Port Townsend combines maritime history with the best of Northwest food, art and music in a scenic waterside setting on Washington's Olympic Peninsula.
PORT TOWNSEND — Breakfast on lemon ricotta pancakes at a French-style bistro.
Pick up a loaf of homemade rye at a corner bakery.
Shop for drums crafted from Peruvian walnut.
If you haven’t visited Port Townsend on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula for a while, you’re in for a few surprises.
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Victorian mansions built by wealthy businessmen still grace the hillside neighborhoods, reminders of the late 1800s when the city of 9,000 was poised to become a major Northwest shipping port.
More than a century later, Port Townsend still oozes history, but it’s the 21st-century touches — food, art, music — combined with a waterside setting and views of the North Cascades that draw repeat visitors.
Spend the night if you can, especially May through mid-June when the Hood Canal floating bridge closes for repairs. Construction detours will lengthen the trip, a good excuse to check into one of the hotels or mansions that have been converted into elegant B&Bs.
Doing it in a day? Do it before or after the bridge closes. Plan on an early start, and prepare for enough activities to stretch your visit into the early evening and a sunset ferry ride back home.
Catch a ferry, cross a bridge
This month, while the bridge is still open, hop a Washington State ferry from Pier 52 on Seattle’s waterfront to Winslow on Bainbridge Island. Follow the signs toward Poulsbo and the Olympic Peninsula. Cross Hood Canal, a long, narrow body of water that separates the Olympic and Kitsap peninsulas, and you’ll be in Port Townsend in time for breakfast. The trip takes about 90 minutes.
Port Townsend’s Uptown (hillside) and downtown (waterside) historic districts are compact and walkable. A high bluff separates the two neighborhoods, and although they’re close together, only a set of steps and two streets, Quincy and Monroe, connect them.
Most visitors head directly downtown to Water Street, the main drag lined with shops, restaurants and hotels. But it’s easiest to find all-day parking on the side streets in “Upper PT,” as the locals call the neighborhood, and that’s just one reason to make it your first stop.
“Uptown is a secret,” says my Seattle friend Mary Kollar, who visits often. The neighborhood businesses — an artisan bread bakery, an old-fashioned grocery store, a pub and flower shop — attract mostly locals.
Northwest mountaineer Jim Whittaker is a regular at Sweet Laurette Cafe and Bistro, 1029 Lawrence St. (sweetlaurette.com), where Francophile Laurette McRae tempts regulars with chocolate croissants, lemon pancakes, hearty scrambles and homemade granola.
Around the corner at 617 Tyler St. is Pane d’Amore (panedamore.com). Lines form outside the screen door for dense loaves of rye and foot-long cheese sticks children eat like candy.
A Saturday Farmers Market at Lawrence and Taylor Streets in Uptown starts in May. Bring a cooler to take home cheeses and produce. Then walk off breakfast with a stroll in Chetzemoka Park (www.cityofpt.us), named for the Indian leader who befriended Port Townsend’s early settlers. Follow a path leading to the beach and admire the views of Mount Baker and the Cascades, Admiralty Inlet and Point Wilson Lighthouse at Fort Worden State Park.
Walk through history
Backtrack to Taylor Street and walk down the hill toward the water, stopping to admire the Victorian architecture. Port Townsend’s boom times ended when the Northern Pacific Railroad gave up on a rail connection to Tacoma. By that time, many wealthy merchants had already banked on its future and built elaborate homes and buildings.
Stop at Taylor and Clay Street for a look at Trinity Methodist Church built in 1871, and the Ann Starrett Mansion, built in 1889 by the town’s leading contractor and now a B&B. The historic Rothschild House (www.jchsmuseum.org/Rothschild/house.html), 1868 Taylor St., once the residence of Bavarian merchant D.C.H. Rothschild, is a state park unit, reopening for the season May 1.
Open the red wooden door and peek inside St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, moved on rollers in 1882 to its present location at Taylor and Jefferson. Across the street, take in the view of downtown from the wooden Bell Tower, built in 1890 to summon the town’s firefighters.
From here, pick up your car and repark it downtown. Or continue on foot via the Fountain Steps at Taylor and Jefferson to the Haller Fountain, at the base of the steps on Washington Street. Find Bergstrom’s Antique and Classic Autos, 809 Washington St., inside a 1917 garage. A friend describes it “as a museum where everything is for sale.”
City Hall, at 540 Water St., also houses the Jefferson County Historical Museum (www.jchsmuseum.org). Built at the peak of Port Townsend’s prosperity in 1891, the building includes a musty jail cell where the museum has mounted an exhibit called “Sin at Sea Level,” in tribute to some of the town’s well-known madams and brothels.
Lunch with a view
Port Townsend’s reputation as a seafaring town lives on at the Wooden Boat Foundation (www.woodenboat.org) and the Point Hudson Marina.
Admirers of handcrafted boats might stroll here from downtown and have lunch at the Point Hudson Cafe, 130 Hudson St., with its marina views. Otherwise, the best water views and seafood are at Fins, upstairs at 1019 Water St. (www.finscoastalcuisine.com). Make a meal of shared appetizers: crab cakes, Hood Canal mussels and steamed clams. Stop in for a smoked brown ale at Water Street Brewing (www.waterstreetbrewing.com), then browse the shops and art galleries around downtown.
You’ll find local art at Gallery 9 (www.gallery-9.com), the North Olympic Artists Cooperative, 1012 Water St. Among 25 potters, weavers and woodworkers displaying their work is Tom Stewart, who crafts hand drums and yoga props from exotic woods.
A bout with stuffy sinuses drew me into Wild Sage, 924 Washington St. (www.wildsageteas.com). Owner and herbalist Solenne Walker blends her own herbal “wellness” teas for takeout or sampling at a window table.
Fort Worden beach walk
You could spend a whole weekend exploring this Washington State Park, a few minutes drive from downtown. Fort Worden was an active U.S. Army base from 1902 to 1953. Its peninsula location makes it ideal for hiking and beach walks.
One idea: Explore the Port Townsend Marine Science Center (www.ptmsc.org) on the grounds, then walk the beach to the Point Wilson Lighthouse.
Cocktails and a castle
One last stop on your way back to the ferry: Manresa Castle (manresacastle.com), Seventh Street and Sheridan Avenue. This was the home of Charles Eisenbeis, Port Townsend’s first mayor and the owner of a brickworks. He built the house in 1892 to resemble a castle in his native Prussia. Later it became a Jesuit seminary and a hotel.
Ask to see a room, then stay for dinner or have a drink in the lounge, the former drawing room, furnished with an antique wooden bar from the Savoy Hotel in San Francisco.
Carol Pucci: 206-464-3701 or email@example.com.