Astoria, Oregon: Where Gritty History Meets Modern Sophistication

What is it that causes a destination to burrow deep in your heart, flooding you with the warmth of memories and an overwhelming urge to return?  How is that connection made? Is there a general, overall feeling or is it a specific event that is the catalyst for the spark that soon grows into a burning passion?  During our trip to Astoria, Oregon it took place in one solitary moment when we stumbled upon a woman walking her pet goat downtown on Commercial Street.  This isn’t farm country; bucolic smatterings of goats don’t dot the landscape here. But that one little snippet caused me to fall head over heels in love with this rugged coastal city and there was no turning back.  That moment was the consummate portrayal of Astoria’s authentic quirkiness and they own this distinction as a badge of honor. Instantly I was thirsty for more. The kids, meanwhile, were wide eyed and mystified that there was a woman taking her pet goat for a walk as if it were no big deal.  She and her goat sauntered along while we stood there, mouths most likely gaping wide open in awe.  
That unique edge is not the only character trait Astoria has to offer.  It’s rich maritime and logging history have given this Pacific Northwest enclave a gritty edge.  This city doesn’t put on airs; what you see is what you get, and the residents are unapologetic about that.  Nor should they be. I respect a place that owns its personality. But in recent years there has a been a growing juxtaposition in this blue collar community.  The arts are slowly introducing a hip and modern edge while there have been strides in historical preservation. This hipster influence is nothing like Portland (sorry Portland!  Love you, but we all know your hipster per capita ratio is rather high.) I loved the confluence of the two; the grit and historical roots keep the pretentiousness at bay, as the hip art community brings a slight sophistication and creative vibe.  
Long before the artists or the loggers arrived there was John Jacob Astor, the city’s namesake, and long before Astor there was Lewis and Clark.  This extensive and storied history awards Astoria the title of oldest American settlement west of the Rockies. Let’s face it, if you grew up in the west, that is practically ancient by our standards as our region is relatively young when compared to the East Coast and the rest of the world.  

