Exploring Astoria

Astoria is the oldest settlement west of the Rockies, and there’s more visible history here and in the surrounding vicinity than anywhere else along the Oregon coast. Two worthwhile museums (Columbia River Maritime Museum and the Flavel House) will give you a flavor of this port and cannery-city’s thriving past, and nearby Fort Clatsop, where the explorers Lewis and Clark wintered in 1805, takes you back even further. But look around the downtown core and you’ll see the “new” Astoria reclaiming its old buildings for new uses. And if you have time, drive around some of the old neighborhoods where Victorian-era homes are slowly being reclaimed.

In addition to the attractions below, the Uppertown Firefighters Museum, 2968 Marine Dr. (www.cumtux.org; [tel] 503/325-0920) can be a worthwhile stop for fans of vintage fires engines. They’ll see firefighting equipment from 1875 to the 1960s, including a horse-drawn fire engine. Admission by donation. The hours are erratic so call first to find out if it’s open.

There are several places in downtown where you can linger by the riverside atop the docks that once made up much of the city's waterfront. Stop by the Sixth Street Viewing Dock, where a raised viewing platform, as well as a fishing dock, enables you to gaze out at the massive Astoria-Megler Bridge, stretching for more than 4 miles across the mouth of the river. Also keep an eye out for sea lions. The best way to see the waterfront is aboard the restored 1913 streetcar operated by Astoria Riverfront Trolley (tel. 503/325-8790; http://homepage.mac.com/cearl/trolley). This trolley operates daily from noon to 7pm between Memorial Day and Labor Day and on a limited schedule other months. Rides are $1.

The Astoria waterfront is rapidly turning into a shoreline of waterfront condos and hotels, but you can still catch a glimpse of the old days on the waterfront on the east end of town at Pier 39, 100 39th St. (tel. 503/325-2502; www.pier39-astoria.com). Originally built in 1875, this cannery was home to Bumble Bee Seafoods, which was founded here in Astoria. Today the old cannery is the largest and oldest building on the waterfront, and inside you'll find displays on the cannery's history. The pier is also home to a brewpub and a coffeehouse. On the breakwater adjacent to Pier 39, sea lions can often be seen and heard.

Right in downtown Astoria, you'll find one of the most unusual wineries in the state. Shallon Winery, 1598 Duane St. (tel. 503/325-5978; www.shallon.com), specializes in fruit wines, but it is the unique whey wines that are winemaker Paul van der Veldt's greatest achievement. The Cran du Lait, made with local cranberries and whey from the Tillamook cheese factory, is surprisingly smooth and drinkable. Also look for the amazing chocolate-orange wine, a thick nectar that will make a chocoholic of anyone.

If you'd like to see what local artists are up to, stop by the gallery of Astoria Visual Arts, 453-A 11th St. (tel. 503/325-4589; www.astoriaarts.com), a nonprofit arts organization. For more regional art, visit the RiverSea Gallery, 1160 Commercial St. (tel. 503/325-1270; www.riverseagalleryastoria.com). At Lunar Boy Gallery, 1133 Commercial St. (tel. 866/395-1566; www.lunarboygallery.com), you'll find a truly bizarre selection of art derived from the worlds of graphic design, cartoons, and animated films. Adagio, 1174 Commercial St. (tel. 503/338-4825), an unusual high-end import store with a very eclectic selection, is also well worth a stop.

Watching the Whales

Every spring and winter, gray whales migrate along the Oregon coast, often passing within easy viewing distance. Though whalers nearly harpooned them to extinction, these 50-foot-long, 30-ton leviathans recovered following government protection. Now, approximately 18,000 whales ply the 6,000-mile route between the Bering Sea and Mexico, the longest-known migration of any mammal. Southbound whales pass the Oregon coast from early December to early February, peaking at about 30 whales per hour in the last half of December. Northbound whales are less concentrated, passing from March through June and peaking in late March. Several hundred gray whales live along the Oregon coast year-round. If you want to whale-watch, bring binoculars and try to position yourself on high ground so you can see the “blow,” the steamy exhalation whales make when they surface. Whale-watching excursions are available in Depoe Bay.

The Goonies in Astoria

It’s not all about the cult film The Goonies at the Oregon Film Museum, 732 Duane St. (www.oregonfilmmuseum.org), but there’s a lot of talk of that flick, not surprising as it was filmed in Astoria. Housed in the old Clatsop County Jail across from the Flavel House, this ingenious little museum allows visitors to make short films using three different Goonies-type sets (the museum then sends a video download of your film). So far, about 30 movies have been filmed in Oregon, and you’ll find information and clips of some of them here, plus general information on the movie-making business. (Nowadays, it’s TV series like “Portlandia” and “Grimm” that keep Oregon in the cinematic eye.) Half of the building is not a stage set but the real cells used in the Clatsop County Jail—and in The Goonies movie.

 The Very Big Mouth of the Columbia

The 14-mile-wide mouth of the Columbia River is a sight to behold, and the best place to behold it is from the South Jetty Overlook in Fort Stevens State Park (www.oregonstateparks.org), about 10 miles south of Astoria. Instead of turning left from Hwy. 101 to reach Fort Clatsop (see above), turn right and follow the signs to Fort Stevens State Park. You want Parking Lot C, where you’ll find a raised wooden platform that provides a view of the treacherous mouth of America’s second-longest river, where it empties into the Pacific. The river’s mouth is about a mile away to the north, but this is the closest you’ll come to seeing a sight that filled explorers Lewis and Clark with excitement and wonder when they encountered it in the winter of 1805. Shifting and blowing sands have added about a mile to the Pacific shoreline in the 200-plus years since Lewis and Clark arrived. Fort Stevens State Park has some good walking beaches and some excellent campgrounds popular with families; to reserve, go to the park’s website.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.