Let life on the edge in Westport draw you in and shift your perspective
Written and photographed by Joni Kabana
When I first rolled into the coastal town of Westport, on Grays Harbor, I could not make out the commotion that was happening on the break wall. People were lined atop the barrier’s black boulders, clapping and cheering, steadying themselves against high winds. Seeing this much excitement from a crowd of people during such cold, blustery weather startled me. Little did I know what I was in for over the next two days.
I approached the break wall and could see surfers, many of them, braving the 40 degree water. Waves were crashing like I had never seen before, each one hurling its enormous power toward the rocks. My first thought was, who are these people? What compels them to withstand bone-chilling weather and place themselves in such danger?
I saw a surfer in his car, gobbling slices of pizza as he warmed himself by the heater. Benjamin Beck, 29, grew up surfing in Hawaii but comes here to mix with “the diehards,” surfers who like their sea waves frigid and terrifying. Why surf the reliable big waves in Hawaii when you can surf icy “king tides,” the highest tides of the year, when the Earth, moon, and sun are aligned just so? I could now see why people challenged their own safety up on the break wall to watch these surfers’ defiant athleticism.
Westport inhabitants like to think of themselves as living on the edge, literally and figuratively. As I made my way to restaurants, museums, businesses and nature sites, it became increasingly clear that this town is full of entrepreneurs of the most spirited kind. Most have grown up here, so heritage runs deep. So does a profound love for their town.
Westport’s Maritime Museum director and local historian John Shaw described why this town has been made up of tough, hardy, resilient people since its beginning. Having no road to reach Westport until 1914, the town was formed by fishermen, Coast Guard life-savers and high-surf lovers drawn to “the San Andreas Fault of the Pacific Northwest.” When one has to coexist with king tides and all that comes from living that close to a raging sea, one becomes mighty.
Al “You-Should-Always-Be-Wet” Perlee, 70, and born in Los Angeles, is a “newcomer” having only been here fifty years. He built a tarpaper shack for a home with no water or electricity to escape the California high rents. After hearing from a friend that “there are waves up here!” he’s considered to be the first surfer to set up a household in the traditional fishing village. He owns The Surf Shop and it is well worth the time to stop in, regardless of whether you are a surfer, and hear him read his musings on the sea.
Perlee believes that Westport surfers aren’t in it for the surfing experience as much as for their fascination of the sea. He also says that people here often face insurmountable odds, but they always bounce back.
As the town’s industry expanded from fishing to include surfing and other kinds of recreation, cottage industries popped up. Wineries, restaurants and great little hotels are scattered throughout Westport and surrounding areas. With my own spirit soaring, I could not wait to try as many as I could fit in during a visit that was too brief.
Aloha Alabama BBQ is true to its name. They smoke pork and chicken low and slow so it absorbs the flavors of smoldering Yakima apple and Hawaiian kiawe wood. Order crispy, fried Willapa oysters along with the signature cocktail, the Alabama slammer, a seductive concoction of sloe gin, amaretto and orange juice, complete with a paper umbrella, and you’ll soon hear Etta James singing in your ear and feel Muscle Shoals sun on your face. Take home a quart of the homemade BBQ sauce to recreate the joy. At the very least, tuck an extra side-cup serving in your pocket for later. It’s that good.
Bennett’s Fish Shack and Merino’s Seafood Market are two great places to get fish and chips, fried oysters and more. Make sure you arrive with an empty stomach, for the trawler-captain-size portions. They don’t mess around in this town.
If you’re in the mood for a dish that’s isn’t the kind you enjoy from a plastic basket, hit Cranberry Road Winery for fish stews, brews and house bottled vino. Try the syrah, even if you are eating fish.
Westport Winery Garden Resort’s creative menu, mimosa flights and tiny “flight of fancy” martini towers are the high tide of culinary fun. The gardens alone are worth the stop. Stay tuned for the opening of what they believe will be the world’s first mermaid museum.
Savor charcuterie and sip a local vintage while hypnotizing yourself by gazing at the comings and goings of boats at Westhaven Wines. Owner Casey Watkins quit her job after eighteen years as a labor and delivery nurse to birth this harborside wine shop with her business partner, Jessica Baldridge, another former nurse. Their job satisfaction comes with “delivering a different kind of joy now.” Regress to your childhood palate at Granny Hazel’s Candy & Gift Shop to be sure you never grow out of chocolate as a bliss-inducing pairing with fermented crushed grapes.
Fully immerse yourself in the terroir by staying nearby at the Tokeland Hotel & Restaurant. Owner and chef Heather Earnhardt spent years building a great culinary reputation preparing Southern-style dishes at her Seattle restaurant, The Wandering Goose, before netting the oldest hotel in Washington, first opened in 1885. Earnhardt’s inventive dishes will make you care less that the place is haunted.
Another place for ethereal spirits may be the Grays Harbor Lighthouse. At 107-feet, it is the state’s tallest. Visit here to learn how its beacon of light guides seafarers home. As the sun sets, retreat to the cozy Westport Marina Cottages and reflect on the salty and sweet characters you met. This haven, warmly shared by its long-term inhabitants, has its doors open wide with hopes that you will feel at home, too.
The day I arrived I’d been disappointed that the two-day weather forecast called for steady rain. By the end of my visit, I felt rejuvenated by being thoroughly drenched, repeatedly. I realized to never doubt the wisdom of a 70-year-old surfer. Perlee was right after all: getting pelted by rain cleanses the soul. I didn’t want to leave.
It reminded me of what Shaw said about Westport’s progressiveness in building a tsunami-ready evacuation tower with tremendous support from the community and recognition from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. What does a community do when faced with high tsunami probability and constant damage from king tides? They don’t leave for higher ground. They stay. They improvise. They solve problems.
As I reluctantly packed up to go, Perlee’s words rang in my ears:
“The sea is a cruel mistress of many beguiling moods, some playfully alluring and others that depict pure rage … always drawing closer those she, and she alone, chooses.”
Aloha Alabama BBQ
Bennett’s Fish Shack
Cranberry Road Winery
Granny Hazel’s Candy & Gift Shop
Merino’s Seafood Market
Westport Winery Garden Resort
Westport Marina Cottages
Grays Harbor Lighthouse
The Surf Shop
Westport’s Maritime Museum