Two Seattle families with young kids find fun in a shared beach house at Manzanita, Ore.

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MANZANITA, Ore. — I ask the woman at Manzanita City Hall if it’s always this windy.

“Well, it depends … ” she begins diplomatically. Standing behind her, a colleague is vigorously nodding her head, silently mouthing the word “Yes.”

Once you accept the wind, work with the wind, embrace the wind, Manzanita turns out to be a wonderful place to take a vacation on a budget with a young family. If, as with my family, your 5-year-old starts losing patience with road trips about the time you’ve passed his favorite landmark — the Army tanks at Fort Lewis — then a trip from Seattle to Manzanita is a lot better than a road trip to California. Think one lunch stop, two pints of apple juice and four to five hours of “I Spy.”

When you first glimpse Manzanita from the hillside of Highway 101, the view is stunning. There’s a long stretch of beach, about seven miles in all, punctuated at one end by the Nehalem River and at the other by Neahkahnie Mountain.

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When we arrive in the township, I immediately think: How did we overlook this place until now? To date, after living here almost a decade, my coastal trips in the Northwest have proved less than satisfactory. Sorry, Washington, but Ocean Shores gets two thumbs down. Seaside, in Oregon, is way too Coney Island. Cannon Beach? Too many slacks and sweaters and fancy lodges.

Manzanita, on the other hand, gets it just about right. It has the feel of an upscale country town. There’s one main street, walkable in 15 minutes, and the year-round population is just 750.

Hippie ethos

I’m told the town was first claimed by hippies. That ethos remains — there’s a health-food store, several art galleries, a thriving library, and, when we arrive, much buzz about the upcoming “Trash Bash,” an annual celebration at the recycling center, in which people wear costumes they’ve fashioned from old pieces of rubber and metal.

Kathleen Kanas, a local artist who runs the 4th Street Studio and Gallery, says when she first arrived 30 years ago, dogs used to lie in the streets, accustomed to long interludes between vehicles.

“Now it’s so crowded here in the summer, you can’t find a place to park,” she says.

The development hasn’t been too detrimental, she adds. It’s boosted the economy. The town has put limits on tourism by capping the proportion of homes that can be rented. And locals and visitors alike still take great pride in Manzanita, she says, working alongside one another during organized beach cleanups.

Those wishing for quieter times may have found them this year, anyway. Oregon’s coastal tourism up to now has been dampened by the economic crisis, lousy spring weather, even fears about swine flu. Perhaps that’s why we manage to find a deal on a rental home: three nights for the price of two. It’s a four-bedroom place, just a couple of blocks from the beach. Sharing with another family, we pay a total of $448 — or about $75 per family, per night. It’s nothing fancy, but comfortable, great for children, and the kitchen helps us save on food costs.

Twice the family fun

Traveling with another family adds both chaos and fun. The children quickly form a posse that ransacks the home’s stash of dominoes, cards and marbles. There are jockey races on the beach (parents obligingly playing the part of the horses) and joint book-reading sessions. For the parents, there’s that glass of wine with each other when the kids finally fall asleep.

Like many homes in Manzanita, our rental is clad in cedar shakes. Homes range from modest bungalows to $3 million waterfront mansions encased in glass and owned by wealthy out-of-towners.

The downtown is anchored by a country-style grocery, The Little Apple (a translation of the Spanish word “manzanita”), which has everything a Seattleite might want — good wine, good lattes, shopping opportunities. There’s the San Dune Pub, a relaxed bar featuring blues and cover bands. There’s a plush dog-accessory store and talk of a sushi bar opening soon.

Beach time

Beaches and kids, of course, were made for each other. Set the kids loose, and they have endless fun, running through tide pools, making sand castles, doing whatever. For those aged about 5 and older, you can rent three-wheeled “Fun Cycles” for $8 an hour from Manzanita Bikes & Boards, and race around the hard-packed sand. It is a lot of fun.

The breezy beach has become a favorite haunt for windsurfers and kite-surfers. The best times for non-wind-dependent activities tend to be before 10 a.m. and in the evenings after dinner, when it’s calm. We found the large sand dunes to the south, accessible through Nehalem Bay State Park, provide shelter and endless opportunities for the kids. Bring a kite — liftoff is guaranteed. And if the wind really picks up, take a drive north to the next beach over, Short Sands.

The beach is a quarter-mile hike from Highway 101 through towering old-growth forest in Oswald West State Park. At the bottom of a gully and sheltered, Short Sands is a favorite spot for surfers, and the crowd is much younger than at Manzanita. Teens warm themselves in blankets after a surf and wrestle each other into the sand. I wished we’d taken a picnic and allowed for a few more hours there — it was heavenly.

The up side (with pirates)

Lucky for me, perhaps, my 5-year-old, Henry, has the energy of 10 grown men. That’s why I decided to risk taking him on a hike up Neahkahnie Mountain. The name, sometimes spelled Neah-Kah-Nie, comes from the Native American meaning the dwelling place of a top deity, Ekahnie. Rumors that pirates or perhaps Spanish sailors buried treasure at the mountain has given rise to many searches over the years, and even a 2006 movie, “The Tillamook Treasure.”

You can start the hike at Short Sands but we took an easier route, leaving from a marked side road between mileposts 41 and 42 on Highway 101. From the trailhead, allow between two and three hours to get to the top and back.

It’s a beautiful hike, through warm meadows at first and up into cooler Douglas-fir forest. After winding around the back of the mountain, you pop out above the trees with a spectacular view overlooking the Manzanita coastline. One complaint: The trail doesn’t quite take you all the way to the summit. Henry and I decided to scramble up anyway — not something I would recommend, because it’s steep and slippery.

Henry reported four main highlights: the bird with the red head, the mouse scampering into a hole, seeing a blue jay from above, and climbing a mountain, his first. He would be telling his friend Arthur about that.

Before turning home toward Seattle, we made good on a promise to the kids by taking a 30-mile detour southward to the Tillamook Cheese factory, which is celebrating its centennial. Actually, the kids weren’t interested until we mentioned the part about the ice cream. Once there, the cheese-making process, with its industrious, hair-netted workers, massive baths of milk, and octopus-like wrapping machines, turned out to be a big hit.

As did the ice cream. After all, there are 38 flavors, including bubble gum, chosen by our 3-year-old, Lillie. And finally, a challenge. To make it back to Fort Lewis, and those tanks, before nightfall.

Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or

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