SEASIDE, OREGON – As I passed by my waiter, I couldn’t resist asking him, “So, when does the tourist season start around here?”
He smiled, and said, “About two weeks ago.”
And so it was at the picturesque coastal town of Seaside, Oregon, where early June starts with highs in the low 60s, and lows in the 50s – a far cry from Central Florida, where the 90 degree heat and humidity settled in well over a month ago. I tossed on a sweater and set out to explore my new settings.
But at the same time, the waiter at the Firehouse Grill cafe on Broadway Street in downtown Seaside was excited about the new summer tourist season that had started on Memorial Day Weekend, and would predictably bring thousands of visitors to the charming town over the next three months.
Serving me a plate of fried oysters, the waiter pointed to the window looking out onto the street – and to the sunshine that came along with it. That, he said, was a goldmine on the rainy Pacific coast.
“Sunshine is rare this time of year,” he said.
Coming from Orlando, which had just endured a week of drenching rain courtesy of Tropical Storm Andrea – storms that left more than a few of our visiting tourists wondering where the Sunshine State had disappeared to – I could sympathize.
Still, going from my home in Orlando to the Pacific Northwest as a tourist is a unique experience. Every summer I watch thousands of visitors flock to our area for our manufactured pleasures – the massive theme parks that keep introducing new thrill rides every year. We know tourism, the modern, splashy, high-tech way.
But that’s not, I rediscovered, the only way to be a happy tourist.
In Oregon, I visited not a single theme park, but got a superb reminder of just how sublime natural unspoiled beauty is.
My trip has already taken me to some big cities, including Seattle and Portland, which have a lot of great neighborhoods and urban delights — more, I’m afraid, than you can realistically discover on one trip.
But this early June vacation also took me to smaller places beyond the city limits, like Seaside, where you can find outposts that enable you to watch the ocean for as long as you like, until you’re ready to start shopping in their quaint downtown, which enables you to patronize used book stores, antique stores and excellent restaurants like Firehouse Grill.
Driving past a police car that had pulled over a motorist, a friend from the town pointed out that the person getting the ticket was most definitely a local.
“They don’t give tickets to tourists,” he said. “If you give a ticket to a tourist, they don’t come back.”
In Florida, where there is no income tax and tourists pay generously into our sales tax system, that is most definitely not the philosophy of highway law enforcement.
My travels also took me into Washington State, where I had the opportunity to experience the truly sublime pleasures of Mount Rainier National Park. This is a tourist spot, all right, but it would be hard to apply the term “tourist trap” to this one, unless the notion of the great outdoors somehow makes you ill.
As you drive toward the park, you pass through tiny towns that dot the landscape – like Elbe, about 13 miles from Mount Rainier, which offers horse rentals and pony rides, and Ashford, where the Ashford Valley Grocery Store urges visitors to discover the “Northwest Forest Pass Milkshake” as they rent a cabin at Jasmer’s Cabins and Rooms, a close walk to the Painter’s Art Gallery.
As you drive into the park, it’s all around you – the beauty of an amazing ecosystem that includes rivers, forests and wildlife, chipmonks, marmots, black bears and black-tailed deers.
As you reach the Mid-Mountain Forest – elevation 4,000 feet – you will notice the snow on the ground, even in June, that is still frozen solid even in spring.
“Here the vegetation must adopt to fiercer winters, heavy snow, intense cold, and a shorter growing season,” a park monument notes.
There are hiking trails, the National Park Inn to rest at, and sunrise at 6,400 feet above sea level, the highest point in the park that you can reach by vehicle.
Is it amazing? Absolutely.
Still, it may sound like Oregon simply can’t compete with a tourism powerhouse like Orlando. But it’s worth noting that Oregon’s economy is currently one of the fastest-growing in the nation, along with Texas and North Dakota. (Florida trails well behind). But unlike those two states, where oil production is a major driving force, Oregon’s recovery is owed to improved strength in the manufacturing and service sectors, as well as housing. Residential building permits there reached the highest level in April since February 2008, according to the Oregon State University State of Oregon Economic Indicators report. So in other words, the state has a lot to offer tourists, but it isn’t just tourism that is fueling much-needed economic growth.
In Central Florida, tourism is perhaps the leading economic engine, followed by health care and business services. But few expect tourism alone – with its need for low-skill and equally low-wage earners, many of them in part-time positions – to pull the state out of the economic doldrums on its own.
Florida has plenty of beautifully preserved parks, and you don’t have to look far outside of Orlando to find them, like the nature trails at Lake Louisa State Park near Clermont in neighboring Lake County. The Sunshine State was doing tourism in the early years after the Civil War, so Florida’s landscape had an appeal long before Walt Disney World arrived and made us one of the world’s top tourist destinations.
Still, we locals all know our real bread and butter. Tourists flock here from across the globe flock to see our man-made exhibits at those theme parks, more so than our lakes.
It’s enjoyable to get away from that atmosphere for a while, and rediscover the pleasures of seeing that which man has left preserved, whether it’s the Oregon coast or the national parks in Washington.
And it’s a reminder as well that the more diversification Orlando can bring to the table – both for the tourism industry and the entire economy – the better off the entire region will be in the long run.
Contact Mike Freeman at FreelineOrlando@gmail.com.