Olympic & Kalama McMenamins

Above the outdoor patio hosting the Brewfest.

You remember how much Pedro and I enjoy staying at the quirky McMenamins lodges. We found a couple that are close to home and allowed us to have one fun overnight and then get right back to our busy lives. I read that there was going to be a beer festival at the Olympic Club Hotel in Centralia, Washington. It’s one hour north of where I live. It was choice #1 but when we tried to get a room there, it was booked.

Choice #2 is right across the river from me: 20 minutes from my house. We reserved a night at the Kalama Harbor Lodge Hotel and made plans to go north and try out the beer, then return to Kalama, Washington for sleeping. I was driving, so I’d let Pedro be the sampler-in-chief. It was the birthday of the opening of the Kalama McMenamins, so I knew there would be a special stamp recognizing the occasion.

It was a remarkably warm Saturday for a rainy April, so the sidewalks of the cute little town of Centralia were full of weekend revelers and the inside of the McMenamins was packed. The beer festival activities were not evident, but we were not in a hurry. I went to the bathroom first and was lucky to find a staff member in there cleaning, while I washed my hands.

Women’s bathroom at the Olympic Club.
Most of the spigots at sink level worked. I tried all of them, naturally!

I asked the employee if she could tell me about the Brewfest, explaining that it was my first time to the Olympic Club. She didn’t understand my question. I asked what we should be sure and do, since we were there from out of town. She shrugged, “There’s a restaurant?” she suggested. I tried once more, “Well, online it says there’s a Brewfest. We are here for the Brewfest. What is happening here today that doesn’t usually happen here?” She shrugged again. “It’s the same as any other day,” she said.

Perplexed, I dried my hands and went out to find Pedro. He hadn’t discovered anything either, so we decided to investigate. We pushed into the center of the super crowded restaurant, got a little overwhelmed by the bustle, and decided the first smart thing to do would be to sit at the bar. So we did.

Bar at the entrance to the Olympic Club.
I enjoyed this old-fashioned cash register. I guess I’ll admit I’m old enough to remember a few stores from my childhood that had not yet upgraded and still used these.

I pulled out my little McMenamins passport book and began looking for the right page to receive stamps. That’s a big reason I seek out McMenamin’s locations. Like a little kid, I just want stamps in my passport. When the bartender came over, he spotted my passport. “Because of the event today, all stamps are being handled in The New Tourist Bar, down the hall to your left at the end of this bar.” I thanked him, and we ordered.

The bartender seemed much more of a resource than the clueless bathroom attendant, so we asked him about the Brewfest. “After you finish getting your stamps, keep going down the hall to the theatre. The Brewfest is there.”

In the writing along the stairwell to the right, it explains that in the 1950s, patrons used these stairs to access the working girls on the second level.

In order to get all my stamps, we had to go on a scavenger hunt. For Pedro and me that is expected and half the fun of a McMenamins. We had a clue and had to find the painting on the wall that would win us a stamp. We happily climbed to the second floor and began exploring.

A typical McMenamins hallway with eclectic light fixtures and eclectic art. I just noticed that wonderful old radiator. I wonder if it still works.
There are three doors wedged precariously into the end of this hallway.

You’ll notice the names on the doorways. Each room in a McMenamins is named, in every facility. Most of them are named after someone who is relevant to the history of the building or to the local community. The inside of the room will provide paintings and framed articles that will tell the story of the room’s namesake.

We solved the clue and got all the stamps. The young man with the stamp pad was pleased to point out a bit of trivia. He used to work at the Kalama Harbor Lodge when it first opened, and thus knew the date of its birthday and the Olympic Club birthdays got swapped somehow one year, and no one noticed. To this day they have not been switched back. I can’t vouch for the validity of that bit of information, but it seems like a tidbit that would delight some of the dedicated McMenamins groupies.

Next we headed down the hall to the theatre, which was roaring with music and we were astonished that we had not heard it from the front of the place. I had renewed curiosity at the former bathroom attendant, who was now zipping between the kitchen and the restaurant, in the very same hallway, who certainly knew about the hullabaloo in the theatre. Clearly communication between us had failed somehow, but regardless, we had completed our quest.

Several of the McMenamins locations have theatres. This one, like the one at Kennedy School in Portland, does not have regular theatre seats, but a jumble of couches, davenports, recliners, loveseats, sofas, wingback chairs and ottomans scattered about, and you choose one and have a seat. For the event this weekend, however, rather than a movie projected against the wall of the stage, there was a live band up there.

At the back of the theatre were tables set up with taps to dispense all the different brews on offer. At the very back, doors were wide open to the patio, where more taps awaited. There were about 16 different taps to choose from, including some ciders. We showed our ID at the door and got a bracelet, then bought drinking glasses filled with tokens. Each token was worth one brew sample. We spent the next two hours trying all the choices, talking on the patio, lounging on couches and listening to music, or exploring the building more.

When I had finally pushed my last unused token onto Pedro and he was a good sport and used it to taste another beer, we hopped in the Jeep and drove the hour south, back to our night’s lodging.

What is that contraption above the bed, we wondered. Is it supposed to be reminiscent of a boat?

When we arrived in Kalama, it was cloudy, dark, and raining. Since Kalama is so close to my house, we had been here before, preferring the rooftop bar called the Cloud Bar. We were starving and finally ordered a meal, then we happily ran around the halls and solved a new puzzle and collected more stamps before calling it a night.

Sun lights the sky, but not yet the ground.

In the morning I woke at dawn and realized for the first time that we had a room overlooking the river! The second thing I noticed was that the rain and low clouds were gone. Two splendid surprises!

I live in the hills on the other side of the river. Just about exactly above the ship on the right.
A tug pushes a barge along the mighty Columbia River, which seems quiet and peaceful this day.

I went back to sleep again. Later we both got up and went out to have coffee on the balcony and watch the world wake up.

Our coffees on the balcony.
The river lit up.
The lovely Columbia River had been right there all along.
Beautiful wood ceiling of our room.

My skin got prickly when I saw the ceiling, because it is exactly – EXACTLY – the same ceiling my mother had designed and had built at her home. I’ll never forget it because she had a devil of a time convincing the workmen to build it for her. The good-hearted men from extremely rural Idaho were trying to save her from a mistake, and tried to explain that all the other respectable Idaho women had paint on the ceiling. My mother knew what she wanted and wouldn’t budge. They refused at first, and called her husband to confirm. My stepfather said his wife was in charge and they must do what she said. So they built her this gorgeous ceiling. When it was done, they reluctantly agreed that it looked better than they had imagined it would.

As the sun climbed, the sky became more blue. We checked out of our room and walked the path along the river. There has been a lot of construction here. Adjacent to the building, on the side with the totem poles, is now an outdoor amphitheater with a grassy lawn designed to hold an audience. Across from the lawn (still cordoned off while the grass gets established) is a brand new dock and permanent approach ramp.

The new grassy amphitheater to the right had access blocked, likely because the grass and landscaping were new.
From the size and height of this ramp/dock, my thought is: cruise ship. I mean, what else? Very clever idea by the McMenamins company, to build a concert venue next to a hotel & restaurant, and then a gigantic dock to invite vacationers into.
Kalama Harbor Lodge Hotel in Kalama, Washington. You can see a bit of the fourth floor Cloud Bar on the roof. The totem poles were carved by a man named Don Smith, who considered himself Native and used the name Lelooska. He was an exceptional carver, but not a member of the Kwakwaka’wakw tribe.
Pedro’s eye spotted the prickly pear planted as part of the landscaping. An interesting choice, but it seems to be doing well in this climate, as evidenced by the ripening fruit.

