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Port Townsend: Historic seaport is picture postcard brought to life


It is easy, when visiting Port Townsend, to get the impression that you have stepped into the middle of a photo shoot arranged by the local convention and visitor’s bureau. Like many places in the Northwest, the scenery is so often postcard perfect. The natural beauty of the area alone could make you think this had all been arranged just for the approaching tourist — but the charm of Port Townsend goes way beyond its physical attributes.

On our first visit to Port Townsend, we walked up the bluff from the waterfront to check out the Saturday Farmers Market that we had heard about almost since we drove into town. “Are you going to the Farmers Market tomorrow morning?” we were asked by the Palace Hotel desk clerk, our waitress at the Public House Restaurant, and the artist/clerk at the Port Townsend Gallery. So, of course, we had to go and there we discovered the essence of Port Townsend.

It seemed like we had stepped into the pages of a storybook. We stood on the edge of a crowd and watched as rosy-cheeked children, wearing handmade flower wreaths on their heads, ran laughing in circles around a Maypole. Within the crowd, small groups of adults stood chatting and smiling, waving to friends and watching the Maypole action. The occasional dog, ever hopeful of a handout, wandered through the crowd looking for old friends and making new ones. Babies in strollers played with rattles, older kids strummed guitars and played hackysack. The sun was shining brightly, puffy white clouds floated in an impossibly blue sky and the bay sparkled in the distance. This friendly, joyful spirit amidst a backdrop of mountains and water is what continually draws visitors back to P.T.

Port Townsend is cited as one of only three National Victorian Seaports on the National Register of Historic Places (along with Galveston and Cape May, NJ) and is the only one on the West Coast. With its many well-maintained historical homes, a quaint, well-preserved main street, an active sea front and even a lighthouse, the honorific is well deserved. But Port Townsend isn’t just a historic artifact that time has passed by; it is still very much full of life. Every time we have visited, it seems that both residents and visitors are gathered together to celebrate Spring, or Christmas, the graceful lines of a wooden boat, the Rhododendron, films, Kinetic Sculptures, and, yes, even the town’s Victorian heritage. The locals seem to have as much fun as the tourists when it comes to enjoying the town.

Perched on a bluff overlooking Admiralty Inlet, at the head of Puget Sound, Port Townsend survived a boom and bust in the latter half of the 19th century. Because another boom didn’t follow the bust, most of the founding fathers’ speculative investments in large commercial buildings along the waterfront and opulent homes atop the bluff have survived to this day. It is almost as if, with great foresight, they banded together to lay the foundation for one of the finest bed-and-breakfast communities this side of the Mississippi.

Port Townsend’s main street (called Water Street) is no longer the home of warehouses, flop houses, taverns and bordellos. Gone are the days when dozens of square-rigged sailing ships floated at anchor or were tied to the piers. Although the Water Street is now lined with shops and restaurants, the feeling of a bustling seaport still lingers – but perhaps a bustling seaport of a Sunday morning. With two active marinas and a healthy fishing fleet in town, the visitor may still overhear plans of Pacific crossings, or stories of storms at sea and bountiful catches while breakfasting at the uniquely shaped Landfall Restaurant or lunching at the funky little Blue Moose Cafe. Along Water Street itself, the spirit of the sea still thrives in places like the Water Street Brewing Company – winner of a silver medal at the 2005 World Beer Cup for its Big Phatty Imperial Ale. And while enjoying dinner in the Victorian ambience of the Belmont Hotel, it’s not difficult to imagine convivial, long-ago conversations amongst the ships’ owners and their captains as they toasted a successful sailing venture.

A truly special way to enjoy the laid-back community feel of what could seem a touristy downtown is to visit the immaculately restored Rose Theater. Originally opened in 1907 for vaudeville performances and as a cinema, the feeling of yesteryear still lingers at the Rose, but with all the ear ringing effects of Dolby Surround Sound. Buy your tickets early, grab a bag of the West’s best popcorn, wind your way upstairs into the balcony, sit back and listen to the manager welcome you with a story about the film’s star or director. Savor the anticipation as you watch the vintage curtain slowly roll up and then lose yourself in the latest Hollywood blockbuster.

Or you can live your own outdoor action-adventure in Port Townsend. Sail aboard the 1905 tall ship Adventuress docked at the Northwest Maritime Center on one end of Water Street, Along with nine team mates, row a handmade wooden reproduction of Captain Vancouver’s early coasting vessel the Townshend, based at the Wooden Boat Foundation (host of the Northwest’s largest Wooden Boat Festival in early September.) Stroll to the other end of Water Street, rent a kayak and see the waterfront and the Victorian homes on the bluff the way they were meant to be viewed: from the water. Bring the youngsters and turn them loose in the town’s radical new skateboard park. Walk along the beach to the lighthouse, collecting seashells and driftwood while you throw sticks in the bay for Fido to retrieve. Take a drive to the edge of town and visit the tasting room of either Sorenson’s or FairWinds Wineries. Let someone else drive and you can visit both.

Perhaps the current residents of Port Townsend appreciate the arts more than those of the 19th Century. It would be difficult to find historical confirmation but I believe that 150 years ago the bars outnumbered the art galleries. Now, with over 20 art galleries, the bars are outnumbered two to one. If restaurants are allowed into the equation, the ratio is about even. However, more than half of the bars and almost all of the restaurants feature the work of local artists on their walls. From street musicians on the weekends to international music symposiums, bluegrass, jazz and classical music festivals, a film festival, a performing arts group and an abundance of art galleries, art in all its forms is pervasive in this tiny community.

So now you’re tired and hungry? Head back to your choice of the 20 B&B’s, six Victorian hotels or a modern sea-view room on the beach. After a wee rest, don your jeans and a fleece (the “Port Townsend Tuxedo”), and head to the Uptown area, 75 feet above sea level. Play Scrabble in the Uptown Pub while drinking one of the local beers or wines. Walk down the street and buy some antiques and then stop in for dinner at, well, your choice: French, Italian, Northwest, pizza or pub grub.

The Victorians didn’t have discos and neither does Port Townsend. Your night can hop with sizzilin’ jazz and electric hip-hop, or you can mellow out with the blues, but not too late and not every night. The Upstage Lounge (located downtown), the Water Street Brewing Company and – the locals’ little secret – Siren’s are all downtown and just waiting for you to grab a chair and live like a local. Leave your polyester shirts at home with your pretensions, bring some good walking shoes, a lively book (or your lover) and prepare to step back in time in the Northwest’s Victorian gateway to the Puget Sound.

Photo by Victor Judd

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