Friday, July 18, 2008

The Olympic Peninsula: Rain Forest and Coast

Pacific Northwest beach vacations are pretty funny. Don’t get me wrong- the beaches are wildly, profoundly beautiful, often teeming with wildlife. But the thing is, you pack up to go on a seaside vacation in which, unless you have a thick wetsuit (and I mean thick, because even then, when the water hits the zipper, you will bark like a seal that wishes it had more blubber), you will not be participating in anything that involves actually swimming in the frigid, frigid waters. Most of the pricier hotels do not have swimming pools, heated or otherwise, as the refreshing nature of the coastal weather does not generally inspire one to strip down to uncover that much skin. The Wickaninnish, in Tofino? Pricey, yes. Pool? Nuh-uh. Kalaloch Lodge? Nope, although I will say, since it’s a national park concessionaire, you should expect to pay a lot for location, and not expect much in the way of frills. The nicer inns and hotels of the San Juan Islands and Oregon and Washington coast? No. No, no, no. Swimming is not a part of a Pacific Northwest beach vacation. Did I mention I went surfing in Tofino? Yeah. The waves were great. But seriously, seals bark the way they do (this assertion might not be based on thorough scientific research) because the water is bloody frigid. Surfers in the Pacific Northwest are deeply incented not to wipe out, because every time you plunge into the water (even with a wetsuit that seems as if it would keep the boniest of Hollywood actresses warm in Antarctic waters) you are reminded that it is joltingly, bitterly cold.
I took quite a while to get my head around the idea that we would go to the beach so that we could do things like take walks, check out tidal life, and generally enjoy the outdoors, fresh sea air, but not go in the water. I am not a native Northwesterner that way; to me, it seems rather foolish to take the trouble to head to a beach that requires, much of the time, polarfleece and Gortex rather than bathing suits (people do bring them... for the hot tub). However, a couple of years ago, we made the trek out to Tofino, and although it did, indeed, involve lots of polarfleece and hot coffee rather than bathing suits and lemonade, it was great. The kids, being little natives, were happy as could be wearing fleece while identifying the many kinds of sea stars, anemones and other tidal life. And… I complained about how cold the surfing was, but the vacation was, I admit, wonderful, if a little… odd.
The beauty, though, is an easy sell. Sure, the water is often frigid (although if it is coming a ways across the sand on a warm day, you might be able to roll up your pants and get your toes damp without numbing them instantly), but the seastacks, the sea life, the eagles, the sense of enormous, lonely, untamed space- all of those things are deeply alluring. And the rain forest has an otherwordly, surreal (and slightly creepy, particularly on a damp day, when the forest as a whole feels like a damply breathing single, enormous creature) loveliness that makes it fascinating. We saw salmon fry (below), taking shelter in bladderwort in a stream so limpidly gin-clear as to be the Platonic ideal of it. The mosses, the verdant, damp air; it seems impossible that the world of the temperate rainforest is the same world that we are normally part of. Walking through it is remarkable, wondrous and amazing (and cliche-filled when one tries to describe it, but that doesn't make it less astounding). Although banana slugs? Still gnarly, gigantic blobs of mobile snot.We stayed at Seabrook, a planned vacation community on the coast, just south of Pacific Beach (and for those of you who love a funny name, a bit south of Moclips. Humptulips is not too far a drive).
I was immensely curious about it, having read about it in the New York Times and other spots, and I really, really wanted to see if it was creepy or sweetly charming in its lack of irony. Turns out? It's a bit of both. All of the construction is so new and squeaky-clean that it feels almost like a stage set. Rosy-cheeked children go by on bicycles... and I will digress for a rant. Most people there do not wear helmets, which I think is idiotic (um... although I took the bike out of the garage at our rented house to take a quick peek around, and was then totally and deservedly busted by Curly and my parents for riding, however briefly, without a helmet). It makes me nuts the way so many people seem to think that since it's vacation, they won't get hurt. Accidents on bikes aren't something that happen only because of the skill of the cyclist. Cars, pedestrians, animals... cyclists don't get to control the unexpected, outside factors that contribute to a crash. Helmets are a cheap way to protect against death and permanent brain damage (I say this as someone who has been hit by a teenaged driver while I was riding a bike, and also thinking of my friend's husband, who is out of ICU but still in the hospital, and my own dad, who once cracked his helmet when a car knocked him). Anyway. Back to the travel discussion.
Seabrook, in terms of its appearance, can't entirely decide if it wants to be a Pacific beach town, or... Nantucket of the Pacific NW. The all-American visual charm that they strive for is, to my eye, a little bit too generalized. But that doesn't mean that it lacks charm; despite the contrivances, it has an abundance of charm. And I have to say, the total lack of irony, the orientation towards putting people in circumstances where they rub elbows (small lots, things like communal fire pits, fields, even horseshoes and shuffleboard), is... well, cool. Does the snarky part of me feel a little uncomfortable with that, and briefly glance around to see what the catch is? Sure. But sometimes Wholesome Good Fun is... actually fun.The rates for the houses aren't cheap, but compared to similar houses renting in the local market, they're competitive, and are fairly thoughtfully and very comfortably kitted out (for cooks, vacation house kitchens are always, always an issue, and Seabrook is no exception in this case). The restaurant in the development, Cafe Tashtego, is pleasant, casual and has pretty good food. Curly and my boy, being little cheese fiends, were delighted that the restaurant has a decent cheese plate. A basket with s'mores fixings is left in the house, which encourages people to go ahead and use that communal fire pit, where they might chat casually (and I did), with the other people there. The nearby beach has a windswept beauty. All three of the kids tossed balls around (the picture below is of Stumpy and the Incredible Eating Nephew tossing around a football in the sea mist), flew kites, skipped rocks, played Biggest Kabloosh, dug sand forts against the encroaching tide and generally wore themselves with wholesome, fresh-air activities, including a longer stroll down to the beach that involved spotting someone's placement of gnomes on the wooded path. Curly and my boy want to bring some gnomes along when we return, so that they can add to the wholesomely whimsical gnome-i-ness of the wooded path. So although I found some of the sincere, wholesome, All-American charm a little disconcerting, I would, without question, go back. Stage-set squeaky-clean-ness or not, a place (in a gorgeous location) that gets you talking to the neighbors is nice. Not blandly nice, but truly pleasant. And it's in a beautiful location, and..., well, I'm checking what they have available that I can afford in August, because although it would mean closing the door on a chance at going to Fairburn Farm (my life might not be, erm... deprived) this summer, it doesn't take a long (though beautiful) ferry ride and quite a bit of driving to get there. However, visits to Fairburn Farm do not include frequent sightings of the below signs.


