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Newport - Oregon
By Oregon standards, it's massive for a coastal resort town and it's always one of my favorite stops when showing someone else Oregon's shores. It's got a little bit of everything: pristine beaches, slightly surreal hidden spots, historical sites aplenty, two lighthouses, fascinating centers of science and some pretty funky bars. And no matter how many times I make a beeline for the place with some coastal newbie, there are always things I discover as well. It's always worth the frequent 100-mile drive from Portland.

Like the time I wandered the town with my cousin from Switzerland, Nils. We did what most tourists would do: hit the Oregon Coast Aquarium. Granted, this was back in 1995, when Keiko the killer whale (the star of "Free Willy") still inhabited an enormous tank, swimming laps around his little world and pausing occasionally to peep back at the crowds staring at him through the glass.

But constant exhibits there still blow the mind, like the alien and graceful jellyfish or any of the hundreds of freaky fish in tanks. These days, Keiko's old home has been turned into a glass tunnel that goes under the sea, with a 360-degree view of all the sharks, manta rays and kelp and coral surrounding you.

Nils and I also visited the Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area, a headland that houses the larger lighthouse, including some stunning ocean view trails and one of the weirder beaches on the coast.

We ventured down a meandering wooden stairway, some 50 feet, to a small cobblestone beach comprised of mostly black, rounded stones that surrounded jagged basalt forms. Here, the waves made strange noises at they crashed on the steeply sloped tide line, rattling the stones in an eerie manner.

The climb back up those stairs was a killer. Thank God for the platforms along the way where Nils and I could rest our aching legs.

The lighthouse being closed on this day, we amused ourselves by crawling around the concrete walkways snaking around the marine garden experiments - basically manmade tide pools. And like a couple of kids, we ambled around a playground of basalt rocks that line the side of the headland, tucked away a bit like one big hidden spot.

We were out and about for maybe a half hour when we noticed a dark spot on the horizon: an incoming squall. Within 15 minutes, the Oregon Coast was showing its typical schizophrenic face. One minute it's calm and nice, albeit grey, and the next you're caught in a torrential downpour.

We hightailed it for the car.

Another favorite for impressing foreign friends is the stunning Nye Beach. Recently, I dragged my Norwegian friend Jango to this section of Newport, which, about 100 years ago, was a separate resort town.

Jango and I wandered around the tiny streets of this district, gawking at the businesses dressed up in Old England architecture or turn-of-the-century Americana. It's a little like wandering back in time to both countries at once.

From there, I toured him around this sandy, fluffy beach with its sandstone cliffs. But also like kids, we took advantage of the odd little nooks, crannies and rock structures to goof around on.

It was getting close to sunset on this unusually warm summer day on the coast, so we had little time to tool around the weird rock structures left behind by the demise of one great outcropping called Jump-Off Joe. This beauty once stretched out some 100 feet beyond the sandstone cliffs and allowed you to walk above the beach some 40 feet. Now, there are strange pockmarked slabs left to crawl around on and just a nub of a ledge remaining - all still plenty of fun for pretending you're on another planet (which I secretly did).

Above it sit the spooky remnants of a condo once naively built on this shaky sandstone foundation back in the early 80's. It faltered and began crumbling just weeks before its completion. These days, this chunk of labyrinth-like concrete evokes castle ruins a bit (except for the proliferation of graffiti). Jango got quite a kick out of that.

We slowly walked back to the car on the downy sand as the light faded, causing wild colors to grow above the grey, encroaching fog. The moon got brighter, and we watched with awe as its reflection - its doppelganger - became more prominent in the water.

Nye Beach is known as one of the more romantic beaches in the world. The condo remnants, by the way, can be a pretty darned gushiness-inducing spot. On a date with one lovely recently, she and I used these concrete walls to hide from the wind and rain, smooching and cuddling while looking over the stormy sea just a wee bit below.

For more romantic stuff, the Vietnam memorial just blocks from Nye Beach at Don Davis Park features a walkway winding down to the beach. It's lit up at night by a host of lights embedded near the floor, with various benches along the way, perfect for that midnight smooch session as the huge, Yaquina Head Lighthouse blinks in the distance.

Earlier this year, my girlfriend at the time, Katie, got dragged along another one of my exploratory trips on some temperamental spring day. A lot of this centered around wandering Newport's rustic, historic bayfront district, which sports loads of restaurants for any taste and budget, shops, art galleries and docks where enormous sea lions roar and bark just a few feet away.

We wound up dodging rain at the Yaquina Bay Lighthouse - the second and smaller one. It's really more of a stately home with a big light on top, where we got to tour its 1880's version of rustic plush, led by guides dressed in period costume. The haunted stories about this place are pretty legendary as well. But this gave us a few chuckles when we found out the whole tale of its teenage girl-spook was from a short story published at the turn of the century, and periodically locals forgot that and sometimes flaunted it for tourism purposes. That's not the case now, but it apparently was some thirty years ago.



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