Road trip Days 10 – 12: great find in Port Orford, dune buggying on the Oregon Dunes, Oregon’s Willamette Valley wineries
So you think there was no adventure left in me after 10 days on the road? think again. On our way down the Oregon coast we passed through the vast Oregon sand dunes. We had no time to stop there on the way down but there was no way in Timbaktoo that I was going to pass up driving a dune buggy on the magnificent dunes. We planned our drive back with another stop in Oregon to go dune buggy’ing.
After a few stops along the way from San Francisco we eventually crossed the Oregon border and spent the night at Crescent City in a non-descript motel along the way. I am going to pretend that motel episode never happened. The next morning we drove north in search of breakfast. We first passed Brookings, a sleepy community with one of the most beautiful beaches I have seen on the coast. It wasn’t as large and deep as some of the others and had an intimate feel to it. The black rocks protruding from the water, the black”ish” sand, the silvery gray water and the slope full of flowers leading to the beach just grabbed a hold of me and did not let go. I wanted to walk the beach but we needed breakfast so decided to keep going.
Port Orford, Red Fish restaurant and the artistic Hawthorn family gallery, beach ride in the Hummer
We were hoping to have breakfast at Gold Beach but somehow did not find any place that appealed to us. We kept going and eventually found ourselves driving through the main street of a small community, Port Orford. I noticed a modern looking restaurant just off the road and we pulled over to investigate the possibility of breakfast. This was a lucky break. We entered Red Fish, an upscale restaurant perched on the cliff overlooking the beach. Everything about the place oozed of art and style. We met one of the owners, Chris Hawthorn, an internationally acclaimed glass artist from the multi talented Hawthorn family that has 9 artists working and living in the area. Chris’s gorgeous glass art can be seen in galleries, museums and establishments around the world. The hanging lights at the restaurant are Chris’s work and they are gorgeous. I wanted them all. The unique iron chairs, hanging glass rack and decorations are made by another brother, Greg I believe. The Hawthorn gallery adjacent to the restaurant displays artwork by family members and other artists from around the country. It’s the type of gallery you’d expect to find in NYC or another major center, not in a sleepy 1000 person community like Port Orford. It is a destination gallery for fine art connoisseurs and collectors. The Hawthorns have another galleries in Big Sur, opened in 1995.
In addition to the gallery and restaurant the Hawthorns have built a loft above the restaurant available for rental year round. I did not go upstairs but saw images of a beautifully appointed loft with artistic touches and a large deck overlooking Battle Rock beach and the Pacific ocean. Just the thought that we could have spent the night in this beautiful loft instead of in a motel a few miles down the road almost spoiled my day.
After visiting with Chris for a while and admiring the art at the restaurant we settled at a table and ordered what was then already lunch. Red Fish offers coastal cuisine inspired by French and Mediterranean traditions, made with locally sourced ingredients from farmers and fishermen. We had the fish of the day sandwich on a brioche bun with tarragon aioli served alongside fresh green salad in a light dressing. We ended with freshly brewed Americano that we sipped slowly, thoroughly enjoying the moment in this unexpected place.
While watching the beach activity below we noticed that a couple of cars somehow made their way to the sandy beach and were driving on the sand. It wasn’t clear how they entered the beach because it’s all cliffs above the beach but I don’t have a Hummer for nothing. We decided that after lunch we will drive down to the beach and see about this beach ride in the Hummer. After coffee and a visit to the gallery we said our goodbyes and left the restaurant heading down towards the beach. The only access was a narrow path between large pieces of driftwood and a small pool of water. We weren’t even sure it was wide enough for the Hummer to pass through but it was a point of no return. G floored it and we got through to the beach. Somehow it was really exciting to be driving on the sand only a couple of feet away from the surf. The sand was well packed but after a while G was getting nervous about possibly getting stuck and we decided to head back. I don’t know how we made it through the exit going uphill at such a steep, curvy, narrow path but we did and it was a moment we will not soon forget.
Dune buggy’ing on the Oregon Dunes
After this long stop in Port Orford we continued north to our dune buggy destination at Coos Bay in the southern portion of the Oregon dunes. The dunes stretch for 50 miles from the mouth of the Siuslaw river in Florence to Coos Bay in the south. The dunes extend up to 3 miles from the Pacific ocean inland and in some places rise to 500 feet, mostly around Florence. Coos Bay is the largest riding area but not necessarily the highest dunes or most spectacular. That was fine with me, not having been on a dune buggy before.
We checked in at the rental place and got our dune buggy (a two seater) organized. They made us watch a mind numbing 8 minute safety video (insurance requirement), then fitted us with helmets and goggles before giving us a quick tutorial on how to operate the thing. It didn’t seem too complicated – gas pedal and break pedal, just like a car. They gave us a map of the dunes and sent us off. G was going to drive first, get us from the road to the dunes and romp around a bit, and I was to have my turn next. Although G was somewhat hesitant about the dune buggy idea in the first place, once he was behind the wheel there was no stopping him. It was pedal to the metal and off we flew down the road and into the dunes.
Entering the dunes was quite a sight, vast area with steep hills of sand, some of which we were strictly instructed not to climb. One of the instructions was to make it up the permitted hills and then stop on the top. That was good advise as there was no knowing what kind of drop awaits on the other side and sure enough, some of the drops made my heart stop. G was seemingly fearless, getting us into a couple of uncomfortable (for me) situations that we had to back out of mainly because of my screaming that I want to get the H out of there. I am not a good passenger in situations like this. It’s much more comfortable to be the driver.