The historical significance of the Lewis and Clark Expedition led to the establishment of Lewis and Clark National Historic Park in 1958.  This park was the first stop during our whirlwind 24 hour stay in Astoria. My hope was that the kids would develop a more personal relationship with these celebrated explorers and come to understand their importance in American history, and was also an opportunity to begin the introduction of Native American heritage and culture. Lucas’ desire to earn his junior ranger badge helped engage his interest with these lessons and our own exploration of Fort Clatsop, the Corps of Discovery’s winter home spring their stay in the PNW. The visit was a stark lesson on how primitive their accommodations were during their stay. My back ached just looking at those wooden bunks. The 1800s was long before the luxury of memory foam and Sleep Number! The other aspect that struck me was the writing.  During our visit of the fort we attempted to write with a quill and ink. Although they were seasoned at this technique, I still can’t imagine it was completely effortless for Meriwether Lewis to log of all his notes and observations. Just one of the many examples of the grit necessary to be an explorer I guess.
Aside from our education on the challenging life of an explorer in the 1800s, we roamed under the dense canopy of Sitka spruce, Douglas fir, Hemlock, and Alder, humbled to think we were walking in the footsteps of the Corps of Discovery.  This old growth forest made me feel like one tiny little spec in our vast environment. All that they have lived through was humbling.
As we departed the park we may have left Lewis and Clark behind, but not our historical education.  The second lesson was located in town at the Columbia River Maritime Museum. This celebration of the city’s maritime culture was evident in the volumes of artifacts and exhibits on display.  Over 30,000 objects, 20,000 photos, a research library, a full size rescue vessel, and the lightship Columbia. Typically the thought of visiting a “boat museum” garners as much appeal as a root canal.  The moment I think of a museum like this I am immediately transported back in time to when I was nine and my cousin and I were dragged to an airplane museum. The achingly boring experience is still painful to this day.  But much to my delight and surprise this prejudgement was simply that, a judgement based on no actual experience. When the museum closed I left wishing he had had more time. I feel that speaks volumes about the quality of both the museum and exhibits. There was something there for each of us:  I was absorbed with the boating history and infamous dangers of the Columbia River Bar passage to the Pacific Ocean, for Maddie it was the 3-D movie about penguins, and Lucas could have spent hours flipping switches on the boats and bouncing in the life rafts.  The life rafts were greatly appreciated because they offered my busy boy the opportunity to get a few of his wiggles out which run in endless supply. Our tour of the lightship Columbia taught me that not only was I not cut out for life as an explorer in the 1800s, but that living on a ship also had zero appeal.  The tight quarters and limited privacy were dreadful in their own right, but then compound that with the rolling seas and that was a recipe for disaster as far as my stomach and patience were concerned. Suffice to say I won’t be running off to join the navy any time soon.
Although the seafaring industry is not the economic boom it once was, it still plays a role in local commerce, albeit to a lesser degree.  Arts and beer in Astoria, like the rest of Oregon’s popular cities, have taken hold. Although I am not a beer lover, a local pub or brewery is a popular destination for us.  The casual atmosphere is our preference and they typically have an authentic grasp on the local flair. Buoy Beer Company fulfilled this demand and, truthfully, I really dug their logo (I can be won over so easily with a little good graphic design.)  As we walked through the doors the restaurant was full of roaring laughter, boisterous conversation, and the clinking of pints and silverware while servers bustled around the dining floor. Dinnertime was in full effect. Step one was to put our name on the waitlist.  Step two was to buy my son a new t-shirt since he had fallen on the wet cement walking over and was now whiny miserable while cloaked with a sodden shirt.  Some kids really know how to squeeze an additional souvenir out of their parents in the most creative of schemes; three cheers for unexpected expenses while traveling!  The lobby housed a glass floor where diners could watch the sea lions below. No sea lions this evening, but the thought of this glimpse into their little retreat left us all with the desire to return in hopes of catching a watching them during our next visit.  The restaurant was teeming with windows, all looking out onto the Columbia River and that dreaded Columbia River Bar. As I dined I was hypnotized while watching ships lazily plow their way out to sea under the cloak of grey clouds. With no storm on the horizon the bar was smooth crossing.
Our final history lesson materialized as we departed Buoy Brewery and headed to the historic Commodore Hotel.  Earlier, when I had checked in, the gentleman at the front desk greeted me with a warm welcome and a glass of wine.  It was like he just knew I had spent the last three hours confined in a car with my children and offered an empathetic beverage as if to say, “I got you.  I know how rough it can be traveling with kids.” Either that or they are just free to all guests. I am going to live in denial and stick with option one.  The hotel offered a modern minimalist vibe, but in a warm approach where every detail had been thought out so as not to feel cold and sterile. The hotel dates back to 1925, but sat empty and decaying from 1965 to 2007 until it was purchased and benefited from a $1.5 million makeover.  Commodore Hotel is now a boutique hotel with 18 rooms, also referred to as cabins. I splurged for a cabin with an en suite bathroom for added privacy and convenience because, well, kids. Our room was situated on the corner of Commercial Street and 14th so we were gifted with a bird’s eye view of downtown Astoria.  While not as busy as a large metropolitan city, it still offered me the opportunity to quietly observe locals going about their day.  This gave me a view for what life may be like in this sparkling Pacific Northwest gem. In the morning, I sat by the window and sipped my coffee, watching the world slowly wake up through the old rippled glass windows while the kids slept, savoring the quiet.  And as the world around us woke up we would begin our day and continue onto our next adventure, saying a fond farewell to Astoria’s historical charm through the rearview mirror while our hearts prayed for a return trip.

Helpful Links (click on name)

Hotel Commodore

Buoy Beer Company

Columbia River Maritime Museum

Lewis and Clark National Historic Park

Heritage Museum

Oregon Film MuseumOregon Film Museum