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A HIKE on the BEACH or another GLASS of WINE?

The off-season in Oregon's Cannon Beach means good food, better rates and the best of views. And did we mention food?

My husband Tom and I were sipping wine in the library at an elegant inn, and only a picture window separated us from the Oregon coastline. It was nearly sunset and low tide, a good time to explore the tide pools for crabs and starfish. Would we put on our boots and set out for a hike before dinner, or collapse in one of the armchairs with the newspaper and another glass of wine?

I could get used to these kinds of decisions.

We had driven about four hours from Seattle to Cannon Beach, the ideal place for a winter getaway sans snow and skis. Its shops, art galleries and restaurants are open year-round, and many hotels and B&Bs offer off-season rates. The Dungeness crab season opens in December, and plump Willapa Bay oysters are bountiful year-round. Hit a stretch of mild weather, as we did, and it can almost feel like summer without the crowds.

Had it been raining, we could have spent the weekend lolling around the Stephanie Inn, a 50-room boutique hotel a few miles south of Cannon Beach. Opened in 1993 and designed in the style of New England country inn, the hotel is a splurge _ room rates start at $169. It is also the ideal stormy weather refuge. Each room has a Jacuzzi tub or whirlpool bath, a gas fireplace and a wet bar.

Afternoon wine-tastings encourage mingling, and for late-night snackers and early risers, there's a round-the-clock stash of homemade cookies, muffins, teas and coffee.

Because the weather was balmy, we put on our jackets and headed for Haystack Rock, a 235-foot lava formation and prime marine life and bird-nesting area about a 10-minute walk from the inn.

Footprints in the sand were made with hiking boots rather than bare feet or sandals, as people bundled up in parkas strolled toward the rock at low tide. Some flew kites; others pushed jogging strollers or watched the sunset while huddled under blankets.

Back at the inn, halibut with a lemon sauce and kiwi shortcake were on the dinner menu. But we decided to try a restaurant in town. We found the Bistro tucked into a courtyard off Hemlock Street. It was Friday night, and we did not have reservations, but there was one small table left in the corner. A classical guitarist entertained near the bar, and we dined by candlelight on sauteed oysters, grilled halibut with coconut chutney and a chilled Oregon pinot gris.

The next morning we had breakfast at the Stephanie Inn, scrambled eggs and chicken-apple sausage and blueberry cheesecake (included in the room rate). We then drove to Ecola State Park just north of the Cannon Beach city limits, a prime whale-watching spot with scenic overlooks, beaches and forest trails.

It was just past 9 a.m. when we walked in the fog along a paved footpath leading to an overlook. We spotted the Tillamook Lighthouse in the distance, but no whales.

At Indian Beach at the northern end of the park, local surfers were already in the water, catching the waves at high tide. When the tide is out, this is a prime spot for beachcombing, one of the surfers told us as she tended a bonfire. Sand dollars are what most people find.

"During the summer, this beach is packed with people," she said. This morning we had it to ourselves.

Back in town, the shops along Hemlock were opening for the day. We bought a plastic container of smoked mussels at the Ecola Seafoods Restaurant and Market, and spent the afternoon browsing art galleries, shops and bookstores. We planned to spend the evening reading and relaxing at the inn, but had we been in the mood to go out, we could have taken in a play at the Coaster Theater Playhouse or dropped in at the American Legion's Saturday night fish and oyster feed. Nothing seemed "off" about the off-season in Cannon Beach.

IF YOU GO:

GETTING THERE: Cannon Beach is 80 miles west of Portland and 29 miles south of the Columbia River and Washington State border. From Seattle, take I-5 to Longview, connecting to Highway 30 west to Astoria and Highway 101 south to Cannon Beach. The drive takes 3{ to 4 hours, depending on traffic and stops.

GENERAL INFORMATON: For information about the Cannon Beach area, lodging, events and maps, visit the Cannon Beach Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Information Center, Second and Spruce Streets in Cannon Beach, or call (503) 436-0434. Web: http://www.cannonbeach.org. Ask for the chamber's free Cannon Beach Magazine with maps, historic facts, restaurant and lodging information. Information on the Oregon Coast is also available from the Oregon Tourism Commission, (800) 547-7842. Web: http://www.traveloregon.com.

LODGING: There's a range of hotels, motels, resorts, cabins and bed and breakfast inns in and around Cannon Beach. The town is considered more upscale and artsy than nearby Seaside, and prices tend to be steeper. Book in advance, and ask about off-season discounts. For a lodging directory, see the chamber's Web site at http://www.cannonbeach.org.

The Stephanie Inn, 2740 S Pacific St., enjoys one of the best locations in Cannon Beach and is usually booked months in advance. Rooms are not large or fancy _ it is the location and view that command the steep prices. Mountain-view rooms range from $169 to $189. Ocean-view rooms are $249 to $379 (no off-season discounts). The rates include a gourmet breakfast and an afternoon wine gathering.

Public areas include a library with a fireplace and a lobby area furnished with comfortable chairs and a large stone fireplace. Dinner at $36.95 per person is by reservation only. The inn is smoke-free and does not allow pets or children under 12. For reservations, call (800) 633-3466. Web: http://www.stephanie-inn.com.

DINING: Restaurants in Cannon Beach run the range from family style to fine dining. Many are on the expensive side _ something that doesn't change in the winter. Here are three good choices:

Bistro, 263 N. Hemlock St. Tucked back in a courtyard, small, cozy and popular. Seafood stews, local oysters, scallops, chowders and good selection of Oregon wines. Price range: $13-$21. Open Wednesday-Monday, dinner only. Call (503) 436-2661 for reservations.

Kalypso, 140 N. Hemlock St. Creative cuisine emphasizing local seafood prepared with Asian and Scandinavian touches. On par with Seattle's best. Price range: $15.95-$22.95. Open daily except Wednesdays, dinner only. Call (503) 436-1585 for reservations.

Ecola Seafood Restaurant and Market, 208 N. Spruce St. Family-owned take-out and casual restaurant specializing in local seafood, seafood salads, clam chowder and fish and chips. Price range: $4.95-$10.95. Open daily. Phone: (503) 436-9130.

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