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Find clams and crabs on the Oregon coast for a fresh meal

When you're feeling crabby, nothing can compare to pulling a trap filled with Dungeness crabs up from the briny deep — unless it's breaking open a steaming hot, just-cooked crab, dipping it in buttery lemon-garlic sauce and devouring it.

Crabbing is one of the charms of the Oregon coast, a place as well known for its seafood as for its surf and sand. You can fish almost anywhere. Or you can get down and dirty and play in the mud; a shovelful can hold clams, shrimp and other tasty surprises.

I visited Oregon last month, driving the dramatic Pacific Coast Scenic Byway, U.S. 101, with my friend Wendi, who not only loves fresh fish but also owns a seafood restaurant and fish market in Los Alamitos. I wanted to see great scenery; she wanted to check out great seafood at its source. Both were easy tasks on the Oregon coast.

First, we learned that all the cool kids call it the Coast. Not the Beach, as we do in California. Oregonians will know you're a tourist if you call it the beach.

We flew into Portland and hit the road, driving southwest on Oregon 18 for a couple of hours until it intersected with U.S. 101 near Lincoln City.

The 101, we quickly found, is a stunner. Its 363 miles along the sea stretches from the Columbia River in the north to the California state line in the south, passing headlands and giant sand dunes, lighthouses and fishing villages.

Don’t go that way if you're in a hurry. There are too many tantalizing vista points, too many amazing state parks (more than two dozen) and too many poky drivers ogling the scenery.

Oregon residents claim this is the best stretch of road along the Pacific coast. I don't want to bicker, but California 1 through Big Sur is fantastic too. I will admit that Oregon's favorite highway offers an epic drive. And an epic place to play in the mud.

We did just that at Siletz Bay in Lincoln City, where we borrowed boots, a shovel and a bucket and began digging for purple varnish clams. (Don’t forget to get a license.)

There's something therapeutic about stomping around in big boots and digging holes in squishy mud. Scientists say playing in the mud has lots of pluses: It helps increase brain and physical activity and reduces susceptibility to depression and allergens. Of course, these studies focus on why it's good for kids, not adults. But we're all just big kids, right?

Curtis Bryan holds up clams Siletz Bay in Lincoln City, Ore. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Kathy Davis and the rest of her family dig for clams at Siletz Bauy in Lincoln City, Ore.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Olivia Michaels, 16, tosses a clam over to Conner Middleton, 16, as he digs for clams in Siletz Bay in Lincoln City, Ore. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Digging for clams in Siletz Bay in Lincoln City, Ore.

We were pretty happy slogging around on the tidal plain and managed to capture two dozen clams, but the tide was turning, so we donated our catch to another clam digger and moved on.

Time to catch the fresh catch

All that digging had made us hungry. After washing off the mud, we headed south on the 101 to Newport, which dates to 1864 and is one of Oregon's most popular coastal towns.

Newport is home to the state's largest fishing fleet, two lighthouses, lots of shops and things to do, and some great seafood restaurants.

Wendi wanted to try Laura Anderson’s popular Local Ocean Seafoods, known for its flavorful fresh fish. We sat at a counter overlooking the open kitchen and dished with chef Enrique Sanchez-Rodriguez as he put the finishing touches on an elegantly plated tuna mignon made with albacore ($25).

My friend talked shop and invited the chef to visit her restaurant. He told her Local Ocean's key to success is its location across the street from the fishing fleet. "They catch it in the morning, you eat it for dinner that night," he said.

Traveling with a restaurateur has its benefits: You always eat well.

Stop to take a hike

We turned north and hopscotched our way along Oregon’s central coast, backtracking now and then to talk to seafood distributors and to check out the sights, including Oswald West State Park, where the rainforest meets the surf.

The park, considered one of the system's most spectacular, is named for late Oregon Gov. Oswald West. From the parking lot, it's a quarter-mile hike through a forest to the summit and an outstanding view of the Pacific and Short Sand Beach. You might want to stay all day: The beach is in a tranquil cove that makes it seems private, despite the boogie boarders and surfers you might encounter.

Ten miles north of Oswald, we stopped to visit picturesque Cannon Beach, a fun place to shop and walk. The town is sort of a Laguna Beach North, with lots of galleries and an arty feel.

Clamming and crabbing in Oregon
Tourists take in the view from Ecola State Park in Cannon Beach, Ore. Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times

It’s also known for Haystack Rock, which towers 235 feet above the water, and Ecola State Park, which offers panoramic coastal views from its perch at the edge of a headland. Cannon is a 90-minute drive from Portland, making it an easy choice for California visitors who are short on time.

A dory to the crab traps

We saved our most interesting experience — Dungeness crabbing — for last. You can catch crabs in Oregon from a pier or from a boat. We decided to try crabbing from a dory, a small, flat-bottomed craft that is launched from shore. Exciting and pricey, like most fishing trips: $200 a person.

It sounded like fun when I planned it. But when we arrived in Pacific City, home of the dory fleet, the waves seemed enormous and the dories seemed tiny.

I tried not to think about the adventure, scheduled for the next day. Thankfully, there was a lot going on in Pacific Beach, which proved to be a wonderland of activities.

People were walking on the beach, playing in the surf and flying kites. But mostly they were watching cars that were being driven up and down the beach.

