Travel

At play on Oregon's coast

Less than a century ago, a mansion rose above these chiseled cliffs like some San Simeon of the Oregon coast: 10 bedrooms and baths, not counting servants' quarters. Living room with arguably the best view in the state. And a 52-foot Roman bath that could be filled with fresh water or seawater, heated or not, depending on the owner's whim.

The estate was named Shore Acres, a sunny moniker for a place with a cloudy past. This Shangri-La by the sea was lost not once but twice—first to fire, then to a bulldozer. Earlier this summer, as I stood on its cliffs, the only remnant of riches I could see was an old tennis court built within serving distance of the shore.

Even so, Shore Acres impressed me more than the gaudy grandeur of San Simeon, William Randolph Hearst's castle on California's Central Coast. After all, this is how a beautiful seashore was meant to be, untamed and untainted: jagged, 95-foot sandstone cliffs, a blanket of forest green draping toward wind-whipped waves, a mist drifting by over the landscape like a cool kiss.

This vision was a bit of serendipity. I had set out on a four-day weekend intending to try the popular yurts at Sunset Bay State Park, which neighbors Shore Acres, about 100 miles north of the California border. More than a tent and less than a cabin, each yurt is furnished with bunk beds, halogen lamp, electric heater—for the most part, all the basics of a lazy man's camping trip, minus the sleeping bag.

Not having to pack a closet's worth of gear was a plus. So was the fact that the varied terrain—hilly woodlands, sandy beaches, rocky tide pools and wind-swept bluffs—would provide enough outdoor adventure to fill each day in one of the few parts of the West Coast I had never seen. I flew into Eugene with my partner, Todd, and we drove Highway 126 as far west as it goes, then followed U.S. 101 south along Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. Soon a sign announced our arrival: "Welcome to Oregon's Bay Area."

The Coos Bay Area—the towns of Coos Bay, North Bend and Charleston—is the most populous region of Oregon's coast, even though the head count barely tops 30,000. Renovated waterfront promenades and main streets peppered with trinket shops and cafes are clues that, with the logging and fishing industries fading, locals hope tourism might boost their economy.

And tourism seems like an easy sell considering that just 10 minutes south of Coos Bay lie three stunning state parks: Sunset Bay, where the yurts sit within earshot of the ocean; Shore Acres, whose once-resplendent gardens have been restored; and Cape Arago, with teeming tide pools and a welcoming party of barking sea lions.

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We arrived at Sunset Bay in the evening, and I was glad we didn't have a tangle of tent poles to mess with in the dark. Todd, a die-hard camper, stepped inside our yurt, dropped his bag and plopped down on the futon couch with a look that said, "This is too easy." Firewood purchased at the park entrance is delivered to the door, and when the ranger drove up with a bundle of logs in hand, I almost felt guilty.

Though hardly luxurious, the yurt was nicer than I expected: insulated white canvas walls held up by a wood-lattice frame; sturdy pine furniture; a skylight and roll-down window flaps; electric outlets; and a front door with a deadbolt (not that we needed it).

The foam mattresses for the futon and bunk beds (twin on top, double on bottom) were thick and covered with new, immaculately clean, industrial-strength woodsy green vinyl that magically didn't bunch up or crinkle.

The floor had been vacuumed. The little deck outside had been swept. Our private picnic area, complete with table and fire ring, was freshly raked. All in all, the yurt was tidier than our apartment, and only $27 per night.

The winding, two-lane Cape Arago Highway links Sunset Bay with the neighboring parks, but I preferred a hiking trail that runs roughly parallel. The path zigzags under a canopy of spruce and fir, occasionally swinging out to land's end and some sunny perch over the Pacific.

Each succeeding glimpse of the ocean proved more photogenic, and soon we measured time not by the minute but by the number of pictures we stopped to snap.

About two dozen frames from the campground, we arrived at the Shore Acres State Park visitor center. Volunteer docents pointed us toward an observation hut on a windy, wide-open plateau. Inside, historical displays recounted how Asa Meade Simpson, a Maine ship's captain, joined the 1849 California Gold Rush. He soon realized that the real fortune was to be made selling lumber, food and other supplies to mining camps. His lumberyard and shipping holdings eventually stretched from Hoquiam, Wash., to Stockton.

