If you’ve been housebound for the winter, there’s no better place to come out of your shell than Port Townsend, one of only three Victorian seaports on the National Register of Historic Places. Port Townsend blends a working waterfront, mid-to-late 1800s charm, beautiful parks, and a vibrant arts culture to create a getaway of getaways — and is particularly well-suited for a girls/guys escape or romantic interlude.
The 56-mile journey northwest of Seattle is half of the appeal. Drive to Edmonds for a 30-minute Washington State Ferry ride that still dispenses Olympic Mountains and Puget Sound views. You’ll offboard at Kingston and pass New England-style homes and buildings in Port Gamble, once an old mill town and now a National Historic Landmark. Then, traverse the Hood Canal floating bridge and weave through dense wood thickets before arriving at Port Townsend.
First, stop by the farmer’s market, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays, where vendors sell native plants, organic berries and produce, fresh-caught salmon and albacore, baked treats and bottles of cider, wine and real mead (made from honey). While uptown, you’ll be surrounded by grand Victorian-era homes, reminders of Port Townsend’s past.
In the late 1800s, Port Townsend was Puget Sound’s flourishing maritime gateway for ships coming in and going out of Washington. Grand homes were built in what’s now known as uptown Port Townsend, and a business core in downtown Port Townsend. But rail expansion soon boosted Seattle, and Port Townsend fell into disrepair in the early 20th century. In the 20th century’s latter half, a new, youthful crowd arrived, eager to rehabilitate and renovate homes and buildings.
Continue exploring by venturing to downtown Port Townsend — modest in size but remarkable for the number of independent specialty boutiques snuggled up in 19th-century brick buildings, including shops for antiques, clothes, jewelry, rugs, candles, cooking, toys, yarn, beads, chocolate, wine, and even one of the largest metaphysical bookstores in the nation, Phoenix Rising (the town has a rich counterculture past and present). Even a barnacled sailor would fall in love with Conservatory Coastal Home, which offers a curated mix of practical and aesthetic appeal — such as new nautical-inspired pillows and candles, vintage fishing floats, camping supplies and décor books.
More than 10 art galleries dot the town, including Pacific Traditions, offering art of First People of North American Coastal Tribes and Nations. As you browse downtown on spring weekends, local musicians and performing artists are busking at free, small-scale performances.
Pick up a lunch to go from Sirens, which offers 11 microbrews and traditional Northwest pub food (pan-fried Hood Canal oysters, Cobb salad, burgers, pizza and pasta). Or go for Hanazono, which hands out to-go orders of stir-fried noodles and noodle soups, such as the warming, creamy tonkotsu ramen soup with pork, spinach, bean sprouts, bamboo shoots, egg, red ginger and sesame seeds.
Take your noodles just north of downtown to picnic in the region’s superstar 432-acre Fort Worden State Park. In 1879, the Point Wilson Lighthouse went up, and eventually expanded into Fort Worden, a site of intense military infrastructure between 1896 and the mid-1960s, before finally becoming a spectacular Washington State Park in 1973. Bring a flashlight for Fort Worden Artillery Battery’s spooky concrete tunnels and barracks, surrounded by thorny bushes, planted to help repel invaders who might try accessing the area by water.
At Fort Worden, the Port Townsend Marine Science Center‘s two exhibit buildings accept online reservations for visits on Saturdays and Sundays. Meet Hope, one of only six articulated orca whale skeletons on display in the U.S., and the pier aquarium with 13 tanks holding native species such as sea cucumbers, rockfish, anemones and sea stars.
Back downtown, the 1907 Rose Theatre retains the intimate charm of the vaudeville house it once was, with three rooms ranging from 46 to 158 seats. In normal times, you’ll find international, art-house and first-run selections, live discussions, and excellent popcorn with choose-your-own powdered toppings. Bookmark the site to visit virtually now, but in-person when circumstances and the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions allow.
But you can still slip into Soak on the Sound for a private, decadent 50-minute saltwater soak session in a tiled copper tub or a private, 45-minute infrared sauna session.
Upper Port Townsend is home to the bright, cheery Finistère, open for happy hour and dinner, featuring dishes such as English pea soup with pistachio mint pesto, pork and ricotta meatballs, or grilled salmon with farro, artichoke hearts, mushrooms and roasted pepper. Back downtown, the underground Cellar Door feels like a speak-easy with peekaboo views of the bay. And the waterfront Vintage offers small plates and outdoor plaza seating — perfect for COVID-safe people paired with local wine.
For evening sleep, Fort Worden offers a collection of cottages, lofts, Victorian-era officer’s bungalows that run up to six bedrooms, and even a very miniature castle built by an Episcopal rector 1883. Downtown, the quaint 1890-year brick Bishop Victorian Hotel’s rooms feature brass beds, antique dressers, and kitchenettes or full kitchens, the remnants of when the hotel was once a rooming house for WWII civilian workers. On pleasant evenings, bring your to-go food to eat in the hotel’s Adirondack chairs and garden.
Those who love breakfast won’t be disappointed by Port Townsend’s options. Velocity Coffee is a favorite for those who’d like to get a cup to go, then stroll the shore along Port Townsend Bay. You’ll see a Washington State Ferry plying the waters — they’re headed northeast to Coupeville, on Whidbey Island.
In Uptown, Pane D’Amore Artisan Bakery dispenses French treats to acolytes from near and far. If you don’t mind a wait (in a fascinating, working shipyard), Blue Moose Cafe offers outdoor tables and takeout. Once inside, there’s plenty to entertain the eye, a veritable kitchen sink of kitsch — vintage plates, signs, pennants and more.
Port Townsend is one of Washington’s best hubs for hands-on, lifelong learning — including many weekend-only and one-day classes. The Port Townsend School of Woodworking teaches traditional handsaw use, how to craft dovetails or carve a Noh mask. Imprint Bookstore and The Writers’ Workshoppe can help you revise your novel (or pick up a new one from the walk-up window or during limited browse hours), and Northwind Art offers classes on topics including calligraphy, ceramics, drawing and fiber arts.
Learn how to BYOB (build your own boat) at Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding, while Northwest Maritime Center offers boat shop and on-the-water training. Or let someone else drive the boat with Puget Sound Express’s 4-hour whale-watching excursion. The onboard marine naturalist will point out tufted puffins, sea lions, and whales — and even allow you to eavesdrop on whale squeals using a hydrophone.
For lunch, order online or dine in for the week’s special at Silverwater Cafe, which relies on Washington fields for salad greens and apples, and local bakeries for bread — but be aware that the petite cafe reaches capacity quickly. Or, on your way out of town, visit a local staple since 1972 — Port Townsend Food Co-op, a great place to pick up a quick hot meal from the deli, the fruit, cheese and meat makings for a picnic, or just a bottle of kombucha for the drive back to the Kingston ferry dock. And if you extend your stay by one more day, no one will feel surprised.
Caveat: Always follow local health restrictions and warnings, and be aware that opening hours and reservation requirements may change — and always attempt to make reservations to avoid disappointment. Mask up, don’t travel while sick, and be aware that limited medical resources may be on hand for out-of-town guests. Respecting mask, distance and capacity requirements means we can get back to normal, sooner.
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