A boatmaker, a historian and a poet walk into a bar … . It might sound like the opening of a joke but it’s real life in Port Townsend, where year-round festivals combine with waterfront beauty to make this ferry port town a rewarding place to explore.
You can thank the military for Port Townsend’s lively festival scene. No, not the current military – the historic ones. By building a picturesque garrison on a beautifully forested site with tranquil beaches, our 19th-century military leaders unknowingly paved the way for Centrum, a nonprofit that runs weeklong workshops in music, writing and dance at historic Fort Worden on State Park land just outside Port Townsend.
Even if you don’t participate, you can still go to the public performances on the final weekends, enthusiastic events in the barn-like acoustics of the enormous, gray-metal McCurdy Pavilion, which in good weather can open its doors onto the grassy beer garden area.
More intimate concerts happen in the Wheeler Theater. (And if you’re attending a festival, you don’t have to pay the $10 Discovery Pass fee at the State Park entrance.)
But Centrum festivals don’t stop at the fort. Like the jazz festival last weekend, the blues festival storms local cafes, bars and theaters to transform them for two nights into music clubs.
The lushly pink Art Deco Rose Theater, the hip underground brick of Undertown, the ber-casual hippie vibe of the Boiler Room cafe, with its red walls and peacock sofa – they’ll all fill with great music this weekend with Blues in the Clubs.
Other festivals, like the film, wooden boat and Victorian festivals, plus outdoor concerts and plays, happen purely in Port Townsend’s historic downtown and uptown areas, both highly walkable.
WALK THROUGH HISTORY
If you think a living history town means crinolines and quill pens, you haven’t seen Port Townsend.
Divided literally by the steep terrain into uptown and downtown, the port city was equally divided in the 19th century into the seamy bordellos and sailor joints of Water Street, where tall ornate hotels and shops still line the waterfront and the gracious residences of uptown.
Walking is the best way to see everything: the Water Street district is only seven blocks from the Whidbey Island ferry dock to the new Pope Marine Plaza. While it’s a steep trek up the Taylor Street stairs to uptown, the view is rewarding.
Keep an eye out for the ghost murals. Some, such as Bull Durham Smoking Tobacco, are quite clear; others have almost vanished. There’s plenty of public art, too, from the graceful gray of Gerald Tsutakawa’s “Salish Sea Circle” at Pope Marine Park to the bizarre woven driftwood overlooking the next beach to the south.
You can visit during the Victorian festival in March, when re-enactors aplenty conjure up the atmosphere of the time. Otherwise, the Jefferson County Historical Society runs historic walking tours of both areas (10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturdays for downtown, 2 p.m. Sundays for uptown; $10) beginning at their two museums – which are themselves vibrant with local history.
Jail cells, plumed hearses and shipwreck debris (and, during August, a survey of Ansel Adams’ photos of Japanese internment camps) fill the Jefferson Museum of Art and History (540 Water St.).
At the immaculately preserved Rothschild House Museum (Franklin and Taylor Streets) you can peek into the life of this German settler family. This month offers lace, silk and tulle historical dresses. Both museums are open 11 a.m.-4 p.m. daily. Entry is $4 or $6 for both. Go to jchsmuseum.org.
At Fort Worden, the Puget Sound Coast Artillery Museum and Commanding Officer’s Quarters are open noon-5 p.m. daily through September. And don’t miss Point Wilson Lighthouse (tours 1-4 p.m. Wednesdays).
If you want to take a bit of quirky Port Townsend with you, there’s no shortage of shops. Most are down on Water and Washington streets. Once you get past the beachy home décor and water sports, you’ll find original items. At Writer’s Workshoppe on Taylor Street, check out retro typewriters and inspirational books to get your words flowing. Joglo, in an unused second-floor apartment, stocks Indonesian goods. And Expressions has quirky clothes. There are many galleries displaying work by local artists and history books are for sale at the Jefferson Museum.
Port Townsend’s dining industry has reached astonishing levels and is tempered by the ecofriendly, hippie-ish vibe. Grimy and tiny, Waterfront Pizza (951 Water St.) serves tasty pies right from the window. Retro soda and ice cream isn’t far away at Nifty Fiftys (817 Water St.). The Courtyard Café (230 Quincy St.) bakes fresh, fruity pies and turnovers and offers coffee and tea on its old-fashioned verandah. Hanazono Asian Noodles (225 Taylor St.) has quick service with near-sculptural sushi (the Zen roll combines rich eggplant, avocado and tofu in a smooth mix), fresh veggies in the noodle dishes and the perfect amount of crisp in the tofu fries. There’s a big sake and beer selection, and well-brewed green tea ice cream.
