OH, HOW JAKE THE ALLIGATOR MAN could tell you about the changes taking place in Long Beach, that long, long stretch of drivable sand on Washington’s Pacific shore, a good five-hour drive from the Space Needle. Straining on all scaly fours in his glass cage at Marsh’s Free Museum on South Pacific Avenue, Long Beach’s main drag, his reptilian tail curled behind him, his skeletal man’s head raised to sniff at the winds of change, Jake has seen it all in his 40-plus years at the beach.
Even if you bypass Jake, the half-man, half-gator taxidermy nightmare and subject of scary tabloid stories, driving into Long Beach is an eye-opening experience, especially if your impression of the area, like mine, is that of a sleepy township. I hadn’t darkened a door in Long Beach for years, and, my, what a difference a few seasons make. A colossal storm tore through this town of about 1,200 last December, and it’s almost as if the winds rearranged the place in the haphazard way a new home owner rearranges living room furniture.
As I rolled into town, I headed straight for the fabulous Shoalwater Restaurant at the Shelburne Inn, as I always have since I first came here 15 years ago, only to find that longtime restaurateurs Ann and Tony Kischner have been blown over the bridge to Astoria, Oregon, where they’ve opened the Bridgewater Bistro. They closed the Shoalwater in April after 28 years. Fortunately, local potter/kayaker/bon vivant David Campiche and his wife Laurie Anderson still own and operate the lovely, antique-laden Shelburne Inn, which dates back to 1896, making it the oldest continuously operating hotel in Washington. Their son Michael is about to take over the reins at the restaurant and reopen it as the Shelburne Restaurant and Pub this summer.
Similarly, the storm seemed to pick up Jimella Lucas and her food business whole, whirl it around a few times, and land it intact a few miles away at Klipsan Beach, nine miles north of Long Beach. For years, Lucas and her partner, Nanci Main, were the owners and chefs of this area’s other iconic restaurant, the Ark in Nahcotta, which for many of us was reason enough to make the drive to the shore for its fresh seafood. In the last five years, the Ark was sold, driven quickly into utter disrepair and disrepute, and abruptly closed. Now Lucas has reappeared with Jimella’s Seafood Market, a deli and specialty grocery of astonishing variety where one can pick up everything from fish dropped off at her door that morning to Japanese black rice, the sweet cranberry butter that used to be served at the Ark, and Jimella’s handmade seafood sausage of salmon, sturgeon, halibut, and lingcod. This summer, she promises to offer takeout dinners that she’ll cook to order. "Call by noon and it will be ready by five," she said.
"Hey, buddy," Jake the Alligator Man stage-whispers through his clenched, shrunken-head teeth when I approach his cage like the gawker I am. "Crack open the glass; I need to tell you something." "And set you free to kill again, Jake?" I reply. "Like you did in Florida? Not on your life, buddy."
He has been in the glass cage at Marsh’s Free Museum since 1967 except for a brief hiatus in 1993, when the tabloid Weekly World News—that paragon of investigative journalism—reported that he had escaped, killed a Miami man in a Florida swamp, and reproduced. Marsh’s, which opened in 1921 as a seashell stand, has enough creepy things inside, like real shrunken heads, casts of a two-headed calf, and dozens of mounted animal heads, to make Seattle’s Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe look like the Marysville Wal-Mart. It belongs to the old Long Beach of saltwater taffy (which you can still buy in 120 flavors, as well as more than five-dozen flavors of ice cream, at nearby Scoopers Market), bumper-car rides, and the arch over Bolstad Avenue that they never took down announcing that you’re now entering the world’s longest beach (you aren’t; there’s one in Bangladesh that is twice as long).
Into the void created by the windstorm (because tourism abhors a vacuum) rushed a number of entrepreneurs who are doing exciting things on the coast. The changes start with Campiche, who last year built the Audubon Cottage next to the 20-year-old China Beach Retreat and alongside a tidal marsh in Ilwaco, whose rooms have stunning views from picture windows looking across a vast, wild area where the Columbia meets the Pacific. Cape Disappointment State Park—with a lighthouse, trails, and Waikiki Beach—is right up the street. Guests at China Beach head up to the Shelburne Inn for lavish breakfasts of oysters, eggs, and freshly baked breads. Closer to the center of town, the Inn at Discovery Coast puts you in fireplace suites right on the sand dunes overlooking the ocean, and the Akari Bungalows on Bolstad Avenue opened this year with a row of eight little cottages that have been done up with rustic plank floors, kitchenettes, and nautical decor.
Three and a half miles down the coast from the town of Long Beach is the marina at Ilwaco, which has also grown up in recent years. A Saturday market on the promenade that fronts a fleet of fishing boats displays the works of local artisans as well as produce, jewelry, and breads. Terrific restaurants have popped up on the promenade too, starting with co-owner and chef Jeff McMahon’s Pelicano Restaurant, which serves fine-dining fare in a simple, elegant beach shack with views of the marina. His pan-fried oysters on spinach in a Spanish pimenton sauce lingers in memory. A few doors away is the Port Bistro, where owner Larry Piaskowy cooks—and his wife Jennifer serves—heavenly seafood dishes that start with a velvety clam chowder heaped with clams in shells and topped with thick wedges of grilled bread. His blood-orange chiffon cake with huckleberry sorbet makes a crispy, creamy, perfect ending to a good meal. Fine food is, in fact, becoming a trademark of this new Long Beach. At the Depot Restaurant, Michael Lalewicz and wife Nancy Gorshe just began their sixth year of producing delightful dishes like crab macaroni and cheese, grilled foie gras, and quail stuffed with wild-boar-and-cranberry sausage, all served in a former railroad station that dates back to 1888.
And of course there is the 28-mile-long beach, a flat hardpan on which people can, and do, drive their cars to find just the right place for a sandy tailgate party. After paying my respects to Jake, I walked the elevated boardwalk past the skeleton of a gray whale that was dug up nearby and the statue of William Clark standing over an unlucky bronze sturgeon. The new Discovery Trail is a partially paved path that will soon be extended south all the way to Ilwaco, and the sand dunes are still wild and covered in beach grasses. Ask any stuffed alligator man: The winds of change have made Long Beach well worth a visit this summer.