

The results impressed me. I did three shot HDRs to try to grab some detail out of the sky, but ended up cropping the sky out most of the time. The extent of the water blur surprised me, but I shot at F/16 and it’s a shady location. What might surprise you here is that this was shot without any filters (no polarizer, no ND) and handheld — no tripod. I’m learning to expect a lot of that camera, but I don’t think I expected it to perform this well.

After that, the volcano. This is a place I love to try to shoot, and the challenge I aim for every time is to try to find ways to put the volcano into scale — an exceptionally tough chore in a photo. Still, it sets things up for an interesting shoot. I’m especially happy with the results this trip, and this might be my favorite photo of the entire journey:

Mount St. Helens

I love how that pulls out the texture of the mountain, how ragged and destroyed it still is.
While I was there one of the rangers did an interpretive program. Fun to listen to, and I thought it gave an interesting framing for the mountain.

Mount St. Helens

After that, back to Portland. Dinner was at an old favorite, Stanfords. Maybe not the most trendy of restaurants (okay, definitely not the most trendy of restaurants) but a much better caesar and steak than in Hood River, and we know where it lives.

When I look for a hotel around Portland, I want a few things: easy access in and out of town, which generally means “not downtown” and these days “not on Jantzen Island”. But I want to be able to get downtown, which means I want simple access to the Metro — Portland’s done one thing very right, and that’s build a pretty good mass transit rail system, and it makes sense to use it.

I decided to put us in at the Residence Inn Cascade Station, which is on the airport grounds and is a big box shopping area with some hotels and eating.  All brand new since my last visit. The big attraction: literally outside the front door of the hotel was the metro stop. Easy access to downtown.

And as it turns out, we never used it. We decided to head back into washington again and explore the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge instead. We even gave up the pilgrimage to Powells (why that’s now optional in an internet world is a posting for some other time). Ridgefield was nice, if a bit quiet, but I was up for quiet. I was able to add a couple of lifer birds to my list (Black-capped chickadee and Swainson’s Thrush) but the geese and cranes weren’t in yet. Again, quiet birding, but what was there was fun, and it was nice to get a few new birds. I’m starting to get back in the mood to bird, now that fall is arriving… (first cranes of the fall seen in Dixon this week!).

The Residence in was quite nice. Really liked the room. I definitely think that’s where I’ll hang when I’m in the Portland area, because even though I didn’t use it, easy access to the Metro rocks. It has two flaws, neither fatal: first, for being as close to the airport as it was, I thought it’s soundproofing was a little weak. the occasional plane made its presence known, and one thing I’d like out of an airport hotel is quiet. the other? You’re in the Northeast corner of Portland Metro, which unfortunately for a city as food serious as Portland is, turns out to be a bit of a wasteland. We ended up at, of all places, McMenamin’s in Vancouver, our last meal looking out over the river and enjoying yet another round of beers (for what it’s worth, the selection was better than Lincoln City but the beer was tasty, and the menu was essentially the same but better prepared).

Sunday morning, time to go home. We were up around 8AM — and off back to Washington state again for a quick stop for breakfast at Elmer’s (the regional breakfast house chain: think IHOP or Dennys but it doesn’t suck) and a stop at Fred Meyer to buy cider, then on the road for home.

Home is a long 10 hour drive from Portland. This trip had two long legs: day 2 which went almost 8 hours, and the last day, which started at 8AM and got us home around 9:30 (by the time we finished pre-drive stops, it was hitting 10:30, and then we stopped for dinner along the way). Still, that maximized our time exploring, but I do prefer to keep driving segments to 6 or 7 hours max where I can. In retrospect, I probably should have edited Hood River out of the equation, added more time on the coast. Or edited Portland out as well and just stayed on the coast. But it had been long enough since I’d been in the area I wanted to explore, so I don’t regret it. Still, with only a week to travel, there are always tradeoffs between how much you build into the itinerary and how much time you can spend places. I found I really wanted to extend my stay in Cannon Beach, and Hood River could wait.

I know every time I talk about driving vacations there are people who think of the idea of sitting in a car for hours as torture. I sympathize, I feel the same way about air travel. To me the driving vacation is about freedom and flexibility, of having your stuff and going off the beaten path. To me, air travel is flight delays and hours in airports waiting for connections, the TSA, tiny, uncomfortable seats and stale air, and serious limitations in what you can take with you. Do whatever you like, I’ll happily hop in a car and meet you — but I also realize that limits the scope of where I can go on a practical basis unless I make it an extended trip. Still, that limit includes everywhere from Vancouver and Victoria to the mexican border, New Mexico, Denver, Salt Lake City, Yellowstone and well into Montana — places I can get in two reasonable driving days. That’s still a huge amount of territory that I’ve barely scratched, so I’m happy.

All travel is tradeoffs. I like mine. And if I get somewhere and don’t like it, I can get somewhere else. and while I’m getting there, there’s a lot to see and explore along the way. For me, the journey and the destinations are rewards. Can you say that in an airport waiting room?