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Feb. 8, 2023

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‘A Little Slice of Heaven’: Day trip to Kalama reveals charms aplenty

By , Columbian staff writer
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Kalama's downtown along North First Street is a picture of small-town charm, with well-kept shops, plenty of parking and lots of trees.
Kalama's downtown along North First Street is a picture of small-town charm, with well-kept shops, plenty of parking and lots of trees. (Monika Spykerman/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

KALAMA — This city is a mere 30-minute drive north of Vancouver, and yet our family hasn’t considered it more than a brief stop on the way to Seattle. We’ve grabbed a quick bite at the Burger Bar and waited ages for a table at McMenamins Kalama Harbor Lodge. Other than that, we’ve just buzzed on through, never realizing what charms we were missing.

So it was with a measure of excitement that we spent a whole day in Kalama recently, discovering all the parts we’ve overlooked. Kalama had plenty to keep us busy, from shopping to dining to natural beauty. The city is on the cusp of tremendous growth, with revamped waterfront parks, the bustling McMenamins hotel and restaurant and a just-completed cruise ship dock. A permanent, 30,000-square-foot public market with food trucks and artisan vendors is set to open next year.

“Kalama has flown under the radar for so many people for so long, but it’s kind of like the genie’s out of the bottle now,” said Dan Polacek, public relations administrator for the Port of Kalama. “How could you pass this up? It’s just what the locals call ‘a little slice of heaven.’ ”

Our first order of business: a caffeine boost. We found it at the River’s Edge Coffee Co., just west of Interstate 5 in the industrial waterfront. The shop offers espresso drinks, baked goods, Tillamook ice cream and sandwiches (locals recommended the ham and cheese). The line stretched out the door but this only piqued our desire. While my husband waited in line, I had a chance to look around the coffee shop’s gift store, which sells local wares and wood furniture.

Guests can sit indoors or enjoy their goodies on the front porch or at picnic benches in the grass. We chose a bench near a burbling water feature and slurped down a mocha (my husband) and huckleberry cappuccino (me). They were served with chocolate-covered espresso beans, an unexpected flourish that tickled my fancy.

Fully caffeinated, we headed to Kalama’s downtown, where shops and businesses line North First Street. We had to drive a circuitous route, because the freeway runs north-south through the town, dividing it in two. Drivers can cross under the freeway on Elm Street or over the freeway on Oak Street.

Antique stores galore

I was eager to hunt for treasures in Kalama’s many antique stores, which I’d often spied from the freeway. Kalama Vintage Warehouse caught my eye and I spent a happy half-hour browsing the thoughtfully curated collection of vintage, antique and new items.

We strolled up First Street, admiring the tidy storefronts and peeking in windows. I saw locals sharing lunch at Willie Dick’s First Street Tap House, staff waiting tables at the Lucky Dragon Chinese restaurant and motorcycles sporting bright American flags parked outside Poker Pete’s Pizza. I pressed my nose to the glass at Ella Grey, an upscale gift and home décor store in a red brick Greek Revival building. Tragically for me, the store was closed for the day. Instead, I spent a few moments admiring the mural on the south wall of the Kalama Public Library. The mural, designed by Portland artist Tatyana Ostapenko, depicts a tree-studded riverfront realm like Kalama, but with magical flourishes like Bigfoot and a unicorn.

Shopping whetted my appetite, so we drove to McMenamins Kalama Harbor Lodge, the hotel, restaurant and pub that dominates Kalama’s scenic waterfront. It’s hard to resist the riverside seating, especially on a sunny day when the lush landscaping is in full bloom. The wait can be painfully long but the spectacular view is worth it. We saw a many-tiered sternwheeler docked offshore and a massive cargo ship anchored downriver. After our meal, we strolled to the sandy beach and sat in the sun for a while before walking to the nearby Westin Amphitheater in grassy Marine Park, where locals gather to hear summer concerts and see movies. (For the full calendar of summer events, including the Kalama Harbor Lodge Brewfest on Aug. 27, visit

Totem poles and parks

On our way to the amphitheater, we passed Kalama’s iconic totem poles with vibrantly painted faces, fins, hands, claws and paws. The poles were carved decades ago by members of the Lelooska family, which operates the Lelooska Foundation Cultural Center in Ariel. Two totem poles now stand in Kalama and one pole is in Ariel for repairs. At one time, Kalama boasted the tallest totem pole carved from a single tree in the Western hemisphere, Polacek said. The 140-foot totem pole is still there, it’s just sideways, resting on the ground while it’s being restored. Eventually it will hang from the ceiling of the two-story Mountain Timber Market, Polacek said, watching over people as they purchase locally made goods.

After our riverfront exercise, we were hankering for shakes from the Burger Bar. My husband ordered a strawberry shake but they were out of my preferred flavor — chocolate malt — so I ordered a soft-serve cone instead. The server swirled the ice cream so high that it toppled over. He finally achieved success with a cup.

We took our treats to the small but lovely Peter D. Toteff Memorial Park, at the intersection of Elm and First streets. The park has a gazebo and new children’s play area but its most beguiling feature is tiny China Creek, which flows through the park between buttercup-strewn banks. We sat by the stream, allowing its lively burble to drown out the rumble of traffic on Interstate 5. On the way back to our car, I paused between the stone lions that guard the park’s entry. They seemed to whisper, “This is our town and we’re proud to watch over it.”