On my way to Victoria, British Columbia — home of the Empress Hotel and pub-hopping along the inner harbor’s famous waterfront — I discovered a port, a playground and a paradise on a peninsula, and I was still in America.
Port Townsend, on the northeastern tip of the Olympic Peninsula in the state of Washington, is where George Vancouver rolled ashore in 1792, and I set foot for the first time last week.
From its favorable geographic perch where the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound meet, it’s easy to see why Port Townsend once considered itself the “New York of the West” and the “City of Dreams.” Speculators believed that Port Townsend, officially settled on April 24, 1851, would become the largest harbor on the West Coast.
Port Townsend was moving briskly toward fulfilling its destiny; only the Northern Pacific Railroad was needed to complete its long-promised link to the bustling port. Except the rail line never came. With the Panic of 1893 (like our current recession), investment money dried up and the proposed rail line reached no farther than the east side of Puget Sound, mainly in Tumwater, Tacoma and Seattle. Without the railroad to spur economic growth, the town shrank and investors headed elsewhere to make their fortunes. From about 1893-1897, a quarter of the nation’s railroads went bankrupt. The population of Port Townsend sank from 7,000 to less than 2,000.
In the 1920s, it was reborn as a paper-mill town, but it always retained its maritime heart. It also recognized earlier than most towns that Victorian homes and buildings were a treasure worth preserving
Consequently, it was the first city in Washington state to establish the Main Street program, which encourages preservation of historical districts, renovation and restoration of buildings. In 2001, the city was one of only five national winners for its Main Street work.
There is so much history preserved in Port Townsend that it is one of only three cities nationwide that are on the National Register of Historic Places.
Catching the ferry from Keystone on Whidbey Island to Port Townsend, I was immediately impressed by the town’s red-brick waterfront and the grand Romanesque custom house where customs were collected and ships were cleared for entering or leaving the country.
Along Water Street, and its adjoining side streets, there is a bounty of restaurants and eateries. Popular choices include 1-2-3 Thai, the Silverwater Café, Fins, The Bayview and Lanza’s Ristorante. I stumbled into The Pubic House Grill and ordered pasta and smoked trout, which was delicious to the last bite.
Desert was an easy choice. Elevated Ice Cream & Candy Shop on Water St. serves homemade ice cream in its parlor, which travelchannel.com called one of the seven best in the country.
For lodging, Port Townsend just might be the bed and breakfast capital of the Northwest, with at least a dozen B&Bs in former Victorian homes and buildings to serve you. But who knew? I stayed at the The Bishop Victorian Hotel at 714 Washington St. in a one bedroom suite with a private bath. Although one street up from the main drag, it was an ideal location from which to explore the city.
Although I was on my way to Port Angeles, where the ferries depart for Victoria, I knew I had to explore this town of painted ladies with some thoroughness. Literally up the hill from the waterfront is Uptown where there are number of quaint shops and cafes. Aldrich’s Market, open since 1895, is a full service grocery that serves Ohana Sushi and offers an extensive wine and beer selection.
Across the street on Lawrence is Petals, a divine flower and gift shop that holds all kinds of surprises for the discriminating shopper. I purchased an antique spice chest that I had shipped back to La Verne.
Finally, I set out to explore Port Townsend’s myriad maritime possibilities, which began with a late breakfast at the Landfall Café at Point Hudson. The octagonal shaped restaurant was weathered but wonderful with its many skylights as I poked at my crepe-style blueberry pancakes.
From the Landfall, I drifted north in my car to Chetzmoka Park, which offers views of Mount Baker and the North Cascade Mountains. I also wandered down to the rocky, sandy beach where I found several water color painters dabbing their easels with high-def colors as bright and as colorful as the park’s deep greens and the sky’s azure blues.
Another must-see in the town of must-sees is Fort Worden State Park, a former military base. It is the home to the summer art programs of the Centrum Foundation, which is especially noted for the Port Townsend Country Blues Festival, Festival of American Fiddle Tunes, Port Townsend Writers’ Conference and the Port Townsend Jazz Festival. In fact, hardly a week passes without Port Townsend celebrating something. A week before I touched down, it was the Port Townsend Film Festival, which this year honored the movies of Cloris Leachman.
On the morning, I was walking Fort Worden, I made it out to the Point Wilson Light Station. Now automated, it helps guide ships past the famous riptides off Point Wilson where the waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound meet. A 3.9 mile hike at North Beach also features the Chinese Gardens, wooded trails and two historic cemeteries. The beaches on both sides of the point are breathtakingly beautiful.