Heceta Lighthouse B&B a true guiding light for romance on spectacular Oregon Coast
YACHATS, Ore. — As a native Oregonian, I always find myself drawn to Oregon lighthouses, kind of like an inland sailor. It isn’t a need for safe passage to land, as so many boat captains have sought on our rough seas for 120-plus years. It’s more of an assurance of where I’m at, where I’m from, who I am.
Living in Rome for 7 ½ years hasn’t changed that. When people ask me where I’m from, I don’t put on false airs and say Rome. I couldn’t pass for Roman if I wore gladiator gear and carried an ax. I say Oregon. I haven’t lived there for 42 years. No matter. I’m as Oregon as moss on tree bark, a rainy weekend, a commune in the woods.
It’s why driving up jaw-dropping Highway 101 along the Oregon Coast this past Christmas holiday was such a gift.
Oregon has 11 lighthouses, all dotting the Coast like sentries guarding a fiercely independent state that likes doing things its own way and leading the way (decriminalization of marijuana, organic farms, first bottle bill).
The king of Oregon’s lighthouses is the Heceta Head Lighthouse. Located almost at the halfway mark of the Oregon Coast, Heceta made the National Register of Historic Places in 1978 and has been a guiding light for ships and Oregonians alike since 1894.
The 56-foot-high lighthouse sits on a promontory 205 feet above the ocean with the brightest light on the Coast, shining 24 miles out to sea. It’s the most photographed lighthouse in the United States and graces postcards, calendars and coffee mugs all over the state.
Now imagine having a bed & breakfast right below it.
Early Christmas gift
This was one of my Christmas gifts to Marina. My girlfriend and uber photographer visited the Pacific Northwest with me in August 2018 and fell in love with the Oregon Coast. She wanted to return and experience her first American Christmas.
I gave her two warnings: One, a Henderson family Christmas, unlike in Italy, is heavy on the gifts and light on the religion. (Hey, we’re Protestants!); two, the Oregon Coast in December feels a lot different while standing in a horizontal gale.
Undeterred, she wanted the adventure. I couldn’t find her a better gift than a night at the Heceta Lighthouse Bed & Breakfast. It has stood strong under the lighthouse since 1894 and served as the lighthouse keeper’s quarters until 1963. Since then, it has hosted people and bus tours from around the world and hosted weddings, anniversaries and community events.
It has also become famous among foodies for its — get this — seven-course breakfast, rarely using ingredients found more than a Frisbee throw from the kitchen. Marina, who has developed an admitted unhealthy dependency on American breakfasts, all but bought an American flag pin for her lapel.
The welcoming B&B came at the end of a four-hour drive from Crescent City, Calif., which is also on the sea with a modest lighthouse that juts up from a house on a tiny island just off land.
But once we crossed the Oregon border 25 miles north, Highway 101 becomes one of the most magnificent drives in the U.S. It passes through numerous Coast towns (the weather is too cold to call them “beach towns”) with unspoiled, public beaches and nary a rock or selfie-snapping tourist in sight. Brookings. Gold Beach. Port Orford. Bandon. All neat and homey with great seafood, friendly folks and the occasional championship golf course (See: Bandon Dunes).
Heceta (pronounced ha-SEE-ta) Lighthouse B&B lies halfway between Florence, which has gone from a drab fishing and lumber town in my youth to a hip, artsy community today, and Yachats, a one-time isolated logging town that has become the savvy traveler’s in place to visit in Oregon. In 2007, Budget Travel magazine listed it among its Ten Coolest Small Towns in USA. In 2011 travel guide publisher Arthur Frommer wrote that Yachats (pronounced YAH-hots) is one of his 10 favorite vacation destinations in the world.
It’s this area where Oregon’s thick forests meet the ocean. Walk along the broad sandy beaches and it looks like an avalanche of trees flowing down a huge hill into the water. There are no palm trees, but a mountain of Douglas firs has a sense of symmetry that’s hard to put into words.
Ken Keysey even struggled. The Oregon native and acclaimed author (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”) wrote “Sometimes a Great Notion” not far from here in 1964. He came for the solitude but became distracted by the beauty, once telling an interviewer, “I can’t sit out there, look at the ocean and get any work done. It hammers the hell out of me.”
We pulled off 101 and down a short path where we found the B&B in a Queen Anne-style house that must’ve been painted by Norman Rockwell. It’s a two-story A-frame with a long front porch lined with comfy chairs. Inside was a Christmas tree, a dining room table beautifully set for eight and a sitting room sporting the B&B’s own signature wine.
On the porch we met a couple from Bellevue, Wash., huddling under a blanket holding glasses of wine and staring at a vista that would’ve made Ferdinand Magellan weep. Just down the hill was the raging Pacific Ocean. Its white foam spilled onto the sandy beach backed by a craggy hill covered in fir trees slightly covered in misty fog. Giant rocks stuck out from the sea like sleeping whales.
It was about 4 p.m. The sun, a raging yellow ball, was just starting to set into a purple sea, occasionally silhouetting a long-billed cormorant lazily floating into view.
Worth the pricetag
The couple didn’t speak. They just stared. So did Marina and I. The only sound we heard was the steady roar of the ocean, the air filled with a fresh mist. I forgot the price tag of $218.50 a night. Without taking a bite of breakfast, without a sip of wine, I knew this view made every penny worth it.
We walked up the short path to the lighthouse. It is massive. It’s even more impressive standing next to it than from the many vistas along the Coast. On top, the lighthouse’s gold lens revolved like a giant, twirling lantern.
We were lucky. Not many lighthouses are operational anymore. GPS has made them obsolete. However, Heceta still shines bright, even for ship captains who don’t need it. They like the nostalgia, though.
“They’re an icon or inspiration for people,” B&B manager Misty Anderson said. “They really touch a lot of people emotionally.”
Many have come forward to save Oregon’s lighthouses. Some are non-profit organizations. Some are private people interested in historical preservation. This lighthouse, officially known as Heceta Head Light, has quite a history. Named for Bruno de Heceta, a Spaniard who explored the Pacific Northwest in the 18th century, Heceta is a result of the busy water traffic in the late 19th century. In 1889 the U.S. Senate approved funding for a lighthouse and three years later, 56 men built the lighthouse and a lighthouse keeper’s house, which is now the B&B.
The light first came on in 1894 and, except for the occasional day or two down for repairs and a renovation from 2011-13, it has been shining bright across the Pacific ever since.
In 1939, operational duties transferred from the Department of Commerce to the Coast Guard which used it as a base during World War II. Fearing an attack by the Japanese, the Coast Guard had dogs guard the lighthouse around the clock.
After the war, the lighthouse began greeting visitors in 1952.
Anderson came here seven years ago. Raised in Alaska, she moved at 16 to Southern California where she lived for 16 years then Monterrey, Calif., for six before moving here.
“It’s a balance between California and Alaska,” she said. “I get the beauty of Alaska but the mild weather. And gosh! The beauty! People talk about the Big Sur Coast. And I feel the Oregon Coast is like the Big Sur Coast on steroids. Every inch of the Oregon Coast is just dramatic scenery where the forest meets the ocean. It’s so beautiful, just every part. But I feel this area between Florence and Newport is the most beautiful part of it all.”
The B&B began taking its current shape in 1996 when the Forest Service put out a notice for prospective B&B owners. More than 500 applied. It went to Mike and Carol Korgan, two executive chefs from Portland who started with two rooms. The Korgans retired in 2003 and handed it off to their daughter Michelle who owns it today where it sports six rooms, including the room where the lighthouse keeper stayed.
The B&B is wildly popular. From May through October it is 95 percent filled and they suggest you reserve at least three months in advance. Some book a year in advance. One couple from Albany, between Eugene and Portland, has been there 36 times.
Our room dripped with romance in a backdrop of ghostly legends. It featured a four-poster bed and the original 19th century closets. Inside is an old-fashioned lantern in case the electricity goes out. But our room, called the Victoria Room, is also known as the most haunted room in the house. Anderson said guests have reported items flying across the room from the bathroom, hearing voices and feeling touched by unseen hands. Legend has it that a lighthouse keeper lived in the room when his child drowned.
He and his wife moved out. Then, apparently, the ghosts moved in.
We saw and felt nothing but the warmth of a great bed. Real haphazards do occur, however. That happens when perched on such a precarious point in North America. Anderson said every winter heavy rains will wash away one side of 101 and winds will knock down trees, stopping traffic. Sometimes the Oregon Department of Transportation clears it in an hour; sometimes it takes a couple of days.
“That’s why it’s important to have staff who live in Yachats and Florence,” she said. “Caretakers live on site so there’s somebody here.”
The weather can be challenging but for adventurous travelers (i.e. not “soft”), it is beautiful even in its most ferocious. This part of Oregon gets about 60 inches of rain a year and temperatures drop into the low 40s in winter. Here is Anderson’s annual weather report:
“Year round it could be anything and it can change from one minute to the next. Typically, the winter is rainy and really windy. We can get big storms. Spring can have some nice days but we still get lots of rain. Summers are interesting. I noticed July seems to be real windy. August tends to be foggy. September is dry and beautiful. October is beautiful during the day and at night it gets cold and November the storms start all over again.”
Scared off? Don’t be. On Dec. 30, 2018 they had a wedding in summer-like conditions. Her flowers once bloomed for two weeks of sun in February. When we arrived on Dec. 23 it was clear and sunny. Not a raindrop fell.
Besides the lighthouse, the view, the wine and cheese at sunset, the other highlight is the monstrous breakfast. We had a strategy. We didn’t eat much dinner and instead drove into Florence for a glass of Oregon wine in the romantic Waterfront Depot restaurant.
We were hungry when we woke and sat down with the Bellevue couple and a South Korean couple from Vancouver, British Columbia. The seven courses are the byproduct of having executive chefs run the place. It started with a couple courses then they kept adding. And adding.
When Michelle returned from college she helped them — with a bit of advice.
“She said, ‘You have to stop! You have to stop at seven courses,’” Anderson said. “It could’ve been a 12-course breakfast.”
The B&B has an entire cookbook and can do up to eight days in a row without repeating a single dish. They also can work with dietary restrictions. Here was our menu:
- Pinot Gris fruit cocktail. Asian pears, cantaloupe, watermelon and blueberries, marzipan-whipped cream blend and candied hazelnuts with a side of orangebread.
2. Shrimp mousse. Bay shrimp with chevre, cream cheese, green onion, cucumber and honey.
3. Avocado lime frappe.
4. Garden frittata. Farm eggs, shallots, kale topped with feta and sun-dried tomatoes.
5. Extra crispy bacon.
6. Almond lemon polenta cake topped with powdered sugar and pomegranates.
7. Gouda with honey-crisp apple, dried fig and raspberries.
Hungry? I am again just by listing the dishes.
The portions weren’t American-style, back-up-the-truck huge. They were just enough to whet the appetite and fill you up for the activities ahead. Hike the beach. Explore the lighthouse. Swim in the sea for the mentally insane.
For us it was an hour drive to my hometown of Eugene. My home may now be Rome, but my Oregon roots remain as strong as a lighthouse’s beam.