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All aboard for Astoria

Four-hour train trip to the coast leads to city of charm, attractions

'Be sure that you are right, and then go ahead.'

The words that once cautioned steamship sailors are now displayed in Astoria's maritime museum, where the sentiment has never been so timely. A recent infusion of big money, fresh ideas and young blood has the coastal city poised to become a choice tourist destination.

Proof of the growing confidence in Astoria's appeal is everywhere:

Urbane restaurants, funky coffee shops and first-class bookstores are now commonplace in the historical city of 10,000 residents, where candy-colored Victorian homes dot the hillside overlooking the Columbia River. High-stakes developers are laying the foundation for the growth by restoring structures to their original grandeur Ñ or even better than original.

The recently inaugurated Lewis & Clark Explorer Train paves the way for an Astorian adventure. Arriving in Astoria at 11:30 a.m. and leaving at 4:30 p.m. Friday through Monday, the journey lends itself to both day-tripping and extended stays. (Call Amtrak for reservations: 1-800-872-7245.)

Leave the reading material at home: The four-hour journey is surprisingly captivating. Swiftly changing views of verdant fields and the broad Columbia are punctuated by soaring herons, ramshackle houseboats and farmyard settings.

The fact that the route hasn't been used since 1952 is made clear by the number of locals who wave at the novelty as it passes through their back yards. Because waving back burns plenty of calories, there's a varied and well-priced menu offered on board. And sipping a gin and tonic served by a white-jacketed waiter just may be the surest way to channel Eva Marie Saint or Cary Grant in 'North by Northwest.'

There's no reason to walk just yet. The new Astoria Riverfront Trolley picks up where the Lewis & Clark train stops and is staffed by two loquacious conductors. Fun facts fly as the open-air trolley meanders through a bustling mix of fisheries, shops and cafes during much of its 3-mile journey. Or explore this stretch on foot, via the recently completed Riverfront Walk, which stretches along the working waterfront.

Even those who aren't boat buffs will be mesmerized by the Columbia River Maritime Museum, just an anchor's toss from the train station. In addition to centuries-old artifacts, the museum presents a fascinating look at the Columbia River bar, considered one of the most treacherous waterways in the world. Here, where the United States' second-largest river collides with the Pacific Ocean, the U.S. Coast Guard makes almost 400 lifesaving efforts each year.

Every city needs its icon, and this one is no exception. Erected in 1926, the Astoria Column sits above the city on the site of the first white settlement west of the Rockies. Fourteen hand-painted murals adorn the structure, telling the region's story. Undaunted climbers of the 164-step stairwell in the column's interior are rewarded with a panoramic view of land and water meeting with stunning results.

Located several miles southwest of the column is Fort Clatsop, where Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and the Corps of Discovery spent the winter of 1805-06. In what was a cruel Oregon welcome for the explorers, it rained all but 12 of the 106 days that they stayed at the fort. Modern visitors won't have to endure such hardships to appreciate the reproduction of the solid, economical quarters, where park staff dress in period costume and demonstrate frontier skills.

Eighty years after the corps wintered nearby, Capt. George Flavel built what is still one of the grandest homes in downtown Astoria. A local businessman and bar pilot, Flavel believed that Astoria would be a city on par with San Francisco, both economically and socially. Visitors can see evidence of that rousing Ñ if misguided Ñ confidence in a tour of the Historic Flavel House. The 11,000-square-foot Queen Anne home sports elegant 14-foot ceilings, era furnishings and placards that describe the day-to-day life of the family of four.

Perhaps the best reason to schedule a layover in Astoria is its stellar hospitality industry. Restaurants such as Baked Alaska, the Urban Cafe and Fulio's (owned by former Portland restaurateur Peter Roscoe, of Cozze fame) are generating much of the buzz, while lunchtime hot spot the Wet Dog Cafe does double duty, transforming from a microbrewery into an after-hours disco.

One block away, business partners Uriah Hulsey and Danny Eley own a trio of businesses inspired by Portland's McMenamins empire.

'We went to their St. Johns Pub,' Eley says. 'We looked around for a while, and Uriah said, 'Danny, we are not above stealing ideas.' '

The duo's subsequent interpretation includes the vegetarian-friendly Columbian Cafe, a cozy pizza pub called the Columbia Theatre and the Voodoo Room, where expertly mixed drinks and a hep vibe combine to create big-city cool.

Finally, the newly refurbished Hotel Elliott shows that Astoria means business in its fresh bid for attention. Native Astorian Chester Trabucco has transformed the former flophouse into a destination that rivals Portland's best boutique hotels in service, comfort and posh appointments.

But the winds of change are fickle, and not everyone is excited by their hometown's face-lift. In a recent letter to the editor in The Daily Astorian, a disgruntled resident likened the Hotel Elliott's new sign Ñ a glamorous reproduction of the original neon Ñ to that of a 'Times Square 'happy girl' bar.'

All of which gave Trabucco an idea for the name of the hotel's new lounge: The Happy Girl Bar should be finished soon.

Contact Jill Spitznass at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .