Well, what I really want for Valentine’s Day is a trip to the Bahamas.
Jamaica, Hawaii, Costa Rica—those places would be fine too. But since the price of air travel seems to be going up—especially around the holidays—as gas prices are going down, local romance is a lot more affordable.
Unlike Southern California where the beaches are thronged with surfers and sunbathers and you often have to inhale other people’s car fumes for hours in stop-and-stop traffic just to get to the beach in the first place, Oregon beaches are much less crowded, easier to access, teeming with wildlife, windswept, and, yes, romantic any time of year.
With over 360 miles of sand dunes, rocky bluffs, and Douglas fir forests, the Oregon Coast has a uniquely rugged beauty that is hard to find on any other coastline. Sure, the wind whipping the sand can sting your bare ankles sometimes. Also true that the weather isn’t always perfect. And, yes, you’ll need to bring lots of layers because you never know how much the temperature will fluctuate in the next ten minutes. But the small coastal towns that are an easy drive from Southern Oregon and Northern California are among our state’s best-kept secrets, places where you can find scrumptious dinners for two, reconnect with your inner child by rolling down sand dunes, and walk for miles on open beaches holding hands.
“There’s nothing more relaxing and romantic as getting away to the Oregon Coast, no matter what time of year it is,” said Molly Blancett, public relations and social media manager for Travel Lane County, when I reached her by phone. “There’s something about the ocean air and the breeze and the views that’s just so calming. You leave everything behind but you don’t have to go far to get away.”
Roger and Vicki Leaming, on a recent trip to the Oregon Coast from Albany, Oregon, agree. The Leamings actually prefer to visit in the off-season when the weather is cooler and there are fewer people on the beaches. They’ve spent this chilly December day chanterelle hunting—and have a bag of the funnel-shaped light orange mushrooms to show for it—and hiking to Blacklock Point along the bluffs just south of Floras Lake near Langlois.
“We romance all the time,” says Roger Leaming, smiling at his wife, adding that for him the coast is both magical and magnificent.
“The most romantic thing is walking along the ocean with Roger and picking up shells,” Vickie tells me, revealing that she and Roger have been married for 21 years. A jeweler by trade, Vickie also likes to hunt agate and to look for the glass floats that are placed on the beaches by volunteers in Gold Beach between February and April each year for lucky tourists to find.
Each town on the Oregon Coast has its own weather patterns, but in February you can usually expect a mixture of sun and rain, with highs inching towards 60 degrees Fahrenheit and lows a few degrees shy of freezing. Bring your own candles, favorite mood music, a warm sweater, an all-weather jacket, a bathing suit (the ocean will be too cold for swimming but you’ll want one if you stay at a hotel with a pool or a seaside cottage with a hot tub), and your favorite indoor activities for together time in case you get tired of storm watching. Then plan your mode of attack: some travelers like to stay in one town all week and take day trips to other places. Others prefer to be on the move: starting in the south and driving up the scenic and winding Highway 101 to different tourist attractions and beaches, spending the night in different places each day.
Have a Fling in Florence
Just three hours southwest of Portland, Florence, Oregon is best known for its shifting sand dunes and its forty miles of Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. Though the sand dune adventure companies are usually closed in February, you can warm up with a hike up the dunes, and then run or roll down them. At other times of year you can rent a sand board or sand sled, explore the dunes with an organized dune buggy trip, or rent an ATV by the hour or the day and explore them on your own. Since I’m not much for all-terrain vehicular travel adding noise and pollution to the beaches, February strikes me as the best time to explore Florence. But Molly Blancett insists the buggy rides leave visitors with a new appreciation for Mother Nature, as the knowledgeable hired guides will take you to wildlife-rich lakes and streams that are very difficult to access any other way.
But the real romance in Florence is the newly restored Heceta Head Lighthouse, 13 miles north of the city. With its signature red roof and sweeping vistas of the rugged coastline below, Heceta Head is purportedly the most photographed lighthouse on the Coast. It’s an easy half-mile hike up to the lighthouse itself. Though tours of the lighthouse itself don’t run in the off-season (they start up again in March), the observation area is open all year.
You’ll also want to stroll through Historic Old Town, along the Siuslaw River, which boasts seafood restaurants and European-style cafés. And if you get tired of all the fresh air and sick of being so wholesome and healthy, head to the Three Rivers Casino and Hotel 5647 Highway 126; 1-877-374-8377) to try your luck at the $5 black jack tables.
