Foam Gets In Your Eyes

After 30-something years of teaching, my mom retired this year, and she’s rapidly checking things off her retirement bucket list, which is great, because a lot of her agenda items involve meals and food-centric excursions and I’m invited. Which is how I ended up eating a seven-course breakfast in a haunted coastal cliff-hugging Oregon lightkeeper’s house-turned-B&B last week. Yes, I’m the girl who goes to B&Bs with her mom. Laugh all you want! Because the one with the ricotta-stuffed Oregon marionberry blintz in her belly laughs last, and that is me.

This mythical lighthouse I’d been hearing about for months, maybe years, is built on a rocky, berry vine and forest-encircled ledge overlooking a spectacular stretch of Oregon coastline roughly a 15-minute drive from Florence, a no-nonsense working class sea town perhaps best known for a very old exploding whale story.

So, after packing the essentials, off I went.

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Following a quick, painless drive from Portland to Florence (via Eugene, the fastest route), I rendezvoused with my family in the city’s charming old town at busy Siuslaw River Coffee Roasters, a supremely comfortable, well-weathered amalgamation of tin and reclaimed everything that serves hot coffee, hot gossip (from the looks of the locals engrossed in each other’s stories), and gorgeous views of the somber Siuslaw riverwaters.

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My mom had already canvassed the downtown, and produced a lemon tart from her bag, courtesy of nearby Sweet Magnolia Bakery.  They also make a rather beautiful apricot almond teacake, as we found out on the second visit.

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“Haven’t you been in already today?” the slightly confused baker asked when we returned, a question commonly asked of Stevensons in bakeries.

After a walk along the pier, we had a beer and a bowl of seafood chowder at quirky Kelly’s Cantina, which also has gorgeous river views (old town Florence seems to have quite a few of those) and some of the sweetest staff ever.

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The chef, taking a break from the kitchen, filled us in on local history and geography, and assured us we’d have a memorable stay, ending his story with a casual, “and then there’s the ghost.”

“The goat?” my brother perked up.

“Ghost,” he clarified. “Her name’s Rue. She likes to hide my keys, but I just tell her to bring ‘em back.” He chuckled. My mom’s mouth hung open a little.

Further questioning revealed that Rue was the wife of a long-ago lightkeeper, who threw herself off the jagged, towering cliff in front of her home (now the B&B) out of grief, after her young daughter plunged to her death on the rocks below while playing outside one day. In accordance with the tragic tale, a small unmarked grave lies just off the path by the lighthouse.

With that bit of lore etched firmly in mind, we drove up the coast until the flat strip mall straightaways of Florence dwindled, then disappeared in favor of deserted, rugged curves barely etched into the vast cliffs, prompting my mom to embark on a nonstop stream of admonitions to slow down, until we were going approximately the speed of a crippled sea cucumber.

What felt like an hour later, we finally found the unmarked road to the famed Heceta Head Lighthouse and Inn (if you’re headed there, it’s the turn-in just north of the official turnout to the adjoining state park) and the car shuddered as my feverish mother leapt from it, screeching “We’re here! We’re finally here! We maaade it!” Whether this was genuine excitement at our arrival, a metaphor for her retirement, or a roundabout slap at my driving skills, I’ll never know. I think she was just excited.

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View of the lighthouse and inn from the highway.

The lone inn cuts a stately figure—a stout and sturdy white structure surrounded by an acre of lush lawn and a white picket fence, it wouldn’t look out of place in Irvington. Walking past the raised garden beds behind the kitchen window, we could see the beautiful historic lighthouse just up the hill, also surrounded by a fence, of the construction variety—unfortunately, as we found out later, we couldn’t tour it as normal because it’s currently undergoing a renovation, which sent my mom into a brief tailspin of grief mitigated only by the discovery of her “beeyoootiiifullll” handcrafted bed quilt, which she’s probably Googling replicas of as I type this.

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Beach to the left of me...

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Bluffs and lighthouse to the right...

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Here I am, stuck in the middle with Rue.

Check-in was a few minutes off, so we walked down to the beach, where low tide had created an endless wealth of barnacle-crusted tidepools filled with thousands of tiny indigo-shelled mussels and a thick off-white foam that my mother’s ensuing iPhone research revealed was actually decomposed plankton and other sea proteins, right after a huge poof of it blew in my eye.

“Oh honey, you better watch that,” my mom advised, peering critically at my eye, like it might grow a vicious little flesh-eating alien mouth while she watched in mute horror.

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Upon checking in, we toured the grand six-bedroom home, which is actually two identical duplexes joined together many years ago, making everything in the house, from the twin kitchens (one for guests, one for the chef) to the fireplace-endowed parlors, a mirror of itself. We occupied the two front bedrooms, Mariners I and II, both comfortably quaint spaces with small private bathrooms and big salt-dusted windows looking out over the huge slate-colored swells of the Pacific Ocean. It was magnificent.

