Depending on your perspective, 363 miles might be a bit much for an auto tour. But when you break up the trip into six-day sections, the magnificent Oregon coast is really not a strenuous undertaking.
Starting in Astoria in the north and heading south to the California border the first week of November, I expected cool, wet weather. Was I ever surprised. While the temperatures did hover in the upper 50s, it rained only once during my trip, and that came during sleep time. Who’d have foreseen blue skies and sunny days on the notoriously drizzly Oregon Coast?
Known for its scenic wonders, Route 101—the main road that hugs the coast—winds up and down high promenades. From sea level to 800 feet up at Cape Perpetua (the highest point on the route accessible by auto), Route 101 traverses some quaint hamlets with rugged landscapes, eight lighthouses, whale-watching vantage points, and restaurants with some of the best seafood on the west coast. It rivals the allure of the California coast to the south and the majesty of the temperate rain forests of Washington to the north.
Wine to remember
My Oregon visit actually started with a nostalgic look back. Years ago, I visited a friend for what started out as a week-long stay in Portland but ended up a three-month visit. During that time I was introduced to Oregon pinot noir and pinot gris, at a time when the state’s wine industry wasn’t that well-known and hadn’t a single American Viticultural Area designation. A California wine enthusiast at the time, I was amazed at how great some of the Oregon wines I tried really were.
With my mind made up to sample some of the wines of the Tualatin Valley before my coastal adventure, I holed up in Hillsboro just northeast of Portland as a base for a foray to two of the valley’s 33 wineries. My first stop, the David Hill Vineyards in Forest Grove, boasts some of the oldest vines in the state. In the mid 1960s and early 70s, a group of wine pioneers planted the grape varietals—including pinot noir root stock from Alsace and elsewhere—that have gone on to flourish in the climate of the state.
After winding up a steep road, the winery came into view with a burst of autumn color. A sea of golden color spilled down the hillside. I joined general manager Mike Kuenz in the winery’s historic 1883 farmhouse for a tasting that allowed me to sample a compare a 2015 Estate Bottled Pinot with a 2010 Old Vine Pinot vintage. In the winery’s 50th year, the old vine clones have had time to reach into the deep basalt layers of the vineyard and express the terroir of the soil. Although the latter pinot was more complex and rich, I enjoyed both manifestations of the wine, which has now become my favorite red. Note that special old vine terroir tastings are available at David Hill by advance reservation.
About a mile and a half away, the Risdall Ranch Winery is also in an eye-catching setting. Starting out as the Shafer Winery, the vineyards include plantings that date back to 1972. According to tasting room manager Ray Salow, some of the vines were planted only five years later than those at David Hill Winery.
“Our pinot noirs are a great example of the Ice Age soils on the property,” said Salow. “If you did a line up of pinots from the Wilamette Valley you’d find the wines from the northern end are deeper, with a darker fruit profile of blackberry and blueberry as opposed to those of, say, the Yamhill-Carlton AVA, which tend to have a red fruit character with notes of cherry and pomegranate.”
Mickey Shafer, the wife of the original owner, had a love of Christmas second only to wine. In an annex to the tasting room, she stocked thousands of Christmas ornaments, mostly by old world, as well as several hundred imported handmade German incense smokers, especially apt for the holidays. When the Risdalls took over the winery in 2016, they kept the Christmas store addition, which is open year-round.
Forest Grove for the Verboort Sausage & Sauerkraut Festival
My timing was right for a chance to drop in on an annual event attended by one of the most enthusiastic and patient crowds I’ve ever seen. Now in its 85th year, the Verboort Sausage & Sauerkraut Festival at the Visitation Church in Forest Grove is absolutely amazing. A week before the big event, a truck pulls in with 15 tons of pork, beef and suet, all in equal proportions. Then, the parishioners and volunteers get to grinding the meat, mixing it with “secret spices” and then smoking it in natural casings with green vine maple for five days.
The day of the festival—held the first Saturday in November—I met up with Larry Verboort, whose great-great-uncle was one of the Dutch Catholics who helped Father William Verboort found the town in 1875. “Preparations actually start earlier in September, when the applesauce (150 gallons of it) served at the dinner is made,” said Verboort, who took me on a 30-minute tour of the site. “A week later, when the cabbage for the kraut comes in, it’s shredded and salted and aged in large bins.”
Throughout the day, more than 8,000 attendees wait in line among the giant sequoias (planted in the 1880s) to get inside the big dining hall in the Parish Center for a chance to feast on a meal of sausage, sauerkraut, mashed potatoes, green beans, and lemon meringue and apple pie with coffee. Tickets are $17 each, and the lines don’t discourage people from waiting. Other lines form elsewhere for those who want to buy only the packaged bulk sausage and kraut. The festival is such a huge undertaking that it takes a large, well-organized crew to keep things moving. I was transfixed by the behind-the-scenes activity, a veritable beehive of comings and goings by about 750 volunteers where everything runs like clockwork.
Biking the Banks-Vernonia State Trail
For a more relaxed experience, I headed to Banks Bicycles in the town of Banks where Len and Dian Punzel run a bike rental and repair shop at the trailhead of the 21-mile long Banks-Vernonia State Trail. I rode about 6.5 miles along the multi-purpose trail to the Buxton Trestle, a huge crescent-shaped wooden structure that rises high over the ravine below. While the first five miles of the trail are rather flat, there are places that climb a three-to-five percent grade just before and after the trestle.
While I didn’t get all the way to Vernonia, Len (who’s a gold medal motorcycle racer) told me that the hamlet is full of history. Years ago, his trade as a tool and dye maker went overseas to China, which led him to open a motorcycle repair shop. But when the trail opened eight years ago, he and his wife got into the bike rental and repair business. He and Dian are great raconteurs and can give you useful information about the trail and recommendations regarding dining, shopping and more in Banks and Vernonia.
The Tillamook Forest Center: a wildfire education
The Tillamook Forest Center is an even more serene setting inside Oregon’s largest state forest. Nestled in the Oregon Coast Range, the center allows visitors to climb a fire lookout tower and learn about firefighting, the early Oregon Coast Range forest, its early settlers, and today’s forest management practices. Visitors can also watch a video that captures both the up-close experience of being in a forest fire and the monumental effort it takes to reforest a devastated burn area. Outside, a pedestrian suspension bridge crosses the rambunctious Wilson River and leads to some short hiking loops as well as the 20-mile long Wilson River Trail and its multiple campgrounds.
Where to stay
The Orenco Hotel in Hillsboro is one of many brownstones on the street. More like an apartment complex than a hotel, the Orenco is comfortable and cozy with large flat-screen televisions, cable TV, DVD players with DVD libraries, free Wi-Fi, and refrigerators. Additional amenities include complimentary laundry facilities, concierge services upon request, day passes to area fitness clubs, and a first-rate business center. The hotel is within walking distance of shopping, dining, breweries, and taprooms.
Where to eat
- Syun Izakaya, Hillsboro — Syun Izakaya has made the “best of” lists in the area with an impressive sake menu, great sushi and Japanese specialties.
- OutAZABlue, Gales Creek — Prepared with fresh local ingredients and inspired by the world travels of executive chef Gabriel Barber, the restaurant menu features creatively made appetizers, pizza and calzones, sandwiches and tasty entrees.
In part two, tomorrow: Astoria to Tillamook.
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