Consider Coos Bay
The largest city on the Oregon Coast, Coos Bay is often stereotyped as an industrial, noisy city. It’s usually overlooked by the quieter better-heeled traveler, but before you shrug your shoulders at a Valentine’s Day vacation in Coos Bay, you need to actually visit it. We were enchanted by Mingus Park (541-269-8918), which has lit fountains, a miniature lighthouse surrounded by a paved walkway, and a year-round heated swimming pool ($4 for adults/$3 for kids). Just behind the lake are the Choshi Gardens, a hidden gem in Southern Oregon. More extensive than the Japanese Gardens in Lithia Park in Ashland and comparable to the Japanese Gardens in Portland, the gorgeous Choshi Gardens were created over a more than ten-year period to honor Coos Bay’s sister city of Choshi, Japan. The gardens boast a bamboo grove, miniature bridges, dogwoods, cherry trees, Hanokie cypresses, rhododendrons, yellow pond lilies, rock terraces, and more.
Then there is the spectacular drive along Cape Arago Highway, just south of Coos Bay, with its precipitous drop-offs, hundreds of shore birds, huge, crashing waves, and salt-tolerant trees clinging for life on the tops of boulders just off the shoreline. Though some visitors are disappointed that you can’t go all the way to the Cape Arago Lighthouse, the views of it from along the scenic points on the highway are beautiful.
You Can’t Beat the Bluffs in Bandon
There’s a reason so many southern Oregonians visit Bandon so often. The views from Coquille Point are among the best on the entire Oregon Coast, the locals are friendly and welcoming, and the yellow and pink sunsets postcard perfect. This town of about 3,000 inhabitants also boasts massive waves crashing against unusually shaped boulders just off the shoreline, dozens of hook-beaked puffins sunning themselves on the rocks, and a paved path along the bluff with an astounding view around every corner with benches for you and your sweetie to catch your breath.
Kathy and Grant Webb, who moved to Bandon less than two years ago, have friends from Georgia who spend three months every winter here just to take advantage of the incredible storm watching in Bandon. “Last February was a good time to visit,” Grant Webb says. “The weather was beautiful, the beaches quiet. There’s plenty of great lodging. It’s very romantic.” Volunteer interpreters for Shoreline Education Awareness, a non-profit that educates students and the public about the importance of the habitat and wildlife along the shoreline, the Webbs still smile at each other when they count how many years they’ve been together: they’ll celebrate their 44th wedding anniversary in Bandon this year.
But the biggest draw to this seaside town is, of course, the Bandon Dunes Golf Resort (57744 Round Lake Drive; 888-345-6008), which is one of the best in the United States. According to AP writer Jeff Barnes, golfers in private jets fly to Bandon from all over the world to play at the rugged courses nestled in hearty pines, which were build by Chicago entrepreneur Mike Keiser to resemble the golf courses he loved in Scotland and Ireland. If golf is not your idea of a romantic activity, don’t miss a stroll around Old Town, a visit to Face Rock State Scenic Viewpoint, and a trip to the Coquille River Lighthouse at the far end of Bullards Beach State Park. You can buy your special friend some candies and chocolates at Bandon Sweets & Treats (255 2nd St SE; 541-347-7072), an old-fashioned candy store, and buy locally made premium cheeses, as well as an ice cream cone about as big as your head at Face Rock Creamery (680 2nd St.; 541-347-3223).
A Working Fishing Port in Port Orford
Port Orford is a 45-minute drive south of Bandon and has less expensive seaside cottages and other lodging than other places on the Coast. Amid the cute antique and quilt shops in this working class town of only a little over 1,000 inhabitants, Port Orford boasts a new Community Food Co-op, run completely by volunteers. It opened its doors in 2013 and has thrived with a dedicated membership that has allowed the store to function and prosper. Another gem in this community is their library, open seven days a week. It opened in 2008, with a price tag of two million dollars; $700,000 of that was raised locally.
Port Orford is the oldest town on the Oregon Coast and has the distinction of still having a working port. They raise and lower dozens of fishing boats into the water via a boat-lifting crane, which is fascinating to watch. The 1870 Cape Blanco Lighthouse is considered one of the nicest on the Oregon Coast. Though there are no interpretive tours in February, you can enjoy the grounds and a sunset walk along the eight miles of trails. You may spot whales and seals from Port Orford Heads State Park (which also has a charming free museum, open only April – October), and Humbug Mountain offers a challenging hike, with a rise of over 1700 feet.
No Hurry in Curry
A perfect spot for storm watching, Gold Beach—the county seat of Curry County—is a town of just 1900 people, which was settled in the 1850s when miners found gold in the sand along the Rogue River. The dream of getting rich quick did not pan out (get it?) and today the town is a little rough around the edges. Nearly fifteen percent of the locals live below the poverty line. Tourists usually come to Gold Beach for the jet boat tours (May 1 to Labor Day), fly-fishing, coastal hiking, spectacular views, and wind-blown beaches. But even when the boats aren’t running there’s plenty to do and see.