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The property’s story is long and convoluted—the cape it overlooks was named after a Spanish explorer sailing up the West Coast, who took note of it but thanks to a bad case of scurvy, had to end his trip prematurely. (I think he’d be proud to know his name lives on and is widely associated with a particularly marvelous B&B breakfast.) With some effort, thanks to the remote location, a lighthouse was erected on the spot in 1894, and a string of hardy lightkeepers who must have really enjoyed their own company came and went over the decades. When US lighthouses became a thing of the past, the Coast Guard took over the lightstation for a while, then it transferred to Oregon State Parks and Rec in 1963. It was a satellite campus for Lane Community College before being placed on the National Register of Historic Places, which paved the way for its transformation into a B&B in 1995. And nowadays, it’s a minor Oregon celebrity with its own ghost story and cookbook.

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Anyway, after a hike to the deserted lighthouse and up into the dense, dark, windblown woods and bluffs beyond, followed by an enjoyable dinner at The Waterfront Depot restaurant back in Florence, we settled in for the night with bottles of Delfino Vineyards Syrah and an Abacela Albariño that my family had acquired in the Umpqua Valley on their way to the coast, a supply of chocolate thoughtfully provided by me, a few good books, and the resident Scrabble board.

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As we lit a fire in the south parlor and claimed spots along the old-fashioned sofa, the storm that had been looming all day struck with enthusiasm, but the inn’s thick walls and storm doors muted the howling winds and waves until they were merely atmospheric. In the distance, a few lights bobbed on the horizon, as long-suffering crab boats bucked in the frigid waters, but other than that, we were completely alone. It was the most peaceful sensation, feeling like the only people on earth. That night, we all slept like rocks covered in foam made of dead plankton.

Come the next morning, nobody had entertained a visit from Rue, although the logbooks in each room are filled with stories from travelers who have, so there’s hope for you should you visit. Apparently the room with the most “activity” is Victoria’s Room, so keep that in mind, paranormal enthusiasts.

Morning views from the Mariner I window.

Morning views from the Mariner I window.

I was up with the sun (or rather, the weak pinkish cloud-shrouded blur on the horizon that I assumed was the sun), because the fun was just beginning. Besides luring folks with their dramatic geography, blessed isolation, and haunting history, the current innkeepers, Michelle and Steven Bursey, offer a much-lauded 7-course breakfast. While Michelle is generally in charge of kitchen goings-ons, today our chef was the lovely Mary, one of the caretaker/cooks.

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Ready, set....

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Naturally.

And at 8:30am on the dot, breakfast began, as Mary emerged from the kitchen with platters of homemade poppyseed bread and small dishes of fresh berries served with a pitcher of thick cream. A succession of delicious dishes followed.

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Freshly baked homemade poppyseed loaf.

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Berries with cream, and a sprig of thyme from the garden.

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Warm mini bagels with strawberry preserves, homemade chocolate hazelnut butter, and this pretty plate of Eugene's Oregon Lox Company lox.

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Palate cleansing mango mint lassi.

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Frittata with sweet onions and peppers, mushrooms, and baby kale from the garden, topped with creme fraiche and sun-dried tomatoes.

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Fat juicy little chicken apple cherry sausages from Taylor's Sausage in Cave Junction.

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Ricotta, cream cheese and lemon zest-stuffed blintz with Oregon marionberry and blueberry sauce.

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Fuji apples and aged Tillamook cheddar with homemade dulce de leche.

Comfortably stuffed afterwards, but not agonizingly so, we took one last walk to the lighthouse, browsed the gift shop, and then checked out and moved onwards up the coast towards Yachats, a small upscale coastal enclave made up mostly of retirees and second home owners, where Mary had said we’d find good, fresh local seafood.

On the way, everyone indulged my need to stop at every pull-out, and along Cape Perpetua we discovered the Cook’s Chasm viewpoint, which houses three spray-riffic acts of nature—the Spouting Horn, Thor’s Well, and the more ominously named Devil’s Churn. The waves here were layered with mounds of foam, so I put on antibacterial goggles, took some pictures, and ran back to the car. Just kidding.

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In downtown Yachats, which is two funky blocks or so long, we examined a few menus and decided on the Luna Sea Fish House, a rickety-looking seafood shack painted a vivid turquoise, with a crookedly-lettered sign outside advertising fresh crab. Perfect. Walking into the miniscule space, we all nearly bumped domino-style into the glass case just inside the door, stuffed with fresh crabs, scallops, and clams.

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When we asked where the crabs were from, the server gave us a glance and said, “The boss catches them.” A few minutes later, big red cafeteria trays covered in red and white-checked paper were slid in front of us, each bearing a fat fresh local crab, thick, potato-choked chowder, slabs of soft French loaf soaked with garlicky butter, and a small pot of bright yellow melted butter. Clearly, we’d chosen wisely.

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After a stop into neighboring Topper’s Ice Cream, Candy and Espresso shop for the requisite bag of salt water taffy that must be acquired when in a sea hamlet, we took a walk along the low, gently-curving path dividing the sea from the big beach houses and inns along the shore at Smelt Sands State Park, luxuriating in the uncharacteristically clear, bright blue January skies.

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Next time.

And then I parted ways with my family and headed back home, right after my mom and I confirmed our next retirement milestone–a road trip to Santa Barbara. Because yes, I’m also the kind of girl who goes on road trips with her mom.