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In Astoria, Ore., go for the history, stay for the view

Helen Anders Special to the American-Statesman
From the Astoria Column's hilltop in Astoria, Ore., elevation 600 feet, you can see where the Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean. It looks calm, but it's one of the most treacherous places for a ship to pass because of the infamous Columbia Bar, a wide area of tricky currents and huge waves. [Contributed by Helen Anders]

There’s nothing luxurious about the Crest Motel, but the view from its second-story balconies is priceless. My husband and I have perched there year after year, sharing a bottle of Oregon wine (this year: Acrobat pinot gris) while the sun sets behind huge freighters and barges making their way up the Columbia River toward Portland.

Much different from the beach communities farther south, Astoria is a hillside working community with history as its prime attraction. Well, that and the view.

The oldest settlement west of the Rockies, Astoria was named for John Jacob Astor, whose fur-trading expeditions established a fort in 1811, a few years after Lewis and Clark showed up here at the mouth of the Columbia. Astor himself was never here. He just paid for the expeditions, one by sea and one by land, both fraught with all sorts of perils.

Those explorations and other points of Oregon history are chronicled in a frieze that wraps around the Astoria Column, a 125-foot column on 30 acres at the 600-foot top elevation in Astoria. Built in 1926 with money from the Great Northern Railroad and Astor’s great-grandson Vincent, it has 126 steps you can walk to the very top, and I’ve done so, but, to be honest, the view from the ground level is entirely wonderful. Don’t feel obligated to make the climb to enjoy the 360-degree look at this impressive part of the world.

Look down at the bridge where the Columbia River and Pacific Ocean meet. You can’t tell from up on the hill, but this piece of water where the river and the ocean merge is one of the most treacherous anywhere because of the famed Columbia Bar, an area roughly 6 by 3 miles where the river currents and ocean surf meet, forming huge waves and tricky swells. Well-trained bar pilots guide ships into a narrow dredged channel to continue toward Portland, but thousands of ships have perished over the years, even in modern times. From up at the Column, the whole scene looks deceptively serene.

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If you’re keen to see where Lewis and Clark camped, drive about five minutes to Lewis and Clark National Historical Park, where you’ll find Fort Clatsop. Within a mile or so of the explorers’ original camp sits a replica of some of its buildings, along with demonstrations on making fire without matches and creating candles from melted beeswax. There’s an interpretive center with a really good film about Lewis and Clark, too.

For the best lunch in Astoria, you’ll have to line up on Duane Street to buy fish and chips from the window of Bowpicker, a former gillfish (salmon net fishing) boat that sits at the edge of the Coast Guard’s parking lot. The menu consists of fish and chips and nothing else, and the fish is ... albacore tuna. Yes, tuna.

And that takes us back to more Astoria history. In the 1880s, Astoria was both a major sawmill town and the salmon-canning capital of the world, but then the salmon runs declined, so the town turned to albacore tuna for a while until the factories finally shut down (overfishing, pollution). Downtown trash cans shaped like tuna and salmon pay homage to that part of the past. But tuna is still fished here, and it makes a surprisingly great battered dish, its firm white meat the mildest of all tunas. The steak fries are good, too.

A good afternoon activity is the nearby Columbia River Maritime Museum, which tells the story of the area’s often-tragic history on the high seas and, even more, the perilous crossing of the bar into the Columbia River. There’s a really good film about the bar pilots who must, to this day, assist ships in crossing the bar in what is known as the Graveyard of the Pacific. They don’t call the Washington side of the river Cape Disappointment for no reason. At the museum, you can also see a bar pilot boat, surprisingly small, as well as other craft.

Overlooking all this history is the Crest Motel, which prides itself on having the best hilltop view of the Columbia in Astoria. Its rooms are clean and large, and there’s even a guest laundry room in case you’ve been on the road awhile.

Walking outside with coffee after breakfast (free), we ran into a man who’d grown up in Astoria and was back for a funeral. He grew up “under the bridge,” he said, referring to the 4.21-mile span that runs from Astoria to the wooded hills near Cape Disappointment in Washington. Astoria’s first settlers in the 1800s were Finns who lived on that hillside where the bridge went up in 1966.

“That bridge ruined my view,” the man lamented, then pointed out stumps of pilings that once supported one of Astoria’s big canneries and a spot where sawmill once stood.

“My father sat on this very hill and watched the mill burn,” he said. The sawmills and canneries are gone, but the river endures, as does the sunset. So, back to the Crest Motel we’ll go.

IF YOU GO

Crest Motel, 5366 Leif Erickson Drive, astoriacrestmotel.com. Summer rooms start at $109, but do pay the extra $30 to $40 for a room with a view. Pet-friendly.

Astoria Column, 1 Coxcomb Drive, astoriacolumn.org. Admission is $5 per vehicle.

Fort Clatsop, 92343 Clatsop Road, nps.gov/lewi/index.htm. Admission is $7 unless you have a national parks pass, in which case it’s free.

Columbia River Maritime Museum, 1792 Marine Drive, crmm.org. Adults $14, senior $12, children 6-17 $10.

Bowpicker sits on the corner of 17th and Duane streets; bowpicker.com.