News 12 of 31

Family vacation time on Washington's Cranberry Coast

(News Item #0214, Published: 06/17/10, Seattle Times Newspaper)

At the tip of Westport's marina sit 25 luxury condos that boast granite shower surrounds, wood and stone interiors and a private clubhouse.

But to get there, you first walk past a motel that looks like it's been transplanted from Aurora Avenue North, and an RV parking lot. Pelicans and gulls flock overhead, chasing fishing boats returning to port. In the space of a couple of hundred yards, you start to get a feel for the area's seafaring roots and its upscale ambitions — ambitions largely tanked by the economic downturn.

My family has joined another family from Seattle for a long weekend to check out Washington's Cranberry Coast, as it's named in tourist brochures. It's the 20 miles or so of Pacific Ocean waterfront that stretches from Grays Harbor on the north to Willapa Bay on the south.

On a good day, it's just a 2 & ½-hour drive from Seattle, and it represents the quickest route to the coast for much of Puget Sound. But the stretch can often be overlooked, with many tourists each summer heading north to Ocean Shores or south to Oregon.

There's plenty to explore along the Cranberry Coast, from the surreal sights of Washaway Beach to the idyllic Tokeland Hotel. A highlight for us is the beachfront rental home we find at a reasonable price, allowing us to roam the coast with almost nobody in sight. Prices for rental homes range from about $100 to $300 a night, depending on the size and location. The beach is rugged, open, wild. Sunsets are spectacular.

There's no doubt we caught Westport at a bad time. The entire main drag is dug up, as crews install drains under the streets to mitigate the flooding that comes when winter storms send seawater crashing over the breakwater. The project was supposed to be finished by Memorial Day, but to the consternation of shopkeepers who rely on seasonal business, it's dragging on.

But beyond the road works, it's clear the town is struggling. The recent real-estate boom led to grand visions such as a Scottish-style links golf course. These days, the half-built course is getting overtaken by weeds. Some storefronts sit empty. The private ferry that once brought tourists across the harbor from Ocean Shores has stopped running.

Some of the town's struggles may have forced Westport to refocus on its attributes. It's the gateway to miles of beautiful coastline and home to some great surfing at what locals call Half Moon Bay. And it remains a destination for people wanting to fish.

Where they're biting

I catch up with Kody Posey, 18, a senior at Centralia High School who has been bonding with his metalwork class on a fishing charter boat, under the guidance of instructor Ray Smith. It's Posey's first time on the ocean and it turns out he's a natural, hauling in 26 sea bass, enough to hit his own quota and help his friends hit theirs — including one friend who found himself too seasick to fish.

"We were on a secret spot," Posey says. "I definitely want to try it again."

Prices for a seat on a charter boat start at about $115 a day for fish such as bass and the most popular summer mainstay, salmon. For the adventurous, there's deep-sea tuna fishing, which can run $500 or more for a day and a half.

"Westport remains a working fishing town," says Karen Horton, who has run the Basket House Gift Shop on the pier for 28 years. "It's a working fishing town that tourists come to visit."

Traveling south from Westport through Grayland, you can take the inland road to see the cranberry bogs. These vast fields of rust-colored cranberry vines grow in a mix of sand and peat, and resemble heather. In the fall, you can watch the harvest. Some farmers flood their bogs to pluck their berries while others dry-harvest, which is more time consuming but is said to produce better-quality fruit for the fresh market.

Relentless ocean

South of Grayland is Washaway Beach. The myriad signs at access points give ample warning of the dangers of falling debris and strong tides. If you do choose to walk along the beach — and you have been warned — it's a strange experience.

The sea has been chomping away at this particular stretch of coastline for 100 years, sending roads and homes tumbling into the ocean, even threatening a graveyard at one point. You can look out across the Pacific and see metal rebar sticking up through the waves.

Along the shore, we notice a huge chunk of turf sitting in the middle of the beach, with the grass still growing. Homes sit perilously close to the edge, or are simply falling off piece by piece. Horses graze atop a bank teetering six or seven feet above the driftwood below. One homeowner with a grim sense of humor has put up a sign: "Willy B. Next." Lying in the sand we find a small shard of a Windermere real estate sign. Beachfront property, anyone?

When we tell the kids that recent storms have exposed a shipwreck, they are excited. It turns out there is not much left of it — if indeed it is the wreck written about in the papers in January — but we are able to see metal rivets popping out of the sand, forming a ghostly outline of the vessel. The kids play on planks that may once have been the deck.

A lone surfer at Washaway Beach navigates a grinding right-handed break, getting better waves than anyone in Westport. But it takes a brave soul to be out there, alone, among the debris.

We stop farther south for lunch at the Tokeland Hotel, a highlight of the trip. Originally built as a homestead in 1885 and since expanded and restored, the hotel has high wooden ceilings with windows overlooking the hotel grounds and Willapa Bay beyond. The dining room has a casual feel — there is even a dog lying at the foot of one table — and the spicy crab corn chowder is delicious and reasonably priced.

The kids love running around outside the hotel, where there is a chicken coop and an expanse of grass. We decide it would make an excellent venue for a small wedding. The rooms in the hotel are quaint and downright cheap, although some may find the rough-hewed wooden walls and shared bathrooms a little too authentic.

To the top of the light

Farther north, we climb the 135 steps to the top of the Grays Harbor Lighthouse, which at 107 feet is the tallest lighthouse in Washington and worth the $5 charge. The same forces that have been taking all that sand from Washaway Beach have been delivering sand here, pushing the lighthouse further and further inland.

The volunteers who show us the lighthouse, Mary and Jerry Glazman, are a retired couple who travel in their RV, volunteering at different places across the country. Even though they've been in the area just a couple of weeks, they've so immersed themselves in the history of the lighthouse you would think they had grown up there.

"It's a good way to get to know an area and the people," says Mary. "It's better than just stopping overnight."

For us, our two nights are up. We leave wishing we had more time to explore and unwind.