Saturday, June 19, 2010

Wet and Windy: wandering around in Astoria

Posted By on Sat, Jun 19, 2010 at 2:16 AM

There's something about this town with its marine climate mélange of fog, mist, rain and wind that makes me feel good. It could be an inherited sense of belonging in foul weather delivered genetically by my Welsh and Scottish antecedents.

Whatever it is, I feel a sense of euphoria just mucking about the streets of a town rooted in a tradition of hard work and life in conditions most people would never take given the opportunity.

Yet Astoria residents forge ahead despite it all and have created perhaps Oregon's most soulful town.

There's soul in the old buildings downtown and the charming Victorian hillside homes that once earned Astoria the appellation: "the San Francisco of the North."

Riding a bike or strolling along the waterfront trolley line pathway from the east end to the west end of town feels like much like being along San Francisco's embarcadero or along the Atlantic seaboard is some Maine seaport town.

Off Astoria's backstreets, there are the old weather beaten stone and wood buildings that recall a time when the town was a thriving timber and fish cannery community.

A community of Norwegians, Swedes and Finns- hard working, stoic people who left their indelible mark on the city.

Riding a bike west down the main drag (Lief Erickson Drive) you pass the old Suomi Hall and right across the street the now closed Finnish sauna.

Swinging left and looping back to town you pass the old union hall, once one of the main centers of life.

Climbing the hills, you weave through neighborhoods filled with colorfully painted, well-maintained Victorians on quiet streets.

Ever upward with burning legs the road leads to the Astoria Column a imposing 125-foot high tower. A climb of the column's 164 steps leads to an amazing view out over the mouth of the Columbia River to the north and west and the Lewis and Clark country spreading out to the south towards Fort Clatsop.

The winds howl. The mist gathers. It's only mist but when joined with the wind seems like a driving rain. It makes you wonder how the members of the Lewis and Clark expedition didn't go mad living in Fort Clatsop's cramped confines during a winter full of weather far worse that the mist and wind of this day.

Apart from the weather, the most notable thing about Astoria is the lack of development, the lack of McMansions, the obvious lack of any impact of speculators on the town's look.

But there is some development afoot in Astoria and for the most part it's appropriate as in the renovation of old canneries and turning them into hotels and restaurants.

Take the Cannery Pier Hotel and the Bridgewater Bistro in the nearby Red Building. Both the hotel and the Red Building were built in 1896 as part of the old Union Fish Co-op.

Today Bridgewater Bistro is brilliantly designed airy restaurant with extraordinary views out over the Columbia River.

The Cannery Pier of the most comfortable boutique hotels anywhere on the coast let alone the entire country.

A short distance from the hotel and bistro, the Nippon Maru cruise ship is docked. Its passengers spill out to take the trolley downtown or to the Columbia River Maritime Museum.

Beyond museums, Astoria has is one of Oregon's most vital arts communities. From painting to photography, theater and music, there's a lot to choose from here. The upcoming (June 18 to 27) Astoria Music Festival offers a variety of classical music including Alban Berg's challenging and theatrically gripping opera, "Wozzeck".

The local arts and the scene are both dutifully reported on in the Hipfish Monthly, the local indie paper.

One of the paper's columns relates the adventures of a female cyclist dubbed "Madame Vela". In a recent bit on how to survive the tourist season, Madame notes: "The annual migration of Tourista Touristicum brings the blessings of revenue and the bane of congestion, the fun of meeting new people and the distress of ending up as their Lycra-glad hood ornament."

I read through a copy of Hipfish seated in the warmth and comfort of the aptly named Wet Dog Café, looking up from time-to-time to watch the gathering gloom and tankers and cruise ships passing by on the Columbia River.

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