Nobody just passes through Port Townsend. You have to want to go there. And oh yes, you’ll want to go there.
The history-filled city sits at the northeast corner of the Olympic Peninsula. Even in winter, with some of its attractions closed for the season, it bustles with locals and a manageable number of tourists.
Often billed as a Victorian-era seaport, Port Townsend deftly balances its appeal to travelers while maintaining its heritage and charm.
“We’re a really tight community. We take care of each other,” said Chris Dewees.
Dewees is the hardware manager at the town’s Wooden Boat Chandlery, a maritime supplies shop. She chose to settle in the city in 2005 after sailing up and down the West Coast.
While more than half the shops downtown are geared toward tourism, once you get out of the main core you’ll find a real city, Dewees said.
“It may be an 18-something Victorian, but real people live there.”
Most visitors to Port Townsend enter on Water Street, which takes them straight to downtown. The entire area is a National Historic Landmark District. Ornate late 1800s and early 1900s architecture fill just about every block.
The number and variety of shops in downtown Port Townsend will keep any shopper busy for a day. Most are gathered along Water Street and its side streets. You won’t find Crate & Barrel or Anthropologie here. These are one-of-a-kind, independent stores and art galleries. Don’t miss a block long underground street and shops that are accessed via a subway-like staircase at Taylor and Water streets.
Also downtown is the Jefferson County Historical Society’s museum (540 Water St., 360-385-1003, jchsmuseum.org). I got there too late to check it out but in the upper part of the same building you can see the oldest continuously operating city council chambers in Washington. An associated historical home, The Rothschild House Museum, doesn’t open until May.
If you own an older home or just like looking at old stuff, make a stop at Vintage Hardware and Lighting. The store is jam packed with original and reproduction lighting and hardware. One display of ornate glass light shades looked like wedding cakes. Upstairs is the free Kelly Art Deco Lighting Museum, perhaps the only one of its kind.
NORTHWEST MARITIME CENTER
This educational non-profit caters to wooden boats and those who cherish them. The chandlery sells touristy items along with brass, ropes and oakum — pine tar-soaked fibers used to stuff hull seams. The store is attached to a spacious coffee bar.
Closer to the water is where the center keeps its Pocock-style and other wooden rowing shells. The eight-person racing boats seem to stretch beyond the building.
The center hosts the Wooden Boat Festival in September and is sponsoring the newly created Race to Alaska, a sort of ocean Iditarod. The “no rules” non-motorized 750-mile race begins June 4 in Port Townsend.
The nearby Point Hudson marina is accessible to the public.
There’s only one thing that matches the variety and number of stores in Port Townsend: restaurants. On some blocks they’re packed shoulder to shoulder.
For lunch, we headed to Sirens Pub where the motto is “Be a local — come on up!” They’re talking about the two flights of stairs and a walk through an 1800s hallway to get there. The pub itself in an eclectic mix of living room and bar.
Even on this chilly winter day, hardy Northwesterners and one seagull were dining on the pub’s deck with its 180-degree view of Port Townsend Bay. Inside, locals were playing pool and working on Bloody Marys.
I took advantage of the pub’s extensive seafood offerings and had crab cakes and the expertly made house clam chowder.
FORT WORDEN STATE PARK
If Port Townsend is a yin, then its yang is Fort Worden. The city bumps up against it on all sides that the sea doesn’t. Once a vast U.S. Army gun emplacement, it now is a campus for schools, art workshops, music camps and the Marine Science Center.
Along with two other nearby forts (the “Triangle of Fire”), the early-20th-century installation protected the entrance to Puget Sound.
More than 200 buildings were built on its 434 acres, including barracks, officers' quarters, a hospital and a wharf. The historic buildings have been preserved and are rented by groups, families and individuals for days or weeks at a time.
The Port Townsend Marine Science Center (532 Battery Way, 360-385-5582, http://www.ptmsc.org/) normally has a lot of hands-on displays but has limited access and reduced hours during winter months.
Though the Point Wilson Lighthouse is closed to visitors (it’s in danger of tumbling into the sea), it makes for a nice walk from the science center along a crescent-shaped beach.
While the outer reaches of the park require a Discover Pass, its core 98 acres do not.
COAST ARTILLERY MUSEUM
Fort Worden may have a lot of shut doors in the winter, but the Coast Artillery Museum is an exception. Open year-round, the museum is housed in a barracks overlooking the grassy field that separates Officer’s Row.
The museum is separated into two sections. On one side are exhibits about the fort and its various uses through the decades. The other side is “Anything that goes boom” as the lady at the front counter told me.
Alfred Chiswell, the museum’s curator, said that construction of the fort began in 1898; the first troops and 43 large guns arrived between 1902 and 1904. While the guns were scrapped long ago, the concrete bunkers that housed them are still there.
Because the army gave the fort to the state which then used it as a facility for troubled youth, the buildings were preserved. “They kept people in the buildings so you kept the vandals and the varmints and the rain out,” Chiswell said. “You have a post that looks very much like it did in 1914.”
PIPPA’S REAL TEA
When you’re still kind of full from lunch, but not ready for dinner, it’s time for tea. Back in town, I headed to Pippa’s Real Tea.
Pippa Mills has a delightful Australian-English accent (she grew up in both countries), but her tea shop is not a doily-infused Victorian parlor. Light, colorful and cleanly designed, the shop has a tea bar, bulk teas and a seating area in back.
Within seconds of my arrival, Mills had talked me into trying her scones with clotted cream and jam. “I make it myself because you can’t find clotted cream in this country,” she said.
“It’s my mom’s recipe for the scones. But I had to learn how to make the clotted cream. It took me three months. I packed on the pounds,” Mills said. It’s just as well that her velvety creation can’t be found beyond her shop — America would lose its battle against cholesterol.
Mills’ scones are considerably smaller than their American counterparts — just the right size for tea time. Mills brews her whole-leaf teas in individual French presses which she brings to the table along with a five-minute hour glass. “Press and pour,” she advised.
My last stop of the day was at the town’s charming art house movie theater. Like Tacoma’s Grand Cinema and Olympia’s Capitol Theater, the Rose Theatre shows independent and off-beat films that seldom make it to cineplexes.
The theater is also home to the Port Townsend Film Festival in September. And it’s growing. Around the corner and upstairs from the Silverwater Cafe is the armchair- and loveseat-filled Starlight Room, which opened in 2013. The 21-and-older crowd can watch movies while imbibing beer, wine, cocktails and appetizers in the 46-seat theater.
But now the main theater is no longer dry. Starting last weekend, the lobby began selling beer and wine for adult patrons of the two all-ages main screens.