We drove around for a while exploring and trying to keep track of where we were. It all kind of looks the same and apparently people can get lost in the dunes. We were instructed to keep track of markers in case we got lost, as they can direct you back over the phone. We did not get lost and eventually it was my turn to drive. Now I was starting to have fun. Having control over the wheel made all the difference and I went all over the place climbing hills, coming down and flying through the various paths. Maybe it was G’s turn to be slightly uncomfortable. It was fun to watch other riders, some rather adventurous, and even a couple of trucks made it to the dunes climbing up the steepest hills and then flying straight down raising a wall of sand as they descended.
Eventually we had to return and made our way back on time and in good shape. We were slightly reprimanded by the shop person for not wearing the seat belts. We didn’t do it on purpose. The guy who instructed us never mentioned the seat belts and we didn’t notice them, considering the giant helmet and goggles we had to wear. Evidently, if the dune police catches you without a seat belt you can be fined and returned to the base. Well, it was a great little adventure, we felt exhilarated and “cool” and determined to do it again at the first opportunity. I hear that Colorado has some incredible sand dunes and since our son lives in Denver, this may become a possibility one of these days.
From there we continued north on Ca 1 to the charming town of Newport where we were planning to stay for the night. We walked around the Deco District with its art deco buildings, quaint shops and historic bayfront on the mouth of the Siuslaw river. Food I am sorry to say was not a success. I actually had to return the pizza I ordered, not something that I do very often but this one was not in an acceptable condition.
After looking around we decided we wanted a beach hotel so we continued north for a short while and stayed at the Hallmark Hotel in Newport, situated on a long and deep stretch of gorgeous beach. We booked a corner suite, very large and very comfortable. All rooms face the ocean and the beach below was quite a sight. We arrived just as the sun was setting. The tide was in and it was hard to see where the sand ends and the water begins, except for the little white surf where the waves roll onto the sand. We watched the sun set into the ocean in a blaze of oranges and reds. The next morning the tide was out for about half a mile, reminiscent of a tsunami scene. We went for an early morning beach walk in the thick fog and it was an eerie experience to walk so deep into the ocean where water will rush in in just a few hours. A sick seal was stranded on the beach, attended to by a local veterinarian. Eventually he loaded the seal onto his truck and took him away. This beach walk was a unique experience and one of the highlights of the trip.
Ken Wright Cellars in Carlton, Oregon and Domain Drouhin in the Willamette Valley, Washington
After a night’s stay in Newport we drove north and east to the Willamette Valley, Oregon’s leading wine region. The valley lies about 50 miles from the Pacific ocean and stretches 100 miles from Portland to Eugene with the Willamette River running through it. The Coast Range on the west protects the valley from Pacific storms and the Cascade Range on the east protects it from the dry climate of eastern Oregon. The resulting climate is cool and misty, ideal for growing the finicky pinot noir grape. Almost 90% of Oregon Pinot Noir and 80% of total wine production comes from the valley.
I had two wineries on my list in the Willamette Valley: Ken Wright Cellars, known for spectacular single vineyard pinot noir and Domain Drouhin, known for their Burgundy style pinot noir and chardonnay. Ken Wright cellars winery is not open to the public except around American Thanks Giving but they have a tasting room in a converted old train station in downtown Carlton so that’s where we went. Ken Wright is an “institution” in the US wine world and for good reasons. He is credited with establishing the Willamette Valley as a premier region for making pinot noir and was recently (May) featured in Wine Spectator as an Oregon pioneer who “helped map the terroir of the Willamette Valley”. It’s not easy to get his wines as they often sell out before release. You can order online but they won’t ship it if your area’s temperature is over 75F degrees. The website lists three Canadian distributors but good luck trying to get it.
Domain Drouhin winery is situated in Dayton on top of Red hills of Dundee AVA (American Viticultural Area) with truly spectacular views of the valley. It’s worth the stop just for that. The winery has an interesting story. The Drouhin family have been making wine in Burgundy, France for more than a century under the Maison Joseph Drouhin label. Their Oregon estate was established in the late 1980s by third generation wine maker Robert Drouhin after blind tasting Oregon pinot noir and recognizing that the soil and climate in Willamette had great potential for burgundy style wines (pinot noir and chardonnay). In 1986 Robert Drouhin’s daughter Veronique came to Oregon and worked the harvest with three of the founding families of Oregon wines, including the legendary Letts. In 1987 Drouhins bought land in Willamette and begun planting vineyards. Veronique Drouhin took over as winemaker and have been making pinot noir and chardonnay on both sides of the Atlantic, in Burgundy and Oregon. The spacious tasting room includes an outdoor patio where you can taste the wines and gaze at the vineyards spreading below and down the valley.
This was the last stop on our road trip. From there we drove to the outskirts of Seattle but stayed in a hotel on the highway and the next morning continued our drive back home. The road trip was a wonderful adventure, we saw a lot and learned a lot and I added a few must go to places to my travel bucket list. This trip was spontaneous without a set schedule, reservations, or specific plans. Would I do it again the same way? Ummmm, maybe. I enjoyed the flexibility (although I did have planned stops) but we would have probably eaten better if the trip was more researched.
What’s next on the agenda? we have three months in Italy coming up later this fall and maybe another road trip before that?
Thanks for sharing the experience with me though these pages. Stay tuned for more adventures.