Oregon coast offers a vacation all ages can enjoy


The giant roller coaster swooped and climbed, carrying us over the giant mountains of sand that stretched endlessly in front of us. That's what it felt like, anyway, bumping along in the dune buggy, up and down the massive sand dunes -- some more than 400 feet high -- in the middle of the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area near Florence, Ore.

For once we grown-ups agreed with the children's assessment of the place: "Awesome," they said, once they had caught their breath.

Everywhere we looked were sand dunes, one bigger than the last. Oregonians say the dunes "dance" with the wind, moving as much as 12 feet inland every year. Children like to slide down them on round plastic sleds or tumble down, writing their names in giant letters when they stop.

Best of all, according to our bunch, are the dune-buggy rides. Children over 10 may drive their own for roughly $30 an hour. A one-hour guided trip averages $25 a person. Try Sandland Adventures in Florence at (503) 997-8087.

There are more than 40 miles of dunes to explore at the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, about halfway up the 400-mile-long Oregon Coast. (Call the recreation area at [503] 271-3611. There's a visitors' center at Reddsport.)

Nearby, just south of Florence, is Honeyman State Park. With its freshwater lake, Honeyman is a perfect place for a picnic or lazy afternoon. But none of the children we saw, including our own, wasted any time snoozing. They were too busy sliding down the sand dunes, straight into the water.

All along the Oregon coast are near-empty beaches teeming with sea life. There is the first-rate Oregon Coast Aquarium; a town, Lincoln City, that prides itself on being a mecca for kite enthusiasts; 10 old lighthouses, including the much-photographed Heceta Lighthouse; and picturesque tourist towns like Seaside, Oregon's first beach resort.

It's impossible to count all the rocky coves and caves, including one just north of Florence that some 200 Stellar sea lions call home. At the Sea Lion Caves ([503] 547-3111), we took an elevator down 208 feet into their lair, where we watched dozens of the huge creatures stretched out on the rocks. In winter and spring, look for gray whales as they travel south from Alaska to the Baja Peninsula and back again.

Another day, we spent a couple of hours crabbing with a metal crab ring net we'd rented at a nearby bait shop for $5 -- no fishing license needed. The children used cut fish for bait, throwing out the ring and hauling it in to see their "catch." They were having too much fun to be disappointed when none were big enough to keep.

There's no better place than the Oregon coast for a family to unwind together, I decided as I watched our brood work that crab ring. Call the Oregon Tourism Board at [800] 547-7842 and ask for the Pacific Northwest Coast Guide.

Here's a vacation spot parents will enjoy as much as the children. It's funky and beautiful at the same time. It's affordable and not terribly crowded, probably like the California coast of two decades ago. You can visit the tiniest harbor in the world, Depoe Bay, or watch huge waves from a place called Devil's Punch Bowl.

There are four state-designated marine gardens along the coast where naturalists can help the children understand what they're seeing in the tide pools. You'll find them at Haystack Rock in Cannon Beach, Otter Rock and Yaquina Head north of Newport, and Cape Perpetua south of Yachats.

Wherever you wander along the Oregon coast there are opportunities to teach the children about the ocean and the creatures that call it home. A winner is the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport on Yaquina Bay.

The aquarium has designed four acres to represent coastal life, complete with tide pools, sea caves, and many of the animals that live there, including harbor seals, sea otters and birds like tufted puffins and auklets.

A short drive up the coast, amble down the stroller- and wheelchair-accessible Quarry Cove tide pool area at the Yaquina Head Natural Area ([503] 265-2863). Look for the naturalist at the manufactured tide pool to answer all the children's questions. There's also a huge natural tide pool as well as an old historic lighthouse to explore.

Whale-lovers in your family, meanwhile, will be happy to know that ailing Keiko, the killer-whale star of the hit movie "Free Willy," will be moving to the Oregon Coast Aquarium from Mexico by late fall. Visitors will be able to see Keiko as he recuperates from being nearly a ton underweight and suffering from skin lesions and bad teeth. Eventually, scientists hope, he can be returned to the wild.

To get everyone in the mood for a trip to the Oregon coast, here's a fish riddle: What creatures float through life with no brain, no spine, no bones and no heart?

Stumped? Jellyfish. They're 95 percent water.

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