With more than 60 miles of Columbia River shoreline, forested hills, uncongested blacktop roads and quiet bays, Columbia County, just 30 minutes northwest of Portland, has long been renowned among cyclists, birders, anglers and other nature lovers. But the county’s inviting small towns, like St. Helens, also have plenty to offer visitors who like to pair country-fresh air with plenty of creature comforts.
It’s hard to imagine a more welcoming spot than the Nob Hill Riverview Bed and Breakfast. Set atop a rocky bluff above the historic Olde Town St. Helens neighborhood, this large Craftsman-style home (once the residence of a prominent doctor) features three rooms, each with plush sitting areas, fireplaces and private bathrooms. From the expansive wraparound porch, take in the Columbia River and, on sunny days, an incredible view of Washington’s famed volcano, Mount St. Helens.
The scenery — and the smell of homemade Dutch waffles and organic chicken sausage for breakfast — provides an enticing backdrop to contemplate the area’s historical significance: Legendary explorers Lewis and Clark camped here in 1805 as part of their journey to the Pacific Ocean (and on the way back in 1806). Today, locals are just as likely to regale you with tales of another notable duo: Edward and Bella of Twilight fame. Portions of the smash-hit vampire saga were filmed in town in 2008. (According to local legend, actors Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson even rehearsed their lines on the porch of the Nob Hill B&B.)
Plenty more local history waits inside Olde Town’s collection of antique shops. At Grace’s Rivertown Antiques Victorian-style chairs, ornate glassware and paintings fill a brick storefront. Funky thrift stores like Jilly’s offer enough sequined evening gowns, feathery earrings and wigs, not to mention Twilight souvenirs, to deck out any costume party.
Sights are equally colorful in St. Helens’s Houlton neighborhood. Once part of a separate town founded to service a railway, the buildings here pull in modern-day visitors with friendly boutiques and cafés like Houlton Bakery where lunch offerings include homemade rolls, charcuterie, chilled pastas and local cheeses. Order up a cappuccino and peruse the bakery’s gallery-like walls, adorned with an ever-changing array of local artists’ works.
Back in Olde Town, the Klondike operates out of a turn-of-the-century hotel rich with folklore. Purportedly haunted by former residents, the window-lined booths and tables here are packed nightly for steaks, burgers, beer-battered fish and chips with fresh halibut and treats such as cake-like chocolate chip cookies served in an iron skillet. On Thursday nights from June to August, walk to nearby Columbia View Park to dance off meals during 13 Nights on the River, a popular outdoor concert series paired with a farmers’ market and river views.
When the sun finally sets, a visit to St. Helens’ Historic Columbia Theatre provides a nostalgic way to cap the day. Opened in 1928, the lobby is filled with memorabilia from Hollywood’s Golden Age, including photos of MGM actors and an enormous 1930s carbon arc projector on display. The balconied 400-seat cinema is fully modernized, though, with high-definition digital projection, 3-D technology and the latest releases. When the curtain falls, don’t be surprised if the theater, much like the town, leaves you wishing for an encore performance.