City of Rhododendrons
Florence On the Central Oregon Coast
Historic Old Town in Florence on the Central Coast has been called charming and quaint, which it is, and is regarded as the heart of this “City of Rhododendrons” that attracts retirees and the younger set in droves. They come and stay for good reason. Florence (pop. 8,500) offers all the amenities one could hope for, particularly in one’s Golden Years, whether cultural, recreational, intellectual or commercial.
Located on a relatively flat, forested plain at the extreme north end of the mighty 40-mile-long Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, Florence is within close reach of 30 refreshing freshwater lakes and acclaimed golf courses, and lies only a couple of miles inland from the blue Pacific Ocean crashing and rumbling on mile after mile of pristine sandy beaches. During the last two decades, this worthwhile destination has matured into a vibrant and tasteful community worthy of serious exploration as it is consistently ranked one of the best places in America to retire.
You wouldn’t know that zipping through on the 101 because Florence is a tale of two cities; the homely sister is a long, straight commercial boulevard, wide and cluttered with strip malls and shopping centers and gas stations, most of it low-keyed and familiar. The other Florence sits down on the banks of the slow-rolling Siuslaw River just east of handsome Siuslaw River Bridge. Old Town is where it all began in the 1800s in typical Oregon fashion with fishing, logging and timber mills creating the boom that gradually went bust, relatively speaking because commercial fishing out of the Port of Siuslaw continues at Old Town.
What remains of that era has been admirably preserved, offering a rich and historic window into coastal Oregon’s past. Restored buildings from the early 1900s line Bay Street, Maple and numerous side streets that now bustle with vacationers enthralled by cozy coffee shops and bars, art galleries, and restaurants partial to serving food from the sea such as ubiquitous MOs (the one with the beautiful mural next to the big anchor), the Bay Street Grill, the Bridgewater Fish House and Zebra Bar (I hear the grilled Zebra is absolutely delicious), and the Waterfront Depot, to name a few.
When you’re tired of strolling in and out of specialty shops, stroll out along the famed Port of Siuslaw Boardwalk that overlooks the commercial moorage basin, which might or might not be filled with ships at berth. Keep strolling down to the docks and wander among the floating vessels – the cheapest entertainment you’ll find in these parts – and keep your eyes peeled for seals and herons, and men standing on surfboards paddling with long paddles downriver like those naked brown headhunters do on the Bugamatonga in the jungle hinterlands of Papua New Guinea.
I first set eyes on Florence thirty years ago and over the course of time have watched it evolve from a sleepy, empty place with miles of inland sand dunes and pine forests, to one of sprawling gated communities and premier 18-hole golfing at the Ocean Dunes Golf Links out on Munsel Lake Road, and Sandpines Golf Links designed by Rees Jones, which was named Best New Public Course in America by Golf Digest in 1993; but that was 20 years ago.
The name “Sandpines” sums up much of the terrain around Florence, a lot of beautiful, rolling mounds of sand interspersed among vast pine forests that make this place unique. When I’m standing at the Fred Meyer shopping complex staring at the slowly encroaching dunes, big ones, I’m reminded of the Sahel Desert in Africa’s sub-Sahara where oceans of sand are devouring habitable land and driving off its starving inhabitants in the literal millions. It’s just a matter of time before Fred Meyer succumbs to the same fate, gobbled up and swallowed wholesale by those advancing tiny specs of drifting grit. Let’s just hope they get a Walmart Super-Center built by then.
Like many who descend on this sandlot during summer and fall, I love the sand with a passion. I’ll take clean sand over dirty dirt any day. For me, it’s the miles of sand beaches and grassy dunes and emptiness that makes this place so special. And make no mistake about it; sand around here is big business. There’s horseback riding alongside the crashing ocean surf, particularly up near Baker Beach eight miles north of Florence. Sandboarders – those who slip and slide down sand like they’re riding snowboards – head for Sand Master Park, located at 5331 Highway 101 (equipment and instructions available).
But the biggest draw to the dunes, primarily south of Florence, is blasting up and over and around the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area in noisy off-highway vehicles, also known as OHVs, ORVs, or ATVs that go really fast. Dune buggies also carry as many as 34, or as few as four individuals through a kingdom of sand piles sometimes 500 feet tall. For group travel, check out Sandland Adventures or Sand Dunes Frontier for the gritty details. Of course, real freedom lies in those one-man OHVs, noisy little four-wheeled contraptions that have become the rage, or a bane, wherever sand in large quantities can be found, if the government allows it.
Like many, I’m somewhat conflicted about such off-road vehicle use in the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, and elsewhere. Thirty years ago it wasn’t much of a problem, but today, in some respects it has become a permanent plague of exceedingly noisy proportions. Abiding by federal and state mandates to provide multiple recreational uses on public lands, these motor-heads, fine and decent humans, each and every one, have taken over large swaths of public beaches with their ear-splitting, fume-spewing, demonic racket. Granted, these monsters of the midway are occasionally put on a leash – limited to certain corridors, perhaps, and special quadrants of the dunes – but if you’re out for some leisurely birdwatching, picnicking, lovemaking, or barefoot family frolicking, make sure you avoid “their territory.”
Racing around willie-nillie on four wheels is a provincial form of entertainment in these parts – the locals love it – and consequently you’ll find certain campgrounds taken over by this hardworking tribe out to blow off a little steam. They swarm to the coast in the thousands with their helmets, Rvs, beer and shin pads, and those LOUD, belching go-fast machines that are constantly being revved up, swarms of them on the prowl. This industry has really driven up some of the prices up and down the coast due to the demand for space and the demand for sand, and because they can get it.
If you want peace and quiet, my advice is to get a good map, contact headquarters and locate those OHV-free zones and quieter campgrounds. The other ones will drive you insane if you want to take a nap during the day, read a book in the evening, or stroll through those wonderful piles of sand sans shoes without being crushed to death by some out-of-control teenager on meth sailing his 200-pound gizmo up and over one of those beautiful, towering dunes. That said, I can’t wait to join the locals myself in their quest to conquer the quiet and get my hands on one of those noisy, combustible noisemakers, and roar off into the sandy sunset. What a blast that must be.
The thrill of mechanical mayhem is probably gone for most of the retired among us whose threshold for excitement stops at needlepoint or Bingo. Never fear. Just because your bladder is giving out and you wobble when you walk doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the finer things in life, and Florence is brimming with culture and non-lethal activities. Toward the end of May, Old Town hosts the very popular Rhododendron Festival, now in its 105th year. The parade is well attended, the carnival spins and twirls as one would expect, arts and crafts are proudly displayed and sold, the classic cars are shiny, and the Rhody Princess is gorgeous. Motorcycles showcase both wheels, gamblers lose their shirts at the charity poker run at Three Rivers Casino (benefits go to St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital) and onlookers crowd Bay Street as the Grand Floral Parade rolls through on Sunday.
Florence has arts fests, helicopter rides, big-time entertainment at the casino, monster truck rides, RV and boat shows, foot races, pie sales, rugby matches, gun shows. You can crab or you can clam or you can watch birds twitter about. If old stuff intrigues you, stop looking in the mirror; rows of shops in the antique district beckon. Whatever you do, don’t skip the Siuslaw Pioneer Museum on Maple Street, or music, film fests and theater at the Events Center.
You can drive north a short way to the world famous Sea Lions Cave, and while you’re there look for migrating gray whales offshore. Or drive south and fish or canoe the many large freshwater lakes of the Siltcoos Recreation Area and surrounding forests. And the list goes on. There’s more than enough to take your mind off the end of the road to which we’re all barreling at unacceptable, lightning speed. Don’t take my word for it. Come visit Florence, when it’s not raining, and have the time of your life. Who knows, you just might move here like so many others have done before you.
Photo Gallery of John Treadwell Dunbar.