MANZANITA, Ore.—One summer night at the Treasure Cafe in Wheeler, a stranger leaned toward my grilled wild king salmon and said, "Do you want to know a secret?"
Given that there were only seven tables in this bright blue shack of a restaurant, secrets were in short supply.
Already, my inadvertent eavesdropping had taught me that this guy really liked his crab cakes because they were all crab, no filler.
I also knew from listening to the waitress chat with the diners at another table that her husband was the chef and that they'd moved up here from San Francisco, where he'd ditched the corporate life to make a living serving first-rate food in a restaurant smaller than some living rooms.
But, yes, I told the guy, whose name it turned out was Mike, tell me a secret.
He leaned closer.
In October, Mike said, the kids were back in school, the beach was empty and there was still a good chance the sun would be out. Paradise is even better when you have it to yourself.
I really didn't need life to be much better than it was at that moment along this stretch of Oregon's north coast, a place that in any season is a bit of a secret.
A lot of people who drive west from Portland to the edge of the continent -- a trip of barely an hour and a half -- stop where the road dead-ends into the Pacific.
That means Cannon Beach or Seaside, towns where tourist schlock eats at the native charm.
But drive 20 minutes south, through a forest, along the edge of cliffs that rise out of the waves, and turn right at the lumber store. A big wooden sign welcomes you to the tasteful village of Manzanita and its 7 miles of wide, flat beach.
Within a 5-mile radius of Manzanita (pop. 610), you can find an ocean, a river and a bay; forests, meadows, dunes and mountains; two exquisite state parks; the quaint, tiny towns of Nehalem (pop. 200) and Wheeler (pop. 400); and an exhausting variety of ways to relax.
And because Manzanita is one of the few towns on the coast not sliced down the middle by U.S. Highway 101, it feels more secluded than most.
"We call it 'Oregon's Carmel,'" said one of Manzanita's several massage therapists. I interpreted that to mean it has a picturesque beach, some nice boutiques and an abundance of massage therapy.
In truth, Manzanita is better than its California counterpart, at least for the person looking for an old-style beach experience.
It's much smaller and a lot less glitzy.
I saw lots of families with Subarus, but no movie stars, and no movie-star prices. There was bingo one night at a community hall and a pancake breakfast outside the fire hall before the 4th of July parade. Until recent years, there weren't even sidewalks along Laneda Avenue, the town's lone commercial street.
Manzanita offers some eco-elegant hotel rooms and some motels so old they're cool, but the town thrives on vacation rental homes.