Washington Weekends: A new look at old Port Townsend
Stay in a castle the next time you visit this Victorian seaport.
Seattle Times NWTraveler editor
If you go
Where to stay
• Alexander’s Castle is $232 a night which includes a continental breakfast at a cafe in the park. It sleeps two people (no sofa bed). There sometimes are low-season discounts.
• Other Fort Worden vacation houses range from the two-bedroom Blissful Vista, a more modern cottage with a great view, and the vintage officers’ houses, with two to six bedrooms.
• Book well ahead, especially for summer: parks.wa.gov/fortworden/
An excellent resource for everything from cultural events to other Port Townsend accommodations is ptguide.com
Getting a feel for Port Townsend
At home in PT: About 10,000 people live in Port Townsend. Retirees and urban refugees from Seattle have helped keep it prosperous in recent decades, as have tourism (be ready for crowds in summer) and the Port Townsend paper mill, a major employer.
What’s in a name: Its nicknames “Key City” and “City of Dreams” are derived from the late 1800s when Port Townsend was envisaged as a major West Coast seaport and terminus of a transcontinental railroad. That didn’t happen, but the prospect did touch off a late 19th-century building boom.
Boats, boats, boats: Port Townsend is an epicenter of traditional-boat building and sailing. Visit the Northwest Maritime Center (at the north end of downtown, nwmaritime.org) which hosts the Wooden Boat Foundation plus a cafe and shop packed with all things nautical.
Port Townsend’s annual Wooden Boat Festival is Sept. 5-7 this year, featuring more than 300 vessels and crowds of enthusiasts. woodenboat.org/festival
Dry side: Port Townsend averages only about 19 inches of rain a year since it’s in the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains. (Nearby Sequim is even drier, with about 16 inches annually.)
Tell us your favorite Port Townsend spots
Where do you like to stay? Where do you like to eat? Share tips on your own Port Townsend finds in the comments.
Port Townsend has all the right stuff for an easygoing weekend getaway.
It’s a beautifully preserved Victorian small town on the Olympic Peninsula, with vintage buildings that are home to good restaurants, quirky shops, comfortable hotels and fancy B&Bs.
It’s scenic, perched on Admiralty Inlet with lovely views of islands and Cascade and Olympic peaks.
And Port Townsend has something fun for everyone, from the thriving Northwest Maritime Center and a local history museum to a lively music, art, literary and theater scene.
Yet when I visited recently, I didn’t stay in one of the town’s popular Victorian-style B&Bs or small hotels. Instead, I went for something completely different and rented a “castle” in the 434-acre Fort Worden State Park at the edge of town.
Staying at Fort Worden gave me a peaceful, private place to relax for a few days. Unlike B&Bs, I didn’t have to talk to strangers at breakfast. I could make coffee and meals in my “castle’s” spacious kitchen and then laze around, gazing out the tall, paned windows at ocean and mountains. The park’s forest trails, two miles of saltwater shoreline and the Point Wilson Lighthouse were at my doorstep.
Yet it still was easy to enjoy Port Townsend since downtown was just five minutes away by car or via a half-hour beach walk.
About that castle
Alexander’s Castle is part of the vacation housing offered by Fort Worden State Park. The park, once an Army base, rents out sprawling, big-porched officers’ houses that were built in the early 1900s plus several unique lodgings, including Alexander’s Castle.
Tall, narrow and made of brick, Alexander’s Castle has a rampart-edged roof that evokes a European castle. But don’t expect castle-style grandeur. It has a comfortable living room, dining room, well-equipped kitchen and, up a very steep flight of stairs, one bedroom (the third story is not open to guests) with a sweeping view.
Like true castles, however, it has an ill-fated romantic history. The Rev. John Alexander, an Episcopal minister in Port Townsend in the 1880s, bought 10 acres of land in what’s now the park and built the castle for his prospective bride from his native Scotland. Alas, the story goes, when Alexander headed to Scotland to get her, he found she had married another. He returned to Port Townsend alone and lived in his lonely little castle on the bluff.
Now modern-day visitors can retreat to the castle. Or rent Fort Worden’s nearby (and with an even better view) Blissful Vista cottage or one of the spacious officers’ houses.