They would get stuck in the sand, so there were always guys pushing cars, attaching chains to axles, letting air out of tires. I was told people visit this beach just to watch these vehicle follies.

Clamming and crabbing in Oregon
Joe Hay pulls out a crab pot as he runs a dory boat that takes customers out fishing and crabbing in Pacific City, Ore. Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times

But there are a lot of other things to do too. Pacific City is adjacent to Cape Kiwanda State Natural Area, where the Great Dune awaits those hardy enough to climb this massive hill of mudstone cloaked in drifting sand. And in the bay is another Haystack Rock, a classic basalt sea stack.

The next day, we jumped on board a 21.6-foot dory manned by Capt. Joe Hay. I closed my eyes as the Haystack Fishing boat seesawed crazily in the surf. Hay turned on appropriate music: Richard Wagner's dramatic “Ride of the Valkyries.”

Soon we were in calm waters and headed to one of Hay's crab pots. A large cache of the shellfish appeared when the trap was raised, garnering a cheer from the four passengers. Hay and a crew member sorted the crabs, throwing back the small ones. We headed for shore, detouring to say hello to a gray whale that appeared near the boat.

A crab feast at the captain's nearby home was the high point of our outing. Within two hours we were cracking and eating incredible Dungeness crabs.

"They're so fresh," Wendi said. "You can't help but love this."

I had to agree.

Salt straight from the sea

Ben Jacobsen knows a lot about the salt of the earth. As a matter of fact, he’s made a business out of it.

Jacobsen Salt Co., one of the few companies producing gourmet salt in the U.S., hand harvests its product from the cold, pristine waters of Netarts Bay on the Oregon coast.

Ben Jacobsen's salt company mines finishing salt -- a gourmet favorite -- along the coast of Oregon.
Ben Jacobsen's salt company mines finishing salt — a gourmet favorite — along the coast of Oregon. Rosemary McClure

Although travelers can't tour the salt works, they can get a look at them and taste the various salts at the company store in Tillamook or at the main office in Portland.

"We're the first to harvest salt in the Northwest since [Meriwether] Lewis and [William] Clark," said Jacobsen, referring to the 1804-06 expedition that explored the Pacific Northwest.

"Netarts Bay water is exceptionally clean and briny. I think it's arguably the cleanest bay on the West Coast,” he said.

"The product is a delicate salt that's very briny tasting. It tastes like the sea with no bitter aftertaste.”

Jacobsen's salt is different from the kind you find in most shakers. It's classic flake finishing salt, the kind chefs and gourmet cooks use.

The company also produces kosher sea salt and grinding salt and makes a line of tasty infused salts that include white truffle, rosemary, lemon zest, Pinot Noir and Stumptown Coffee.

And it makes a line of salty confections — Salty Black Licorice, Salty Caramels, Salty Honey Nut Chews and Salty Maple Chews.

Info: You can purchase the salt at Jacobsen Salt, at its Portland or Tillamook stores, or at Williams-Sonoma stores, Whole Foods markets and specialty shops.

If you go

THE BEST WAY TO THE OREGON COAST

Clamming and crabbing in Oregon
Samantha Hill, left, and Holly Battle, right, sit by a warm bonfire on the beach in Pacific City, Ore. Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times

From LAX, Delta, American, Alaska and Southwest offer nonstop service to Portland, Ore., and United, Alaska, Southwest, Delta, American and Frontier offer connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip fares from $178. From Portland, drive southwest on Oregon 18 to U.S. 101.

WHERE TO STAY

Headlands Coastal Lodge & Spa, 33000 Cape Kiwanda Drive, Pacific City, Ore., (503) 483-3000. Charming, new, ocean-view resort with excellent views of Pacific City's Haystack Rock. Cozy lobby, fine-dining restaurant, 33 rooms and 18 cottages. Doubles from $310 a night.

Stephanie Inn, 2740 S Pacific St., Cannon Beach, Ore.; (844) 374-2107. Beachfront resort with fireplaces and wrap-around verandas. Popular choice in one of Oregon's favorite coastal towns. Doubles from $289 a night.

Salishan Resort, 7760 U.S.101, Gleneden Beach, Ore.; (800) 452-2300. Family activities, including golf course, tennis center and spa are available at this 205-room central Oregon coast hotel. Most accommodations include fireplaces and decks. Doubles from $126 a night.

WHERE TO EAT

Local Ocean Seafoods, 213 S.E. Bay Blvd., Newport, Ore.; (541) 574-7959. Check out this Oregon favorite where fresh crab and other seafood dominate the menu. Expect a long line. Entrees $8.50 to $32.

Side Door Cafe, 6675 Gleneden Beach Loop, Gleneden Beach, Ore.; (541) 764-3825. Small, converted warehouse is so popular that aficionados fly here from Portland for lunch. (It's called the “$100 Hamburger.”) Soups, salads and sandwiches at lunch, when prices start at $8.50 Try the bay shrimp melt, $13.50.

Pelican Brewing Co., 33180 Cape Kiwanda Drive, Pacific City, Ore.; (503) 965-7007. At first people came for the beer, now they come for the food — and the beer. Beachfront brewpub is a great spot to watch surfers, fishermen and giant Haystack Rock. Soups, salads, flatbreads, sandwiches, burgers. Most entrees less than $20.

TO LEARN MORE

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