Oregon's Newport Bustles With the Sights, Smells and Sounds of a Charming Seaport Town
by Bob Difley for MotorHome Magazine
Row after row of brawny fishing trawlers strained against their dock lines, while weary fishermen in knee boots cleaned the decks to rid them of the last evidence of the day’s catch. Crab traps, stuffed with coils of frayed line and scuffed cork floats, were stacked on the dock and in the distance a foghorn moaned as the fog enveloped the ghostly bridge that spanned the harbor entrance.
This is the scene along the harbor in Newport, Oregon — home to the Oregon coast’s largest commercial fishing fleet — where sea-hardened, leathery-skinned fishermen in rugged fishing boats haul in their daily catch.
Newport’s Historic Bayfront
Newport’s Historic Bayfront District is a treat for the senses. Fishermen sell their catch directly off their boats, commercial fish processing plants bustle with activity and the sweet aroma of crab cooking in steaming pots fills the air. The district is filled with fresh seafood markets, chowder houses (including Mo’s Restaurant, famous for its clam chowder) and fancy white-tablecloth dinner houses, as well as gift shops, art galleries and 100-year-old buildings serving as giant artist canvasses.
Oregon Coast Aquarium
Newport’s No. 1 attraction, the Oregon Coast Aquarium, lies just over the Yaquina Bay Bridge along the Yaquina Bay estuary. Rated among the top 10 aquariums in the country — one of only two in the West — the aquarium brings a broad variety of sea life, from tidal zone inhabitants to the denizens of the deep, within eyeball-to-eyeball range. The mission of the aquarium is to make the public aware of, understand and help conserve the world’s marine resources.
Indoor and outdoor tanks display permanent residents such as sea otters, harbor seals and sea lions, as well as changing exhibits such as “Oddwater,” which focuses on more unusual sea creatures, such as the chambered nautilus.
Enter “Passages of the Deep” if you dare, where you can mingle with a manta, challenge a shark, grin at a grouper or stare down a starfish. You don’t need to strap on a scuba tank, either, since a 200-foot-long acrylic tube extends through the middle of the 1.32-million-gallon tank — 8 feet below the surface and 8 feet above the sea bottom — with views above and below as if you were cruising through the watery habitat in an underwater submersible.
Follow the tunnel through three ocean environments: the rocky shore habitat of Oxford Reef with inhabitants including eels, anemones and hermit crabs; Halibut Flats’ shallow offshore waters, where graceful rays glide in and out of the decaying hulk of a sunken ship resting on the sandy bottom; and the Open Sea with its sharks, jack, groupers and salmon. And when you emerge at the other end you won’t even need to decompress to return back to sea level.
Visit the “Sea Bird Aviary” to see common murres, pigeon guillemots and rhinoceros auklets “fly” underwater through large underwater windows. The aviary’s local Oregon coast seabirds, along with the black oystercatcher, inhabit one of the largest seabird aviaries in North America.
Hatfield Marine Science Center
Just down the road from the aquarium, scientists and marine biologists do their scientific and biological studies and experiments at Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center, a research, laboratory and teaching facility.
The budding scientists and non-scientific types in your crowd can all explore the geology of the ocean floor, learn about coastal hazards such as earthquakes and tsunamis, find out about advancements made in whale tracking, and other fascinating oceanic research projects and discoveries.
The visitor center has several aquarium tanks and exhibits illustrating the fascinating world of the sea, and is one of the few places you can go to touch a giant Pacific octopus. I couldn’t wait.
With a Hatfield staff member at my side, I tentatively reached my hand into the octopus’ tank. It gently touched my hand with its tentacles; the built-in suction cups grasped and held my arm, while another tentacle explored the shape of my hand and fingers. The Hatfield visitor center, let me assure you, is not in the habit of feeding its visitors to this carnivorous eight-armed marine mollusk. This skillful predator possesses keen vision, a strong sense of curiosity and a well-developed brain.
I was told an urban legend about a previous octopus that would crawl out of its tank every night after the building was closed and slither across the floor to dine on some of the aquarium’s other creatures. In the morning the staff would find only a watery path across the floor and a few missing specimens. Now there is a retractable top on the tank. No more nighttime forays for this cunning creature, whether real or imaginary. However, it is quite friendly and the most popular resident of the aquarium.
Yaquina Head Lighting The Way
Soon after Newport established itself as a fishing and fur trading center, the discovery of gold in California and Alaska and the influx of settlers coming off the Oregon Trail fueled a rapid growth spurt. The Yaquina Bay Lighthouse was built in 1871 on a bluff overlooking the bay, harbor entrance and Pacific Ocean to assist the steady stream of trading schooners that sailed into Yaquina Bay.
Two years later another lighthouse was ordered for Cape Foulweather, 15 miles north. But a local Army colonel decided instead to locate it on Yaquina Head, just three miles north of the Yaquina Bay lighthouse. Because the 22-mile light was much more powerful than the “old” lighthouse’s 12-mile light, and because of confusion among sea captains unfamiliar with the entrance to Yaquina Bay, the Coast Guard decommissioned Yaquina Bay light just three years after it was built.
The building served many uses in the following years, but still suffered from age and lack of maintenance, until the threat of demolition spurred local historians to save it. Complete restoration began in 1974 with a five-mile electric light installed in 1996, and today it is the centerpiece of Yaquina Bay State Park, popular with locals and visitors for its wooded park setting with paved walking trails, museum with historic furnishings, gift shop, and expansive views of the harbor, coastline and ocean. It is believed to be the oldest structure in Newport, the only wood lighthouse still standing in Oregon, and the only one in the state to combine the lighthouse and living quarters in the same building.
Congress dedicated 100 acres of Yaquina Head, home of the new lighthouse, as an Outstanding Natural Area, one of the best places on the coast to view migrating gray whales, explore tide pools and watch harbor seals sleep on the rocks. The rocks off the head are also home to the largest variety of resident and migrating seabirds on the coast.
You can visit many of Oregon’s beaches on an easy drive from Newport to Beverly Beach State Park seven miles north of town, which also has a campground with full and partial hookups, and at South Beach State Park, two miles south of town, with 228 electrical hookup sites. There are also several other beachside state parks without camping.
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