Named for a boat, this town on the Sound is rich in salty history.
Editor’s note: Got college loans to pay? Are Seattle rents pinching your pocketbook? This recurring feature, $99 Road Trip, is for anyone on a budget. We’ve taken a day trip from Seattle to see just how much fun two people can have for less than a hundred bucks.
GIG HARBOR — This waterfront community feels as salty as a Melville whaling port. Starting with the name.
A “gig” is a light, narrow boat adapted for rowing or sailing, like what famed explorer Charles Wilkes’ expedition in the early 1840s brought into this protected bay, a place of refuge from nasty storms on the Tacoma Narrows (a spot famous 100 years later for blowing a highway bridge to smithereens; more on that in a moment).
If you go
From Interstate 5 in Tacoma, take Highway 16 West and cross the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. Take the Wollochet Drive Northwest/City Center exit to Gig Harbor. Turn right on Pioneer Way and continue to the bottom of the hill and the historical waterfront district along Harborview Avenue.
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Tips, discretionary by nature, aren’t included in this accounting. Keep some extra bucks in your pocket to show appreciation at the tip jar.
• Visitor information center: 3125 Judson St., Gig Harbor; 253-857-4842
Wilkes, himself a stern and salt-crusted Navy commander, was thought by some to have inspired the characterization of Melville’s Capt. Ahab. His expedition named the place Gig Harbor.
On a stormy day, explorers couldn’t have known about the heavenly view of Mount Rainier seen from the harbor’s head when the sky is blue.
They’d have had no idea that some 175 years later the cozy bay would be chock-full of boats, from fancy yachts to humble fishing vessels. Or that the waterfront would be a mix of historic fishing-net sheds, a lovingly preserved boatworks, pleasant cafés, galleries, a highly awarded distillery and more.
Gig Harbor, I told my wife, might be a nice place to seek refuge in good weather or bad.
On $99, including gasoline, bridge toll, meals, souvenirs and sales tax, you can make a whale — white whale? — of a day of it.
And it’s not too far
One of the town’s winning qualities: When traffic cooperates, it’s just under an hour’s drive from Seattle, including crossing the majestic, double-span Tacoma Narrows suspension bridge, Washington’s closest thing to the Golden Gate. Its engineering-challenged predecessor, which came to be known as Galloping Gertie, blew apart in a storm a few months after its 1940 completion.
The relatively short drive inspired us to get up early and go for breakfast.
At the head of the harbor, where you can get that full-on Rainier view, the Finholm District has an Anthony’s Restaurant, popular for brunch. But a local had recommended a hole-in-the-wall cafe next door called Devoted Kiss, where we scored a table on the waterfront deck on a sunny Saturday (8809 N. Harborview Drive, devotedkisscafe.com).
For a 10 o’clock breakfast I devoured a tasty vegetable burrito (with pepper jack cheese, scrambled egg and avocado; $9.45). My spouse had coffee ($1.50) and the granola parfait, with fresh fruit in a mint-flavored yogurt that was unfortunately reminiscent of Pepsodent ($6.25). But there were other good things on the menu (Pulled Pork Eggs Benedict intrigued), and from our balcony seat we watched paddle-boarders and scullers heading out on the harbor.
$99 Road Trips
- Langley on Whidbey Island
- Soothing sights on Olympic Peninsula
- A maritime day in Gig Harbor
- Million-dollar Anacortes views
- Zoo, fort and forest of Point Defiance
- Art, food and beer in Skagit Valley
- To Ellensburg for history and a good steak
- A Yakima Valley fruit loop
- Whiskey and fritters on Olympia's back roads
- Lutefisk tacos in Scandinavian-flavored Poulsbo
- On the road to Mount Rainier
In the distance, Rainier showed a peek of its skirts at the base of a bank of cumulonimbus.
After breakfast ($17.20 + 8.5 percent sales tax = $18.67), we left the car and enjoyed a 10-minute stroll to the outlet of Donkey Creek (prettier than its name) and the Harbor History Museum, 4121 Harborview Drive.
The museum is a crowd-pleaser, both for older folks, who will be interested in the community’s Croatian and Scandinavian heritage, and for kids, who will enjoy squeezing squeaky notes out of an old concertina or pushing a button to hear a steamship’s whistle (adult admission $7 x 2 = $14; harborhistorymuseum.org).
Under a roof out back, we found Hull No. 1 of the famous Thunderbird class of sleek plywood sailboats that originated in Gig Harbor, and the 75-foot purse seiner Shenandoah, originally launched here from Skansie Ship Building Co. in 1925. The now-rotted hull is the subject of a community rebuilding project (10 a.m.-2 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays).
“It’s kind of a labor of love for people who like to work on boats or with wood,” said volunteer Ed Cover, 76. “We’ll probably be at it another 10 years.”
The morning we visited, a freshly cut white-oak log had just arrived from Oregon at a cost of $1,500, ready to be sawed into beams that would be steam-bent for the hull.
“One idea I try to push is that lumber comes from trees, not Home Depot,” said Nate Slater, supervising shipwright.
Running total for this budget day trip: $32.67.
