You come to the northern Oregon coastal town of Seaside for the elephant ears, and maybe for the salt; you stop for the elk on the side of the road. At least that’s what I did. Driving north over Tolovana Head from Cannon Beach on Highway 101, just before the Highway 26 junction that Portlanders use to reach the coast, there were a half-dozen huge, brown elk grazing on the side of the road. One had a single, spiked antler sticking out of his head that made him look like a super-sized Max, the loyal dog from How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Unlike Max, this elk would have run me through if I had gotten any closer to take his picture, so I snapped and dashed.
Lewis & Clark, who were composed of sturdier stuff than me, would have shot and eaten him on the spot. The original tourists to this area, they arrived in Seaside in January of 1806 to boil down some ocean water for salt (and I hear that salt goes very well with elk); there is a commemorative exhibit to the event in a Seaside park, but frankly, I never made it there. Watching people boil water down is perhaps the least exciting thing to do in this very exciting and vibrant resort town. If you don’t believe me, I have a 28-pound lobster named Victor to show you.
But first, breakfast. Although I have always heeded the advice of author Tom Robbins when he wrote in Another Roadside Attraction something to the effect of, “Never trust a pig who sells pork,” I headed straight for Seaside’s Pig’n Pancake restaurant. Talk about historic value: The Seaside location was the original restaurant of the chain that now dots the coast, with locations in Cannon Beach and Lincoln City, among other places. I have always been a big fan of their Swedish pancakes with lingonberries, or a waffle studded with toasted pecans. It has been a fine place to pig out on breakfast since 1961, and by the way the lingonberries went down on my recent visit, will continue to be for years to come.
And then it’s time to hit the streets of Seaside, with many handsome old buildings from the ‘50s and earlier.
The town was actually named for its first hotel, the Seaside Inn, which was built in 1870 and created the tourism industry here. Down the street from the Pig’n Pancake is the automobile turnaround that dates back to the 1920s, with a bronze statue of Lewis & Clark staring nobly out to sea. Because of their foraging for salt in these parts (there’s the salt again), Seaside is considered to be the end of the Lewis & Clark trail, although most of their time in this area was spent at Fort Clatsop, a few miles to the north.
This is also where the Seaside Promenade begins, a 1.5-mile paved path overlooking the wide, welcoming beach. Hotels and apartment houses line the promenade, with great views of the ocean from rooms and lounges (and even the fitness center of the renovated Shilo Inn). An old, wooden sign reading “Aquarium” attracted my attention, and I’m glad it did, because on the outside of the venerable, old Seaside Aquarium, which was built in 1937 and looks every bit its age, is the enormous, most-excellent skeleton of a 26-foot gray whale that washed up onto the beach here in 1988. A section of baleen, the whale’s filtering tissue, was nearby.
Well, that did it. I had to see this aquarium. Although it doesn’t have the cachet or grandeur of Newport’s aquarium, SeaWorld or the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the little Seaside attraction has great things to see. You enter to the sound and splashes of Harbor Seals in a big pool who swim and cavort before you. In fact, this has become one of the prime spots in the world for breeding harbor seals in captivity. As I watched, one leaped out of the water and lay down on a metal rim of the Plexiglass tank, inches away from me and making me jump nearly a foot. Inside are indeed a 28-pound lobster – preserved, alas – named Victor, and the remains of a nine-foot giant squid that I would not have wanted to meet on a dark coral reef. There were live wolf eels, rhinoceros crabs, rockfish and cabezon, and the most amazing live octopus sighting I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing, with a six-foot long, red octopus undulating in a long tank on the ground, his scary tentacles curling at the tips.
Lewis & Clark would have gaped in admiration. Or they would have salted and eaten all of the fish in that aquarium. Or they would have high-tailed it back to Missouri with vivid accounts of sea monsters and creatures from the wild Northwest. Or all of the above. I merely left the aquarium with a wide smile on my face, and then walked the streets of Seaside and admired the amusements. There are vintage bumper cars to bump. Pinball to be played, and miniature golf balls to roll into miniature golf holes before stuffing one’s face (and one’s children’s faces) with saltwater taffy. Another place bills itself as the Center of the Elephant Ear universe. Weird. I don’t know where they’re keeping the rest of those ear-less elephants, but one gets the feeling that in Seaside, anything is possible.
Jim Gullo has been an award-winning travel writer and journalist for over 20 years, with travels for stories to over 35 countries and publication in many top national and regional magazines.
by Jim Gullo, for Oregon.com