We walked half a mile, enjoying the path between parks and river. We came to the final bit of McMenamin’s property, called the Ahles Point Cabin. It’s a tiny bar – McMenamin’s properties often include tiny bars – that might have a capacity of hosting 20 people inside comfortably. It remains closed since the beginning of the pandemic, and Pedro and I hopped the chain fence to explore it.

Picturesque Ahles Point Cabin.
Fireplace on the patio of the Ahles Point Cabin.

By this time, we were ravenous, and decided to go into the town of Kalama to find breakfast. Interstate 5 as well as train tracks cut smack through the middle of this tiny seaport industrial town, separating the downtown from the river. Obviously, we were on the river/lumber mill/port side. To get to the rest of the town, we had to drive miles parallel to the tracks till we came to a crossing beneath the Interstate.

I wanted to try the Columbia Inn. I had seen it from the Interstate for years, but had never stopped. It’s an inconvenient access from the Interstate, because once you spot the diner, you have passed the ramp, and must drive a couple miles to the next one, and by that time the town of Kalama is not even visible in my rear view mirror anymore and I convince myself to just keep going.

I wanted to stop because it’s another quirky place my silly Pacific Northwest that attracts me. The town sports a sign bragging about being a film location for the popular Twighlight vampire movies. The Columbia Inn has not only an old-fashioned neon sign in the shape of an Indian arrowhead – so kitschy – but also a big sign on the side that says “Elvis ate here” or something like that. Imagine being a place where a viable advertisement is: “Once upon a time, someone famous stopped there, so you should stop too!” It worked on me, at least.

The Columbia Inn is very close to Interstate 5 (you can see the trucks), but surprisingly hard to access from there. The giant red neon letters constantly go out. Here, you see the R and the T are out. My favourite was three years ago when the A and the U went out, and the sign proclaimed, “REST RANT.”
Elvis Presley AND Jack Benny ate here once. It’s worth remembering.

Inside the place was perfectly reminiscent of a diner from the 1970s. The place is surrounded by palm trees and has a palm tree in its logo. Palm trees plus prickly pear makes me wonder if the good folks of Kalama are a bit confused about where they actually live.

If my family had visited this diner when I was a kid, you can bet that EVERY time we were here I would have begged for the chance to sit at this table.

We ate heartily and made the 20 minute drive back across the river and home again.

12 thoughts on “Olympic & Kalama McMenamins

  1. Before we moved to Portland we stayed at the Kennedy McMenamins whenever we visited my kids. It was the perfect entre to seeing how weird Portland is and wants to stay. I loved Miss Kinney’s room with the chalkboard still on the wall.

    1. I agree that staying at the Kennedy School would be a perfect introduction to Portland! If you like that place, then you’ll know you’ll fit into Portland. I’m jealous of your introduction; it’s worth storytelling about! My first McMenamins was seeing a movie at the Baghdad on Hawthorne – also an appropriate introduction. It was years before I even thought of moving to Portland, and didn’t know anything about McMenamin’s till later when I moved very close to Hawthorne and recognized the theatre.

  2. I love your McMenamins adventures! This chain certainly reminds one to remain a child and have all the fun. Funny to find prickly pears and palms trees so far north. You don’t even need to come to Italy. 😉 I love all your photos, the bathroom tabs, the two birds, the hotel building with the totem, the ceiling your mother demanded, and the little table. Hugs to both of you. You’re doing it right!

    1. Hugs back, my friend. I’m glad you could come along with us. We are done with the reveling for a little while. Today was the first weekday lecture in a series for Pedro’s MIT class, in addition to his weekend classes, and he apologized to me in advance for being unavailable for the next six weeks. Luckily we did some great work together in the yard over the weekend, and his efforts and teamwork and masculine strength were a HUGE help to me going forward. We put the cage over the orchard back together and I am giddy about it. It’s near the end of my second term in Spanish and I’m fully trained and tutoring Spanish students now, so I’ve got tests and work to add to the busy busy tasks of Spring cleanup out in the yard.

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