Art Walk every month
Go the first Saturday of any month for the Waterfront Alliance Art Walk. Pick up a “passport” at the first gallery you visit and get it stamped at each of six participants to be entered in a drawing for a $50 gift certificate.
Our first Art Walk stop was Sea Hags, 8805 N. Harborview Drive, with nautical-themed art and knickknacks.
I enjoyed Puyallup artist Danny Neely’s whimsical driftwood pieces woodburned with wisdom such as “Money can’t buy you happiness but it can buy you a yacht big enough to pull up right alongside it.”
We took home a set of seashell-topped hors d’oeuvre picks ($10 + tax = $10.85).
If you’re feeling extra energetic, walk the whole harborfront, learning history along the way from well-placed interpretive panels. (Stop at a visitor center on your way into town for a brochure, “All Along the Waterfront,” with a map of 17 old net sheds, Puget Sound’s largest remaining inventory of such structures, once key to the fishing industry.)
We chose to move the car toward the center of town and parked on the street across from Eddon Boat Park, 3805 Harborview Drive.
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At this waterfront park rubber-booted tykes play in the sand. A sidewalk bench is decorated with a fishing boat leading a parade of leaping salmon.
Here, Eddon Boatyard was home to boat builders throughout the 20th century. Today, there are public restrooms, plus Gig Harbor BoatShop (3805 Harborview Drive, gigharborboatshop.org).
In 2004, local residents passed a $3.5 million bond issue to rescue the site from luxury-home development. Now, the nonprofit BoatShop runs educational programs and restores vintage small craft that are rented out at affordable rates in the summer.
Want to pick up some new skills? For $10 (free, to members) you can spend a Saturday among the scents of resin and sawdust working alongside a boatwright restoring vessels such as the sleek wooden runabout that gleamed with fresh varnish when we visited. (No charge to watch and listen.)
“This one will be available to rent in June, with an electric drive,” boatwright Tom Regan proudly noted.
Don’t miss the gift shop. My choice for take-homes: a 7¼-inch wooden model kit of the Titanic, probably unsinkable as long as there are no icebergs in the bathtub, $6.99; and a greeting card with a Gig Harbor photo taken by BoatShop president Guy Hoppen, $2. Total with tax = $9.76.
Running total = $53.28.
Eating in a net shed
We walked from there, past handsome vintage homes, on the way to the central waterfront business district.
Our late breakfast meant we weren’t ready for lunch, but by 1:30 a snack seemed in order. We’d heard about the old net sheds, and here was one converted to a restaurant, NetShed No. 9, 3313 Harborview Drive.
The perfect menu item: a 6-inch cast-iron skillet of cinnamon rolls, hot from the oven ($7.50). A spiced chai latte and a pot of tea washed them down. Total with tax = $13.83. (Tip to galloping gourmands: Keep a few extra bucks aside in case you’re there on a day when they’re making maple-glazed bacon cinnamon rolls, $11.)
By 2 p.m., Mount Rainier was out, sitting above the harbor mouth like a big gob of whipped butter melting atop a hot cinnamon roll. (OK, I had food on my mind.)
Next stop: the poignant Fisherman Memorial at Skansie Bros. Park, listing the names of nine local fishermen lost at sea.
The neighboring Skansie House, where two brothers from a pioneer family lived until 2002, is now a visitor center and home to Harbor WildWatch, an environmental education nonprofit. Check out the tank of swarming salmon fingerlings that are periodically released into Donkey Creek.
We browsed more galleries marked with Art Walk flags, and stepped into a fair-trade artcraft shop, Imagine Great Things (3106 Harborview Drive; imaginegreatthings.com), brimming with “prosperity hens,” handcrafted fabric chickens from Northern India (one came clucking home with us, $9 + tax = $9.77).
The most bustling place in town was Heritage Distilling Co., which opened a tasting room in late 2014 at the corner of Harborview and Pioneer Way. It was the most awarded craft distillery in North America by the American Distilling Institute for the past two years running (heritagedistilling.com).
We shared a flight of four half-ounce pours: coffee-flavored vodka (their best-seller), lavender-flavored vodka (interesting, in a Victorian bordello kind of way), the Double-Barrel Rye Whiskey (smooooth), and the Char Barrel Finished Soft Gin (smoky as a house afire). $5.
At 4 p.m. we headed back to the car, ducking into Suzanne’s Bakery, 3411 Harborview Drive, for a couple large salted-chocolate cookies ($2.25 x 2 + tax = $4.89) to keep up our strength on the drive home.
The only things left to tabulate: bridge toll (collected at a plaza on the eastbound span only), $6, cash or credit; and the cost of gasoline, for 90 miles of driving round-trip from Seattle. If you get 32 mpg (based on a Subaru Forester, one of Seattle’s best-selling cars) and pay $2.29 per gallon, the metro area’s average price at this writing, the bill at the pump = $6.44.
Grand total for the day’s outing for two = $99.21, plus tips where appropriate.
So there you go, a full day of fresh, wild-caught Northwest sightseeing, for less than a C-note.
Information in this article, originally published March 24, 2016, was corrected March 26, 2016. A previous version of this story indicated that Charles Wilkes personally discovered and named Gig Harbor.