Winter storms, the mansions of lumber barons, and a sanctuary for shorebirds await along the Washington coast.
Travelers often overlook Washington's Grays Harbor. British captain George Vancouver did when he sailed north along the Pacific Coast in 1792. Northbound Oregonians and Californians often bypass it today for the more familiar Puget Sound. For those in the know, however, the area lures with seaside recreation, uncluttered beaches, and a lingering sense of history.
Two long spits of land, one from the north, the other from the south, embrace the harbor mouth and offer very different coastal experiences. Ocean Shores lies along the northern spit and Westport perches on the southern, with the twin cities of Aberdeen and Hoquiam between them where the highway divides.
Winter storms that churn out of the Gulf of Alaska and roll into the Pacific Northwest attract a different breed of traveler. Dozens of dedicated storm watchers flock to Ocean Shores to take in the fury. They snuggle down in cozy seaside lodgings, warmed by a fire and perhaps a glass of wine. When the storm subsides, they venture forth to see what it has left behind—driftwood, shells, and handcrafted, and highly prized, glass floats.
Kite flying transcends the seasons. Three local shops—Ocean Shores Kites, Cutting Edge Kites, and Cloud Nine Kite Shop—sell everything from inexpensive paper models to sophisticated Chinese fighting kites and provide instruction for neophytes.
Poke about the small shops in town and you're bound to discover many seaside staples—beach toys, clothing, saltwater taffy, fudge, and ice cream. Should a winter chill creep in, stop for a bowl of thick potato soup and Irish soda bread at Galway Bay Restaurant & Pub. Next door, the Galway Bay Trading Company greets patrons with an Irish verse, "May you have warm words on a cold evening, a full moon on a dark night, and the road downhill all the way to your door."
Oceanside accommodations range from modest motels to the luxurious. The plush Quinault Beach Resort was opened this year by the Quinault Indian Nation, with some upscale amenities—a day spa, a casino, and an activity center for the kids.
There are reasons to stop on the 48-mile drive from Ocean Shores to Westport. The area is reputed to host the largest concentration of shorebirds on the West Coast. Thousands of shorebirds stop each spring at Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge, just west of Hoquiam, to rest, feed, and store up fat reserves before completing a 15,000-mile round-trip journey that extends from the west coast of South America to Alaska's Yukon River delta. Northern harriers, wigeons, great blue herons, and Canada geese are among those taking up winter residence.
Cranberries grow in profusion along the harbor's southern end, earning it the nickname "Cranberry Coast." Oysters also thrive here. Brady's Oysters, near the Elk River, raises the tasty mollusks and sells them fresh, smoked, and canned.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Grays Harbor held the promise of sheltered deep water for mariners. When salmon was king, tiny Westport was a beehive of activity with dozens of charter boats and commercial craft. It's quieter now and most people come in spring for the whale-watching. Charter boats carry passengers off-shore to view the gray whales migrating to Alaska from March to May. Hard-core surfers provide entertainment for spectators.
The Westport Maritime Museum in the former Coast Guard Station tells the story of the town's history and its link to the sea. The building itself is a museum—a handsome, three-story structure built in the 1930s with six gables and a watchtower with widow's walk.
Captain Robert Gray, a New Englander, sailed his ship, the Columbia Rediviva, into broad Grays Harbor the same year that George Vancouver sailed on by. Together with Gray's discovery of the Columbia River in the spring of 1792, it was the basis for the American claim to the Oregon Country that included present-day Washington.
A dense coastal forest of Douglas fir, hemlock, and western red cedar grew right to the water's edge and extended 100 miles east to the Cascade Range. It was a lumberman's dream. In the late 19th century, thousands flocked to the area to work in the forests and mills. Grays Harbor became one of the leading deepwater ports in the world, primarily shipping lumber to the fast-growing cities in California.
The twin timber towns of Aberdeen and Hoquiam prospered and grew. Lumber barons erected great wooden mansions on the hills overlooking the harbor. In 1897, Robert Lytle built Hoquiam's Castle, 10,000 square feet on three floors with a formal parlor, tea room, and grand ballroom. For years the house, with its distinctive turreted shape and barn red exterior, has been open to the public for tours. This year, it became a bed-and-breakfast.
When timber heir Arnold Polson married in 1924, his bachelor uncle Robert gave him a 26-room Colonial Revival mansion designed by well-known Seattle architect Arthur Loveless. Talk about wedding gifts.
Today the house and its grounds are a museum and park open to the public. Furnishings and memorabilia donated by local residents relate the history of Grays Harbor County. In each of the rooms is a picture showing how it was furnished when the Polsons lived there.
Homeported in Aberdeen, the Lady Washington, a 170-ton tall ship, is a full-size replica of another ship commanded by Robert Gray. She's a beauty painted in period colors of bright blue, yellow, and red.
The Lady is not a museum piece. She's a working ship with a busy schedule, calling at ports in the Northwest and California. But she always returns and awaits those who will discover her and the often overlooked harbor waters she calls home.
Photography by Sean Arbabi
This article was first published in November 2000. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
All phone numbers are area code 360 unless noted. Pick up AAA's Oregon/Washington TourBook and Oregon/Washington map. For more information, contact Tourism Grays Harbor, 533-7895, (800) 621-9625, www.graysharbortourism.com ; the Ocean Shores Chamber of Commerce, 289-2451, (800) 762-3224, www.oceanshores.org ; and the Westport-Grayland Chamber of Commerce at 268-9422, (800) 345-6223, www.westportgrayland-chamber.org .
Where to Stay
Hoquiam's Castle, 515 Chenault Ave., Hoquiam. 533-2005, (877) 542-2785, www.hoquiamcastle.com . An 1897 mansion with five rooms from $95 to $140.
Guesthouse Inn & Suites, 701 E. Heron St., Aberdeen. 537-7460, (800) 214-8378, www.guesthouse.net . Located on the Wishkah River, Aberdeen's newest lodging has 60 rooms from $82 to $140.
Where to eat
Emily's, at the Quinault Beach Resort, 289-9466. Imaginative Northwest cuisine such as honey and cider glazed salmon with fresh apples and sweet onions.
Galway Bay Restaurant & Pub, 676 Ocean Shores Blvd. NW, Ocean Shores, 289-2300. Traditional Irish fare and spirits.
Mallard's Bistro & Grill, 118 E. Wishkah St., Aberdeen, 532-0731. A casual place good for lunch, serving up bratwurst platters, salads, and sandwiches.
Parma, 116 W. Heron St., Aberdeen, 532-3166. Northern Italian cuisine with homemade sauces, breads, and pastas.
What to do
Hoquiam's Castle, 533-2005, (877) 542-2785. Tour the 19th-century home of local lumber magnate Robert Lytle.
Polson Museum, 1611 Riverside Ave., Hoquiam, 533-5862. Displays of regional historical memorabilia. Winter hours are noon to 4 p.m., Saturday and Sunday or by appointment weekdays.
Lady Washington, Grays Harbor Historical Seaport, Aberdeen, (800) 200-5239, www.ladywashington.org . Dockside tours offered.
Whale-watching. March through May.
Winter Fanta-Sea, Ocean Shores, November 24-26, (360) 289-4094. Arts and craft show.
Polar Surf Challenge, Westport. January 13-14, (360) 268-9422. Winter surfing competition.
Sun Lovers Indoor Beach Bash, Ocean Shores. January 13-14, (360) 289-4411. Summer-themed family festival.