Cathlamet, Washington: just a little, old fashioned, all-American town

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

If your travels are taking you to the Pacific Northwest, plan a getaway-to-yesteryear, eat-too-much weekend during your stay. The place to do it is Cathlamet, Wash. (population 652, holding firm). Cathlamet, whose main street borders the Columbia River, is located only 75 miles from downtown Portland, Ore., but 35 years ago in time.

Until 1929 (population then, 621) there was no way to get to Cathlamet unless you had a boat. The Columbia River was the only highway to the town's front door. Then the state of Washington built a two-lane roller coaster along the north side of the river and tied Cathlamet to the outside world.

In the spirit of get-away-to-yesterday, ignore the road and arrive at Cathlamet in pre- 1929 style -- by boat. Take Oregonhs Highway 30 west from Portland to the village of Westport where the only surviving ferry on the Columbia leaves the dock every hour on the half hour with the last whistle at 5: 30 p.m. Fare for the open-air voyage, $1.75.

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It's a 15-minute cruise to the dock on Puget Island which, in turn, is tied to Cathlamet by bridge. "Thank you, come again," says the captain as he waves you ashore.

Puget Island begs to be explored. But wait. First cross the bridge and explore your headquarters for the weekend -- the Cathlamet Hotel and its adjoining restaurant, Pierre's, housed in the fire-engine-red 1890 Victorian. The hotel is the best place, admittedly also the only place, to stay for miles around with a weekend package that makes it monetarily ridiculous to say at home: two nights in the hotel, continental breakfast served to you in bed if you wish, dinner at Pierre's on Friday and Saturday nights, plus brunch on Sunday. The price for two: $79.

You'll find no bellboy in the lobby, no clerk behind the desk. Instead, a sign instructs you to pick up the phone and tell whomever answers that you are there. Promptly someone comes, most likely one of proprietor Pierre Pype's 10 children, to show you to your room.

Rooms are pure 1930. All have double beds. Some share a bath with the neighbor next door. Others demand a hike down the hall. Nevertheless, the hotel is a bright surprise of fresh paint and bold wallpaper. Windowpanes glisten and the bathrooms are scrupulously scrubbed. A white wicker set invites you to lounge in the upstairs hall. a game room comes equipped with a billiard table which lists ever so slightly to the west.

Once settled, put together a picnic from the shelves in the grocery down the street and explore Puget Island. If you've brought along bicycles, Puget Island is perfect for pedaling. Fourteen miles of dike-edged roads crisscross the pastureland following wandering sloughs where fishermen dock their boats in floating garages and spread their nets to dry. You'll pass the Sons of Norway Hall where descendants of early Norwegian dairymen keep old traditions alive today. You'll also pass the Blix Boatworks -- Puget Island is one of the last strongholds of wooden-boat making in the country. Stop for a tour, visitors are more than welcome. When it's time for lunch, find a sandy beach and picnic to the accompaniment of the slosh of water against shore as the river traffic goes by.

Puget Island is not the only place to go cycling. One pedal-power excursion follows Elochoman River, a favorite salmon-angling stream, to the fish hatchery at the end of the road where you can visit the spawning-stock holding tank filled with the ones that got way. Another trip takes you through a Whitetail deer refuge where endangered Whitetails graze peacefully with the cows. The picturesque village of Skamokawa, up the road a piece, is yet another destination. A slough is Skamokawa's main street. Wood frame houses wade stilt-deep at water's edge or sit on clipped-grass lawns that run down to the owner's fishing boats moored out front. Stop in at Hoby's General Store and ask for directions to the round barn, a notable example of bovine architecture, and the only remaining covered bridge in the state of Washington.

Besides bicycling, you can golf and play tennis during your stay in Cathlamet. The golf course is a nine-holer with spectacular views of the Columbia below. It's probably the only course in the world where players holler "Fore!" to warn elk trespassing the greens. Tennis is in City Park on the river edge of town. There are two well-surfaced lighted courts. No waiting. No charge.

Now, for the eating at Pierre's where the linens are crisp and the cook knows his way around the kitchen. For the price of your weekend, you may order any entree on the menu with the exception of lobster. There are plenty of choices left -- rack of lamb, veal in mustard sauce, steaks cut and cooked to order, Columbia River sturgeon.

Before turning in next door, tell Pierre when you'd like your breakfast to arrive in the morning. Juice, coffee, and sweet rolls will appear at your door along with the morning paper. On Sunday, you can have your breakfast and eat brunch too. Brunch is a groaning-board buffet of fruits and juices, open-faced crab sandwiches, omelettes, and quiches.

From Cathlamet, the ferry leaves for Oregon every hour on the quarter hour with the last crossing of the day at 5:15. While you wait to catch the boat, take a stroll through the orderly, hillside village. If you're lucky, dozens of spruced-up Fords and Buicks will be in town, looking quite at home on Main Street.Vintage auto owners frequently get together in Cathlamet to lift hoods, kick tires, and admire paint jobs.

Walk on down to Elochoman Marina and watch the sailboats bob in the tide. Dangle your feet off the pier, chat with fishermen as they ready their boats for the week ahead, while log rafts and freighters drift by.

But keep an eye on your watch. Five-fifteen can creep up on you in a town where time stands still.

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