A visit to the Olympic Penisula fishing town known for its Victorian architecture and thriving artist community
Four middle-aged adults, one Mazda Miata, one Harley, and two days vacation time. That was the start of a summer overnight trip from Victoria, British Columbia, Canada to Port Townsend, Washington, U.S.A.
Port Townsend is located at the northeastern tip of the Olympic Peninsula, at the entrance to Puget Sound. Officially settled in 1851 with a good, safe harbour, hopes and dreams for the town were big. By the late 1880s, it was bustling. By the late 1890s the boom was over. Economic depression led to the failure of several railroads. The planned northwest extension of the rail line into Port Townsend never materialized. Port Townsend shrunk. Today Port Townsend is noted for its large collection of Victorian architecture. According to one store clerk I talked to, that is largely because the town had been too poor to bulldoze the old buildings.
After the ninety minute Black Ball Coho Ferry ride from Victoria, British Columbia to Port Angeles, Washington, we disembarked and took Highway 101 out of town, past signs advertising Twilight tours and souvenirs. The Olympic Peninsula was the setting for Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series, a group of young adult romance-vampire books. (2018 note: I don’t believe the tours are still operational, although fans can hunt out sites of interest on their own.)
With views of the mountains on one side and glimpses of the Salish Sea on the other, Miata top down, my husband and I followed the Harley. As we started to climb in elevation, the air became cooler. Top still down, we cranked up the heat. When we turned onto State Route 20, the trees became taller and more plentiful, the branches forming canopies across the road in places. We continued to follow the Harley, sometimes by sound alone when curves or hills put it out of sight.
With the help of a self-guided Historic Tour Map, we walked through the town, studying the architecture. Many of the now-restored Victorian buildings are still in active use – churches, businesses, private homes, hotels, bed and breakfasts.
Port Townsend experienced a renaissance in the 1970s with an influx of people looking for inexpensive homes in a laid-back environment. Today it has a thriving arts community. We sauntered through the shops and galleries, discovering carved wood, blown glass, brightly decorated furniture, jewelry, antiques, collectibles, and more. The Writers’ Workshoppe, a store containing books, tools, and gifts for writers, captivated me. The Writers’ Workshoppe offers writing workshops, one of which was currently in progress. As we explored the town, we encountered workshop attendees in pairs with notebooks, talking to each other, and taking notes. Port Townsend is a haven for artists of all kinds, not just writers, and offers many workshop opportunities.
There are many pleasant and interesting accommodation options in Port Townsend. We stayed at the The Palace Hotel on Main Street. Originally built in 1889 for a retired sea captain, the building has housed a billiard parlour, a saloon, and a brothel throughout its history. It has been restored and operated as a hotel since 1984. All fifteen rooms, each bearing the name of one of the “girls” from its brothel days, are furnished with antiques and collectibles.
A large portrait of a lady in blue hangs on the wall on the second floor, at the top of a wide staircase, beside a sitting room filled with period furniture. The desk clerk told us, in his Bostonian accent, that no one knew who the lady in blue was, but people staying in room four sometimes dreamed of a lady in blue. He had smelled perfume near that room. I’m still not sure whether I was relieved or disappointed none of us stayed in room four.
When I photographed the painting, a hazy face appeared in the background of the photo near the lady’s face, which was not visible when I looked directly at the painting itself. After studying the photograph, I now believe it was a trick of light. I think.
The next day after a leisurely brunch, one last browse through the shops, and a visit to Fort Worden, originally built as a United States army base and now a state park, we headed back. Lavender growing wild in the brush alongside the highway added brilliant splashes of purple to the landscape. It was warmer than the day before and we were better able to appreciate the fresh, clean aroma of lavender, hay, and evergreens.
The glove box of the Miata now contained two purple fluted glass shades encased in bubble wrap. The trunk contained the base of the desk lamp to which they belonged, eight cardboard boxes holding shades for a large chandelier, whose metal fixture was being mailed to Canada by Vintage Hardware and Lighting, and several smaller purchases squeezed in and around the boxes. The glass-blown red hummingbird sipping nectar from a blue flower I discovered in the shop across the street from the ferry in Port Angeles had to sit on my lap for the remainder of the drive.
Have you visited Port Townsend? What was particularly memorable?