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The Smith Family Vacation
We have been traveling the world for a few years and are currently home in the Seattle, Washington, area for a bit. We promised our oldest son, Aaron, that we would stay here so he can finish high school. Being in the same school so he can have the typical American teenage experience is very important to him. Why anyone would want it, I am not quite sure. My high school experience was less than idyllic. However, a promise is a promise, so we are U.S. bound for two years.
The United States is truly a beautiful country with a wide variety of ecosystems ranging from rainforests to deserts to grasslands to mountains to coasts and more. There is more to see than anyone could in a lifetime. So, over the boys’ spring break, we decided to explore a little piece of our country. We embarked on the traditional family road trip. I carefully consulted maps and weather forecasts before rolling the dice and finally deciding on a destination. Our chosen route was along the picturesque Oregon coast.
Family road tripping usually goes one of two ways, National Lampoon style with every imaginable dilemma popping up or creating life memories style where the vacation gods smile on you. Luckily for us, our trip turned out to be the later. I do not impersonate a good Chevy Chase anyway. We loaded our Nissan X-terra with supplies, two excited and school weary boys, a spastic dog, and my wife and I and headed south.
The weather in the Pacific Northwest is fairly consistent from November to March, plan on rain. July through October is sunny and spectacular. April and May are harder to predict. You take your chances with the unpredictable weather. Remember, the weather person is usually wrong (disclaimer: my wife’s father is a meteorologist). Despite the gamble, we headed out on the road because this was the boys’ school spring break. During the summer the Oregon coast can be packed with sun worshipers anyway trying to soak in as many rays as possible in the short summer. So, we had the coast almost to ourselves. Luckily, the weather was great.
We drove south on Interstate 5 to Portland. Portland’s unofficial city motto is “Keep Portland Weird.” I must say, they do a fairly good job of living up to it. We like the city, but it is definitely a little quirky. The city is probably the most European feeling of any city in the United States. There are many great places to eat. Portland is famous for their numerous food carts that serve a wide variety of cuisines inexpensively. I highly recommend Moonstruck Chocolate. They have five locations throughout the city. Their hand-crafted truffles are amazing! We really like Kells Irish Pub on 2nd Avenue too. On Saturday evening they usually have live Irish music. Of course, no trip to Portland is complete without a stop by Voodoo Doughnuts on 3rd Avenue. Their unique over-sized and decadently decorated doughnuts attract locals and visitors alike. The line can easily be over an hour to get in. Their specialty is the bacon-maple bar.
After eating your way around Portland, you can walk through Washington Park, the country’s largest in-city wilderness park. It is home to the famous Portland Rose Garden and the Japanese Garden. Both are spectacular. The Oregon Zoo, Children’s Museum, Forestry Museum, and train ride are also here. Remember on your way back to stop by Powell’s Books. If you still have energy, check out the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry across the Willamette River.
After visiting Portland, we headed northwest on Highway 26 to Highway 101 and the coast. The first stop was Ecola State Park. This park offers breathtaking views of the ocean. From the point you can look 50 miles south and gaze in awe of the unspoiled beauty of the Oregon coast with its rugged rocks and shifting sand dunes. When I look out along the beach I know how Lewis and Clark must have felt when they first saw the same sight. Little has changed in the last 200 years here, fortunately. Nowhere else in the continental Unites States will you have this much beach to yourself with barely a sign of human encroachment. On a nice day, this is an amazing spot to relax for a picnic and breathe in the sea air and realize what is truly important in life.
Heading south on Highway 101, we came into the quaint town of Cannon Beach. This is one of my wife’s favorite stops. It has many unique boutiques and eateries. My favorite is the Treasure Company. Historians and treasure hunters Robert Knecht and April Knecht travel the world to find “Antiquities and artifacts that speak of distant times and places, lifetimes removed from our modern world…Genuine pieces of history you can hold in your hand -hundreds and sometimes thousands of years old.” The store is like a museum filled with items they have collected over the years. Some treasures April has turned into stunning jewelry.
We continued south along the gorgeous coast to our next stop, Tillamook. You may have heard of this famous cheese town. The Tillamook Cheese Company has been in business for over 100 years. We decided to stop in and take the factory tour. As much as I like their cheese, the tour was a little disappointing, not that we expected the Disney Land of Dairy (plus it is free). The highlight was the free samples of their cheeses. They also make ice cream, but no free samples of that. There is also a small airplane museum in town, which was closed when we visited.
Our next town was Florence. Florence, Oregon, and Florence, Italy, are two very different cities. This Florence is a quaint small sea side town with some neat stores and places to eat. It is relatively well known for its glass blown crafts and art. The town makes for a nice quick stop to take a break before continuing south.
