Thundering surf provides the sound track as a park goes electric for the holidays.
When Coos Bay shipping and timber tycoon Louis J. Simpson set out to build a summer home a century ago, he chose perhaps the most dramatic setting on Oregon's south coast. The surf-battered promontory near Cape Arago overlooks a reef where seals and sea lions bask as migrating gray whales surface in the distance. A three-story mansion, tennis courts, riding stables, Roman baths, and magnificent formal gardens made Simpson's Shore Acres a shining example of extravagant good taste. Today, only the gardens and gardener's cottage remain—fire and bankruptcy claimed the rest—and it is in winter, after sunset, that the grand estate shines brightest.
Now the centerpiece of Shore Acres State Park, the gardens are transformed into a fantasyland during the annual Holiday Lights at Shore Acres, held from Thanksgiving to New Year's Eve. What began in 1987 as a community event has become a tradition that last year attracted nearly 45,000 visitors. More than 1,500 volunteers adorn the gardens with a quarter-million colored lights. Dazzling animated displays depict a life-size orca performing a balletic half turn in midair, a gray whale breaching and spouting, frogs leaping in a Japanese lily pond, and diving dolphins surrounded by crabs and jellyfish.
Seals and sea lions loiter on Simpson Reef and Shell Island just off Cape Arago, the largest marine mammal resting site on the Oregon coast. North Cove Trail offers beach-level views.
The park is 13 miles southwest of the adjoining towns of Coos Bay and North Bend (where Simpson's mill was located). You can feel like a timber baron yourself by staying at Coos Bay Manor, a stately five-bedroom mansion built in 1912 by a paper mill owner from Finland. It's a short hop from there to Benetti's, a waterfront Italian restaurant serving grilled salmon topped with Dungeness crab, prosciutto-wrapped asparagus, and authentic spumoni.
Winter might seem the wrong season for a weekend at the coast, but the beaches are deserted and the surf is spectacular. When my wife and I weren't feasting on fresh crab or walking the sands of Horsfall Beach north of Coos Bay, we hiked the cliff-top trail that links Sunset Bay State Park, a mile north of Shore Acres, to Cape Arago, a mile south. The barking of sea lions carried on the wind as swells met the sandstone formations below us and boomed skyward with breathtaking fury. At dusk we returned to the gardens as they bloomed with lights, and cars streamed into the park. Simpson bought this property as a Christmas surprise for his wife, Cassie, but ultimately it has become a gift to all.
Photography by R. C. Hall
This article was first published in November 2008. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.