Correction to This Article
An Aug. 10 Travel article on the Oregon coast incorrectly referred to a restaurant in Wheeler as the Heron Rock Waterfront Grill. It is now under new management and is called the Sea Shack.

Chillin' in Oregon

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By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 10, 2003

Boogie board in hand, middle-aged body shrink-wrapped into a thick neoprene wet suit, I stood with trepidation at the edge of Oregon's Short Sands beach. I looked every ridiculous inch, up to the little black bonnet, like one of those sperm in a Woody Allen film.

After one step into the water, I didn't care.

The Oregon coast is wild and lovely in summer, with windswept rocks, craggy mountains and thick forests hugging a solitary and largely undeveloped coastline. But in my years growing up there, the raging Pacific Ocean was for looking at. For walking along on the sand. Maybe for wading in up to your ankles. But the water can hover around a hypothermic 50 degrees. After a few minutes, your feet would literally go numb. You'd have to stumble on your purple legs back out of the surf.

But thanks to the wonders of neoprene and the Cleanline Surf Shop in Cannon Beach, a newfound rental market for neophytes like me and my family, we were about to dive in.

This was my husband's doing. Every year, we make an annual two-week pilgrimage to Portland and the northern Oregon coast to visit my family. The trip was getting, well, boring. This year, we'd promised ourselves to do it differently, to search out the hidden places we hadn't made time for on previous visits -- or simply didn't know about. Short Sands was one such place.

I schlomped a few yards into the surf, bracing for the hit of freezing water that can make your teeth ache. The water off the Oregon coast is actually colder in summer than during any other time of year: The continental ledge that rims the Pacific in the Northwest is fairly narrow, and after a few miles, the ocean floor drops off steeply. In summer, the prevailing north winds bring what's called an upswelling, which churns the deep icy water up from the bottom of the ocean. Sometimes the water temperature dips into the mid-40s.

Now, however, I was in up to my waist. I hurled myself onto the board and, for the first time in 40 years, went swimming off the Oregon coast. It was exhilarating. The surf was powerful, hurling us in one wild ride all the way to the tide line if we caught the right wave. But because Short Sands is nestled in a crescent-shaped cove, just south of rugged Cape Falcon, the surf is not too rough, as it is in other spots along the coast, nor are there dangerous rip currents p. Or sharks.

The place is a local surfer hangout, and boards and neoprene suits hung out to dry along the driftwood logs that line the edge of the beach. Surfline magazine has rated the surf as either "peaky and hollow or soft and mushy." Which may mean that it's just right for beginners like us, including my 4-year-old, also decked out in neoprene, who rode the surf on his blow-up "Star Wars" spaceship.

Unless you know it's there, most people roar right past Short Sands on Highway 101 as they race north from Neahkahnie Mountain toward popular Cannon Beach , which is about a 11/2-hour drive from Portland. Growing up in Oregon, I didn't even know it existed. Far from being only a surfer beach, it's the perfect place for kids to play in the stream that burbles across the beach, dig in the sand, explore tide pools or poke around the caves cut into the steep cliffs nearby. Those in the know park on the far side of Oswald West State Park parking lot off the highway. They find the wheelbarrows in the woods and haul their gear or picnic fare down the quarter-mile path that winds through one of the last towering patches of old-growth forest left on the Oregon coast.

We started our search for hidden spots in Portland, which has always had its granola-Birkenstock side, but in recent years has become increasingly groovy, with hip boutiques, galleries and trendy restaurants. When the clouds don't hang too low, the city commands a stunning view of Mount Hood, the remnants of the exploded volcano Mount St. Helens and a few other peaks of the Cascade Range.

While my husband took the kids to the newly refurbished zoo and well-regarded Children's Museum, my mother and I checked out something new -- the hushed teahouse in the Garden of Awakening Orchids, the city's new tranquil Chinese garden. It's done in the style of Suzhou, a Chinese city where gardens of water, stones and plants connected with a series of pavilions are tucked away, like their own private universes, behind high garden walls.

The garden sits in the heart of Old Town/Chinatown, a once-rundown industrial waterfront area that has come back to life. Its collection of historic cast-iron buildings, many recently refurbished, is second only to New York's SoHo. Underground, it is riddled with the so-called "Shanghai Tunnels," where unsuspecting sailors and loggers were jumped by unsavory types in Portland's wilder early days as Stump Town.


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© 2003 The Washington Post Company

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