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Port Townsend, Wash.: Summer Getaway

Washington's two-tiered, Victorian playground packs in galleries, cafes, and sweeping vistas of Puget Sound.

Port Townsend, Washington waterfront
Photo caption
Mount Baker presides over the waterfront in Port Townsend, Wash.

Wooden boats, big dreams, and a touch of catastrophe made Port Townsend, Wash., the gem that it is today. The city whose late-1800s reputation for vice rivaled that of San Francisco is now a vacationers' heaven of historic architecture, fine restaurants, cozy pubs and cafes, art galleries, and a seemingly endless schedule of festivals celebrating everything from film to fiddle music.

Before the rise of Seattle and Tacoma, this town perched on the northeast corner of the Olympic Peninsula was the main port of entry for every cargo ship that sailed up the Strait of Juan de Fuca. In 1888, nearly 1,000 vessels dropped anchor in Port Townsend Bay, their crews flush with pay and eager for entertainment. They found plenty of it behind the ornate brick and cast-iron facades on Water Street. The city once boasted a saloon on nearly every corner and a generous assortment of dancehalls, card parlors, and "ladies' rooming houses."

In those boom years, which began in 1854, speculators envisioned the so called City of Dreams as the left coast's version of New York, and they built accordingly. A stop at the edifice that housed the customs house and post office, with its 20-foot ceilings, marble floors, and redwood-paneled walls, hints at how grandiose their dreams were. Next door, the 1889 James House, a mansion thought to be the Northwest's first bed-and-breakfast, sets the standard for elegance and comfort. The adjacent Uptown district, with its panoramic views of the bay and the islands of Puget Sound, occupies what was literally and figuratively Port Townsend's high ground: A steep bluff and long flights of stairs separate a genteel neighborhood from the once rowdy waterfront.

The Panic of 1893 and a rail line that never arrived popped Port Townsend's bubble. But calamitous as the bust was, it became a boon for today's visitors. In the 1970s, a wave of creative newcomers restored the city's neglected but unaltered Victorian buildings and reinvented the town as the artsy utopia it is today. There's still plenty of entertainment on Water Street, although nowadays shops and galleries far outnumber saloons. Pick up a map for your walking tour at the Jefferson County Historical Society Museum in City Hall where, legend has it, Jack London spent a night in the slammer on his way to the Klondike. The yellow-trimmed Victorian Square building houses seven emporiums of handmade goods as various as fishing flies, yarn, and sterling silver jewelry. Ancestral Spirits Gallery displays a stunning collection of fine basketry. Salal Cafe and Lehani's Deli both offer great sandwiches.

After a day of hoofing it, you might kick back at Fins Coastal Cuisine, where nearly every table has a view of the harbor. Feast on Dabob Bay oysters, Hood Canal mussels, and a saffron-laced bouillabaisse. Afterward, to work off your chocolate–coconut–macadamia nut torte, mount the stairs to Uptown for a sunset view. Which will be more breathtaking: climbing those 134 steps two at a time or seeing the Whidbey Island ferry lit up like a crystal chandelier as it glides across the darkening bay? You decide.

Photography by Lee Rentz

This article was first published in July 2009. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.