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Olympic Peninsula: Dragons, sea monsters make it another world

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By VICTOR JUDD NorthwestTravelAdvisor.com

When traveling around the large peninsula in northwest Washington that is named after the mythological home of the gods, you should not be too surprised to run across the occasional legendary creature such as a dragon, sea monster or giant. The Olympic Peninsula is as wildly beautiful as you would expect, given its name. Any self-respecting god of antiquity would have been glad to call it home. From the relative serenity of the waters of the Puget Sound to the wild thrashings of the Pacific Ocean, a traveler is never far from salt water.

Glacier-covered mountains march from the coast to the heart of the Peninsula. Ranging from sea level to the lofty height of 8,000 feet within 20 to 60 miles of shore, the mountains are a constant part of the scenery. About the only time you will lose sight of them is when you are deep in the forest or, as often happens, when they are enshrouded in a blanket of clouds. Although geographically close to the bustle of several large cities, the Olympic Peninsula feels separated from modern times.

When in search of the wild and unexpected, I prefer to know that my traveling partner and I will be as physically comfortable as possible. In late September, we departed on a getaway around the Peninsula, planning to enjoy the best accommodations the Peninsula has to offer with reservations at Sol Duc Resort and Hot Springs, Lake Quinault Resort and Kalaloch Lodge - three beautiful and historic resorts operated by Aramark Resorts and Lodging for the National Park System.

Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort and Spa is located on the northern edge of the Peninsula and rests within the Olympic National Park, 21 miles from Port Angeles. Ascending into the secluded valley of the Sol Duc River, we encountered the first rumors of the mythological creatures that once inhabited the region. On a crisp fall morning, as billowy clouds of steam rise from the waters of the spa, it is easy to imagine the tremendous battle that Indian legend says was fought here ages past.

Two dragons living in adjoining valleys began a battle so fierce that the trees in the mountain's upper elevations were destroyed and never grew back. Evenly matched, neither dragon was able to prevail over the other. After years of struggle they each retired to their own valley to live under the earth and sulk for eternity. Which turns out to be good for us - the hot tears of the two dragons feed the waters of the springs that today soothe the aches and pains of modern adventurers.

Although the original lodge was destroyed by fire 90 years ago, the log facility that welcomes today's traveler reflects the rustic spirit that is associated with historic lodges within the National Park System. Housing a small general store and gift shop, a woodsy, softly lit restaurant and dorms for the staff, the lodge serves as the entry to the springs. A warm, chlorinated swimming pool along with three separate pools of pure mineral water ranging in temperatures from 97 to 106 degrees provide a welcome respite after a strenuous day's hike or a long road trip. Overnight guests will find accommodations in 23 simple but homey cabins scattered around the well-manicured meadow and alongside the rushing Sol Duc River. Some guests choose to cook their own meal in one of the kitchen-equipped cabins but we dined at the Springs Restaurant, where we enjoyed a wonderful meal of trout and a special salmon dinner.

Moving south and deeper into the heart of the Peninsula, the Olympic National Park and the rainforest, we approached the home of another legendary creature. It was said by the inhabitants of ancient times that a sea serpent lived beneath the deep placid water of Lake Quinault. The creature's description, though variable, is similar to that of another famous denizen of the deep - the Loch Ness Monster. As evening settles, darkening the inner reaches of the moss draped forest, it is easy to believe that an other-worldly creature does indeed share the lake with the paddle boats and small fishing craft.

A pleasant escape from whatever lurks in the lake or the forest can be found at Lake Quinault Lodge. Built in the 1890s and rebuilt due to a fire in the 1920's, the lodge has a quiet elegance that speaks of another era. Images of the Great Gatsby came to mind. In fact, the lodge's 80th New Year's Eve anniversary celebration was staged with those in attendance bedecked in Roaring 20's garb. The lodge's manicured grounds and stately presence demand to be the center of attention at the many weddings and corporate receptions hosted at Lake Quinault Lodge.

Whether stepping back in time in one of the period rooms with claw foot tubs or enjoying the updated comfort of a more modern accommodation, visitors to the lodge are encouraged to make themselves at home. In the lobby, exposed beams, leather furniture, period lighting and a crackling fire in the cavernous fireplace create a warm and inviting atmosphere. Outside, an expansive wooden deck opens onto a lush rolling lawn that gently slopes down to the lake. Towering spruce trees frame the view and scent the air. On the beach, kayaks, paddleboats and small motorboats are available for guests to enjoy. Fishing on the lake is superb. Beware the sea serpent.

