The Long Beach Peninsula bills itself as the longest beach in the world. That’s a big claim, but when I headed there last weekend, I had one question: Was it long enough for me? The peninsula thrusts itself into the ocean like a swimmer testing the waters with an outstretched arm. It’s only two miles wide but 25 miles long. Packed into that strip are parks, wildlife, charming towns, oysters, berries, creative restaurants and more sand than you could possibly ever use.
To the west is the Pacific Ocean, to the south is the Columbia River and to the north and east is Willapa Bay – the U.S. Pacific coast’s second-largest and cleanest estuary.
The urban center of the peninsula is the city of Long Beach, a town not in short supply of T-shirt shops, amusement centers, ice cream parlors and tattooed tourists.
I started my day at Marsh’s Free Museum. The name is a feint – this really is just a large gift shop full of shells, cedar boxes and beach kitsch. But it also is home to Jake the Alligator Man. The mummified half-man, half-alligator might be of dubious parentage, but he’s spawned an enthusiastic fan club.
Shortly after leaving Marsh’s, I heard the siren of a police car as it led a dozen boisterous women down Long Beach’s main drag. They were contestants in the “Bride of Jake” contest, part of an annual birthday celebration for the desiccated specimen. The party included bands, a car show and, on Friday night, a bachelor party. Jake’s stunt double had a place of honor on the entertainment stage – the real Jake is too fragile to leave his display case at Marsh’s.
Long Beach is mostly free of the historical murals that infect so many small towns. Instead it opts for giant kitchenware. Outside Marsh’s is a pair of red chopsticks as long as flag poles and across the street is a frying pan that could, and apparently once did, feed a small town. A sculpture of a clam is bigger than a nearby orca. This is a town that has its priorities straight. You can’t eat orcas.
MARSH’S FREE MUSEUM
409 S. Pacific Ave., Long Beach
While the pastry case at downtown Long Beach’s Cottage Bakery was tempting, I headed just south to Seaview, a town with beach cottages so cute you want to pinch their cheeks. An inordinate number of good restaurants hold court here. The 42nd Street Café and The Depot Restaurant offer some of the best meals in southwest Washington, but I opted for lunch at the Shelburne Inn. Lush plantings surround the bed and breakfast that has been operating continuously since 1896. I had a smoked wild Chinook sandwich paired with a cup of mussel chowder for $13. As I dined, a staffer snipped off a sprig of fennel in the garden to flavor the drinking water. The Inn has a pub, restaurant and rooms.
THE SHELBURNE INN BED AND BREAKFAST
4415 Pacific Way, Seaview
THE DEPOT RESTAURANT
1208 38th St., Seaview
42ND STREET CAFÉ
4201 Pacific Way, Seaview
The peninsula is home to a thriving cranberry industry. While those won’t be harvested until fall, blueberries were just ripening during my visit. I pulled into 1,200-acre Cranguyma Farms, a U-Pick organic cranberry, blueberry and holly farm north of Long Beach. Expecting to see hoards of people, I instead found five twenty-somethings from Portland stuffing themselves and 10 pounds of just-picked blueberries into a Prius.
Blueberry bushes eight feet tall stretched as far as the eye could see. At $1.75 per pound, it was like I had stumbled into Ali Baba’s cave and had it all to myself.
Sandridge Road at 113th Lane, Long Beach
Nahcotta, on the bay side, is the center of the peninsula’s oyster industry. (Other centers are in South Bend, Bay Center and at river mouths around Willapa Bay.) Mountains of oyster shells crowd the streets and the harbor in Nahcotta. Oyster dredges and other boats tie up at the marina.
From Nahcotta, a visitor can look east to Long Island and the patchwork quilt that covers the Willapa Hills on the mainland.
After grabbing a quick snack at Bailey’s Bakery and Café, I stepped into the Willapa Bay Interpretive Center, run by the Port of Peninsula. Volunteer Nancy Shotwell was showing off historical photos and artifacts, ready to answer any questions about the oystering that surrounded us on all sides.
“I can actually step out and say, ‘That’s what I’m talking about,’” she said.
Shotwell’s family has long been involved in the Willapa Bay oyster industry. Her brother’s operation is based just across the bay at the North Nemah River.
Shotwell said the center stays away from controversial issues in oyster farming. Debates have arisen over spraying for ghost shrimp and controlling marine grasses. And rising levels of ocean acidity that might be caused by climate change have been killing off oyster spat (think baby oysters) in recent years.
