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A secret Oregon for any season

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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.

"October."

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.

Some are right on the beach, others in town and some, like the one I rented for my family, are perched on the hills above the ocean.

It was there, on a deck looking out at the windsurfers and Neahkahnie Mountain, that on my first day I embarked on my first strenuous vacation activity: studying the house owner's foot-high pile of activity brochures.

Without driving more than 10 minutes, I could go boogie-boarding. Crabbing. Golfing. Horseback riding on the beach. Bicycling in the bike lanes along U.S. 101. Kayaking on the Nehalem River. Shopping for antiques in Wheeler.

Or I could just sit back and watch, in the words of one brochure, the "world class" rainbows.

I opted for a hike, all the way down a gravel lane and up to Manzanita News & Espresso, a Frank Lloyd Wright-style building where a petition was being passed to keep formula-food restaurants out of town.

Manzanita may not be for everyone. This is not the Caribbean. The water is cold and it can be fierce. You can hope for the sun but shouldn't count on it. My rental home came with a strong warning against big parties and late noise, and the town limits the number of visiting cars outside houses at night.

But I agree with Secret Agent Mike, who had said, "This is the best spot on the coast."

He even claimed that it's the most reliably sunny: "You can be fogged in at Cannon Beach but the sun will be shining here."

That's probably an overstatement. If there's any complaint to make about the northern Oregon coast -- besides too many conspicuous condo developments and RV parks -- it's that clouds and fog can roll in almost anywhere at any time of day or year. There's usually at least a hint of breeze and often a wind that only a kite would wish for. You should keep a jacket handy and be ready to use your firewood.

For most of the week I was there, the sun was out.

It was out when I drove five minutes north to Oswald West State Park and hiked part of the Oregon Coast Trail. I meandered past giant spruce trees, then 2 miles up to Cape Falcon to gaze out at the ocean and the headlands.

The sun was out the next day when I drove five minutes south to Nehalem Bay State Park to climb over giant dunes and down to a beach where even in July there weren't more than a dozen people.

The sun was setting on another day when I got lost in that park at dusk and stumbled into a horse campground where happy campers barbecued and horses whinnied in their temporary corrals.

The sun had just gone down when I drove one evening to Nehalem to sit next to the river for an excellent meal at Currents restaurant.

The sun was also out the day we thought it might be fun to drive 25 miles south to Tillamook. It wasn't. Tillamook, home of the famous cheese, was full of traffic jams and suburban clutter. However nice the scenery might be once you turned off the highway, getting there broke the vacation spell.

So we sped back to lazy, little Manzanita where, just as the brochures promised, the rainbows really are world class.

Getting around:

If you're staying in or near Manzanita, you may not need anything but your feet. Miles of beach, restaurants, groceries and even a couple of great little bookstores are all right there. A car is handy for visiting the nearby parks and just cruising through the scenery. Bicycles are available for rent.

Lodging:

You can rent a cottage, house or condo through one of several Manzanita vacation rental agencies or you can do what I did, which is to surf the Internet and rent a house directly from the owner. You can find either by plugging "Manzanita Oregon vacation rentals" into Google.

Prices vary, but a fair number are in the vicinity of $1,200 a week in high season, less from October through May.

If you prefer a hotel, try the beautiful Coast Cabins (503-368-7113; coastcabins.com). Also beautiful is The Inn at Manzanita (503-368-6754; innatmanzanita.com). Both are small, along the main street and reasonably priced. Even less expensive, though less elegant, are the appealing old-style motels. There's the dog-friendly San Dune Inn (368-5163; sandune-inn-manzanita.com) or the Spindrift Inn (503-368-1001; spindrift-inn.com).

Dining:

Manzanita has several good-enough restaurants, most of them family friendly, but the best meals I found were in the nearby towns. At Currents in Nehalem (503-368-5557), you can sit along the river and eat a fine piece of fish and drink good Oregon pinot gris. The short menu at the tiny Treasure Cafe in Wheeler (503-368-7740) changes all the time, and the food is exceptional.

Wanda's Cafe & Bakery (503-368-8100) serves up a great casual lunch, and sometimes dinner, in an old cottage in Nehalem. If you're looking for just the right glass of wine and a nibble, try Vino, a cubbyhole of a wine bar in Manzanita (503-368-VINO). Also in Manzanita, the breakfast and lunch offerings at the Bread and Ocean deli are just right in that local, organic West Coast way (503-368-5823.)

A warning: Many places are open only part of the year.

Information:

Oregon Coast Visitors Association: 888-628-2101; visittheoregoncoast.com.

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