The West Coast’s Most Romantic Small Towns Might Surprise You
These are the most underrated spots to steal away, from Washington and Oregon to California and Baja.
It’s a cold, blustery evening when I drive into the Oregon campground where we’ve booked a reservation, anxious to pitch our tent in the dirt just steps from the beach. My partner and I are weary from a night spent on bluffs drinking too much beer and whiskey. So, when we arrive at our allotted campsite only to discover it abuts a thin hedge that hides the sights but not the sounds of Highway 101, we don’t even need to meet each other’s gaze.
We had big dreams for the Beachside State Recreation Site. But my light-sleeping partner can’t stomach a night with no Zzs. So, I start making calls to nearby hotels—where even are we?—to see if any can accommodate some wayward California travelers. Oh, and our dog.
I quickly learn we’re about halfway up the Oregon coast, where most inns and motels are booked. But a few calls and concierges later, I find what’s likely the last dog-friendly room. It’s at a hotel called the Adobe Resort in a town just a few minutes behind us. Yachats, pronounced YA-HOTS, to be exact. Let me be clear: My partner and I road trip up the West Coast every summer from our home in Los Angeles to his family’s crooked A-frame off the Washington coast. While we routinely try to camp somewhere new or discover an off-the-beaten-path restaurant, nothing prepares us for Yachats.
Here’s why. Forlorn and weary, we stumble into our larger-than-expected suite in the pet wing that stands separate from the Adobe Resort’s sweeping main building perched on a cliff. We have an ocean view—seriously?—from our balcony, which is just steps from a dirt pathway that winds up and down the bluffs. It’s just about time for sunset, so we decide to walk it and sip beer while we do. We soon learn this is the recreational 804 Trail on the coastline, where hikers, bikers, dog walkers, and the like all meander as the waves crash against rocky outcroppings and release their salty perfume.
We’re already nearing bliss as we head into town to pick up some seafood from Luna Sea Fish House, and we haven’t yet tasted the best steamer clams I’ve ever had in my life. Back at Adobe, we practically chug the buttery broth out of the container after sopping up as much as we can with our garlic bread—yes, we dip it in the clam chowder, too—and devour fresh wild king salmon like our lives depend on it. It’s the perfect pairing for a Scar of the Sea Chardonnay, sipped out of red solo cups we brought for camping.
The point of this story is that Yachats is in the running for the most romantic town I’ve ever been to. Maybe because it was so utterly unexpected, or perhaps because it’s the kind of place that’s so charming you can’t help but feel the love even on a bad day. Some of my favorite small towns are just like this—quaint and cozy, but you feel like you’re worlds away.
I didn’t expect to find this teeny tiny beachside community just off Highway 101 in Northern California, when we pulled over for a lunch break on a trip up the coast. But then we stumbled upon one of its public beaches, where rock formations emerge from the sea that laps its shores. I nibbled on homemade pasta while young lifeguards-in-training ran in and out of the waves. Dogs played in the sand. It felt like the perfect day. On my next trip, I want to stop into Katy’s Smokehouse to try some dried king salmon jerky, smoked by the folks behind this seafood market for more than 60 years.
Hood River, Oregon
I need to tell you about one of the best meals of my life. Not just because of the peach burrata salad with the juiciest peaches I’ve ever tasted (read: practically slurped). Not just because of the penne alla Norma with caramelized local eggplant, grilled peppers, goat cheese, and pecorino. No, it was the way the sun hovered above the Columbia River, its burnt orange glow distilled by a smoky wildfire haze. How the water sliced through the gorge just beyond our table, as we waited and watched for a bald eagle or osprey to dive in. It was a meal that made me rethink everything I knew about hotel dining. Yes, one of the top five meals in my life was on the patio of a Best Western in Oregon. Longtime chef Mark DeResta’s transcendent Riverside restaurant in the Columbia Gorge is just one reason to run, not walk, to Hood River. It’s only an hour east of Portland but feels like another world. Here, you’ll find all sorts of wineries, breweries, and natural wonders—think waterfalls and windsurfing. It’s a place I hope to return to, again and again. For now, I’ll keep daydreaming about those peaches.
I’ve got a long list of stops to make on my next visit(s) to Yachats. This is a small town, so everything’s not open all the time. I plan on grabbing some coffee at Green Salmon Coffee Shop, and I feel like I majorly missed out on the fact that we didn’t get to try an apple-raspberry fold over or rustic white sourdough from legendary bakery Bread & Roses. You can bank on a few hikes though. The town’s a great jumping off point to explore two natural wonders: Thor’s Well sinkhole and Devil’s Churn inlet.
White Salmon, Washington
The Columbia Gorge, which straddles the Oregon–Washington border, gets a two-for-one on this list thanks to the old and young farmers, winemakers, and just general movers and shakers who are reimagining agriculture, food, and wine in its hills. I have to give credit where credit is due: I first learned about this town across the river from Kris Fade, one of the winegrowers behind Analemma Wines, a biodynamic and Demeter-certified winery on the Oregon side. I’m a huge fan of Fades’ varieties from northwest Spain’s Galicia region—Albariño, Godello, Mencia—so it’s no surprise I’d be into some of her favorite local spots. Here, she recommends staying at the quaint RubyJune Inn (home to an 1890s brick IceHouse Bar) and grabbing coffee and pastries from White Salmon Baking Co., a world-class bakery just off the main drag.
Orcas Island, Washington
I have a years-old dream to buy a piece of land in the San Juan Islands, ideally with a view of the sea and next to a neighbor with a farm stand. My partner’s family ruined me for life with their crooked ’70s A-frame on Lopez, “the Friendly Isle,” where drivers wave with two fingers on the causeway and bald eagles nest in the backyard tree. Every year, we take a ferry ride over to a different island and I have to say, I’ve fallen in love with nearby Orcas just the same. The larger island is chock full of new spots to eat and drink, including the James Beard nominated Matia Kitchen and Bar; a few of my favorite restaurants include whole Dungeness grab dunked in butter at Buck Bay Fish Farm, and the quirky outdoor patio at Mijitas Mexican Kitchen. Rent a kayak (or two) from Crescent Beach Kayak Rentals to explore the waters in and around Olga—if you’re lucky, you might just see one of the famed Southern Resident killer whales that call this part of the Pacific Ocean home.
Guadalupe Valley, Baja California
You may not consider a chest-high stack of bone marrow romantic, but let me tell you: When this is the plate you are served amid the hay barrel structure out in the middle of a vineyard, surrounded by wine-bottles-turned-flower-vases hung from the windows, it is. This is Deckman’s en el Mogor from Michelin-starred chef Drew Deckman. And it’s not just the bone marrow that backs up all the hype around this Guadalupe Valley restaurant. It’s well worth a stop on a visit to the budding wine region. Speaking of vino, try tasting the selections on a tour of Vena Cava, where reclaimed boats serve as the cellar ceiling. There’s also a dreamy bed and breakfast La Villa del Valle on the property. Or, rest your head at the rustic yet charming Agua de Vid before heading over to Tres Mujeres for a few sips in the wine cave. Looking to splurge? Reserve at dinner spot for the experimental tasting menu at Fauna, the super chic restaurant onsite at Bruma’s winery and inn.