Editor’s note: At press time, the United States was still dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, and some of the attractions mentioned in this story were shut down. As travel restrictions ease and things reopen, please call ahead to confirm the status and hours for any place you plan to visit.
A guy walks into a bar and spies a sea lion under the floor. No joke—it’s right there, maybe 10 feet down. If you visit Buoy Beer Co.’s dockside brewpub and look through the glass set into the floor, you can see the sea lion too, all fat and cranky. Go ahead and gawk: It’s a sea lion under the floor.
Maybe that’s not so strange in Astoria, Oregon, a Columbia River town 95 miles northwest of Portland, where one of the West’s mightiest waterways knuckles into the planet’s largest ocean. Here the wild and the mild, the old and the new, swirl around town like currents in the tide.
Throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries, Astoria’s waterfront bustled with seafood canneries where workers could clean a 40-pound fish in 45 seconds. Now the cannery buildings house kayak shops, a boutique hotel, and eateries including Buoy Beer. You’ll find the Willapa Bay oysters plump and tangy, but the region’s true flavor sits just beyond the pub’s windows. The water may look placid during your visit, although sailors will tell you that when the weather changes, the sandbank at the river’s mouth known as the Columbia Bar can become a hull-grinding hell of 40-foot waves, dense fog, and shifting shoals.