Discover Port Orford

The dolly dock at Port Orford, OregonGREAT LOCAL ART?  FINE FRENCH FOOD?  REAL FISHERMEN IN REAL FISHING BOATS?  ARE WE DREAMING OR IS THIS PORT ORFORD?

By Susan Hauser
Special to Oregon.com

The efficient waiter with the French accent cleared away my dishes and I sat in stupefied satisfaction. My dinner of fresh albacore tuna with Dijon mustard sauce had been fabulous.  The service was impeccable.  I was prepared for fish ‘n’ chips served in plastic when I pulled into Port Orford, the small outpost on the southern Oregon coast between Bandon and Brookings. But I never dreamed that what I would find instead, besides fine food, was a thriving center of art and culture.  Port Orford, I would quickly learn, was full of surprises.  

This town, after all, is barely a blip on the map of the south coast. But the food and service at Paula’s Bistro compared favorably with some of the best restaurants in Restaurant Central itself, Portland. Paula did the cooking, as it turned out, and her husband Christophe, who served me, was once a chef at Maxim’s in Paris.  Small world.  Paula told me Christophe still occasionally does kitchen duty, but for the time being he’s enjoying schooling his wife in French technique and hearing from guests how much they love her cooking as he clears their empty plates.

As the weekend progressed and as I met a few more of the town’s 1,000 inhabitants, I would continue to encounter similar surprises. Each delightful discovery would leave me scratching my head with amazement. After all, most people just drive on through town. As for me, I had almost passed Port Orford city limits by the time I realized I had already arrived.  And I was looking for it.

“I call it ‘the invisible village,’” Port Orford resident Joyce Spicer-Kinney told me. “But the minute you drive off the highway, you say, ‘I had no idea!’”
Spicer-Kinney, a sculptor, owns the Triangle Square Gallery with her husband, Doug Kinney, a watercolorist.  The cheerful little gallery is in what you’d call downtown Port Orford, actually just a cluster of small businesses along the main highway. But I was stunned again when she told me her gallery was one of eight art galleries in Port Orford. And she was just one of a large and growing group of local artists.

Port Orford was once strictly a fishing town, and the remarkable “dolly” port, the lifeboat museum and the several seafood restaurants still attest to the lively presence of that industry. But recently scores of artists, musicians, writers, actors, organic farmers and chefs have laid down roots and claimed Port Orford as their creative community. They give the town new and surprising attributes: great food, great art, jam sessions and live theater, all in a gorgeous natural setting alongside the ocean.

Once I checked into WildSpring Guest Habitat, where I’d booked a luxury cabin for the weekend, I learned that my hosts were also part of the creative community. Dean and Michelle Duarte play guitar, drum and Native American flute at the jam sessions when the locals get together to make music once or twice a month.

Michelle told me that she and Dean had left lucrative jobs in Los Angeles to seek a soul-soothing haven. They found it on five acres of ancient forest overlooking the ocean, where they built their lovely cedar guest cabins, equipped with cozy furnishings, luxurious beds, spacious slate bathrooms, art and antiques. What they hadn’t expected was to join a vibrant population of creative people. In fact, when it came time to add artistic touches to the grounds of their retreat, they called upon local sculptors, some of whom have international clientele. Now a large white marble sculpture of Mary by Eric Johnson, owner of Johnson Gallery, is the focal point of the grounds, and other artists’ works – some spiritual, some whimsical – peek from the bushes along the paths to the Guest Hall and the ocean-view hot tub.

I had to wonder, what is it about this tiny town that has caused such an explosion of creativity? Everyone I asked gave me the same answer: it’s the awesome beauty of the setting. What could be more inspiring that a spectacular stretch of ocean shore dotted with dramatic seastacks? If I’d had time to take all the hikes and birding trails recommended to me, I’d have a stronger sense of Nature’s influence on the populace. As it was, I took a lovely and soul-stirring walk on a woodsy hillside high above the waves near the Lifeboat Station Museum.

The U.S. Coast Guard Lifeboat Station has been out of commission for decades and now houses museum exhibits about its storied past. But when it was built, in the 1930s, it was the salvation of many a fisherman in distress who was plucked from the stormy waves by valiant crews of the rescue boats. The 532 cliffside steps the young Coasties had to scramble down to reach the boats are still visible from the hiking trail.

The rescue boats no longer ride the waves, but there’s still a good sized fishing fleet. Watching the boats unload their catch is a treat, especially if you’ve just watched the boats being pulled from the ocean onto Port Orford’s dolly dock. Rising high above the waves, it’s one of only a few such docks in the world, built where there are unprotected open-ocean ports. The boats must be removed from the water in slings held by large cranes for their own safety. Otherwise, they’d be smashed to smithereens by the forceful waves.

I wandered around the dock, the size of a large shopping center parking lot, watching boats being set down gently and fishermen removing their catch. I stood and watched a crew deftly filleting a load of albacore tuna before hunger drove me to Griff’s On The Dock, a seafood restaurant that’s in the thick of things, smack dab in the middle of the dock.

Back on the main drag, The Crazy Norwegian’s is another great place for seafood. They pride themselves on their fish ‘n’ chips and I must say, they’re pretty darn good. Bear in mind, by the time I tried their food, my standards for Port Orford fare were pretty high. After all, for my first meal in town I had eaten at Paula’s Bistro.

It was there that I gave the garçon a good tip. And speaking of tips, I am so thankful to the friend who gave me the priceless tip to visit Port Orford. It was a long drive from Portland but well worth it. And now that I know the way and all the delights that await visitors, there’s no chance I’ll almost drive right on through town next time.