homebody at heart said...

Wow, it all looks so lovely, well except for the banana slugs. Ugh! The sea, the forests look so invitingly empty, so maybe that is the benefit of the northcoast weather. I love tide pooling and walking down a lonesome stretch of beach lost in thoughts... Sounds like you all had a wonderful vacation! (And, put the incredible eating nephew to work, sampling recipes you haven't tried yet, but know will get eaten, if they don't turn out!)

Krysta said...

those tsunami signs are everywhere on california beaches... they just have gone up in the last few months. so stange because the little guy they show running isn't going to make it.

chris said...

Well, call me a big dork but the next time we have to visit the in-laws in Seattle, I'm voting for a side trip to Seabrook. Those houses are gorgeous. Besides, by super hip BIL will hate it, which makes it all the more fun (almost as fun as making him go to Disney World).

Your photos are beautiful too.

Meg said...

Homebody- If you love a lonesome, windswept beach and tide pooling, the Olympic peninsula has them in abundance (so does the Oregon coast). The trade-off, of course, is the weather.

Krysta- it's pretty clear the climbing dude is doomed, isn't it? The signs have sprouted pretty recently here, too, although more over the last couple years than months. Mt. Rainier has volcano evacuation route signs, which... what's the point? If you're on a 14,000 foot volcano when it blows, things are probably not going to end well, no matter how closely you follow directions.

Chris- Even better, your super-hip BIL will WANT to hate it, and will probably end up liking it. I couldn't help raising my snarky eyebrows here and there, but it was great. Also, I liked it, so I'm hardly going to call you a dork.

Cote de Texas said...

What a fabulous post! How interesting. Myself, I like the beachwater HOT! South Padre Island is the beach for me thank you very much - the water is not cold - but it is also not nearly as beautiful as this. Great, great travelouge.

Thanks for your comment too!

Proud Italian Cook said...

I love the coastline of the Pacific Northwest, with all it's cold, wind and all! and have been there many times, thanks for letting me visit!

Meg said...

Joni- I'm pretty sympathetic to wanting the water to be warm; if I'm actually going to go IN it, I prefer it that way myself.

Proud Italian Cook- the Pacific coast is pretty incredible; thanks for stopping by to look.