A quaint village on the Oregon coast knows just how to keep things basic.
Gearhart is a town of simple pleasures. Here, on Oregon's north coast, you can hunt for sand dollars on a nearly deserted beach, pick blackberries from roadside brambles, feast on crab cakes at a lovely café, and learn how to paint a watercolor in a former two–room schoolhouse. Here, you can take a breather from the breakneck pace of daily life and delight in the humble joys of this hamlet a 90–minute drive from Portland.
Unlike its neighbors to the south, Seaside and Cannon Beach, Gearhart doesn't have a carousel, an aquarium, or even a T–shirt shop. Its attractions are basic: a long beach of fine white sand, golden grassy dunes, pine trees, and a village of sun–bleached shingle cottages. Tasteful home decor and antique shops line Pacific Way, the principal street. "It's a slice of Martha's Vineyard on the West Coast," says Lisa Allen, who co–owns the Pacific Way Bakery & Café with her husband, John. "It's upscale but also laid–back."
Portlanders have sought tranquillity in Gearhart ever since train service arrived in the 1890s. The first planned resort community on the Oregon coast, it offered a hotel, an auditorium for dances and chautauquas, and a golf course built in 1892 that's now the second oldest in the West. Over the years Gearhart has even attracted celebrities such as actor Tab Hunter, pitcher Don Drysdale, director Gus Van Sant, and most notably James Beard. The eminent cooking teacher, writer, and television personality, who died in 1985 at the age of 81, spent many summers as a boy at his mother's cottage on E Street and returned as an adult to teach cooking classes at Seaside High School. In his book Delights and Prejudices, Beard gives Gearhart a bighearted compliment: "No place I have ever been gives me quite as much pleasure. I adore the ocean, the sand, the solitude."
Even today, Gearhart's two–mile–long beach is often empty except for piles of driftwood and seaweed. You can wander for hours, gazing at Tillamook Head, a massive chunk of basalt extending into the Pacific. Sometimes you can spot pelicans or an eagle. You can also dig for razor clams. Three to six inches long, razors have a rich flavor similar to that of abalone, and when sautéed in a little butter they melt in your mouth. Typically, the season runs from October to mid–July. (At press time, clamming was prohibited due to toxic levels of algae; for updates call the Oregon Department of Agriculture's shellfish hotline: 800-448-2474.)
A short hop from the beach, in the three–block downtown, the Gearhart Ocean Inn has light, airy rooms and a big lawn where guests play croquet and badminton. Across the street, the Gearhart Grocery sells everything from Willamette Valley wine and fresh Willapa Bay oysters to sand pails and postcards. In the same block, a red–and–white–striped awning shades Pop's Sweet Shop, where you can linger over a scoop of huckleberry ice cream—or one of 23 other flavors—on the outdoor patio. Just up the street, the Trail's End Art Center gives classes and workshops in watercolor, portraiture, and oil painting.
Step into any of the shops along Pacific Way and you may feel as if you've stumbled upon an attic stuffed with treasure. Walter Daggatt stocks his store of the same name with 19th–century armoires, food containers, and porcelain that he purchases during annual trips to China and Ireland. Down the street at Pacific Crest Cottage, linens, quilts, silver, ironstone pottery, soaps, and lotions crowd the tops of handpainted vintage furniture. Next door at Fitzgeralds, you'll discover made–in–Gearhart birdhouses and Adirondack chairs in the garden amid the rare perennials. Inside a small cottage, you'll find more sophisticated household items—from mouth–blown glass plates to thick towels handwoven in Portugal.
The only restaurant on Gearhart's main street is the Pacific Way Bakery & Café; it's fantastic. Several years ago, a writer from Food & Wine magazine visited and wrote, "It is probably the happiest restaurant I have ever been to." The Allens opened the eatery 18 years ago. "It was actually raining inside the building when we bought it, and there were creatures living in it," says John, whose experience in construction helped him create the interior's cozy atmosphere, with hand–built alder farm tables, honey–colored fir floors, and paneled walls hung with photographs. While John is responsible for much of the interior design, Lisa does the baking. On weekends, people line up to buy her marionberry scones and pecan sticky buns. For the adjoining restaurant, she bakes several types of homemade bread, including cheddar onion, molasses oatmeal, seeded sourdough, and French. But don't fill up on carbs: You'll also want to sample the garlicky Caesar salad, the crab cakes topped with pineapple relish, the prosciutto–wrapped scallops resting on smoky tomato polenta, and the malted milk ice cream.
Some 1,000 people live in Gearhart year–round; that number swells to 5,000 in the summer when families rent homes and condos here. Yet even on sunny beach days, Gearhart feels uncrowded—except when several hundred children and adults march down Pacific Way in the Fourth of July parade. The Astoria Marching Band, a corgi dog–walking group, and lots of kids riding decorated bicycles all take part in the homespun procession that ends at the fire hall, where the volunteer fire department serves free hot dogs and cold sodas. By July 5, the corgis have gone home, the bikes are in street dress, the firefighters are on their regular routine—and Gearhart quiets down and returns to simple pleasures for another year.
Photography by Dan Frank
This article was first published in July 2005. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
Area code is 503 unless noted. Pick up AAA's Oregon & Washington map and TourBook and Northwestern CampBook. For more information, contact the Seaside Visitors Bureau, 738-3097, (888) 306-2326, www.seasideor.com .
TO DO AND SEE
Bud's Campground Clam–digging instruction, permits ($6.50 for Oregon residents, $16.50 for out–of–state visitors), and equipment (shovels; clam guns starting at $9.95). 4412 Hwy. 101, 738-6855, (800) 730-6855. Gearhart Golf Links Beautiful 18–hole public course. 1157 N. Marion Ave., 738-3538, www.gearhartgolflinks.com . Trail's End Art Center 656 A St., 717-9458.
Gearhart Grocery Sandwiches piled with a quarter pound of meat, perfect for beach picnics.
599 Pacific Way, 738-7312. Grandma's Country Kitchen Dinner plate–size pancakes and design–your–own omelets at breakfast. 4030 Hwy. 101, 738-7098. Pacific Way Bakery & Café 601 Pacific Way, 738-0245. Pop's Sweet Shop 567 Pacific Way, 738-8484. Recreation Lanes Restaurant & Lounge Delicious burgers and milk shakes at a bowling alley. 3518 Hwy. 101, 738-5333. Sand Trap Bar & Grill Filet mignon, roast prime rib, and fish–and–chips in the Gearhart Golf Links clubhouse restaurant. 1157 N. Marion Ave., 717-8502.
Gearhart by the Sea $75–$214. Basic ocean–view condos with kitchens. (800) 547-0115, www.gearhartresort.com . Gearhart Ocean Inn $60–$205. 67 N. Cottage Ave., (800) 352-8034, www.gearhartoceaninn.com . Northwind Vacation Rentals (800) 488-3301, www.northwindrentals.com .