We stopped for the night in Newport. Newport is a sizeable coastal city. It is home to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the Oregon Coast Aquarium, and the Hatfield Marine Science Center as well as anointed Coast Guard City USA. We strolled along the historic waterfront and rummaged around in the shops. We got coffee and bear claws at the Coffee House for breakfast. We highly recommend them. The bear claws were the best we have ever had! Afterwards, the boys wanted to go in the Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museum, so we gave them a break from mom and dad for an hour. My wife and I enjoyed some quiet time walking around. We met back up for a picnic lunch of Tillamook cheese, sausage, fresh bread, and olives outside the marine science center. The Hatfield Marine Science Center is operated by the Oregon State University. It is worth a stop. Recommended donation for entrance is only $5.00 per person. The center has numerous hands-on learning activities and touch tanks to entertain and teach everyone. The docents were very friendly. We all learned something new. Did you know that albacore tune is sustainably fished in the Pacific?
We left Newport and hurried to the world famous Seal Lion Cave before it closed at 5:00pm. This is the largest sea cave in North America and home to hundreds of sea lions. We took an elevator inside the store down 200 feet into the rock. When the elevator doors opened, we were inside an enormous cave at sea level filled with barking, belching, and farting sea lions. We were instantly hit with the strong smell of sea lion flatulence. In case you are wondering, it smells like dead fish, go figure. Despite the smell, the cave is amazing. In the cave we found information on sea lions and the cave and a 10 minute movie about the geology of the area. We really enjoyed watching the playful antics of sea lions on the rocks inside the cave.
Leaving the sea lions and their smell behind, we continued south to Coos Bay. This working sea port community was the home of legendary runner Steve Prefontaine. Pre, as his fans call him, achieved world record holder status before his untimely death in 1974 at merely 24 years old. There is a cool tribute to him at the Coos Bay Art Museum. Our oldest son, Aaron, is a hard-core runner and really wanted to stop and pay his respects. I also ran cross-country in high school and college and have empathy for the runner. Pre was notorious for his unparalleled determination and shear drive. He was quoted as saying, “If someone wants to beat me, they will have to bleed to do it.” I think stopping by inspired Aaron. We will see next race.
Our terminal destination was Bandon. Bandon is not a typical tourist stop unless you play golf. There is a world class course there that attracts big name players from all over. Not being golfers, we were not interested in the course. Our excitement was saved for the West Coast Animal Safari. This was our youngest son’s, Elijah, turn at inspiration. He wants to work with animals someday at a zoo or in the wild. This was his chance to get up close and personal with some critters because the safari boasts America’s largest petting zoo! This is not just any petting zoo mind you. We got a chance to pet a bob cat kitten and bear cubs. They also have tigers, mountain lions, chimpanzees, wallabies, monkeys, deer, goats, and much more. All are rotated through their petting program. All of the animals are rescue animals that are unable to return to the wild or be part of captive breeding programs. So, they are lovingly cared for at the park and available to visitors for human interaction. The place is amazing! My wife was over the top infatuated with the bear cubs. Where else can you feed a baby bear a bottle and rub its plump little tummy?
We met a wonderful animal keeper there named Peter Slaney. He is not only an expert animal handler, but an amazing wildlife photographer and documentary maker. He was a wealth of knowledge about the animals. We greatly enjoyed learning from him and watching him interact with his animal friends.
I had to pull Elijah and my wife away from the park. I wanted to get to our lodging for the night and relax. On the way to Loon Lake Lodge, the boys begged me to stop so they could play in the sand dunes on the beach. How could I say no? So, we made a last stop to finally exhaust them. To my surprise, they still had enough energy to sprint up the huge dunes only to jump and roll back down. They rushed out into the freezing Pacific Ocean waters and back into the sand, including our dog, Albie. An hour later, sandy and spent, they climbed back in the vehicle. We had a great dinner at the local Dairy Queen. I still love Peanut Buster Parfaits!
Loon Lake Lodge is a hidden gem tucked away on Loon Lake 21 miles east of Reedsport. The resort has RV and tent sites, cabins and yurts for rent, and a hotel. You can rent all sorts of watercraft for fun on the lake, like jet skis, fishing craft, kayaks, and paddle boats. They also rent fishing gear. There are many trails for hiking if you want to get some exercise. We rented a deluxe cabin, which included all amenities (towels, bed linens, dishware, cooking equipment, soaps, television, and full bathroom). We were not exactly roughing it. It was the perfect place to rest and relax before heading home.
After five fun days we drove Highway 38 east to Interstate 5 and the long six hour drive back to Seattle. We talked most of the way home about the things we saw and did. They boys obviously had a great time. My wife kept exclaiming that she got to see baby bears. I was glad that we had this opportunity to spend some quality time together as a family. In a couple of short years, Aaron will be off to university somewhere and I will miss these trips. Our trip may not have been as entertaining as the Griswold’s trip to Wally World, but ours was far more rewarding. The quintessential American family road trip is still alive and well!