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Oregonians Dennis and Peggy Awtrey entertain guests at their hillside B&B. (Photograph by Susan Seubert)

Pacific Northwest Neverland: Manzanita

In July, I fly to Portland and drive two hours to the Oregon coast, then turn south of Manzanita. By the time I pull up at Big Wave, a glorified diner at the top of town, it’s 58 degrees under a cotton white sky. A brisk wind has the pines flailing. At the far end of Laneda Avenue, the broad stretch of immaculate sand is all but deserted. I’m wearing a fleece for the first time since May.

Then the razor clams arrive. They’ve been pulled from the Pacific, lightly breaded, grilled until golden. I take a bite, then sip the Eola Hills Pinot Gris that’s sold by the glass, an ancillary benefit of finding a beach destination that’s barely an hour from a major wine region.

By the time I’m digging into warm marionberry pie, my frustrations about the weather have dissipated into the salt air. It doesn’t look like summer here, but it sure tastes like it.

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Manzanita break: A salty mural announces Big Wave Cafe, owned by chef Brian Williams. (Photograph by Susan Seubert)

A village of shingled houses and tall pines nestled between two state parks, Manzanita is as unspoiled as American beach towns get. It’s a mature, considered destination that attracts those who’ve been all over and prefer its restrained sensibility.

You won’t find billboards, carnival rides, packs of teenagers, lines at the ice-cream stand. “There are no hordes,” says six-foot-ten Dennis Awtrey, who attracted enough attention while playing in the NBA.

Seeking tranquility and a view of the water, Awtrey and his wife, Peggy, moved to Manzanita two years ago. Their stunningly modern house, designed by the same firm–Cutler Anderson Architects–that co-designed Bill Gates’s in Seattle, doubles as a bed-and-breakfast.

In a ponytail and purple slippers, Awtrey cooks crab quiche and other specialities for guests every morning, two couples at most because two rooms is the Tillamook County limit for lodgings run in conjunction with a residence. It’s that kind of place.

In fact, the Oregon coast may be America’s most understated stretch of tourist-friendly shoreline. “The road from Portland wasn’t even completed until the early 1940s,” says Tom Mock, a retiree who runs the local historical society. Summer days range from chilly to glorious, but almost never get hot enough to compel you to dive into the ocean.

That tends to weed out the party animals, the tour groups, the bucket listers. Nobody ever sang about Oregon Dreamin’ or wished they all could be Oregon girls. But even in the context of the Oregon shore, Manzanita remains a hidden gem. To the south, the Tillamook Cheese Factory has an Epcot air. To the north, Cannon Beach, crammed with galleries, manicured inns, and No Parking signs.

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There is plenty of real estate for sand castles at seven-mile-long Neahkahnie Beach, in Manzanita, on the northern Oregon coast. (Photograph by Susan Seubert)

Not Manzanita, which is speckled with small shops and restaurants that are actually frequented by locals, both the 600-odd permanent residents and a sizable population out of Portland, Seattle, and beyond that keeps second homes. You’ll find them downing beers at the San Dune, buying organic produce at the farmers market in the center of town, and consulting tide tables at Manzanita News & Espresso.

Walking down Laneda, I revel in the absence of familiar brands. There’s a sandwich shop called Bread and Ocean. Salt and Pepper sells stationery–and taffy. I wander into the Cloud and Leaf, the “last remaining bookstore in the county,” according to owner Jody Swanson, and a gathering place for readings, intelligent conversation, and musical acts.

At the end of the street I reach the shore. The tide is low, and the dun-colored sand seems to stretch for half a mile before it reaches the ocean. Nearly everyone I see–young or older, man or woman–wears the same uniform: a cap, a sweatshirt, shorts. A dog at the end of a leash is optional.

Manzanita is in high season, it occurs to me, looks like Cape Cod in October. I step onto the beach feeling unfettered, channeling the town’s ambient spirit. Without a moment’s thought, I break into a run.

This piece, written by Bruce Schoenfeld, first appeared in the June/July 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine. 

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