It was snowing as I left home. Not sticking but slick and windy and cold. Definitely not ideal roadtripping weather. But my destination is in the so called “Banana Belt” of the Pacific Northwest, an area on the shores of the Salish Sea where the PNW’s famous rain and snow are diverted by the Olympic Mountains. These atypical warmer and drier conditions have made it a haven for retirees from Seattle, which the housing prices here attest to, but it’s also the gateway via the Keystone Ferry to the San Juan Islands and vacation fun.
This trip I’m neither looking into housing or ferrying onwards. My intent is to explore the Victorian old-town of Port Townsend.
Founded as the customs port of entry around the same time a border dispute between the US and Britain was resolved, it was set to become the largest US port on the west coast. But it was soon eclipsed by Seattle and San Francisco. Nevertheless, a ton of investment poured into town during the late 19th century.
The downtown gives me a flash into this past glory in the well-preserved Victorian buildings. I elect to book a historical hotel overlooking the entrance to the Puget Sound. The brickwork bones, not just a façade, physically demonstrate construction practices of 1889 that’re far less prevalent today. Adding both indoor plumbing and electric, quite a radical retrofit has been done. But here “newness” has been achieved without destroying the character of this building. However, no elevator has been added so realize that a grand staircase to your room remains.
That evening I stroll downtown and visit the shops along Water Street. The majority, from antique malls to restaurants to fashion boutique’s, are playing a local radio station’s tribute to David Crosby, an icon of sixty’s rock’n’roll that passed days earlier. As a non-profit community station, no advertisers demand that a Top-40 playlist is broadcast and these DJs are free to choose their own programming to present timely content.
Port Townsend’s Shanghai Past
Port Townsend, along with most lawless ports on the 19th century west coast, has a Shanghaiing history – the practice by “crimps” of snatching drunken able-bodied men and forcing them to crew sailing ships. Urban legends of Shanghai Tunnels connecting saloons along the waterfront exist, although they probably aren’t true. What is documented is that a couple merchants in town operated boarding houses to supply the recruits, and that this shanghai practice existed well into the 20th century.
As expected in a genteel town, the town drunk I encounter is very up-scale. Weaving down the sidewalk in polished Donner shoes and a bottle of hootch tucked into a new Patagonia coat, his freshly trimmed full red pirate beard greeted me. “How’s it going man?”. As I was leaning against a wall and texting, he joined me, and added “Leaning is something I do often. Vertical is something I maintain best with assistance”.
I declined his offer for a swig, assuming what the clear odorless liquid was. I later guessed it’s probably not homemade, so most likely it would only harm the brain cells that alcohol normally does. Random chitchat ensued about local politics and the local police since marijuana had been legalized, thoughts about David Crosby and CSN&Y, and then abruptly his ambling continued with a wave goodbye over his shoulder.
As always (and how’s this for a segue), wherever I travel I sample the local beer and/or wine. This time it’s a 22oz bottle of Stout from Port Townsend Brewing – my first pour presented an alcohol forward flavor, a thin mouthfeel, and almost non-existent head. The second pour mellowed a bit into a more complex set of chocolate and malt flavors, and something resembling a Cream Ale smoothness developed. However, it never did provide a head of any size. Overall, not a bad example of the English style.
Port Townsend has the beautiful Victorian architecture to consider. And the many shopping and dining pleasures. Plus the weather. But my takeaway will be the serenity, punctuated by the almost subliminal drone in the early morning hours of freighters passing just offshore towards the Pacific and other ports of call.
When You Go:
Monarch Hotel: www.monarchsuites.com 360-385-5467
Tommyknocker’s Cornish Pasty: www.tommyknockerscornishpasty.com 360-344-2519
Nicko’s Grotto: www.nickosgrotto.com 360-344-8200
Doc’a Marina Grill: www.docsgrill.com/port-townsend-location 360-344-3627
Elevated Ice Cream: www.elevatedicecream.com 360-385-1156
KPTZ Community Radio: www.kptz.org 360-379-6886
Port Townsend Brewing: www.porttownsendbrewing.com 360-385-9967
Written by: Steve Smith
Steve inherited the wanderlust and has always needed to see what’s around the next corner. In his college years he enjoyed many memorable (and cheap) forays into Mexico sleeping under the stars, but today that’ all changed. Since 2006 he’s contributed stories and photographs to In The Know Traveler, and in 2014 he assumed an editor role with the same. Published both in digital and print formats, his international assignments have taken him to the Middle East, Asia, North/Latin/South America, Europe, and the Caribbean. Follow his Facebook page Steve’s Roadtrippin’ Travels that spotlights both his photography and how his road travels intersect with digital storytelling using dynamic space-age mapping technology.