The rain forest of the Olympic Peninsula receives the most rain of anywhere in the continental U.S. Wet days are not only expected, they are actually welcomed by many visitors. Although our visit was blessed by sunshine and a sparkling blue sky, many guests come to the lodge expecting some of the 12 to 15 feet of rain that falls every year. A centerpiece of the deck is a 17-foot-high rain gauge that measured a mere seven feet of rain by late September.

Hiedi Lambert, the district sales manager for the Aramark properties on the Peninsula, told us about guests who visit at the height of the rainy season. They come hoping to experience the torrential rains that sustain a rain forest. "We have had guests come down to the lobby in their p.j.'s and a robe," said Hiedi. "They lounge by the fire and read. Where else can you sit and read a book and watch it rain sideways?" Some have even complained that it wasn't rainy enough during their visit!

This is where the "giants" of the Olympic Peninsula come in. Apparently, living in the only temperate rain forest in North America is what it takes to become a giant. As Heidi pointed out, within walking distance from the nearby trailhead is a "giant," - the world's largest Sitka Spruce tree. At almost 56 feet around, you and nine of your friends would be challenged to encircle it while holding hands. Besides the Sitka Spruce, there are nine other record "giants" throughout the Olympic National Park. Combined, these ten trees are 1,749 feet tall and 279 feet around. The largest, a Douglas fir, is 298 feet tall and 37 feet in circumference. On our hike, we even crawled inside one of their hollow cousins and pretended to be gnomes.

Not all of the fabulous creations at Lake Quinault are of the natural variety. The culinary concoctions of Chef Bryan Grund at Lake Quinault Lodge are becoming renowned. Miles from civilization (or at least traffic jams and smog), Chef Grund's kitchen has managed to make staggering inroads into the wilderness of fine dining on the Peninsula. Specializing in Northwest seafood "cooked in a responsible manner," as Chef Grund says, he has left "battered and fried" far behind. Try his Northwest Seafood Jambalaya, Lake Quinault Sautéed Mushroom Caps, Planked Salmon for Two or the Chocolate Lava Cake, as we did, and you will forget that you are deep in the rainforest, surrounded by giants and watched by a sea serpent.

Using a bit of poetic license, we could add "sea monsters" to the list of fantastic creatures on (or near) the Peninsula. From about February through April, whales -- the "sea monsters" of ancient times -- migrate up the coast on their way to better dining opportunities in the cold waters of the far North. Along the Park's 60 miles of coast, the best place to enjoy watching the whales' passage is at Kalaloch Lodge. Just beyond the edge of the rain forest, perched on a cliff above a wide flat beach, Kalaloch Lodge is, to beach lovers, the most beautifully situated getaway on the Peninsula.

Besides being a good base for forest walks and beach combing, Kalaloch is renowned as THE place along the northern Washington coast for storm watching. In addition to the main lodge with its ten rooms, 44 gray, weathered-wood cabins, sit just 25 steps above the beach. Cozily removed from the tremendous forces of the crashing waves, guests could not have a better vantage, staying warm and dry while the gods of the Olympics throw magnificent temper tantrums.

About 30 minutes west of Lake Quinault and an hour north of Grays Harbor, the lodge is comfortably remote. Your "TV" will be the fabulous view through your cabin's sliding glass doors. The sunset, migrating whales or crashing waves will keep you entertained. With no phones to distract you, plan on one of your most relaxing getaways yet. Hike into the forest or along the beach with one of the furnished ash hiking sticks. As at Lake Quinault Lodge and Sol Duc Resort, the restaurant provides exquisite meals but most of the cabins also have kitchens and wood-burning fireplaces (with furnished kindling) in case you feel more like staying in, wrapping up in a blanket, drinking a glass of fine wine and letting nature provide the show.

As frequent and environmentally concerned travelers, we appreciated Aramark's ongoing commitment to "green" hosting. Providing Neutrogena toiletries in convenient pump dispensers, for example, eliminates unnecessary packaging while guests enjoy the best amenities. Although each lodge has it own strong sense of place and unique history, this across-the-board level of concern for the environment and attention to guests' comfort was a common thread during our stays. Gwen Higgins, assistant manager at Kalaloch Lodge had it in her heart to travel the world in search of "The" place. When she set eyes on Kalaloch, she determined that she had found it. She, Hiedi and the "family" we met love the lodges and the Peninsula. They plan to stay. Fortunately for us, they like to share. And they aren't afraid of monsters.

Lake Quinault Lodge lobby, photo by Victor Judd

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