If you need fresh air between films or have restless kids, there’s plenty to do outside in Port Townsend as you don’t mind the weather.
The town has a couple of narrow beaches accessible from Water Street, with a lot of driftwood and rocks to explore. The Pope Marine Plaza has a small set of play equipment plus cool boats to see next door at the Northwest Marine Center. You can rest by the Halley Fountain at the foot of the Taylor Street stairs or burn off energy climbing them.
At Fort Worden, there’s plenty of grass, short hikes in the forest and a long beach leading around the point (keep an eye on high tide). The Marine Science Center offers touch tanks, exhibits and guided walks (Fort Worden, ptmsc.org). If you’re there for a while, consider a whale-watching or other wildlife boat tour. Go to ptguide.com.
Pair an exploration of Port Townsend with a local festival to get more bang for your buck. Here are upcoming and future festivals:
This weekend: Blues Festival. Hundreds of students and pre-professionals gather in Port Townsend this week to learn from the masters. Hear players such as Orville Johnson, Tim Sparks, Billy Flynn.
9 p.m.-midnight today and saturday: Blues in the Clubs. Various venues, $24 all-night, all-venue ticket. 360-385-3102.
1:30 p.m. Saturday: Routes of the Blues. McCurdy Pavilion, Fort Worden. $36/$26/$18/free for 18 and younger. 360-385-3102, centrum.org.
Starting tonight: Shakespeare in the Park. 6 p.m. today through Sunday plus Aug. 10, 11, 12, 17, 18 and 19: “Twelfth Night.” Chetzemoka Park, Jackson and Blaine Streets. Free. keycitypublictheatre.org.
Thursday-Sept. 6: Concerts on the Dock. All-ages outdoor concerts also include a beer/wine/cider garden. 5:30-8 p.m. Aug. 9, 16, 23, 30, Sept. 6. Free. Pope Marine Plaza, 607 Water Street. ptmainstreet.org.
Aug. 12: Los Lobos. The summer season finale at Centrum features this Los Angeles-based Chicano rock band, influenced since the 1970s by country, folk, R&B, blues and Latino folk.
7:30 p.m. Aug. 12. McCurdy Pavilion, Fort Worden. $25-$55. 360-385-3102.
Sept. 7-9: Festival of Wooden Boats. Make them, float them and talk about them. This is the festival for you. Now 36-year-old festival features more than 300 vessels plus presentations, tours, kids’ activities, live music and the tall ship “Adventuress.” 5:30-10 p.m. Sept. 6, 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Sept. 7-8, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sept. 9. One-day ticket $15/$10, multiday ticket $30/$20. Point Hudson Marina, 1301 Water St. 360-385-3628, woodenboat.org.
Sept. 21-23: 2012 Port Townsend Film Festival. This annual film festival has been running for 13 years and is now a three-day event with a range of new films, classics, panels and appearances. This year’s program will be posted online soon. Sept. 21-23. Various venues including the Rose and Rosebud Theaters downtown, the Uptown Theatre, the Pope Marine center and outdoor locations. Passes $35-$185. 360-379-1333, ptfilmfest.com.
Sept. 21-23: Reverberations. This three-day festival features new music by Seattle composer/pianist Wayne Horvitz, audio engineer Tucker Martine, Japanese dancer/choreographer Yukio Suzuki and Japanese video artist Yohei Saito, performing 55 improvised and 55 composed works utilizing reverberations of the Fort’s concrete military structures, including the underground Harpole Cistern. Free. Various locations at Fort Worden. Schedule to be announced. 360-385-3102.
October-April: Chamber Music Festival. A set of three concerts in Fort Worden’s Wheeler Theater fills out the off-season with local and visiting chamber groups.
2 p.m. Oct. 28. Mozart, Schubert and Brahms. $27-$32. Wheeler Theater, Fort Worden. 360-385-3102.
Next summer: Playwright’s Festival, February; Victorian Heritage Festival, March; Fiddle Festival, early July; Jazz Port Townsend Festival, late Julyrosemary.ponnekanti@ thenewstribune.com 253-597-8568 blog.thenewstribune.com/arts