Culture in park and town
With no Wi-Fi and no TV — the modern equivalent of the dark ages — at Alexander’s Castle, I reverted to reading during my getaway. New books were practically at my doorstep since Copper Canyon Press, one of the foremost U.S. poetry publishers, has its offices (and sells books) in one of the park’s dozens of white-painted, ex-military buildings (coppercanyonpress.org.) A friendly intern showed me around; I loaded up with four poetry books.
Time your visit right, and you can enjoy all sorts of performances and workshops at Fort Worden, organized by the arts group Centrum, from jazz concerts and chamber music to literary festivals. Or how about fiddle and ukulele festivals? Find listings and get tickets at centrum.org. Plan ahead for one of the biggies, Jazz Port Townsend, on July 20-27 this year.
In the heart of Port Townsend, the Rose Theatre is a cozy place to see current and classic films plus broadcasts of New York’s Metropolitan Opera performances and Britain’s National Theatre plays. Go upstairs to the theater’s comfy armchair and loveseat-filled Starlight Room (for age 21 and older) to enjoy movies along with beer, wine, cocktails and snazzy snacks (rosetheatre.com).
For live theater, Key City Public Theatre offers everything from Shakespeare to David Mamet plays this year: keycitypublictheatre.org.
Need a museum fix? In Fort Worden, the Commanding Officer’s Quarters is a house-turned-museum that’s impressively furnished with Victorian and Edwardian furniture and shows how a military family lived in the early 1900s (jchsmuseum.org, open May-September). For military buffs, the Coast Artillery Museum (coastartillery.org), across the park’s broad parade ground, is a don’t-miss.
In town, the Jefferson Museum of Art & History, in a grand 1892 building, showcases Port Townsend’s history and peoples, from Native Americans to early European settlers and Chinese immigrants. It chronicles the anticipated 19th-century port/railroad boom that never happened. But at least Port Townsend ended up with a legacy of lovely historic buildings that today’s locals and visitors enjoy.
Eat, drink coffee, be happy
Since Alexander’s Castle had a very well-equipped kitchen and dining room, it was cozy and cheaper to cook there rather than eat out. Although I did have pizza delivered one night, standing outside and blinking a flashlight so the confused driver could find his way
Shopping for groceries was a pleasure at Port Townsend’s Aldrich’s Market, a store with history. It opened in 1895 (and was rebuilt after a 2003 fire destroyed it) and offers high-quality produce and prepared foods: aldrichs.com.
Aldrich’s is the hub of Uptown, a shopping area on the town’s bluff where the locals go. It’s also home to the 1012 Coffee Bar, with excellent coffee (it uses Seattle’s Vivace beans) for the latte-starved visitor.
Go take a walk
Wherever you’re staying, take a walk along Port Townsend’s Water Street, the main downtown street of shops, restaurants and, yes, water views.
Fort Worden has very enjoyable walking along the beach and a 12-mile web of mostly gentle trails (some also open to bikes). Don’t miss the loop around Artillery Hill among many of the park’s dozen gun batteries, built in the early 1900s.
Fort Worden (and its military sisters Fort Casey and Fort Flagler) were a “triangle of fire” designed to protect the entrance to Puget Sound, but the coastal artillery soon became obsolete, eclipsed by aircraft and long-range guns on battleships. Now visitors can roam through the concrete warrens of dark bunkers and tunnels, beloved by kids for spooky hide-and-seek.
Walk the beach, too, especially the mile of sandy, driftwood-edged beach on the park’s east side. Pause to visit the small Port Townsend Marine Science Center (ptmsc.org) out on a pier, with tanks of glistening sea creatures and exhibits. At the beach’s tip is the century-old Point Wilson Lighthouse, with Mount Baker rising majestically beyond.
Want more beach? Walk beyond the lighthouse to the park’s north side where a wilder beach, below the steep Artillery Hill, fronts the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Be careful of tides, however, so you don’t get stuck when the tide comes in and the beach shrinks.
Be equally careful if you walk the beach south from Fort Worden park into Port Townsend. I goofed on tide times and had to scramble up a steep bluff into Chetzemoka Park — oops. But it gave me a look at another part of Port Townsend, a graceful park and bucolic place by the sea.
Kristin Jackson: firstname.lastname@example.org. Blogging at blogs.seattletimes.com/northwesttraveler. Twitter: @nwtravelers