Simpson's oldest son, Louis, went on to manage the family business, including its first sawmill and shipyard, in Coos Bay. Enchanted by the rugged beauty of this land, Louis went on to buy more than 1,200 acres to the south at headlands he dubbed Shore Acres.

Though there's no record of the exact dimensions of the first mansion here, old photos and floor-plan sketches suggest it was one of the largest in the state at the time. Construction began in 1906 and a massive addition, including the Roman bath, was finished eight years later.

A fire of unknown origin destroyed everything in 1921. With an insurance policy covering less than half the loss, the family was forced to move into a modest cottage in the garden. Using timber salvaged from a wrecked lumber schooner, the mansion was rebuilt about six years later.

The family struggled financially in the second Shore Acres estate, and eventually losses from the fire, the Depression and failed land speculation left the family too cash-strapped to maintain the home. Shore Acres crumbled.

Louis, wife Lela and daughters Geraldine and Barbara eventually packed up and in 1942 sold the land to the state, which established the Shore Acres and Sunset Bay parks next to Cape Arago State Park, 132 acres that Simpson had donated to the state in 1932.

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Inside the Shore Acres observation building, constructed on the former mansion site, it was hard to grasp the scale of these headlands. Not until we skirted the cliffs' edge for a closer look did the rock formations look monumental, their sedimentary layers, thrust from the earth at a 45-degree angle, ravaged by time and tide.

Around us, children posed for parents' cameras, their voices lost in the roar of waves. The landscape reminded me of Torrey Pines in La Jolla and Montana del Oro near Morro Bay, stretches of coast so instantly endearing I wondered why they haven't been designated national seashores like California's Point Reyes or Massachusetts' Cape Cod.

The wild cliffs were a stark contrast to Shore Acres' sprawling formal gardens tucked inland. Freshly trimmed lawns, so green they seemed unnatural, were bordered by fastidiously groomed boxwood.

Our visit came too late in the season to see the 4,000 tulips that bloom in spring, and too early for the 600 rosebushes that flower in the summer (in bloom now until September). But Louis Simpson's prized rhododendrons and azaleas, in reds, pinks and whites, were in full June bloom. Sitting by a 100-foot-long lily pond, I found it easy to imagine having the serene Japanese garden all to myself—because I did, at least for a few moments before others arrived to share it.

Simpson instructed captains of his timber schooners and clipper ships to bring back trees and shrubs from around the world, and he in turn opened this horticultural showcase to the public. He encouraged his gardeners to give away seedlings and cuttings to visitors, thus spreading his bounty across the state.

These days, the park is maintained by a half-dozen groundskeepers who tend to beds of gazanias, penstemons, dusty millers, salvias and snapdragons. The volunteer force totals a whopping 1,200, most of whom put in a few hours at the Friends of Shore Acres' small gift shop or lend a hand each December installing 250,000 twinkling lights for the holiday display.

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Farther down the road at Cape Arago, winding paths lead from grassy bluffs down to a spectrum of tide-pool life: white gooseneck barnacles, black turban snails, purple shore crabs and red sea cucumbers. On a rock formation named Simpson's Reef, hundreds of sunning sea lions sang in a chorus louder than any I've ever heard.

One day we drove about 15 miles southeast of our campground to South Slough, the first member of what is now called the National Estuarine Research Reserve System. At South Slough, the Tijuana River near San Diego, the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland and Virginia, and about two dozen other protected wetlands, water quality and wildlife are monitored for signs of urban and agricultural pollution.

Here, around the southern tip of Coos Bay, 60 million tons of ocean water flow in and out daily, sustaining surf perch, staghorn sculpin, Dungeness crab, beavers and other critters.

We ducked into the newly expanded visitor center just as sheets of rain began to fall. Interpretive displays explain researchers' work, but I was drawn to the back of the center, where a bank of windows overlooks a valley. The surrounding evergreen hills roll like waves, and even on the sole dreary day of our trip, the terrain looked vibrant and full of life.