PORT OF PENINSULA
273rd Street at Sandridge Road, Nahcotta
Just north of Nahcotta is arguably Washington’s most picturesque village, Oysterville. The town is so small (full-time residents count their numbers on two hands) that it has no stoplights and only one business, Oysterville Sea Farms, where a customer was purchasing oysters for grilling when I stopped in.
During my visit, a wedding was taking place in town, or more precisely, all over town. The wedding party, led by Olympia band Artesian Rumble Arkestra, walked from the town’s red-and-white 1892 church to the bay and then to the 1907 school during the proceedings. Watching from her home across the street from the church was Sydney Stevens, the unofficial historian of Oysterville.
“My great-grandfather built that church, so I feel a little proprietary about it,” Stevens said. Her ancestor, R.H. Espy, founded the town along with I.A. Clark in 1854. Stevens and her husband, Nyel, live in a house that’s been in her family since 1902.
The entire 80-acre town is on the Register of National Historic Districts, which gives the village a Brigadoon feel, forever locked in the 1800s and without an iota of the tourist trappings of Long Beach.
“It’s a magical place in some ways. We love it,” Stevens said as five sailboats sailed just off her backyard.
Oysterville peaked around 1870, Stevens said, when San Francisco was shucking, sucking and slurping Willapa Bay oysters as fast as they could get them. The town originally was the seat for Pacific County, but townsfolk from South Bend kidnapped the county records one February night in 1893 and took them across the bay where they remain to this day.
“We’ll never forgive them. Never,” Stevens said with mock outrage.
OYSTERVILLE SEA FARMS
It goes all wild at the northern tip of the peninsula. Stackpole Road passes through the lush rain forest of Leadbetter Point State Park before ending just inside the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge occupies various tracts of land in the bay, including Long Island, but this is one of its most accessible units. Miles of trail cut through forest, grassland and beach and reach both shores of the peninsula.
You won’t get phone service here at the edge of the continent, but you will get buzzed – by birds and bugs.
WILLAPA NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE
The sun was getting low when I pulled into Jimella and Nanci’s Market Café in Klipsan Beach. The cafe is the descendant of the fabled Ark Restaurant in nearby Nahcotta owned by Nanci Main and Jimella Lucas. The pair downsized when they sold The Ark several years ago. (The Ark later closed.) Their new space has only 12 tables, but the food hasn’t reduced in quality. Main, who works the front of the house, told me she misses the bakery and the view of The Ark but enjoys the ability to talk with all of her customers.
I dined on albacore tuna (caught just 35 miles off shore, Main told me) wrapped in bacon and served with vegetables, corn relish and a garlic aioli ($29). It came with Lucas’ signature garnish of edible flowers.
JIMELLA AND NANCI’S MARKET CAFÉ
21712 Pacific Way, Klipsan Beach
With the heat turned down a notch, I headed to the beach. Though there is access up and down the peninsula, the most popular point is off Bolstad Avenue in Long Beach. The mostly paved Discovery Trail that starts eight miles away in Ilwaco ends just north of there. It’s popular with walkers and all manner of human-powered devices. A half-mile long boardwalk that rises above the sandy dunes is accessed there as well.
This is tough, Northwest beachin’. The sand is fine, and there’s plenty of it, but the waters are cold and the currents treacherous. Plus there are creatures seldom seen on beaches: Jeeps, Fords and Subarus. Driving on the beach is legal – and popular.
A few kites were in the air when I got there. Those will multiply exponentially Aug. 20-26 during the Washington State International Kite Festival.
Jim Schwarz was reeling in the last of his eight kites to the disappointment of daughter Marissa, 8. Along with mom Victoria Kidd-Schwarz, older daughter Vanessa, 14, and Labradoodle Cokkie, the family was ending a day trip from their home in Vancouver. A sand castle worthy of Harry Potter rose nearby.
Kidd-Schwarz said the beach was “packed like sardines” when they arrived in the morning. The family was forced to make a day trip when they couldn’t find any motel rooms at the last minute.
Though there are 2,000 rooms plus homes to rent and campsites, those can fill up quickly when the hottest weather of the year is forecast.
As the sun sank into the Pacific, I watched horse riders, cyclists and surf splashers as far as I could see squeeze every last moment out of the fading light. Longest beach in the world? I don’t know. Long enough? Definitely.