If you and your significant other are book nerds (like we are), you’ll want to spend an afternoon having coffee, browsing the bookshelves, and admiring the local art on display at Gold Beach Books (29707 Ellensburg Avenue; 541-247-2495). “There is no Frigate like a Book to take us Lands away,” Emily Dickinson once wrote. “This Traverse may the poorest take without oppress of Toll.” Who needs Hawaii?
You can also watch artisans handcrafting myrtle wood bowls and miniature lighthouses at the Rogue River Myrtlewood Shop (29750 Ellensburg Ave; 541-247-2332) and pick up a bouquet of stargazer lilies and some chocolate walnut fudge at Flowers By The Sea (29730 Ellensburg Ave; 541-247-7673).
Bear Claws, Brandy, and Beaches in Brookings
Just six miles north of the Oregon-California border on Highway 101, Brookings is the southernmost coastal town in Oregon. It was first established in 1913 by John Brookings as a site for his lumber business and its current population is about 6,450. In the 1920s lily bulb farming was introduced in Brookings, an industry that is still going strong. According to the city’s website, the 12 miles between Brookings and Smith River produce “100% of the lily bulbs grown in North America.” But the citizens of Brookings are known for their love of a different flower: Azaleas. The city has an Azalea Middle School, a 33-acre Azalea park that includes native azaleas that predate Lewis and Clark’s expedition, and an annual Azalea Festival held every May. Who knew?
If you like brandy, there’s a micro-distillery in Brookings called Brandy Peak (18526 Tetley Road; call for an appointment during the off season: 541-469-0194). If you like bear claws, the ones at Bakery-by-the-Sea (and their apple fritters) are the stuff that dreams are made of (this mother-son bakery also has irregular off-season hours and are a bit hard to find, so plan ahead; 1105 Chetco Avenue #A; 541-251-3665).
Like elsewhere on the Oregon Coast, the natural beauty is the real draw to Brookings. Lauri Ziemer, who is originally from Eureka, California but has lived in Brookings for eleven years, says to always keep your eye on the sea. “Eventually you’ll spot a plume of water spouting from a whale blowhole,” Ziemer promises. Ziemer recommends the Redwood Nature Trail on the Chetco River as well as walking along Harris Beach, Crissey Field, Whaleshead Beach, and Lone Ranch Beach. Temperatures this far south tend to be more mild than the Central and Northern Oregon Coast so you may very well find yourself enjoying sunshine and blue skis in February in Brookings. If the sea is calm and you remember your binoculars, the best place to spot gray whales is at Harris Beach State Park.
Lisa Nichols, a flute teacher who lives in Ashland, and her partner, a writer, spent their honeymoon in Port Orford last summer. Nichols, who grew up in Keene, New Hampshire, especially loved the hiking trails, the natural beauty, and the feeling of community.
“If you’re going to the Coast, don’t miss the redwoods,” Nichols advises. “They’re totally majestic and otherworldly. They make you feel sufficiently small, to give you perspective.”
Whether you travel alone, or with your special someone, the Oregon coast is not to be missed. Go ahead, find the romance in the majesty of this natural wonder.
If You Go: Three Romantic Places to Stay on the Oregon Coast
92978 Cemetery Loop Road, Port Orford | 541-332-0977
With an outdoor hot tub overlooking the ocean, a labyrinth, and beautifully decorated cabins that are as cozy as the Hobbit holes described in J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous books, Wild Spring Guest Habitat is an eco-friendly luxury resort that inspires healing and creativity. It comes highly recommended and has been praised in both the New York Times and Sunset Magazine.
Highway 101, mile marker #178, half way between Florence and Yachats | 1-866-547-3696
A 7-course gourmet Northwest breakfast, handmade quilts on the beds, an original fireplace in the parlor, antique furniture, and the chance to sleep in a restored light keeper’s Victorian home, this bed and breakfast is a romantic’s romantic lodging, in a 19th century kind of way.
96550 North Bank Rogue River Road, Gold Beach | 541-247-6664
Considered one of the nicest hotels in Oregon and quieter in the off-season, this elegant resort offers personable service in a scenic setting on the Rogue River. The highly touted restaurant serves a full hot breakfast and late afternoon hors oeuvres but is not open for dinner in February, except for Valentine’s Day weekend. Some rooms have wood-burning fireplaces and soaking tubs on private balconies but though the lodge is wired for WiFi, you may not get cell phone service in most of the rooms, and don’t expect to watch TV either; the point of being at Tu Tu’ Tun is to get away from it all.
Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is a frequent contributor to the Jefferson Monthly and the author of Your Baby, Your Way: Taking Charge of Your Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Parenting Decisions for a Happier, Healthier Family. A Boston native, she lives with her family in Ashland, Oregon.