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"Touristy, but not a tourist trap" is how Todd described Bandon, about 20 miles south of the slough. On the way into town we stopped for lunch at the Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, whose two courses Golf magazine ranks among the nation's top 50. Bandon's boosters call their town the Cranberry Capital of Oregon, so it was no surprise that our organic salads at the resort's restaurant were sprinkled with dried cranberries, and the grilled chicken breasts were slathered with cranberry barbecue sauce. Both were good, but not nearly as pleasing as the gleeful toddler who eased the stuffy setting by flinging pieces of grilled-cheese sandwich with power and precision around our tables: no slice, no hook—Tiger Woods would have been proud.

Bandon is quite a family place, as it turns out. While adults linger in art galleries and crafts emporiums, kids ogle candy counters piled with homemade fudge and taffy.

The Cranberry Sweets shop is a maze of cranberry truffles, blackberry chews and something called lemon meringue pie candy, yellow jellied candy in a white, creamy shell. If one piece represented one slice, I must have eaten two pies.

That didn't stop me from joining the sampling line at the Bandon Cheese Factory a few blocks away to graze on Colby, Monterey Jack and numerous Cheddars: full cream, cranberry walnut, jalapeño, smoked salmon among them—all made in an adjacent room visible through picture windows.

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Still more excess lay across town at Faber Farms, owned by Ann and Al Faber. Ann's 15-minute Cranberry 101 class included a walk around rectangular fields filled with spindly 5-inch plants, their pink flowers abuzz with bees. Come October the bogs will be flooded and a contraption that looks like a dune buggy will shake ripe cranberries loose so they float to the surface. Giant booms will steer the fruit to a conveyor belt and on their way to a juice bottle near you.

Cranberries thrive here because of the acidic soil, and an estimated 35 million pounds are harvested in the Bandon area each year. Faber's harvest becomes Northland brand bottled juices, but about half the farms in town are part of an Ocean Spray cooperative.

In Ann's gourmet gift shop, we picked up brandied cranberry compote, chocolate-covered cranberries and cranberry-and-green-chile salsa (surprisingly good).

Nothing, however, could compare with the sights that awaited at the beach at Bandon.

Along Beach Loop Road, tourists stream across bluffs overlooking massive rock formations that appear offshore like monoliths dropped from the heavens. Indian legend says an evil ocean spirit turned a princess and her pets into stone, their forms and features supposedly evident in the rock façade. But in the glare of the 5 o'clock sun, I couldn't make out Face Rock, the Cat and the Kittens, or the princess' dog, Komax.

The biting wind shook the knee-high golden grasses and blue irises scattered across the bluffs.

We shivered a bit before assuming (incorrectly) that the beach below couldn't possibly be colder. Down to the shore we went.

Even with the day winding down and the gusts growing stronger, I was surprised to see so few footprints in the sand. Along the stunning mile-long strand spires of volcanic rock rise unexpectedly here and there, as if they were peaks of a great mountain range buried deep beneath our feet.

Eventually the bluster sent us indoors, this time to the Wild Rose Bistro in Bandon for dinner. Our salads came with a huckleberry vinaigrette and edible flower blossoms. More Oregon berries arrived in the form of a honey-cranberry glaze on a pan-fried chicken breast, and the fettuccine accompanying the chicken Parmesan was so redolent of garlic that the scent arrived at the table before the plate.

We arrived back at Sunset Bay at dusk. Children played tag with the waves, peeling off shirts and hoisting shorts above their knees despite the chill. Sunset came, but without an explosion of color—just an understated orange, a blush of pink, and then it was over—a fittingly soft, simple ending to a blissfully uncomplicated day.

Back at our yurt's picnic table, I unpacked some aged smoked Cheddar and crackers from Bandon. Todd got the campfire crackling. We toasted marshmallows, listened to the low, steady strum of waves on the bay, and watched embers shoot up like stars into a bluish-black sky.

Craig Nakano is an assistant editor in the Travel section.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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