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Washington State's Long Beach: Bring your jalopy, not your bikini

The longest natural beach in the United States isn't in California, or Florida, or anywhere else you might expect it to be. Instead, the 28 miles of uninterrupted, hard-packed sand stretches along the southern coast of Washington, swept by Pacific storms and washed by frigid currents from the north. Long Beach Peninsula is a West Coast anomaly in several respects. It's low and sandy, in a region of rocky shores and steep headlands. To its rear is Willapa Bay, a large, mostly undeveloped estuary on a coast where most bays are tightly confined. It's relatively remote, and until recently had little reputation outside the vicinity, yet can boast two restaurants of national renown.

The beach has another distinction, one that will attract many - and perhaps repel just as many. All 28 miles of it can be driven - not just in dune buggies, but in jalopies, sports cars, and family wagons. There are even speed limits and traffic cops. During spring clamming season, or during the precious weeks of late summer when the weather can actually be warm enough for bathing suits, the beach may swarm with 10,000 vehicles. In midwinter, when a beachcomber might not see a fellow pedestrian for miles, the occasional car still whizzes past.

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If the motorized recreation on the shore has a certain proletarian cast, the Shelburne Inn is a lure for visitors with upscale wallets and choosy palates. One of the West Coast's premier ``country inns,'' the Shelburne has a 92-year tradition to offer, with wood paneling and antique furnishings to match. Some of its 17 rooms still have baths down the hall. The Shelburne, in Seaview near the peninsula's southern end, is a holdover from the area's first incarnation as a resort, when families from Portland, Ore., and Seattle would summer here during the early decades of the century.

The Shelburne was a favorite stopover of the late James Beard, and the cooking guru widely praised its accompanying restaurant (recently retitled the Shoalwater), bringing it a national reputation it has maintained through the skill of its chefs and the adventurousness of its cuisine. The Shoalwater menu strongly emphasizes a regional approach, based on local products, beginning with Willapa Bay oysters and local clams, scallops, and shrimps, not to mention salmon and sturgeon from the nearby Columbia River.

The mantle of Beard's praise must be shared, however. The owners of the Shelburne's restaurant when it became famous were Nanci Main and Jimella Lucas, who subsequently moved on to found the Ark, in a large but homey building overlooking the little oyster port of Nahcotta, on the peninsula's bay side. The Ark now has a major reputation of its own - like the Shoalwater's, built on a menu strongly stamped by regional specialties - and a cookbook derived from its repertoire sells widely.

Two such prominent restaurants within a few miles' drive of each other have done a great deal to spark a sophisticated tourism. The concentration of eager diners has in turn led to the founding of yet another first-class restaurant, the Sanctuary, in the Columbia River town of Chinook at the base of the peninsula. The Sanctuary's slightly simpler but artfully executed cuisine places it in the same league as its famous neighbors, or nearly so.

Visits to the Long Beach Peninsula can take on distinctly different characters. During the spring, summer, and autumn, the beach and the town of Long Beach exhibit a mild version of the midway flavor common to ocean resorts.

Aside from the parading of vehicles on the sand, there are the usual arcades, shooting galleries, gewgaw shops, and boutiques. Horses, bicycles, and mopeds can all be rented. There is a continuous round of festivals: Dixieland jazz in April, garlic (sponsored by the Ark) in June, sand castles in July, kites in August, classical music in October.

There are also far quieter ways to explore the region. Leadbetter Point, at the northern tip of the peninsula, is the site of both a state park and a wildlife refuge. Surrounded by dunes and salt marsh, its interior is a dense spruce-and-hemlock forest. The point is a noteworthy bird-watching spot, particularly for shore birds, waterfowl, and raptors.

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Willapa Bay, home of the West Coast's major oyster industry, is otherwise a gentle, inviting backwater, temporary home to thousands of birds during the seasonal migrations. In its center lies Long Island (another superlative - it is the largest estuarine island on the Pacific Coast), which harbors a 4,000-year-old cedar grove, the last surviving old-growth stand of the ``lowland maritime forest'' type that once blanketed the region.

Guide Mychael Clarson takes parties across to the island by kayak, rowboat, or raft, or rents the craft to self-guiding explorers. There are primitive campsites on the island, although the Fish and Wildlife Service, which maintains it as a refuge, encourages day visits. Later this year Clarson will have a restored Columbia River gillnetter, the Nahcotta Dream, available for tours of the bay. (Clarson can be reached at [206] 642-4892.)

If you go

The Long Beach Peninsula is reached via US 101, the north-south route that follows the Pacific Coast; state Route 103 runs most of the peninsula's length. For general information, contact the Visitor's Bureau at (206) 642-2400.

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